For more than 35 years, L.A. Kauffman has been deeply involved in political organizing, from anti-apartheid actions in the Eighties to Iraq War protests in 2003.
Over the years, Kauffman began to notice that successful organizing doesn't look the same as it once did. The Civil Rights movement of the Sixties, for instance, took place in a political landscape that has dramatically shifted. The question of how things have changed – and how protests today can be more effective – led Kauffman to write Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism.
Her book couldn't have come out at a better time. With Trump just sworn in as president, millions of Americans – and folks around the world – are eager to organize and take action. The good news, Kauffman says, is that while we may be facing an unprecedented political situation, we're also seeing an unprecedented wave of powerful movements and protest. Take this weekend, when millions of people came out for the Women's March on Washington and its hundreds of sister demonstrations in what may be the biggest protest in U.S. history.
Rolling Stone recently talked to Kauffman about how people – including those who either can't or aren't up for getting arrested – can effectively take action in the Trump era, while staying sane and having fun in the process.
There seems to be a pretty remarkable energy right now, even among people who haven't been involved in political action before. I hear a lot of people wanting to do something, but feeling unsure about where to start.
Well, the first and most important lesson that I take from history is that protest works. No matter how long the odds – in cases where people are willing to do something bold and take risks – they're able to hold onto their gains or make new gains in a way that they wouldn't otherwise.
One of the other big lessons that I take from this history is that numbers by themselves don't necessarily mean anything. We have this idea that goes back to the March on Washington: you bring a huge number of people to D.C., that pressures the government to action on your issue, and down the road you start seeing the legislation that reflects the values of a protest. That's really the exception more than the rule. It's often not about a single mobilization of a huge number of people; it's about a small number of people who are willing to be persistent and take risks over time.
So small can be effective.
That's the lesson from ACT UP: It's hard to come up with a group of people who were more reviled in the late Eighties than those who were infected with HIV. ACT UP never held a protest that had 100,000 or 200,000 people. They were never operating on a mass scale. And they accomplished more than any other single activist group over the last 40 years. They saved millions of lives.
You may think you need to be doing something massive for it to matter, but the lesson is exactly the opposite: It's about pulling together with folks you know in a small group that is willing to actually do things – like show up at your member of Congress' town hall or office. Five or 10 people at a congressperson's office can mean much more than a rally with speakers that has thousands.
As people are thinking about what they can contribute at this moment, the question to be asking is, What can I do to step outside my comfort zone right now? It's in doing that collectively that we leverage our impact.
How much should activists right now focus on targeting Trump versus going on the offensive with their own demands?
It's going to be a constant dance. It's going to be hugely important for people to – in whatever way possible – obstruct any of the moves that Trump is hoping to make. One victory that we've had so far since the election was when the House was going to jettison its ethics rules, and there was a roar of people saying, "No way." That really leveraged collective power. There's going to be the need for that kind of constant rapid response work to defend what modest gains we've made.
But you can only keep doing that for so long before you burn out and feel exhausted. The key to sustaining a movement over time is having more to inspire and offer participants than a simple "no." So I think it's important that people are doing the work of synthesizing a vision of what world we would really love to see – thinking about 2020, about redistricting, retaking the Democratic Party, holding out long-term visions of structural institutional change.
"The key to sustaining a movement over time is having more to inspire and offer participants than a simple 'no.'"
I already know some folks who are feeling a sense of burnout. What's your advice to them?
There's a lot of work that's going to be needed over these next four years. The temptation is to throw yourself in 110 percent right now because things seem so dire. But taking time to connect with friends, appreciate the things about the world that are worth saving – whether it's taking a hike in the woods, reading poetry or enjoying music – is as essential to sustaining resistance as learning specific techniques for how to do a direct-action blockade.
There's been a return to some old-school organizing tactics: picking up the phone instead of sending an email, showing up at a rally instead of just signing a petition. How can we be most effective in our actions?
There are different ways in which a protest can be effective, and many times you can't see the effect for a while.
In this moment, one of the greatest dangers we face is the normalizing of all of these outrageous steps that Trump has taken and is planning to take. I think almost anything that disrupts the process of normalization has an effect. That doesn't mean it in itself saves our health care or affects the ethics rules, but it matters greatly.
The effectiveness of a protest can't be gauged in narrow legislative or procedural terms, because part of the task now is breaking the spell that has people normalizing Trump and accepting his legitimacy in any way. You can help break that spell by standing with three people on a street corner holding up signs. You don't have to change the way your member of Congress votes to be playing a constructive and palpable role right now.
Someone who saw me reading your book recently said, "Oh, so you must be pretty angry." People still have the notion that to protest or take direct action, you have to look or feel a certain way.
People tend to think of activism as angry, and certainly there's a place for movements that express public anger. But activism that's effective doesn't all take place in the key of anger. Some of the most powerful actions to be a part of are those where people are coming together and celebrating community and resistance – anything from dance parties in the street to the Women's March, bringing people together more in the spirit of mutual affirmation.
The movements that have been the most effective have almost all had humor, mischief and mirth as well as a celebration of community and each other. Those are the kinds of things that sustain people, and those are the movements that are the best entry points for people who are new to activism. That's why you see music, art and culture as part of every single movement that's been successful; those are the things that keep people going. Anger is necessary and righteous, but it's corrosive over time.
For people who aren't necessarily ready to get out in the streets but still want to be more involved, what would you recommend?
When you're talking about change from below, there's a role for everything, from signing petitions to making phone calls to doing sit-ins in somebody's office.
While you need a complex mix of ingredients to make change, direct action is like the seasoning that can change the alchemy of the whole situation through people's boldness and willingness. It's a constant in the movements that have succeeded despite crisis and backlash: a willingness to take that extra step.
For some, that means picking up the phone, even though they have phone anxiety, instead of just sending an email or pushing "like" on Facebook. There are some kinds of direct action that require an enormously high level of commitment from people to participate in, like lockdown actions where people attach themselves through these complicated gizmos to, say, a bulldozer or the doors to a building.
While I have nothing but respect for people who do those kinds of action, it's important that we not have a culture that valorizes extreme risk-taking as the index of commitment. For many people, showing up at a speak-out at their congressperson's office is already taking a big step forward.
That's how you scale up movements: by having a whole menu of options, ways that people can step outside their comfort zone, take stronger action than they have been before, but not holding them to some unrealistic standard of risk-taking.
The question of privilege also plays into how much risk someone might be willing to take, right?
For sure. People risked their lives in the Civil Rights movement, but with the rise of mass incarceration, the idea of getting arrested for the sake of getting arrested seemed absurd to those who were seeing friends and family members locked up for petty offenses.
It takes enormous privilege to be willing to take certain risks. There are ways in which people have been trying to think creatively about how to do that. For example, at Standing Rock, there were a lot of actions where there would be multiple rows of white allies up against the police line as a buffer while the Native folks were doing a prayer ceremony or other action. So people have been looking into ways that white folks can leverage their privilege into an act of solidarity.
There have already been some tense conversations about white privilege and who feels welcome and supported at marches and demonstrations.
It's very difficult for people who are used to speaking to listen – for people who are used to being at the center of things to be willing to step back and find out how they can assist or complement instead. For all the white people who are trying to do that, I salute that, because that's really important work right now. I think the work that's been happening to place the most vulnerable communities at the center of organizing is some of the most important work that's happening right now. Any truly sustainable future is one in which the most vulnerable among us can live full, free lives. The only way you get to that place is by putting the perspectives of those who are most vulnerable right at the center.
We're also seeing a resurgence of the narrative that "identity politics" is making the left divisive and fragmented.
Snore. We've been hearing that for decades. Ever since the advent of identity politics – when people started saying, We're speaking for ourselves, we're reclaiming our voice as well as advocating for our interests – people have been saying it's naval-gazing or fragmenting. Those complaints? That's the identity politics of white men. That's mostly where it comes from, and it's about a discomfort with the challenge to this classic idea of universality – that white men have seen themselves as objective.
The critique of identity politics completely misses the point. When you actually look on the ground at who is organizing, carrying the work, shaping the visions, taking the risks, it's disproportionately women – often queer women of color. The critique comes from a total disconnect with who's actually doing the work that has defended health care, reproductive rights, the environment – any of the things that we care passionately about now.
Are there strategies you'd suggest for people who are planning on taking action in the days ahead?
When people are thinking about how to get involved, instead of thinking, How do I, over here, connect to that group way over there?, it's more, Who do I feel connected with who shares my values and who might want to act together?
Most big protests are made up of lots of little groups coming together, often called affinity groups. That's just a jargon-y name for a group of people that you feel comfortable with and that you trust. Those are the building blocks of a lot of political action, and that opens up ways of thinking about organizing that are much less intimidating. It can just be a group that you pull together around your kitchen table, and, if you're going to go to an event, you go with those folks and look out for each other.
You've spent decades focused on how movements have evolved and brought us to this moment. Do you feel like there's reason to be hopeful?
On the one hand, we're facing some of the scariest threats of our lifetime, but previously uninvolved people are feeling moved to take action right now on a scale that is quite extraordinary. And it's happening in ways that seem smart, informed by the fruits of years of struggling – particularly race and gender.
The forces assembling on our side give me enormous hope. Whether they're adequate to forestall the worst of the damage that's being threatened now is a very open question. I'm not super optimistic about that, but I'm always on the side of the dreamers, the fighters and the people who are sticking their necks out.
I do think that normalization is the greatest challenge, and it's happening every single day. Nearly every mainstream media source has been guilty of using normalizing language, framing matters as debates that shouldn't be framed as debates.
There's the risk now that the number of crises will be so great that we don't have the capacity to challenge them all. Our willingness to make trouble, to make noise, to make disruption – that is our only hope for getting through these next four years intact. And if we don't have fun while we're disrupting, we're not going to keep it up for four years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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