The Elephant in Activism: An Open Letter

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This post, written in the form of an open letter to civic activists, is by Ali Imad Fadlallah, Doctor of Education Leadership Candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Fadlallah offers commentary on the contemporary landscape of activism and protest such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, through the lens of the book The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White, through the work of Marshall Ganz, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, and through his own personal experience and commitment to racial justice and equality. Read more posts and see upcoming events in our Race and American Politics Seminar Series.

 

By Ali Imad Fadlallah

Dear Fellow Activist,

If it is really true that you and I are relatively awoken from our societal slumber, then you know what I know. And you’re scared like I’m scared, even if you’re convicted enough to quell these fears and take action during a time where bounty-hunters wearing blue are compensated for incarcerating our hopes of an American dream, or killing them all at once.

Collectively, we are afraid that our methods of activism are insufficient at best; and worse, largely ineffective. This is not just a domestic crisis. The Arab Spring, to cite one recent example, was a domino of revolutionary action from many nation-states against oppressive conditions and leadership. But their protests largely left countries in equal or worse conditions. The same can be said about contemporary activism in America. This crisis within activism is the root of many of our fears, and the ever-growing elephant in the room of revolutionary protest.

If this fear resonates, please don’t be ashamed of it. It can be scary to sit among an enormous elephant. First of all, even friendly elephants experience occasional frustrations that fester and explode outrageously, resulting in violent behavior toward other elephants and living beings, including humans. In fact, among male elephants, there is a word to describe this condition of periodic and belligerent outburst: musth, or must. The most violent elephants, studies show, are young males who lack hope, community and affirmation. They are the Micah Johnson’s in a community of elephants. Ticking toward tragedy.

What it is clear to you and me is that activism in America today suffers from the condition of perpetual “must”; that is to say, activism is both needed and in crisis. It is the elephant reacting to its own rut, digging its tusks into the ground in attempt to escape the horrifying pain felt in its eyes. It is blinded from the way forward until it can escape its current state. It is no longer the friendly accomplice whose valor enveloped us and whose back carried us valiantly from one legal victory to the next. And it is seemingly unapproachable, with the consequences being reproach at best, and a blind-ride into revolution and destruction, at worst.

I read a book recently, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, that affirmed the deepest and most troubling suspicions you and I have carried with us, about activism and protest, for so long. The suspicion not only that protest-as-we-know-it is broken, but also that the onus is on us to devise and execute the new forms of protest – the new strategies for revolution. That the revolution will happen in our lifetime. That you can opt-in or maybe-cop-out, but you sure as hell can’t stop it. That we will find our country fighting for similar freedoms that our predecessors supposedly sacrificed-to-earn-for-us. As if they largely succeeded. And as if it was a choice (skip to 1:04:15).

 

 

This is the fact about where we are; the fact that mainstream scholars like Michelle Alexander have been trying to tell us, perhaps whilst knowing that we aren’t ready. It was what she began outlining at the end of her breakthrough book, The New Jim Crow. It was her most recent Facebook post on charting the path forward. Together, these works yell: “Eleph! Eleph!”

But in The End of Protest, author Micah White is screaming: “Elephant! ELEPHANT!” Canada is listening – it was a best seller there for 5 consecutive weeks. But we don’t seem to get it. Because nobody wants to deal with an elephant in musth… that is, until they must.

I’ll get back to The End of Protest in a second. First, a couple notes on contemporary activism. I’ve had the honor of participating in workshops with political organizer and expert Marshall Ganz (senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) who was recently asked to react to the post from Michelle Alexander cited above. In his article entitled How The New Civil Rights Movement Can Build on the Lessons of the Old, Ganz offers that contemporary movements must analyze systems of power to determine where the resources are that are needed to effect change, what resources are in the hands of the oppressed, and how resources can best be mobilized in an effort to overturn the oppressor’s status quo.

tom ganz photoGanz summarizes his framework, if you will, into one that centers on “story, strategy, and structure,” leaning on examples of Dr. King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott and how people’s collective belief in freedom, willingness to walk, and will-power to persevere, led to ultimate victory.

Naturally, when many of us in America think of contemporary activism, our minds usually jump to #BlackLivesMatter; and then, of course, the slew of criticism ensues. There is generally two types of #BlackLivesMatter criticism: the preposterous kind, filled with hypocritical bigotry (e.g. #AllLivesMatter advocates who refuse to speak out against the unjust murders of innocent black people, or physically removing a black protestor from a Trump rally while ironically chanting “#AllLivesMatter”).

And then there is the camp whose criticisms – including from allies of color and white anti-racists – seems legitimate. They say, “Black Lives Matter is too decentralized;” “too leaderless;” “It’s too disorganized” and overall inconsistent. It’s just “too extra” sometimes: for example, they’ll say, why would you disrupt Bernie’s Seattle speech when Bernie marched with Dr. King and is on “our side?!”

But the truth is, even the most well-meaning critics of #BlackLivesMatter – many of them friends of mine and yours – often dangerously reek of hypocrisy. For example, I love Bernie – really do. I think he’s a good-hearted and brave guy and he would’ve had my vote for President. But while Bernie’s stance against inequities in our system demonstrates his true commitment to breaking down barriers across social class, it also exposes his blindness to issues specific to race. In Senator Sanders’ mind, class is king, and if you solve classism, you largely tackle the race problem in America. Two birds with a class-stone.

But you and I know the truth: at best, in the high-wind thunderstorm that is race-in-America, class status is a cheap umbrella. So when Bernie and his die-hards tout the taglines of racial equity and justice, while failing to tease out the nuances of racism and classism within social issues, this is hypocrisy. To be sure, hypocrite doesn’t mean “bad person,” but it does mean a bad stance (I recently read a beautiful definition of privilege: to think a problem is non-existent or less serious because it doesn’t impact you at all or as much).

My point is this: If we don’t agree that civil disobedience is necessary when a power structure has proven time and again its allegiance to the rich and powerful, and it’s contempt for the poor and vulnerable; that Senator Bernie Sanders and anybody else should be interrupted because a platform should and must be seized by those suffering when their voices are violently muzzled; that the first stage in revolution is building awareness and raising public consciousness, precisely as BLM has done; that movements don’t fund themselves and organize neatly into a national HQ with local chapters like sideline critics demand of BLM without writing checks or organizing themselves (if BLM is made up of folks like you and me, what makes you think they’re more responsible for organizing than we are?); then we can’t even debate about the meat of it all, which is: how exactly do we best proceed in telling our story, structuring our movement, and crafting our strategy?

To that end, in The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, Micah White takes us on a sort of world-tour-de-revolution to examine protests/revolutions from recent history, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, and what they can teach us about contemporary activism. As a lifelong activist and co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, Dr. White unearths the hard lessons and problematic assumptions learned from attempts such as Occupy (what White deems a “constructive failure”) and that continue to undergird contemporary activism.

Chief among these flawed theories of action is that if enough people would just take to the streets; if enough people would stand in solidarity against the oppressor; if enough people would just have their voices heard in a unity that echoes from the West Coast to the White House, then surely the government must bend to the will of the people, lest it crumble. But the scary reality – the nightmare that activists would prefer to be asleep for – is that oppressive governments, including the American government, have proven that only breaking its unjust laws and hurting its bank state will force it to justly serve the people it is systematically breaking and hurting on a daily basis.

This is what history – both recent and generations ago – has proven time and again. This is what Dr. King knew when he organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott and asked citizens to walk to work – many with their bare feet – for over a year. And this, principally, is what still works today. As Ganz said, change happens “when resisting change becomes ‘more costly’ than accepting change.”

But just as this poignant quote captures the opportunity in our generation – the opportunity to align our story, strategy, and structure toward making the status quo costlier to the oppressor than accepting it – so too does it capture our central challenge: will we, fellow activist, change ourselves, and trade in our individualistic, convenient lives for the selfless and tiring work of collective liberation? Will we see that nothing will change unless we do? That you and I are part of the very problem we hypocritically protest against? Are we really so selfish as to continue on half-heartedly taking to Twitter and the streets without careful organizing and collaborating to craft our story, solidify our structures, and create our strategies?

Sister or brother for the cause: please know that this is neither a condemnation of the beautiful marches which shut down highways nor of the beautiful organizers who organize them. To the contrary, when they’re disruptive enough, these marches are acts of protests which demonstrate that the will to sacrifice self for the greater good is still very much alive in our generation (on this point I disagree with White, who began by saying that marches alone will not suffice, which is true, but who has increasingly come to criticize seemingly all forms of marching and rallying). These marches elevate the state of urgency around the need to act against oppressive conditions in America and the overall consciousness of Americans. And thus they are bringing us closer to the tipping point of productive social revolution.

That said, as above mentioned, these disruptive, law-breaking marches are insufficient first-steps; they are one-in-a-succession-of-premeditated-and-highly-organized-tactics, and they are markedly different than the non-disruptive protests which are careful not to disrupt traffic, and are sometimes Hollywoodized by staged-arrests or glamorous pictures of protestors screaming in the face of supportive police officers.

Protest as we know it is broken. As a force for change, it is dead. It is Lazarus. And in The End of Protest, White is wise to imply that none of us can afford to wait on Jesus to resurrect it, nor to assume any one person can do it alone. Such sacrifice will require great love – not mere “good.” Good is not good enough. Framing issues in terms of “good vs. evil” is precisely why we continue to lose. Our tactics are void of love. Good sympathizes whereas love empathizes. Sympathy scratches the surface to produce strategies that perpetuate the status quo. Empathy digs to the deepest roots to produce strategies that win. Good is philanthropy and passive protest. Love is well-resourced policy and social revolution. Together, we must reframe this war, we must meet evil with love, and we must channel our collective consciousness toward curing and resurrecting effective protest.

We do this by organizing. We organize by calling on the likeminded and brave people in our community and coming together in each other’s family rooms, religious centers, or school/college venues to plan not one, not two, not even three events, but months-worth of varied protests/tactics, including – but certainly not limited to – winning local elections and changing the system from within. Specifics tactics will likely be as different as the contexts in which they are deployed.

But with the wisdom of the Micah White’s in our generation, and guidance from Ganz’s of the last, we can succeed in any context – by insisting our story of American freedom and liberation become non-fiction, by organizing into structures that optimizes our every resource, and by deploying smart strategies that are creative, surprising, and effective.

Despite our foresight, some of our strategies will fail and the best tactics will take time to fine-tune. But we cannot know until we try, and we cannot try until we stop doing what we know does not work. Our antiquated game plan is predictable – so much so that the enemy has co-opted it to serve the agenda of the few (re-enter staged arrests).

We will win again when we start to innovate and start to love. It is worth restating: no better and more practical blueprint exists than The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, by Micah White. Please read it, and let’s get to work. I’m in. Are you with me?

 

With Love & In Solidarity,

Your Fellow Activist

 

Ali Imad Fadlallah is a native of Dearborn, MI, a 2017 Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Candidate at Harvard University, and a Harvard Doctoral Resident at the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation in Hollywood, CA. 

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