Working toward sustainable activism

The sit-in at the end of the Free Speech Movement rally on Wednesday did not gain the support of most FSM veterans nor many UC Berkeley students. This may be regrettable, but it is not surprising.

I could see several practical issues in terms of gaining support.

First, people, in general, will not engage in political action unless they are prepared to do so. A “secret” demonstration announced at the last moment will necessarily be minimal. One way to build support is to have public meetings that include discussion of the sit-in that might occur, then decide at the last moment to actually sit in.

Second, the call was to take action, but the issue was unstated. When stated, it was not connected to any larger issues that would command general support. Yet, if people are to take on the personal consequences of action, they need good reason.

Third, the relationship of the organization of this sit-in to the organization of the FSM reunion was not cooperative but parasitical and manipulative.

Failure to draw effective support seems to be the norm for political action in the U.S. today. Of course, there have been decades of surveillance and repression. But more deadening than overt repression are things we are doing ourselves that limit us to ineffectiveness.

Looking at the differences between activism now and then, several things become apparent.

First, 50 years ago we were less afraid. Disqualifying ourselves from good jobs did not mean homelessness or nothing to eat. We had more confidence in the system: injustice was an error to be rectified by action, not a pervasive quality of the system itself. So we believed victory was possible, and the effort to get there would involve sacrifice but only a reasonable amount.

Second, the stakes were lower. We were fighting for social justice, not for survival of the planet itself.

The cost of failure was less.

Thirdly, the dominant culture was less selfish. We grew up in a nation of citizens expected to care about their community and the well being of its members.

Given this shift in context, what lessons might activists of today draw from the experience of the FSM?

  1. Organize in person. Using social media has its cost. It’s far easier to talk to only your “friends,” but your group will isolate itself that way and develop a set of unrealistic attitudes. It is precisely the person who is not your “friend” who is important for you to reach and learn from. The people who organize in person on the campus today are mostly Christians. If those of us interested in saving the planet would use all of our techniques to reach out to and persuade people — marching through Sproul Plaza, shaking hands, handing out leaflets, establishing welcome centers where people could find ongoing community, holding innumerable small education and discussion meetings and continually reaching out — we would have an amazingly effective movement.
  2. Build alliances. That doesn’t mean you send representatives to another group and ask for support for your cause — it means your members go to another group and help with its cause. This will build trust for your cause and interest in what you are doing.
  3. Connect to the big picture. Lots of people care about saving the planet, but most of them do not see how what you want to do fits into that. Don’t just tell them that it does — show them how. Express it in simple, bumper-sticker terms, and follow up in detail with credible evidence and arguments. If you can’t express it simply, or if you can’t articulate the details, you are not convincing. “Trust me, I’m a good guy” is not an argument.
  4. Fight smart. Have an overall strategy, utilizing multiple means to reach the goal, such as fighting fracking through public support, legal efforts and direct action. Pick your battles, and don’t waste your energy. What are you trying to do with a given action? Is it likely you will succeed? How important is it? How much of an opportunity does it give you to gain support? What effect will this have on your network of alliances, on other strategies you are using or on your overall chances of success?
  5. Keep your eyes on the prize. OK, we know what happens: you get burned out and frustrated. You can’t attack the distant bad guys, so you attack the ally standing next to you. You want to quit and can’t admit it, so you create impossible situations for yourself or your group. You blow it all in drama because you are tired of the grind of struggle. Guess what? This kind of self-indulgence doesn’t help. Take a break. The struggle will still be there when you get back. Ask yourself, “What is our primary purpose here?” Examine your motives and your actions with a consciousness of their overall purpose.

Kathleen Paper is a UC Berkeley alumnus from the class of 1964 and was an organizer of the Free Speech Movement.

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