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The Activist's Handbook

The Activist's Handbook: A Primer for the 1990s and Beyond by Randy Shaw. 299 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. $ 17.95 paper.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

— Frederick Douglass

Like so many other classic lines, Douglass' words are often quoted but rarely appreciated in full. If you want progress, says Douglass, then be prepared to struggle. If you don't want to struggle, then you cannot really say you want progress — at least, not at the cost the real world incurs. With these words, Douglass puts the concerned citizen on notice — this is the price you must pay. Speak not of your desire for progress until you read and accept the price tag attached. If you don't like what the price tag says, then you must wait for a sale — and in the real world, Blue Light Specials on social change rarely, if ever, occur.

Activists frequently need to be reminded of the costs that effective social action requires. Randy Shaw, Director and Supervising Attorney for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, attempts such a reminder in his new book The Activist's Handbook: A Primer for the 1990s and Beyond. While his book offers helpful advice for the activist on many topics, his central theme sounds a very Douglass-like note — activists must do what is necessary to accomplish their goals, or else they should move on and do something else. Activists who do not want do this are not serious about their professed goals. They want social change on the cheap.

Many critics of social movements have made the same point in different situations. Perhaps the most single-minded of these was Saul Alinksy. In his classic Rules for Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971), Alinsky wrote,

The basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is. We must work with it on its terms if we are to change it to the kind of world we would like it to be. We must first see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. (p. 12)

For Alinsky, this meant figuring out what was necessary to accomplish a goal, and then doing it, no matter how difficult, distasteful, "immoral," or downright annoying this turns out to be. He had little patience with any notions of morality which might prevent people from doing what it took to achieve peace, justice, and radical democracy. "He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience," Alinsky concluded, "has a peculiar conception of 'personal salvation;' he doesn't care enough for people to be 'corrupted' for them" (p. 25).

While Alinsky wrote for the community organizer, Shaw provides advice for the activist in general. He emphasizes the need for "tactical activism," or planning oriented towards achieving progressive goals (unfortunately, Shaw repeatedly uses the corporate buzzword "proactive" to describe this sort of planning). He explores a wide variety of topics relevant to this sort of planning, including coalition work, the media, the relationship between lawyers and activists, and direct action.

Shaw provides frequent examples to support his arguments, mostly from his own experience in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood (Unfortunately, I have no direct experience with activism in the Bay area, and so must take the stories he tells about the activist scene there on faith). He tells heartening tales about limiting rent increases, getting heat and hot water for tenants in winter months, and getting the Tenderloin recognized as a neighborhood to protect it from infestation by developers. Occasionally, he discusses larger struggles, such as the disability rights movement's successful campaign against the Carter administration, a campaign that included the longest occupation of a federal building in U.S. History. And throughout the entire work, he echoes Alinsky and Douglass — activists must be ready to do what it takes to win, or else find something else to do with their time.

Unfortunately, sayings like "do what it takes" are usually associated with images of bomb-throwing, gun-toting anarchists, grimly carrying out their acts of terrorism and assassination "for the good of the cause." But before this image either puts you off or turns you on, I should emphasize that Shaw, like Alinsky before him, has much more mundane tactics in mind. Indeed, Shaw would have written a much different book if activists routinely took small steps to maximize the chance their work on behalf of social change succeeded. Unfortunately, many activists who profess a great willingness to fight, kill, and die for their ideals are unwilling to wear a clean shirt — maybe even a tie — when speaking to the TV cameras about those same ideals. But in Shaw's time, as in Alinsky's, activism often accomplishes more personal gratification for activists than meaningful social change, and so the need for someone to hammer home the urgency of doing what it takes to win — in small things as in large — remains just as strong as ever.

For example, Shaw speaks of Proposition H, a successful 1992 ballot initiative in San Francisco to limit rent increases — the first such initiative to pass in the city's history. The campaigners for the proposition employed many tactics, including a concerted effort to associate their opponents with the Republican Party and (at least by default) the proposition itself with the Democrats. Shaw argues that this move clearly benefited Proposition H; Republicans Governor Pete Wilson and President George Bush were both quite unpopular in San Francisco, while then-candidate Bill Clinton was (then as now) better liked than he deserved. Many activists with a healthy dislike for the Democratic Party would balk at such a tactic, but Shaw notes that "the actual political orientation of the Democratic Party…is separate from the tactical question of whether identifying with it will facilitate progressive social change" (pp. 139-140). Activists with a (perfectly justifiable) fear of being sucked into that swamp which is the American two-party system had best make sure that their opposition remains tactically motivated, rather than an effort to remain "pure."

At times, though, even Shaw himself seems to balk at the implications of tactical activism. He considers, for example, the appropriateness of ACT UP's decision to confront one of Roman Catholicism's finest gifts to homophobia and misogyny, New York City's Cardinal O'Connor. In 1989, ACT UP disrupted a mass led by O'Connor, forcing him to abandon his spiel. Overwhelmingly, the media response was negative. O'Connor was portrayed as the innocent victim of a bunch of "radical fags." The fact that O'Connor was a powerful political voice, who used his influence to fight sex education and condom distribution, never arose. Moreover, ACT UP knew that the media would respond in this way, that a backlash might result, and that O'Connor would not budge an inch from his bigoted position. From the standpoint of tactical activism, these are all strong reasons for leaving the good Cardinal alone.

In the end, Shaw declares the ACT UP demonstration to have been necessary for one simple reason — the anger and rage that so many of its members felt towards O'Connor had to go somewhere. "Activists," he concludes, "must sometimes use tactics that may not produce direct results but that are necessary for organizational growth, morale, and development" (p. 224). Shaw is probably right. But this explanation presumes that most of the people involved with ACT UP were not thinking tactically; if they had been, they would have recognized that their rage should be channeled into directions more likely to advance their positions. A group of tactical activists — as, presumably, any group of hard-core activists (like an affinity group) should be — must not allow its anger at injustice to take it in directions that do not remedy that injustice. Shaw shies away from this implication of his approach, yet the logic seems behind it impeccable, and one of the first rules of tactical activism is to see the world as it is, in all its ugliness, in order to change it most effectively.

Not all of Shaw's lessons will be hard for the radical activist to swallow. His chapter on the relationship between activists and elected officials is hard-hitting, refreshing, and immensely entertaining. Shaw advises activists to cultivate a "fear and loathing relationship" with politicians — that is, they should make politicians fear and loathe them. Too often, activists shy away from confronting elected officials with their broken promises and betrayals of their constituencies, out of fear of losing favor with these officials. This approach completely misunderstands the relationship between elected officials and those they "serve." The former do what the latter want, not as a favor, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but out of fear of the power that can be brought to bear against them. Or, to quote Alinsky again, "no one can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation…To attempt to operate on a good-will rather than on a power basis would be to attempt something the world has not yet experienced" (Rules for Radicals, p. 119). The sooner all the reluctant Friends of Bill Clinton in this country realize this, the better.

Randy Shaw has written a book with many lessons for the social activist, not all of them lessons an activist will want to hear. But as struggle begets progress, so does facing reality beget successful efforts to change that reality.