Shutting Things Down To Open Things Up
Have you heard about the life-affirming, healing power of direct action? You might need it.
You may think direct action — the kind of protest that directly confronts power and shifts it from the hands of the few to those of the many — is something you do when everything else fails to get people in power to change.
You’d be wrong.
Veteran organizer Lisa Fithian — who has played a key role in hundreds of protests, describes direct action as “a way of life and a strategy to heal ourselves in the midst of the struggle.”
“Direct action,” she continues. “is not about asking permission, but rather doing what needs to be done to accomplish your goal as effectively and efficiently as possible. It means working together, democratically, to take care of the problems we face, instead of waiting for others to make the change.”
In Shut It Down: Stories From A Fierce, Loving Resistance, Lisa draws from her deep well of firsthand knowledge to share stories from the front lines of social, racial, and economic justice movements. She occupied the CIA in the 1980s to protest the destabilization of Latin America, and occupied Wall Street in 2011. She protested in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and is now training the next generation of climate activists for Extinction Rebellion.
Fithian walks us through the growth and evolution of her beliefs and practice in organizing, direct action, and community-building through stories, because that’s how good organizers digest, process and share their experience.
In addition to these invaluable insights, sprinkled throughout Shut It Down are “Out of the Toolbox” sections that in and of themselves would make the best handbook on liberation and direct action to come out in years.
I started writing this article as a book review. But to be honest, this is more of a love letter. Fithian is one of the fiercest and most loving organizers I have ever met. Out of her treasure trove of stories and tools, I found five insights in Shut It Down that are especially timely for today’s movements and organizations. But first, I have my own story to share.
“There is a woman in our basement — and I don’t know who she is!” That’s what a young organizer came up to tell me in the old offices of People’s Action one day in October of 2009.
So I went downstairs to the basement to take a look. This was the same basement where my own career as an organizer began, as an intern for the Chicago Electric Options Campaign back in 1989. My mom was the director, lead campaigner, fundraiser, and chief hell-raiser of CEOC. So I knew basements could be a magical realm.
We were gearing up for a three-day assault on the American Bankers Association. At the time, this obstructionist and reactionary association of banks was dominated by behemoths like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, which were rapidly gobbling up what was left of hometown banking. We were right in the middle of the fight to keep families — who had been given predatory mortgages to feed the greed of the big banks — in their homes.
The ABA was lobbying furiously against common-sense banking regulations to protect working families, which later became law in 2010 as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. They opposed any kind of help for the very same homeowners and communities they had ripped off. “They got bailed out, we got sold out,” went one of our chants.
When I got to the basement, I found Lisa Fithian in her natural habitat: organizing non-violent direct action and pushing for collective, horizontal organization and tactics.
I went back upstairs and calmed the young organizer. “That is Lisa Fithian,” I said. “Get to know her if you know what’s good for you.”
Two years later, Fithian was working closely with People’s Action and the New Bottom Line coalition, as well as Occupy. Together, we helped win billions of dollars for ripped-off homeowners through powerful and strategic actions. She describes these two movements, and the cross-learning that took place between them, as more related than either would likely admit.
The direct actions People’s Action took against Wall Street and the big banks created, with Fithian’s help, a continuous drumbeat of people power on race and inequality. What started in 2009 continued strongly for several years, and is not done yet!
Fithian takes a hard yet compassionate look at our political moment. Despite the convergence under Trump of white nationalism, racism, xenophobia, inequality, and sexism, she proposes that “we have the courage to resist belief systems of hate; to shut down the power centers of greed; to topple the unjust structures that oppress. We must do the demanding work of creating something radically new. We must take the painting off the wall, turn it upside down, then put it back on the wall.”
Remember the historical flashbacks in the movie Forrest Gump, where our erstwhile hero wanders into the frame with Elvis Presley, attends a Black Panther Party meeting, speaks (inaudibly) at a Hippie be-in, joins John Lennon for a TV interview, saw the Watergate break-in while at the hotel, creates the iconic smiley face, and engages in Ping Pong Diplomacy with China?
Fithian was seemingly everywhere too, but she was always grounded and rooted, and increasingly conscious of the transformative and healing power of nature and direct action. Even as a friend and colleague, I was unaware of the scope and depth of her experience.
Even this snapshot understates the depth of Fithian’s experience:
In my years as an anti-racist organizer, I have shut down the CIA, disrupted the World Trade Organization’s first major meeting during the Battle of Seattle, and helped launch Common Ground Relief, a grassroots organization that supported communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I have camped in a ditch with Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mom who protested the Iraq War. I have stood my ground in Tahrir Square and set sail on the US and Women’s Boats to Gaza. I have occupied Wall Street, taken action for climate justice, marched on the streets of Ferguson, and walked in solidarity with tribal leaders at Standing Rock. During the anxious months after the 2016 election, I protested Trump’s inauguration, marched in Washington, and organized anti-racist trainings in my adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, in response to the white supremacists who have violently exposed themselves in our community.
The clear, plain-spoken stories in Shut It Down illuminate an arc that started under Reagan and continues under Trump. Along the way, Fithian has learned a lot about how to organize people at scale, to pull off amazing sustained direct action that can shift the landscape and win transformational change, and to embed racial and gender justice and support for Indigenous Peoples rights in her practice and training. This is why she gets invited in to communities and flashpoints: her presence can be transformative. Her unique perspective, honed with reflection, healing, and growth, is exactly what we need right now.
Fithian shares this hard-won philosophy: “I have always believed there are two necessary strategies for change: dismantling structures and processes of oppression, and creating structures and processes of liberation.”
She goes on to say:
This book is my attempt at sharing concrete, hands-on, replicable lessons from historic movements in the struggles against empire. I want to show how individuals like myself link together to form networks that create change and make a new history. In the history of the US Empire, settler colonialism, racism, sexism, capitalism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and other forms of oppression are woven into every system. These deeply woven roots bind us to a dominant culture of oppression, violence, and death.
Five of the insights in Shut It Down are especially relevant to today’s organizers and movements. The first is how to expose a crisis.
Over the years I have told people that my job is to create a crisis for those in power, because crisis is the leading edge where change is possible,” maintains Fithian. “Resistance can take many forms, but fundamentally it is about exposing and changing those who oppress, refusing to let them fully escape the consequences of their actions — even if the consequence is simply facing the people they are hurting…We may be outnumbered, outspent, and outgunned, but our very presence makes clear that we do not consent.
Black people being murdered by police did not create the crisis they face. Ripped-off homeowners did not create the crisis they face. Communities of color intentionally left behind and criminalized during climate-change fueled hurricanes and floods did not create their crises. These crises were created primarily by white, wealthy men whose voracious profit-hungry corporations are the leading edge of modern-day colonialism and white supremacy.
When they stand together, organized people can expose crisis, and put the responsibility where it belongs: on the people who actually created it.
The second insight is on race. Fithian writes that, “racism infects every aspect of our society, and anti-racist work must be explicitly practiced within and between movements, as well as within ourselves, our families, and our communities. The work of undoing racism and all forms of supremacy is lifelong work, it is difficult work, and it is essential to creating the world we hope for.”
Every campaign, every demand, every organization, every movement, every one of us needs to face race as an ongoing practice. White supremacy is baked into the structure of the United States and the world, and undoing it is a lifelong practice. People of color have to struggle with internalized oppression; they are not responsible for helping white people dismantle their own racism.
Facing race (along with other intersectional forms of structural oppression) is not a luxury, it is a strategy that will help us win the world we want. Choosing not to face race is a choice to maintain the status quo.
The third insight is about what it takes to transform people quickly. Fithian says that, “While there are many pathways to transformation, I have found that nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience are the most rapid and radically transformative for people.”
At People’s Action, and now at Greenpeace, I have seen nonviolent direct action do exactly what Fithian describes. All of our lives we are told to be nice. To follow the rules. But when those rules are not just or fair, we have a moral obligation to break them.
Legendary Chicago organizer Shel Trapp called this “breaking the be nice rule.”
As I’m sure Fithian has seen countless times, people come out for a direct action and find themselves feeling free for the first time in their lives. They can finally breathe. You can see this in people’s eyes most clearly. They are alive and filled with crackling energy.
The fourth insight is about scale. Fithian’s four decades of practice have shown her time and again how “strong national movements that persist over time are outgrowths of local groups capable of quickly organizing local actions.” She is a strong advocate for horizontal, scalable organizing because it has worked well across the globe with many different communities.
Fithian describes “organizing that involves self-organized local groups in a network using working groups, clusters, caucuses, assemblies, or councils as needed. These smaller groups are structures that serve as anchors or hubs in an ever-evolving network. Broadly speaking, this approach is called horizontal or network based organizing, and it advocates for decentralization and shared power.” For readers who practice other forms of organization and are still struggling with the question of scale, this is the insight for you.
The fifth and perhaps most important insight is healing. “This process of engaging in consciously liberating action is when we feel most alive, inspired, and connected,” Fithian says. “As we take action, personal transformation takes root.”
“More and more, I am seeing the connections among self-healing, self-love, and the power of direct action,” she continues.
You may have already had the good fortune to experience the collective, life-affirming, healing power of nonviolent direct action that Lisa Fithian describes in her stories. If you haven’t, it’s never too late. Join your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, Lisa Fithian and me in taking direct action that is inspired by love and committed to fierce resistance against hate.
You won’t be the same, and neither will our world.
Fithian, Lisa. Shut It Down: Stories From A Fierce, Loving Resistance. Vermont, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019.
First published in Social Policy Magazine, Fall 2019, Volume 49, Number 3.