Three Books Encapsulate the Spirit of 2011’s Protests
by James Russell
If 2011 was the year of the protester, as TIME Magazine recently declared, then it was also the year of the protest publication. Before Occupy Wall Street encampments set up in early September, handmade pamphlets detailing protesters’ rights were the primary publication of protests. When at a large-scale action and the activists’ goal is arrest, these pamphlets often appear, replete with legal information.
But with the emergence of Occupy movement, mock newspapers replaced these pamphlets. Publications like The Occupied Wall Street Journal and The Occupied Chicago Tribune served as a chronicle of the various speeches, messages and tactics surrounding Occupy. As reported on The Huffington Post via the Associated Press, some of these items, including the newspapers, are now even being acquired by archives, museums and historical societies. “We like to collect things as they are happening before the artifacts go away,” Esther Brumberg, senior curator of collections for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, told the AP.
Certainly the newspapers distributed at Occupy encampments are historical and worthy of collecting, but not just because of their association with the movement. It’s because these publications were, in fact, game-changers. By replacing reaction with declaration, the Occupy activists sent a profound message: that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the sole document they need to not only prevent arrest, but to protest, too. The standard pamphlet detailing one’s rights was not merely replaced this year but so was the whole scope of protest.
Even so, handmade publications did not just creatively represent protests this year; a handful of instructive books released by three different presses in 2011 did as well. These diverse books provide unparalleled insight into tactics and strategy for activists going into 2012.
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Perhaps prophetic, then, was the summer release of radical activist and actor Reverend Billy Talen’s latest book, The Reverend Billy Project (Michigan, 2011). Written in collaboration with both the Project’s artistic director and Talen’s spouse Savitri D. and journalist Alisa Solomon, the book is a series of reflections, journal-like entries and commentaries. But it also is a field guide to his Project’s work thus far, as much as it is an insight to the Project’s intentions and tactics. Using reflections as a starting point — and abutting each with explanations of how a certain action progressed — the writers embrace the reader’s emotions and intellect. Most importantly, by informing readers of the Project, it also functions to inform the revolt at hand.
Talen’s churches most notably define the Project, as Solomon dubs his activist and artistic venture in her editor’s notes. Presently performing as the Church of Earthalujah, and formerly known as the Church of Stop-Shopping and the Church of Life After Shopping, these experiments in social movements test the boundaries of activism. You could say he inspired the Occupy movement. Because, like the Occupy activists, Talen believes that the First Amendment gives him the right to protest – that permits need not apply. This is nothing new to Talen, who has spent the past 15 years performing as a post-theological street preacher decrying, among other things, consumerism, gentrification, and shopping, all without a permit. And like the Occupy activists in New York, who are encamped in the privately owned Zuccotti Park, Talen and the Project also extend their activism to private property, where permits rarely, if ever, apply.
If the US government works in favor of the one percent — and their interests — then the Project knows it firsthand. Take their encounter with the California Starbucks in April of 2004. A suburban California outlet of the well-known, corporate coffee shop chain became the scene for one of the Project’s public performances — leading to the exorcism of a cash register — and resulted in Talen’s trial-by-jury. Talen was found guilty by the jury for “sanctifying the cash register” — a misdemeanor in the state of California — and sentenced to three days in a Los Angeles jail. He also, by order, still cannot be within a certain distance of any Starbucks cash register in California. And why? Because his performance art and activism were viewed as a disruption of commerce by the court.
Just as Occupy activists are criticized for their tactics and vague message, so, too, were Talen and the Project in this case. As the articulate and eloquent Savitri points out, “the DA and the judge made it very difficult to talk about context, to discuss the meaning of what we were doing, the purpose.” That the court and jury misunderstood Talen is no surprise. (After all, who sanctifies a cash register to make a point about consumerism and fair trade products but anarchists and criminals, anyway?) But Savitri addresses the other point of Occupy, which is to ask: where is activism in the public square going in the twenty-first century?
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Eric Mann’s Playbook for Progressives (Beacon Press, 2011) addresses that question. In this training guide for progressive, radical, and other left activists, Mann argues that activists should seize on the failings of American capitalism and imperialism to create a “Movement to carry forth a comprehensive political program … that can simultaneously build the broadest possible united front and put organizations in the same city, state, and country in truly organized forms.”
Activists in many different camps, as we’ve seen this past year, shifted from the strategy of winning one cause at a time. And though many 2011 midterm policy victories were preventive (e.g., the electoral repeal of Ohio’s anti-collective bargaining law, Senate Bill 5), activists still worked toward mobilizing the masses for systematic transformation. As Campus Progress’s Jon Christian reports, the Occupy activists are collaborating and strategizing with other groups, like anti-foreclosure campaigns, to help sustain their momentum.
Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, writes from his experience as a transformational organizer, working for economic and racial justice. But he also writes as a keen observer of social movements. So even though Playbook, like The Reverend Billy Project, was already at the printer by the time Occupy was announced this past summer, this does not mean that it, like Project, is outdated. Playbook, in fact, came in the knick of time.
Playbook is a visionary’s guide on how to create that broad “Movement.” It could also be argued however that with that movement already here, it is, by chance, a thumbs-up toward Occupy’s messages concerning inequality and (lately) of the restricted free speech in the public square. Still, Playbook‘s importance extends beyond that. This modern-day Rules for Radicals is necessary for any activist with the movement at hand, if not the forthcoming revolution.
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Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused by the US government of leaking documents to whistleblower website Wikileaks, served as one of many faces for the year’s sweeping protests (and even at pride parades, as I reported for Truthout). That Manning’s leaks showed that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are disasters gave fuel for a movement just hunting for a symbol. But understanding why Manning leaked the documents requires knowing the movement that adopted him.
About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War (PM Press, 2011), the oral history collection from the GI (Government Issue) resister organization Courage to Resist’s Audio Project, does just that. This distinctive entry into the literature and media about GI resistance is a collection of interviews, articles, and photos that share the stories of the soldiers, including many women and people of color, who refuse to fight or return to their service. By sharing their stories, the book humanizes this group of largely chance activists and their supporters who are driven by a desire to change their broken system.
The strategy of successful GI resisters could inform any burgeoning social movement. But, as publicizing is only part of the whole strategy, humanizing is only step one. Humanizing their cause evolves into something larger — the opportunity for the social movement to articulate its vision and to finally be heard.
If a movement is to be successful, it must evolve into a vast united front, as Mann argues in Playbook. Whether GI resisters or Wisconsin Republicans protesting their governor at the statehouse or climate change activists risking arrest outside of the White House, the chance activists who emerged this year onto a staid and tired activist scene came with a willingness to collaborate and gave energy and vitality to the protest once again. But they did not ignore the activists who saw that vision — the promised land, as Solomon describes it — long ago, they joined them instead. Indeed, as Talen and Savitri said to Truthout earlier this year, “the First Amendment is back.”
Playbook for Progressives (Beacon Press, 2011)
The Reverend Billy Project (Michigan, 2011)
About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War (PM Press, 2011)
James Russell is a freelance journalist and a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post, Truthout, Waging Nonviolence and in other publications. He can be reached at james.journo(at)gmail(dot)com.