Now that the school year is winding down, it’s a good time to look back, evaluate, and start laying plans for the Fall.
The campus protest rally with a handful of fiery speakers and some mass chanting is a staple of protest politics — a traditional method of expressing opposition and anger. But as we’ve seen this past year, when it’s repeated over and over with the same speakers, the same rhetoric, the and same slogans its effectiveness diminishes and the number of participants declines.
It’s now clear that the campaign to defend and reform public higher education is going to be a long hard road. A struggle that can only be won by building a broad-based mass movement. Mass movements don’t just happen, they are built by committed activists. But as a general rule, most people don’t become politically active from listening to speeches, reading websites & leaflets, or receiving emails & tweets. Organizations and movements are built by conversations and involving people in activities — activities that are more substantive than listening to rally speakers or shouting slogans in a group chant.
Creativity is a pillar of nonviolent direct action. We need to apply some creative thinking to the traditional campus protest rally so as to more effectively involve people in active participation. For example:
Speak-Out Circles. One technique that proved useful during the long student strike at S.F. State in 1968 was to occasionally replace the noon rally with speak-out circles. Instead of making the usual speeches, we called on people to form small circles of 6-12 where everyone was encouraged to discuss the issues. Pre-assigned circle-leaders spread out, raised their hands, and shouted “form a circle on me.” When folk gathered around, the leader asked: “Well, what do you think about [whatever]?” and encouraged dialog. Dialog and discussion were the keys, not the typical “I’m-the-expert-you-listen-to-me” mode of speakers/teachers to passive audiences & classes. When done successfully, speak-out circles allowed strike supporters to discuss and debate with uninvolved students and opponents.
Inevitably, some circles didn’t jell and dissipated, but others became lively, loud, and argumentative and attracted more and more people to gather around. (Yes, encouraging those who disagreed with us to speak was part of the method.) When a lively circle became too large, and people were becoming frustrated because they wanted to contribute their opinions and weren’t getting an opportunity, a new leader pulled some away to start a new circle — “Let’s start a new circle over here!” On our best day, we once built up from an initial 3 to eventually 11 circles all going at once. The entire lawn in front of the cafeteria (now the student union) was a bubbling ferment of ideas and passion and involvement.
Speak-out circles were most effective when something particularly controversial had just occurred (usually by us) and people were already buzzing, but they could be used at any time. More students were moved to support the strike from their participation in the ferment of those circles than from our typical we-speak-you-listen rallies. And organizers used them to spot potential activists for longer conversations, personal invitations to committee meetings, and so on.
Big Post-Its Campaign. Today we can buy pads of easel- size Post-Its made from newsprint paper. They’re used at meetings where ideas are written down large and stuck up on the walls. Instead of a typical noon protest rally, how about bringing out some big Post-It pads and a bucket of Sharpies and ask people to write down their own ideas on the issues and post them up on the walls and glass of nearby buildings. Have cadre prepared to start it off with some well thought out provocative statements and be the first to post them up. Be sure to date each statement, photograph them, and put them up on the internet to share with other schools (that way they won’t be lost if the administration orders them torn down).
Use rolls of Blue Tape to reinforce the paper’s sticky back so that the Post-Its stay up even on concrete walls (brick walls usually won’t work even with tape). Using Blue Tape is important because it’s designed to not damage underlying surfaces. Our core message is that the power-elites are trying to destroy public higher-education and we don’t want to make it easy for them to divert the discussion by accusing us of vandalizing school buildings.
(For those of you with an interest in ancient history, look up “Big Character Posters” which were powerfully used in the Chinese Democracy Movement of the mid-1970s until the government suppressed them.)
We used to say “If you don’t like the history they’re teaching you, go out and make some of your own.” If these ideas from an old geezer find no favor in your eyes, create some of your own, because we all need to start thinking out of the box.