On Contact: Fierce, loving resistance, with Lisa Fithian
Chris Hedges talks to activist and author Lisa Fithian about fierce, loving resistance. Lisa has been at the center of some of the most important campaigns of the American resistance movement in the past four decades, including the March for Peace, Justice in Central America and South Africa, Justice for Janitors labor organizing campaign, the Battle of Seattle, Occupy Wall Street, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Standing Rock, Ferguson, and most recently, the Extinction Rebellion climate justice protests.
Fithian’s new book is: Shut it Down: Stories from A Fierce, Loving Resistance.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the mechanics of resistance with the activist and author, Lisa Fithian.
LF: And one of the things I’m trying to spread as I go around talking with this book and I organize in different sectors of our movement, I recognize there’s a lot of fear around that. There’s fear of crisis, there’s fear of chaos, or organized chaos. But if we’re not willing to create the kind of disruption that will force the power holders to make different choices, we’re going to continue to be dealing with a lot of pain.
CH: We’re going to go extinct?
LF: We’re going to--thank you. We’re going to extinct.
CH: There are few activists and organizers with the wealth of experience of Lisa Fithian. She has organized actions that 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. She was part of the protest encampment organized by Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar activist who lost her son in Iraq. She was in Tahrir Square, and onboard the US Women’s Boats to Gaza. She was an important presence at Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock, marched in the streets of Ferguson, and has organized anti-racist training and helped lead climate justice protest for Extinction Rebellion. Joining me in the studio to discuss effective forms of resistance in her new book, “Shut it Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance” is Lisa Fithian. Okay. We’re going to do nuts--we only got a half hour. You got great stories in here, but they’re going to have to buy the book first. Let’s just start. “A lifelong organizer and devoted rabble-rouser, I tend to avoid electoral organizing, having seen firsthand that lasting changes and shifts in power are so often brokered in the streets.” Talk about it. Because so many people place their faith every, especially four years in the election cycle, which I don’t think historically ever plays out.
LF: Right. Well, you know, it’s interesting, because when I was younger, people were like, “You’re going to be the first woman president of the United States.” And I was just like, “Oh, I don’t know.” Because I was president of my student government in high school, college, did some legislative organizing around the US war in Central America. But I really began to see that the power there was not actually really solving the problems. We might mitigate damage. We might get a little reform here and there. But when I started getting involved in the US war to--you know, ending the US war in Central America and I learned about civil disobedience, and protest in the streets, I began to understand that our power was really in the streets. And if we create the popular mandate, the politicians will have to follow. So I--in terms of elections, you know, I was doing the trainee ones where people were sort of being disrespectful to the electoral process. And a woman said to me, “My family died for the right to vote.” And really just like hit me. And I realized that, you know, people did give their life for the right to vote. And it’s important. But we also have to be clear that no matter who’s in office, it does make a difference, but it’s not going to address the systemic problems that are creating harm for people across this country and all over the world. And so that’s why I get--again, I focused on organizing in the street, organizing in a community, trying to build those alternatives no matter who’s in power.
CH: You said your job is to create a crisis for those in power because crisis is the leading edge where change is possible. What do you mean by that?
LF: Well, it’s interesting. There’s two pieces I want to bring. I’ve done some work around permaculture, had, you know, sustainable, you know--and they talk about the edge is where there’s the greatest change. But even more when I was working on this book, I began to learn about complexity science. And as I read about this, I was like…
CH: That’s--you jumped ahead, but go ahead. Explain what it is and who the theory…
LF: Sure. Well, it’s the--it’s the science of how organic living systems, how change happens in organic living systems. And there’s a concept called the edge of chaos. And I had learned through actually my work with Justice for Janitors that we…
CH: Let’s just recap. That was about a living--a wage for janitors in DC. It was a week-long--what do you…
CH: You dragged cars--dead cars and left them in the road or something?
LF: I did. And I know I’m jumping around.
CH: That’s all right. That’s all right.
LF: Because it’s like this is lifelong learning and things weaved together. So, yeah, in the 1990s, I was working for the Justice for Janitors campaign, which was a nationwide fight to improve the conditions of janitors and increase wages. And people had been organizing for a long time and not getting to where they needed to be. So in ‘94 and ‘95, we did what we called Weeks of Rage where we organized weeks of actions and shut down the bridges, shut down the intersections of DC, took over buildings. And as a result of that work, there was like majority unionization of the janitors in DC and throughout the country.
CH: I remember you said 80%, right?
LF: It was somewhere between 70 and 80%, the majority of the market. And they’re still unionized today and have good conditions. It’s all relative. So all that being said and done, Chris, I really come to understand that we--our movements have to be willing to create a social crisis. And one of the things I’m trying to spread as I go around talking with this book and I organize in different sectors of our movement, I recognize there’s a lot of fear around that. There’s fear of crisis, there’s fear of chaos or organized chaos. But if we’re not willing to create the kind of disruption that will force the power holders to make different choices, we’re going to continue to be dealing with a lot of pain.
CH: We’re going to go extinct.
LF: We’re going to go--thank you. We’re going to go extinct. Exactly.
CH: Let’s talk about direct action. You quote LA Kauffman, “‘Direct Action’ can refer to a huge variety of efforts to create change outside the established mechanisms of government.” That is kind of at the core, I think, of what you believe is effective in terms of bringing about change.
LF: Absolutely. The thing I like about direct action is that--I believe there’s two fundamental strategies for change, dismantling the ideology systems structures of oppression while creating ideology system structures of liberation. direct action allows you to do both of those things. Because if you’re going to ask people to take great risks and possibly be willing to go to jail, there’s a different level of infrastructure and organizing you have to do in order to support people taking those risks. And over these years of this work, I’ve actually come to see that direct action is also a way of life. It’s a way in which we can view the world of how we exercise our power every day through the choices we make. And so, again, it’s--it keeps me alive. And that’s where I continue to do it. And I’ve also seen it’s the most rapidly and radically-transformative strategy than any that I’ve been involved in.
CH: But it also creates especially in an age of isolation and atomization, a sense of community, which is empowering.
LF: Yeah. Absolutely. And, you know, back to that complexity science, organic living systems, the natural world, we are interconnected as humans. And I’ve also come to see that, you know, when we were becoming two-legged, you know, we had to be part of the community for our basic survival. But we’ve been socialized in lot of ideologies of supremacy and separation, categorized separated. And I’ve come to realize no wonder we’re so messed up because we’re literally wired to be together, but we’re socialized to distance in other.
CH: Well, the pharmaceutical industry is helping us solve that problem, right?
LF: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. But if we don’t reclaim that interconnectedness, that sacred work, the valuing of, like, living things, again, extinction is likely our future.
CH: Which is Kropotkin, goes after Kropotkin.
LF: Yeah. Right.
CH: You talk about different types of direct action. You said “Mass marches are just one of the many tactics at our disposal. At some point, showing up for a march begins to feel ineffective because it’s being done over and over again without the level of impact that we hope for. Marches must be coupled with strategic direct actions, and mass community network building, if their impact is going to last.” And I think what we’ve seen, like the Women’s March on Washington, is they’re kind of flash mobs and then they vanish.
LF: Yeah. Exactly. We saw it with the Global Strike, September 20th, in some of these global strikes, which are amazing, you know, to have so many people, you know, show up. But what if we were to use our bodies strategically? Like at the Women’s March. What if we had, like, instead of wandering aimlessly around DC, had gone and surrounded The Capitol, you know? So it’s like, yes, how do we add mass mobilization and strategic targeted action together? Because we have limited time, energy, and resources, and the--what we’re up against is so serious, like, we have to be very smart about how we use the limited resources we have. And that means when we come together, let’s go do something that’s actually going to create some disruption for those who are promoting and profiting from the harm and destruction of the planet.
CH: You talk about the reliance on online-based activism and are critical of it. Explain why.
LF: Well, I’ve had mixed feelings about online activism. I recognize that these are powerful tools, that they are one way to get the word out. They had been very effective even tactically during actions. But more recently, I’ve been looking at what’s preventing us from rising up, you know? When you see people all around the world rising up and in the--in the ‘80s, when I became to get involved in direct action, you know, we were moving at a huge scale. And I say to people today, like, “Why can’t you do this?” And people are like, “Well, we just don’t have time.” And I’m like, “Well, what’s different now?” And what’s different is social media. People are on their computers, they’re on their phones. It’s become another form of addiction, another form of distraction, and it’s another way in which we’re really losing our power. And…
CH: And it’s just where they want us to be. Alone in front of a screen.
LF: Exactly. And they’re mining all of our data to figure out how to manipulate us.
CH: Right. On top of that.
LF: You know? So it’s like I say to people, like, you know, use the tools for what we need, like, Google Maps is fantastic for tracking traffic patterns, to know important places for, you know, disruption. But we have to get off those machines and stop giving them the data.
CH: Well, the other problem is that we saw this after the--Barack Obama shut down the Occupy encampments is because they had mined all the data. They knew who the engines were, and this was true in Zuccotti, and they went after them, and they went after the right people. Direct actions, you say out of the toolbox, and let’s just mention people should read Gene Sharp, “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.” Kind of the Godfather of nonviolent, very important. Let’s just run through them quickly. The classics.
LF: Oh, I don’t have it in front of me.
CH: Well, just a few. The kinds of--you write “Blocking intersections, strikes, pickets. Then the next category, our using our bodies that’s die-ins, sit-ins, art-ins, flash mobs, flash dances, making noise.” And then you write art, ritual, and media actually have a whole section in the book about how to drop banners. But I think that that art, ritual, and media is--I saw it in Latin America, I spent six years there with the resistance movements, was a crucial component, often overlooked by activists in terms of--it’s like when they--from Matt Taibbi’s book, I think it was from “Griftopia,” they made that squid and--puppet squid and marched around Goldman Sachs. But it is an important point. So let’s just touch on the importance of that last one in particular.
LF: Sure. I think there’s a couple things I want to say about tactics. One is that our imagination is our greatest tool. And so while there are hundred and ninety-eight tactics, we can create more. And I really encourage people to sort of take a step back sometimes, imagine what you want. And how does the picture that you’re creating in your protest tell the story? And so I’ve been involved in a number of actions and the one that came to mine when you were just speaking is when we were in Cancun, Mexico around the WTO there and there were many indigenous organizers that came to--before, who set up this incredible altar in the streets with seeds and copal. And that became the blockade essentially, right? So there was a ritual component where we understand the sacredness of what we’re doing, we take some time for quiet, for prayer, but we’re using our bodies to take space. We’re using visuals or materials that tell the story about what is sacred. So in case, it was seeds. People had made dolphin costumes that they wore on their heads. And so I really like it when people employ their creativity, create an image so that the picture tells the story of what you’re doing. And then you slow things down enough to make sure that you add in that sacred element, but you also bring in a culture of life whether it’s song, music, drumming, dance. Because life is hard. People aren’t going to come out for stuff that’s dreary, right? When we really bring our actions to life, it’s going to attract people passing by, and I think that’s part of the art and science of resistance.
CH: I mean, I come out of a very formal religious tradition and you don’t. But I think the--and you use the words that the element of the sacred is key, which is I think one of the reasons certainly I am so fierce about nonviolence as I think you are, although you also argue, I think, correctly that it’s a far more effective method for a social change. Not that in the end I’m a pacifist. I was in Sarajevo, Serbs and broken through the trench system, a third of the city would’ve been killed. I mean, I understand that people can be pushed to the poison of violence. But I think that element of the sacred is something that runs throughout your book.
LF: Right. You know, I didn’t consider myself a religious person. But when I began to understand the power of the spirit, and spirituality, it was very liberating for me.
CH: Oh, we’re going to come back. We’ll come back to that in a second.
CH: When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about effective forms or resistance with the author and organizer, Lisa Fithian.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about resistance with the author and activist, Lisa Fithian. So before the break, the sacred.
LF: Uh-hmm. I think, while I begun to understand the power of spirit in our actions, I saw in Quebec during the FTAA, where I was involved with a group called the Pagan Cluster and we did a spiral dance and I watched hundreds of people come and join us, they were just hungry for that spiritual energy.
CH: Uh-hmm. Understood.
LF: And then I really--it came home to me in a whole new level when I was at Standing Rock and that was one of the gifts that the elders offered us in the work around reframing ourselves from protesters to protectors, the protectors of what we love. And so I, you know, it’s like--I just did--I just, you know, maybe it’s I’m getting older, you know, maybe I’m watching the rise of the militarized state even more and the violence that it enacts on people that we have got to embody that life force, we have to embody a practice of doing no harm. We have to work in ways that we’re building authentic relationships and lifting everybody up. I mean, we live in such a toxic culture and we, you know, that--and that’s inside of us and we can enact it on one another, whether it’s patriarchy, white supremacy.
CH: Well, you talk about Antifa, I think correctly, is being predominantly white males and you’re right. And I think that they have that kind of intoxication, even lust for violence, you know. They call it, kind of, street porn that they watch. I think it’s there and I think that’s that, kind of, the fact that we are infected by this.
LF: Uh-hmm. I think it’s--yeah. I think it’s more complicated than that and, you know, I think there’s a question around, you know, you raise a certain amount of questions on violence and non-violence.
CH: Well, let’s ask about that, yeah.
LF: Okay. Yeah. I mean I’m somebody that’s always been committed to non-violent action. I’m not a pacifist, but I believe strategically, it’s the most effective way for us to go because it’s what allows us to do no harm and to embody the world that I want.
CH: Well, it also opens the possibility for defections within the ruling elite.
CH: I covered the revolutions on Eastern Europe. None of those revolutions would’ve succeeded unless significant sectors of the ruling apparatus, including the police, stopped defending a discredited hierarchy.
LF: Right. But I’ve also been around these movements a long time, and it’s clear to me that not everybody agrees. But there’s not one strategy that fits all. And so I’ve made a decision over these years to figure out how I practice the value of respect with everybody. And now I talk a lot about agreements.
CH: Uh-hmm. Because I, you know, if we just marginalize people that have different views from us or different strategies from us, then there’s no way to have a relationship to build agreements, and so--and I also recognize, you know, you had the Antifa movement but you have had many communities who’ve engaged in self-defense strategies. I like to talk about self-protection strategies. But, you know, as I’ve gone on this tour, I’ve been doing a training called escalating resistance and I, you know, ended on Hong Kong and there’s a moment where the youth in Hong Kong spray painted security cameras. And I have to ask people, is that violent or not? You know, I hold life sacred. I want to do no harm to life, but those security cameras open up the potential for great harm. So, whether I would do it or not, I don’t want to be fighting about it. Like, I really want to find a new way…
CH: Well, that’s interesting, because I would. I would. I don’t know. You wouldn’t?
LF: Well, I don’t think I would because, like, that’s actually mitigating harm in my opinion when we’re living…
CH: By spray…
LF: By spray painting a security camera.
CH: No. I would spray paint.
LF: Oh, okay, good.
CH: I would.
LF: Oh, yeah, okay. Well, I mean I probably would, too.
CH: Okay. All right.
LF: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But, like, that’s part of being--I watched our movement divide on property destruction.
CH: Yeah, but that’s different. I mean…
LH: It depends on who, you know, some people might see that as property destruction.
CH: Well, sure. The state would define it as property destruction. But those are instruments of a terrible oppression, you know. It’s a…
LF: What about barricades, would you do barricades?
CH: Knocking them down?
LF: No, setting them up.
CH: Oh, setting them up?
LF: If the police were charging and coming to…
CH: Yeah. I think, you know, I wouldn’t consider--I mean, you know, you quote King in there, I mean that there are actions of self-protection, which I don’t think are defined as aggressive. I think spray painting security cameras, setting up barricades, especially when you have people in the movement who are elderly were getting there, you know, when you have people who are disabled, when you have undocumented people who cannot afford to be arrested, I don’t have any problem with forms of self-protection.
LF: Yeah. Yeah, right. So, yeah, so I think that in a, you know, especially as we go onto this new decade with this rise of Fascism, here and around the world, this…
CH: Well, and all the technology they have, I mean China’s a step ahead but it’s all coming.
CH: I mean look at the wiggers. That’s kind of the future.
LF: Right. Which is actually another thing I tell young activists, it’s, like, if you don’t have your hard copy of your contact list or your meet up sites with your friends, you know, they will pull the plug on you. Your social media’s going to go down.
CH: Of course.
LF: And so you need to make sure you’ve got a strategy for staying connected with your people.
CH: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the tactics which you do a great job of in the book in terms of just the nuts and bolts of how you build--I’ll look for it here. Oh, yeah. So, you talk about various--didn’t the old communist call themselves--I mean various components of a resistance movement. Let’s just run through them quickly. Affinity groups, explain what they are and why they’re important.
LF: Right. I mean affinity groups go back actually to the revolution Spain, the grupos de afinidad. It basically means a small group of people.
CH: Five to fifteen people.
LF: Five to fifteen people that self-organize to take care of one another. When I was raised in this, there were two roles, people who were willing to risk--take greater risks, including arrests, and those who would support them. It’s a model that’s been used by many direct action movements for decades and one that I think is increasingly important is we go into this new era. Not only is it a space for a political education, emotional processing and healing, but it allows us to be nimble and do much more effective actions by being able to do lots of different locations at once and know people have their plan.
CH: Well, it’s just, as you know, and we both know, it’s just a lot easier if that’s the right word, to be arrested when you do it with other people and you have somebody, you know, add like Kevin Zeese, who’s a lawyer, who, I was on the outside, you know, making sure you’re eventually going to get out in your--as that process goes for your--it--that structure, it’s--it is extremely important.
LF: I think a couple other reasons why it’s so important is because this is all about power and the dynamics of power, which we know is relational in direct action world. And, again, we are raised in a culture of power over, where we think we’re in charge in telling other people what to do and fundamentally, what we’re trying to do is build the conditions and containers for people to be able to reclaim their own power and to make their own choices. And so these affinity groups are also a way for people to engage in a democratic process or a direct democracy where they are deciding for themselves, what risk they’ll take and how they’ll take them. And, you know, and it’s not waiting to be told. It’s not just following, but it’s building that network that’s based on some agreements that has some accountability and trust. We have to trust that people know what good action is, right action is, and that’s part of why we’re continuing to grow our moments and train our movements so that we can be more effective at this.
CH: Let’s just run through quickly clusters, and spokes councils, and consensus decision-making.
LF: Okay. Clusters are when a group of affinity groups come together to take a coordinated action. So if we want to go shut down The Capitol building and there’s four entrances, it might be there’s a bunch of student affinity groups who might form a student cluster.
CH: And let me just interrupt because you do in the book, we may not have time to get to it, you’re very focused on planning in advance, you know, you call it mapping. I mean--I mean I think you even draw maps. I mean…
LF: I do.
CH: That--it’s almost like a battle. We have to know where everything is, know the movements, know what-- you don’t just walk blindly towards The Capitol.
LF: Right. Well, you know, Chris I say often that there is a war being waged against us in the planet. We didn’t create the war, we don’t want that war, but we have to decide if we’re going to fight it, and if we are, how we’re going to fight it. And I want to--I’m looking for a better future, so again, I do come out of being strategic. Yeah, we got to know what we’re doing, we need to know the playing field, we need to understand their assets and vulnerabilities, we need to understand ours. And we--again, we have limited time, energy, and resources, so how can we use those most affectively? So I advocate a lot in in this book. Doing your research, doing your targeting, doing your mapping, and coming in many directions, there’s no one way. And so back to this, those clusters allow us to be very versatile and flexible because, I mean, there’s a time and place for everything. Sometimes you want everybody in one place in that mass, but sometimes you need to be spread out coming from many directions. Clusters allow you to do that around themes or common interests. Spokes councils is a space for decision-making among the groups. It uses consensus, which is a process that I believe is much more natural to how humans normally make decisions as opposed to voting, which can lead to a win-lose setup. And so, you know, we’re not used to consensus. It’s not difficult so that’s another training element that we need to do in our movements because once people know how to do it, it works quite well. So, these are all alternative models and structures that I believe are ways that we can, sort of, get out of the dominant culture of power over, you know, and practice what I call collective power.
CH: And direct democracy.
LF: And direct democracy. Absolutely.
CH: And you write in the book somewhere, but it’s about--it’s almost a reeducation process for activists, talk about that.
LF: Uh-hmm. Well, we’ve been raised badly in this country. Yeah. You know, what we believe, our values, our--do a lot of harm and I often say to people figure out the dominant values of the culture. Figure out the exact opposite and put that in practice.
CH: Which can infect the left, if it’s not…
CH: If it’s not self-aware.
LF: Absolutely. And, you know, I--as--again, as I’ve gotten older, Chris, I think one of the most important for our movements going forward is recognizing the trauma that this culture has created in all of us. I mean, yes, there’s daily trauma from violence, but our whole culture is violent. And we have all been harmed and we are all acting out of it, that’s a lot of the toxicity in our movement is this acting out of these internalized oppressions. And so if there’s any piece of work that I want young activists to understand and for all of us going forward, we have to take this work of trauma and healing seriously and understand that until we do that healing and change these dynamics of power that we act out of, we will continue to do harm.
CH: What’s interesting, you close the book with really talking specifically about coping with the right--again, the reason I like it is because it’s just--it’s a manual, but you spend time talking about how to deal with the techniques for dealing with that trauma, which you think is, and correctly, very dangerous to our movements.
LF: Uh-hmm. Yeah, which is also why I think we we’re still lucky, like--in the new generations coming in. There’s so much wisdom that is coming through right now through so many people. Not only about trauma and oppressions but also about healing and that healing is possible and we can heal more rapidly than we might realize. And so this generation has the benefit of all this knowledge, whether it’s the trauma and healing, the complexity science, these understandings of power dynamics, because they’re also all connected. And I try and write about that in the book as well that, yeah, if we get this stronger foundation, I have a lot greater hope for our future.
CH: Great. Thank you. That was Lisa Fithian about her new book, “Shut It Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance.” Thank you.