Beautiful Trouble: A How-to Book for Creative Resistance

Occupy Los Angeles, October 2011 (Jim Friedrich)

Revolutionaries practice without safety nets. Our laboratory is the world around us––the streets, the Internet, the airwaves, our own hearts, as well as the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. We experiment, we fail, we change things up, we try again, maybe this time a little less disastrously, a little more beautifully––until we win. Always we learn. Case studies are where we learn what we’ve learned.[i]

– Andrew Boyd & Dave Oswald Mitchell

The Empire is striking back––fueled by hate, greed and stupendous unreason, it careens toward authoritarianism, war and perhaps even planetary suicide. This is no time to stand idly by, muttering “It can’t happen here” as a consoling charm against apocalypse. It is happening here, and we need to resist with all our hearts and mind and strength.

There are countless ways to resist evil and promote the common good, but if you want to do it with some creativity and imagination, get a copy of Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York & London: OR Books, 2016). “Assembled” by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell, it is a 460-page handbook packed with smart tactics, hard-won ideas, and fascinating case studies to illumine and inspire every inventive activist. Along with other recent documentations, Artists Reclaim the Commons (2013)[ii] and Truth Is Concrete (2014),[iii] it is an invaluable primer in creative activism.

“We’re building rhizomatic [non-hierarchical] movements,” write the authors, “marked by creativity, humor, networked intelligence, technological sophistication, a profoundly participatory ethic and the courage to risk it all for a livable future.”[iv] Some of the tactics are indeed high risk, like hanging a banner from a construction crane at the WTO “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, or disrupting an illegal auction of public lands to oil interests by outbidding everyone with no intention of paying (the “bidder” got two years in prison, but the lands were saved).

Seattle (Advent 1999)

But there are plenty of actions which risk neither body nor freedom yet still make a vivid point. During the Iraq war, a woman arranged a row of shoes outside her New York senator’s office with names of Iraqi civilians killed. She invited passersby to “walk in their shoes.” Meanwhile, veterans on the West Coast set up a field of white crosses on Santa Monica beach every Sunday–– one for every soldier killed.

Somewhat edgier was a guerilla theater interruption of a UC Berkeley lecture by UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, during the 1980s when the U.S. was training and supporting Central American death squads. Masked men shouting in Spanish came down the aisles, dragging students (also actors) screaming from their seats, and taking them away to meet their fate. The stunned audience was then showered with leaflets explaining the educational purpose of this disturbing dramatization of American foreign policy.

Making the invisible visible is one of the key principles of art activism. Bring an issue home, tell its story, put a face on it. When Occidental Petroleum threatened to displace indigenous people in the Peruvian jungle, some of those people were brought to the U.S. to speak out. The issue quickly turned from generic opposition to Big Oil to a very personal story of people defending their homes. When Kodak was secretly dumping toxic waste into a river, Greenpeace rigged a public fountain where the disgusting waste bubbled up where all could see. To heighten awareness of climate change, environmentalists staged a mock-drowning of a “polar bear” in the fountain at the Department of the Interior.

Humor is a key weapon of resistance. Power loses authority when it is laughed at, and humor wins more allies than anger. On the 20th anniversary of Dow Chemical’s deadly toxic spill in Bhopal, India, a group called The Yes Men, posing as Dow executives, made a fictitious announcement that the corporation would pay financial reparations to the victims. When actual Dow executives had to publicly reassure stockholders that it would not in fact be doing what was right and just, the laugh was not on their side (though, sadly, their stock went back up––but that only made a salient point about our economic system!)

In 2003, 70 clowns from the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army advanced on a police line at a British antiwar demonstration. The police were laughing too hard to stop them. When some arrests were finally made, news footage of clowns being crammed into a police van begged the question, “What did the clowns do wrong?” The “powers” lost ground that day. As the Psalm says, “The Lord has them in derision.”

In Rhode Island, the local HUD office refused to consider an affordable daycare center for a low-income housing project. The tenants petitioned and picketed to no avail. In a brilliant stroke, they decided to make the HUD office itself into a daycare operation. They brought children, song books, toys, cribs, and a table for changing diapers, and stayed the whole day. The point was made, rather amusingly, and they got their center.

The numerous case studies in Beautiful Trouble will inspire and provoke your political imagination, but the book also provides a wealth of practical wisdom––tactics, principles and theory––to build on what has already been learned.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” (Frederick Douglass). Choose your target wisely. Make sure it’s someone who actually holds the power to meet your demands. Pick an issue big enough to matter and small enough to win. Put your target into a “decision dilemma,” where they only have a bad choice or a worse one.

Kill them with kindness. Laugh, sing, dance, clown, hug. Disarm with charm. Be the good ones, win the sympathy of your audience (which includes witnesses via the media). Humanize the situation, make unlikely allies, don’t write anyone off, seek common ground. Use the power of attraction. Design your actions to maximize participation and get spectators involved.

“If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy”(Alvin Toffler). Reframe the narrative, unmask hidden cultural, political and economic assumptions, refute alternative facts, tell a better, truer story. Reappropriate the artifacts of popular media and give them new connotations, as Occupy Wall Street did by projecting a “bat signal” (in Batman, a sign of both distress and promise), shining “99%” in a large circle of light high on a wall above the demonstration.

“Success means going from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm” (Winston Churchill). Nourish group solidarity. Avoid burnout. Maintain nonviolent and non-oppressive discipline. Have fun. Minimize disappointment by knowing the difference between concrete actions with measurable results, and communicative actions which are more symbolic, amplifying a message without necessarily attaining a particular objective.

Show, don’t tell. Be visual. Don’t preach. Create actions which explain themselves. Use powerful metaphors. And keep the rules as simple and open-ended as possible. Occupy Wall Street began with this terse but intriguing instruction: September 17. Wall Street. Bring tent. 

As a person of faith, I especially encourage the communities of God’s friends to dig into this book in a study group setting. Activist art has strong biblical roots in the performance art of Jesus and the prophets, and people of faith distressed by current events would do well to engage with, learn from, and contribute to the beautiful trouble currently being made on the world’s behalf.

The opening epigraph for the book, a manifesto by radical theater visionary Judith Malina, sounds the call to action with compelling clarity. Pass it on:

The role of the artist in the social structure follows the need of the changing times ––
In time of social stasis: to activate.
In time of germination: to invent fertile new forms
In time of revolution: to extend the possibilities of peace and liberty
In time of violence: to make peace
In time of despair: to give hope
In time of silence: to sing out[v]

 

 

 Related posts:

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

[i] Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York & London: OR Books, 2016)

[ii] ed. Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013)

[iii] ed. Steirischer Herbst & Florian Malzacher, Truth Is Concrete (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014)

[iv] Beautiful Trouble, 2

[v] Judith Malina, The Work of an Anarchist Thinker, q. in Beautiful Trouble, vi