13 Types of Activism

Standard

The following are the standard types or methods of modern activism:

1. Volunteer: Volunteer on your own or with interested groups to assist disadvantaged and underprivileged people, and threatened species and habitats. In an international context, volunteer to work in refugee camps, at local schools and medical care clinics, or for some other NGO (non-governmental organization). There is a huge network of volunteer organizations around the world, and once you are part of it, once you start volunteering, it is easy to find new and fascinating opportunities.

2. Grassroots activism: Found or join community, student or other groups and then engage in “tabling,” where you set up a table at some social event and hand out literature and talk about your cause. In addition, such events are often supplemented with, or designed around, activist speakers and performances and exhibitions by activist artists.

The objective of grassroots activism is to increase the publicity of, and most importantly the support for, your cause. You particularly want to engage the interest and if possible the involvement of members of the different groups that are being negatively affected. Your goal is to organize them, to pull them out of their complacency and defeatism, and to assist them in their opposition.

For activism to be effective, we must organize large-scale movements to express discontent and to demand change, movements of such a size that they cannot be ignored. But to do this, we will have to find ways to unify the disparate sources of rebellion that exist, including environmentalists, workers, students, ethnic and indigenous rights activists, religious groups, and even the disaffected individuals who listen to gangsta rap and hard core rock. Further, we must solicit the concern of those individuals who one day will suffer the most, if we are unable to solve our problems: schoolchildren. (They must be recruited as well, to help protect the world they are destined to inherit.)

Activists also must recognize that only one thing, historically, has led to large-scale rebellion: the deaths of a great number of people. Rebellion has never been instigated by the destruction of nature (although the taking of land has been a contributing factor in some popular movements). This is a reflection of human chauvinism, that we only get upset when bad things happen to us. For example, this is one of the reasons why the debate over genetic engineering is finally starting to gain some prominence: it involves a threat to people. (The history of the twentieth century included a number of significant victories against government repression, but far fewer against environmental destruction.)

Lastly, there is the problem that activism is usually reactive. We assume, because we are ethical, that other people are as well; that they have a conscience and are not wholly dominated by personal selfishness. Then, when they demonstrate that they are so dominated, we have to react. To be effective we must build large-scale movements, and we must anticipate this: we must be proactive, and unpredictable.

3. Letter writing and petitions: Send letters and petitions to the heads of the organizations which are the target of your activism, and also to your elected representatives in Congress, the heads of appropriate government departments and agencies, and the White House. You can also organize email campaigns, but these are considered to be less effective. Bulk emails are regarded as spam, as something that can be ignored, but letters almost always generate a response. Indeed, such responses are regularly well thought out, even though the signature will almost always be stamped. (The point is, you have attracted the attention of someone at the organization: someone has been compelled to respond to your argument.)

4. Direct lobbying: Lobby local government officials and, if you can arrange it, take a trip to Washington, D.C. Doing this reveals the real (or at least the remaining) power of a democracy. You can simply walk into the Senate or House office buildings, and request meetings, on the spot, with your senators and congresspeople. Of course, you will probably end up meeting with their legislative or policy aides, but these are the people who create the documents, and originate the policies, that the elected officials sign off on anyway. Inform the aides of your concerns, and ask them to support your positions. (And, if they will not, ask them in strong, direct and well-reasoned terms, why not!)

Anyone can do this. You should not worry about being out of place. This is your right – they have to listen to you – that’s what a representative democracy is all about. This type of lobbying is easy, and it’s fun! (And for too long it has been the province only of institutional special interests, mostly corporate interests, seeking to make their arguments on the inside. Activists need to counter this: we need to be on the inside, too.)

If you are unable to make such a trip, then just use the phone. Call up your representatives, and others as well. If you identify yourself as a member of an activist group, the chances are good that one of the aides will take your call. (If they do not, or if they are out, then leave a message.)

5. Litigation: This is a straightforward tactic, albeit one that is usually used only when other methods fail. With the assistance of sympathetic attorneys, and legal-aid groups, who will often work free – there are some good lawyers! – the law is enforced against the institutions. Lawsuits are filed against institutions and their executives, and sometimes, a few times at least, justice does prevail.

Indeed, precedents have been set of companies being held liable in domestic courts for their international actions, particularly their actions in foreign autocracies where there is no legal recourse. For instance, Unocal was sued in U.S. courts over its actions in Burma (it settled out of court). This trend is closing one of the most important loopholes for transnational corporations. (This is similar to the closing of the loophole for dictators, as evidenced by Spain’s extradition request for the Chilean dictator Pinochet. Because of this development, the dictators of the world, and their co-conspirators, are falling into a trap. They cannot leave home, for fear of imprisonment. And, when their nations achieve democracy, they will be subject to imprisonment there as well. One can even foresee the day when corporate executives – not just their companies – will themselves be held responsible for the crimes against humanity which such regimes commit.)

A similar prospective use of litigation is against advertising. Advertising is predatory, culpable abuse, and this has already been demonstrated, in a number of courts, with the tobacco industry, which is finally being forced to pay the enormous social costs of its brainwashing. It is now up to us, as activists, to extend this precedent to all of the sources of advertising that use the techniques of behavioral manipulation. The question is: where should we begin?

The obvious starting point is with the advertisers that brainwash children, and there are many example of this: of weekend morning television programming; predatory websites; the corporations that advertise in schools; and the makers of violent films and computer games. (The Federal Trade Commission has revealed that the last set of companies intentionally targeted their advertisements at children, even though the children were not of sufficient age to be allowed to view the films or buy the games.)

These companies must be forced to stop their practices, and to pay compensation for what they have already done. And, this culpability must extend to the broadcasters and publishers of the ads, and to their creators as well (including the actors and actresses).

The victory with the tobacco industry was decisive. Given the awards that have been granted, it has spread fear throughout the entire advertising industry. But it is only a first step, in bringing the industry to account and forcing it to change.

Unfortunately, there is one other issue with litigation that must be mentioned, which is its regular use by institutions against activists. Litigation is used aggressively and immediately to shut down activist efforts. Institutions do not have to worry about hiring external counsel: they already have their own lawyers, in-house. As an example of current trends, corporations now make extensive use of SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, to prevent public activism, and undermine our democracy.

6. Consumer boycotts: For a company that is engaged in unethical activities, organize a boycott of its products and services. This is one of the strongest tactics that we have, and it is risk free. You cannot be forced to buy such a company’s goods.

Planning a boycott is conceptually simple: your goal is to organize as wide a coalition as possible, so you can generate thousands of complaints to the offending company. You should contact all groups that have a reason to censure the company, including reasons other than your own. Following such a recruitment effort, the standard practice is to arrange a conference call with representatives from the various groups. For example, the strategy of the Free Burma Coalition (now reconstituted as the United States Campaign for Burma), which conducted dozens of successful boycotts against companies doing business in Burma, was as follows:

  • The lead group sends a letter to the top executives of the company, describing their grievances and announcing the boycott, accompanied by a cease and desist demand.
  • If the company fails to respond, or responds in an unacceptable manner, an action alert is emailed to all the members of all the groups participating in the boycott coalition (and posted to other email lists and websites as well), requesting that they email the company. A sample complaint letter is provided.
  • If the company still does not respond, this is followed with a call-in action, a day when everyone is asked to telephone the company (using its toll free numbers), including its head office, branch locations and stores.
  • Lastly, demonstrations are organized at high-profile company facilities and events. (For additional information on demos, see section 10 below.)

As the Burma campaign illustrated, there are few companies that can resist such concerted pressure.

7. Selective purchasing ordinances: Through some organization that has great purchasing power, such as your university or municipality (town, city or state), work to enact a law that forbids the organization from doing business with any company, or companies, to which you are opposed. For instance, these ordinances, when enacted in the 1980s against companies doing business in South Africa, were instrumental in bringing about the end of apartheid.

They have also had a strong impact for democracy activism in Burma, forcing some companies to stop supporting the dictatorship, and leading others to forego commercial relationships with it. However, such ordinances were challenged by a business trade group, the National Foreign Trade Council. (We saw that corporations exhibit great unity against activists, and also that they readily engage in litigation!) The NFTC argued that the Burma ordinances (specifically, Massachusetts’ Burma purchasing law) constituted foreign policy, and that only the federal government, which in the present day is beholden to business (i.e., elected officials are beholden, for their campaign funding), has the right to create and enforce such policy.

In the summer of 1999, a U.S. Appellate Court accepted their argument, and this is proof that our social checks no longer work. It says that no group of individuals, at least under the auspices of any governmental organization, at any level other than national, can organize to follow an ethical imperative regarding the behavior of any other country. This is an issue of great importance: these corporations want to take away our right of freedom of association regarding a crucial area of our existence, how we express our ethics through what we buy. In one action, they are attempting to restrict greatly the limits of human freedom.

The Massachusetts Attorney General appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it. (The Court hears less than five percent of the cases submitted for its review.) The request for the appeal was accompanied by a grassroots campaign, which solicited the support of a large number of congressional representatives and dozens of activist organizations.

In June 2000, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Burma purchasing ordinance in the State of Massachusetts was unconstitutional. The state had enacted a law that effectively precluded companies that do business in Burma from winning state contracts. The law was intended to take an ethical stance: “if your company supports the military dictatorship in Burma, which engages in widespread repression, slave labor and murder, we do not want to do business with you.

The Supreme Court overturned the law. It viewed the case as an issue between states’ rights and federal government rights, over who can set foreign policy. It ignored the issue of individual rights, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, including the right to speak out against unethical government purchasing, and also to have one’s elected representatives do so as well.

Strictly speaking, the Massachusetts law was rejected because it was in conflict with the United States’ own sanctions against Burma (if you believe the rationale presented by the Court). The U.S. was not speaking with one voice. However, the story is more complex than this. The Massachusetts law was enacted before the federal government imposed sanctions, and further: it had teeth. The sanctions (passed in 1997) were much weaker. They were designed to suit corporate interests, particularly those of Unocal, the American oil company that has a large investment in Burma, since they (and other companies) were not required to divest their current operations, only not to engage in new projects.

The Massachusetts law was principled. The government sanctions were crafted to give the appearance of being principled.

The ruling, although seemingly narrow, had a broad impact. It undercut all government procurement ordinances that had a specific ethical motivation, such as to forbid the purchasing of goods made using child or sweatshop labor, or products made from rainforest hardwoods. Had the ruling been issued in the 1980s, it would have invalidated the aforementioned selective purchasing ordinances that helped bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Courts normally punish unethical behavior. It is rare indeed that they reject the desire and restrict the ability of individuals, and local governments, to do right.

The NFTC was triumphant. They called the ruling “a victory for the U.S. Constitution.” They received vindication from the nation’s highest court of the ethical standard that underlies corporate behavior, which is: if we don’t do it, someone else will. Corporate executives and spokespeople say, if we don’t exploit the oil and fund the dictatorship, someone else will. If we don’t use child or slave labor, someone else will. If we don’t destroy the environment for profit, someone else will. And if we don’t brainwash the general public, someone else will.

The Supreme Court is mistaken, though, in its belief that it had the final say. You cannot legislate, including via judicial interpretation, against human will and reason. When a nation does it, it is called dictatorship. And for the Court, its decision inevitably created resistance. The people of Massachusetts, through their representatives, made a decision to behave ethically in a very specific way. The Supreme Court cannot force them to do otherwise: to behave unethically. If it attempts to do so, it is being autocratic, and the people will find other ways to fulfill their decision to do right. The positive motivation of life is a greater force than any such efforts to contain it. (One can recall the fate of prior Court rulings, for slavery and segregation.)

In July 2003, the United States passed a new law, the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, which prohibits the importation of goods from Burma. The consequences of this law are that, excepting the few companies that remain able to do business in Burma under the grandfather clause in the first Burma bill (largely oil companies, including Unocal, Halliburton and Caltex), the country is now off limits to both U.S. industry and importers.

Also, selective purchasing ordinances are not dead. New laws are being written which conform to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and which preserve the public’s fundamental rights of freedom of association and expression, including through what we buy.

8. Ethical investing: In a manner akin to selective purchasing ordinances, if you are part of an organization that has an investment portfolio, such as a pension plan or university endowment, try to get investment guidelines implemented that forbid the purchase of the stocks and bonds of unethical companies. (These are known as “negative screens.” There are also positive screens, where investors identify ethical companies for support.) The types of guidelines that have been implemented so far preclude investments in companies which:

  • conduct business with dictatorships and other repressive regimes
  • destroy the environment
  • manufacture weapons
  • produce tobacco and alcohol products
  • own casinos
  • practice discrimination
  • source goods from sweatshop factories
  • produce violent media

One expects that these guidelines will someday also be extended to all of the purveyors of mass consumerism, those companies that seek the McDomination of the world, particularly to the firms that strive to brainwash children.

9. Economic sanctions: Following through on the lobbying point above, in the case of nations that actively repress their citizens, encourage the U.S. government to impose economic sanctions against them. There are different types of sanctions, including the prohibition of investment in such nations, both of new investment and also retroactive bans, where companies which currently are active are required to suspend or divest their operations (activists would now like to see the U.S. enact a retroactive ban against Burma); and also such things as bans on arms sales and other forms of military assistance, the importation of goods from the country (e.g., the new Burma law), etc.

10. Demonstrate: This is the core expression of activism, where you protest against companies and other organizations (or groups) that are engaged in unethical activities. There are many different types of demos, and they normally take place at organization offices or other facilities. Demos include marches, strikes, sit-ins, sleep-ins, teach-ins, street theater (such as anti-nuclear die-ins), and, in extremely serious circumstances, e.g., to protest murder, hunger strikes. (Gandhi did it, and the Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and animal rights activist Barry Horne, among many others; so can you.)

There are even virtual sit-ins now, where large groups of people access, at one time, the computer servers of obnoxious websites (as of unethical corporations), causing them to crash.

A further distinction can be drawn regarding the purpose of the demonstrations. In most cases it is to protest, but in others it is to shut down. Marches in Washington, D.C. are generally the former; demonstrations at meetings of the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are regularly the latter.

Another important issue with demos is that they should not be wholly negative. Criticism is not the only point. You want to encourage the organization and its employees to change, to stop what they are doing. And, when you do this, the use of reason, rather than emotion, is usually much more successful.

It is worth remembering that change cannot be imposed from without. It requires movement within the target organization as well. You want to encourage reform, to encourage the institution to develop a culture of ethics. For example, every organization should have not only a “mission statement,” as in “we want to make a lot of money,” but also a code of acceptable behavior, which states: “but in this effort we will not engage in the following acts …

This code should enumerate all of the publics and environments that are affected by the institution, and it should be updated periodically. And, it should be distributed to every employee and also to all such publics. Furthermore, this code should be enforced by a senior management compliance officer, who reports directly to the institution’s Board of Directors.

11. Civil disobedience, “monkey wrenching,” and other “direct action”: For the more hard-core, the more committed, among you. This is where activists directly intervene in a situation and attempt to halt destruction on the spot. Examples include:

  • Blockading the construction of new roads in roadless areas, pulling out survey stakes, and disabling bulldozers being used to build such roads, or new pipelines, dams, etc.
  • Locking down across roads to exploitative facilities, or across railroad tracks or to ships, to stop unethical shipments.
  • Reclaiming the streets in town centers, to protest unwarranted development and the resultant degradation of our quality of life.
  • Sitting in trees, to prevent them from being cut down.
  • Hanging banners from institutional facilities, denouncing the institution’s misdeeds.
  • Pieing institutional leaders, for the same purpose.
  • Product dumping, at organization offices and outlets, to protest unethical trade and commercial practices.
  • Redesigning billboards, so they present a more accurate message, an education rather than brainwashing. (This is called “subvertising.”)
  • Tearing up fields of genetically engineered crops.
  • Hacking unethical websites.
  • Cutting fishing long-lines and driftnets, which vacuum the sea.
  • Liberating animals, saving them from torture and slaughter.

You should expect to be arrested (or at least pursued) if you do something like this, and it is essential that you find out what this is likely to entail before you engage in the action. The application of the law varies widely. In many cases you will be let off, or only required to pay a small fine, but in other, repressive, jurisdictions, you could be subjected to a lengthy jail sentence.

Also, please understand that I am not giving a blanket approval of direct action, which can range from trespass and simple vandalism through to the extensive destruction of property, and which in many cases is unjustifiable (e.g., “Black Bloc” vandalism at institutional meeting protests). However, direct action is used legitimately and with effect in many struggles around the world. For example, villagers in rural areas regularly protest unwanted developments by destroying the equipment and vehicles of the developers, of such things as garbage dumps, polluting mines, and dams. It happens, and the villagers, who often number in the thousands, feel completely justified in their actions. To them, it is a matter of self-defense.

Furthermore, sometimes a threat is enough. For instance, in the far north of Thailand, powerful businessmen – with government connections (Thailand is an extremely corrupt society), planned to move power plant equipment across the border to a Burmese town that is controlled by drug lords. The equipment was to be used to build a generating plant that would have been fueled with dirty coal. The plant would have spread severe air pollution throughout the region (and provided electricity for narcotics factories). A large group of local Thai villagers rallied and prevented the convoy of trucks carrying the equipment from crossing into Burma, with the threat that if the convoy tried they would destroy the trucks. There was a standstill that lasted weeks but the threat worked. The trucks withdrew and the power plant was never built.

Direct action is a dramatic event, and it reflects a deep issue underlying our society: who has the power, and when does this change. Power lies with the people, with the general public. In a political dictatorship, then, where some group has grabbed power, the people have the right to rise up against them, including through the tactics of direct action and perhaps even armed rebellion, if the dictators are waging war against them. (In Burma, numerous groups are fighting the military junta that rules the country.)

In a representative democracy, though, the people transfer their power to government officials through a vote. But this is not the end of the story. A contract is created. The officials have a fiduciary responsibility, a legal obligation, to serve in the best interests of the public. Problems arise when the officials break this obligation, e.g., when they take bribes from companies that intend to exploit the people in some way. If there is not an effective recourse, if the judicial system is biased or corrupt as well, if the people have effectively been sold out, then they have the right to reclaim their power. (The preferred choice of course is that the government officials not be corrupt.)

This also reflects another issue with democracy. Even without the element of corruption, in any society there are likely to be competing groups and interests. In an issue over which there is a conflict, and that affects numerous levels of society, such as a local community, a region and the entire nation, whose voice should decide? For example, with a proposed dam the local community that would be affected by it would almost certainly be opposed to it. But the region could desire it for the water it would provide, and the nation for the electricity that would be produced. (Of course, environmentalists at all levels would likely oppose the project.)

So, what course should be taken? As a principle, those people who are most affected by the decision should have the final say. (In many cases this would be the smallest group.) Otherwise, such democracy is actually a form of dictatorship. In this example, then, unless the local community’s interests are fully satisfied and their concerns fully addressed, they should be able to veto the dam, or, if this option is not given to them, to act in such a way that they prevent its construction.

(For further perspectives on the ethics and consequences of such tactics, see the Activist Ethics and Activism and the Law chapters.)

12. Agitate: If in your travels you visit peoples – cultures – that are being exploited, you should encourage them to defend themselves.

13. Make a career of your activism: Seek employment in an activist or volunteer group. Get a job with an NGO (or start your own), which is a new type of social institution, of recent evolution, which seeks to function as a new social check, and also to provide services to those groups that have been ignored, which are not deemed important enough by the powers that be. A specific area that still needs a lot of work, and therefore where there should be a lot of growth and opportunity in the future, is in the international coordination of activism, to offset international institutional collusion.

© Roland O. Watson 2005

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