Activism for Dummies

REVIEW: 'Make it Happen' and 'How to Think Like an Activist'

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• May 9, 2021 4:59 am


In the early '70s, the Weather Underground—the terror wing of Students for a Democratic Society—protested the Vietnam War by bombing government buildings, including the Capitol, the Pentagon, and the State Department. The bombs, however, didn't always hit their intended targets. In 1970, Weathermen Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold wanted to "bring the war home" by exploding a nail bomb at an officers' dance at New Jersey's Fort Dix. Instead, the trio obliterated themselves and part of a city block when the bomb accidentally detonated in their Greenwich Village townhouse. The New York Times reported that after the explosion, Robbins's remains were "too mangled to permit identification."

Since then, life prospects for progressive activists have improved. Take Patrisse Cullors, the 37-year-old cofounder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, who popularized the push for police abolition. The New York Post reported that Cullors, who grew up in a Los Angeles housing project, has accumulated a multimillion-dollar real estate portfolio. Just last month, the self-described Marxist bought a $1.4 million Malibu compound with "vaulted ceilings clad in knotty pine" and a "whitewashed raised hearth brick fireplace."

For almost a decade, Cullors has developed a network of nonprofits, PACs, and for-profit organizations to promote her "anti-colonial struggle," displaying a professionalism absent from those terrorist attacks five decades ago. And the professionalism has paid off. Her Black Lives Matter flagship organization raked in nearly $90 million in 2020 amid violent anti-police protests. Warner Bros. was so impressed, it signed Cullors to a multiyear deal in October to create children's TV programming.

Activism has become such a lucrative field that colorful how-to guides are cropping up to show young people how they can get a start. Two of them, Make it Happen: How to be an Activist by Amika George and How to Think Like an Activist by Wendy Syfret, offer the latest advice.

Both authors inform their writing with their experience as activists. At 17, George launched a successful campaign to get free female hygiene products in British schools and was recognized as a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation "Goalkeeper" for her work. Syfret, to her credit, is a former VICE editor.

Both authors incorporate interviews from other activists, and readers of the two books will learn the fundamentals of activism: how to deploy "strategic hashtags" to promote your cause, how to use hand signals during activist meetings, how to pick the right slogan, and how to prepare for a protest.

More important than tweeting a petition or attending your first meeting, however, is adopting the worldview of an activist, which is boilerplate critical race theory. When an activist looks at the world, he or she sees "societal structures" and "systems" entrenching inequality. According to George, "a small group of privileged, white men" are in charge, so "we are wading through injustices," including racism, sexism, and bigotry, "every day."

The activist's response to these injustices should be anger, which George calls the fuel for activist work. One campaigner she interviews says she is "really angry about most things all of the time," but George says this rage is useful because it motivates activists to take on systems that produce unequal results for different groups of people.

This may sound like a license to destroy almost anything. At one point, George analogizes activism to leveling a city:

Think of these kind of deep, structural injustices as tall buildings. You need to chip away at them brick by brick. As each brick falls, you're dismantling the rigid structure, until eventually, the bricks lie in a pile of rubble.

George and Syfret rarely identify who the oppressors are, however, preferring instead to describe the many victims of oppression. They also don't mention that their worldview is promoted by many of the most powerful institutions in the United States, including the media, major corporations, and the federal government. Just last month, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, informed the U.N. Human Rights Council that "white supremacy" is "weaved" into America's founding.

Institutions that parrot similar lines in press releases have evaded campaigns for their abolishment by left-wing activists, who are more interested in making the CIA intersectional than in destroying it. A "pile of rubble" doesn't pay the bills. Instead, activists take on groups of people who don't hire diversity consultants, such as small business owners, families, and Asian applicants to Harvard.

Still, for the aspiring activists approaching these two books, being angry at everything—even at vague "systems" and "constructs"—can be a heavy burden. Syfret says activism is "very tough and can expose individuals to extreme stress and trauma." It could help explain why young white liberals, a group enthralled with the activist worldview, report significantly higher rates of mental illness, including anxiety and depression, than their moderate and conservative peers.

Thankfully, chipping away at structural injustices can alleviate your psychiatric disorders. Syfret says activism "serves your mental health" in an "endlessly enriching journey" and quotes another activist who says protests are a "collective opportunity for group therapy." Forget MDMA: "Finding your crowd is like snuggling under a warm blanket, or being squished in the fold of a hug that tells you you're not battling alone," George writes.

It is fitting that both authors close their books with the same message to would-be activists: Prioritize yourself. Practice self-care. There's no point in protesting "if you're not demonstrating compassion towards yourself and prioritizing your own needs, health, and happiness," George says.

What else is activism for? Who's stupid enough to die for a cause and leave behind their mangled remains? "By its nature, activism is never done. There is always another cause that needs championing." In other words: Enjoy your career.

Make it Happen: How to Be an Activist
by Amika George
HarperCollins UK, 256 pp., $26

How to Think Like an Activist
by Wendy Syfret
Hardie Grant, 144 pp., $15