The Huffington Post recently tried its best to give a positive frame for protesters of the Republican National Convention, calling them “a diverse coalition of senior citizens, religious leaders, community organizers, and activists in faded Occupy T-shirts.” All 200 of them.
It was a nice spin, but for most people the RNC protests will sail by without even a yawn. There’s little drama to a scripted protest against a scripted convention. Protests against the DNC will likely be just as uninteresting.
Contrast that to news coming out from Togo. There, a group of women are calling for a nationwide sex strike. Yes — for a week, women will keep their legs closed to men in order to force the resignation of President Gnassingbé.
The marches at the RNC pale in comparison to the Togo activists’ planned actions (or, more precisely, their lack of actions). While the contexts are completely different, their difference sheds some light into the choices discerning activists need to make on where we spend our time.
Laughing or gasping
Cultural activists, like the Yes Men, keep challenging us to think more creatively. At a training I led for their Yes Labs program, Yes Men co-founder Andy Bichlbaum told me, “If an action doesn’t make you laugh or gasp, we have to throw it out.”
The RNC protesters took a shot at it by melting huge chunks of ice written as “the middle-class.” But it doesn’t make me laugh or gasp. If inspiring is a goal, ho-hum actions should be stricken from our toolbox.
Too often, however, activists are stuck repeating the tactics they know. They then begrudge the media, or their comrades, or potential allies, for not getting it. At a direct action workshop I co-led with George Lakey in South Korea, we heard young movement activists lamenting that the press stopped covering their movement’s tactic: public suicides in the middle of a protest. How could the media and their allies be so callous?
With respect to the media, the answer was sad but simple: “News stories need to be news.” As much I detest the mainstream media, they give us a worthy challenge to be bold and unconventional.
During a recent campaign, I convinced the leadership to agree on an informal rule: “No marches, no rallies.” It reduced our temptation to add a few puppets or drummers to spice up a march or capture an editors’ interest. Instead, we had to look for actions that were powerful and spoke to our vision.
When it comes down to it, effective direct action doesn’t lie in tactics that are merely about expressing our minds and making a public spectacle; it is in our ability to organize people to break social scripts.
Enacting new scripts
Years ago I ran across a Christian Peacemaker Teams handout training people to de-escalate high-conflict situations. It explained that in any kind of confrontation, there are unwritten social scripts on how situations should unfold. The mugger may expect either a quiet, subdued victim or a screaming violent reaction.
Either way, the mugger knows what to expect and is ready to respond. But when the script is broken, unexpected things happen and new scripts become possible.
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My sister, upon being threatened on the streets of New York City late one night, decided to act unexpectedly. She turned her face toward the stalker and started picking her nose and eating it. Disgusted, the would-be mugger/rapist hurried off.
Breaking larger-scale social scripts can be just as powerful.
Sadly, too many activists follow social scripts: anti-death penalty activists holding vigils on days of executions, gun control activists marching when someone gets killed, or anti-globalization protestors showing up ritually outside of international trade meetings. The RNC protesters are hardly alone in this dynamic.
The catch is compounded because too often activists misread history. Many (white, middle-class) activists encourage us to keep using the tactics of the civil rights movement. While I agree with the sentiment, I believe their racism has made it hard for them to learn from black leaders as strategists, not merely tacticians.
Too many activists have grabbed ahold of the tactics of sit-ins, marches and vigils but missed the point that those tactics at the time broke scripts written by racists (and enforced by whites’ violence and propriety, and blacks’ passivity and acquiescence).
Older folk may remember that the March on Washington was seen as a riot waiting to happen. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called up elected officials and celebrities and told them to flee D.C. during the march. The assumption was that black people are animals and cannot organize a dignified march. Likewise with sit-ins, the police and bystanders were off-script, uncertain how to handle these uppity folk. The result was that their racism showed — in potent violence.
Breaking social scripts reveals what underlies the smooth, shiny exterior.
The civil rights movement found those tactics by taking a piece of what a just society would look like — people sitting at lunch counters, traveling on buses together — and then going ahead and doing it. They acted out the world they wanted to see.
Just recently, the book Beautiful Trouble profiled a tactic I developed called the “public filibuster.” It’s the same concept: When government hearings don’t let us speak, we go ahead and do it ourselves — just like the procedural filibuster, except it’s ordinary citizens doing it, not politicians.
We can make a lot more waves if we take time to generate those kinds of meaningful actions, rather than just jumping right to another march — or whatever your movement’s scripted response is.
The RNC protests now fit into a neat social narrative: convention, crazy protestors, life goes on. It’s a far cry from the women in Togo taking on their patriarchal regime.
It’s not that a sex strike hasn’t been done before. Togo activists are trying out something Liberian women did in 2003, as depicted in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. It worked for them; one leader of that movement told me, “When the men found out we weren’t going to have sex with them until the situation was resolved, they moved very quickly to help!”
The Togo women are aware that women taking control of their bodies this way is enacting a new script, and they have broken through Western media who generally stay silent on abuses of a repressive regime backed by the United States. In their own country, it has grabbed attention from the otherwise ritualized (and likely stolen) elections. The fact that the women are doing something unusual is worth talking about — much more so than if they had done just another ritualized action expressing their outrage.
So, when you’re looking for a new tactic, think about what ritualized tactics your movement already does and knock them off your list.