6. THIRTEEN TYPES OF ACTIVISM
The following are the standard types or methods of modern activism:
1. Volunteer: Volunteer on your own or with interested groups to assist
disadvantaged and underprivileged people, and threatened species and habitats.
In an international context, volunteer to work in refugee camps, at local schools
and medical care clinics, or for some other NGO (non-governmental organization).
There is a huge network of volunteer organizations around the world, and once
you are part of it, once you start volunteering, it is easy to find new and fascinating
2. Grassroots activism: Found or join community, student or other groups
and then engage in tabling, where you set up a table at some social
event and hand out literature and talk about your cause. In addition, such events
are often supplemented with, or designed around, activist speakers and performances
and exhibitions by activist artists.
The objective of grassroots activism is to increase the publicity of, and most
importantly the support for, your cause. You particularly want to engage the interest
and if possible the involvement of members of the different groups that are being
negatively affected. Your goal is to organize them, to pull them out of their
complacency and defeatism, and to assist them in their opposition.
For activism to be effective, we must organize large-scale movements to express
discontent and to demand change, movements of such a size that they cannot be
ignored. But to do this, we will have to find ways to unify the disparate sources
of rebellion that exist, including environmentalists, workers, students, ethnic
and indigenous rights activists, religious groups, and even the disaffected individuals
who listen to gangsta rap and hard core rock. Further, we must solicit the concern
of those individuals who one day will suffer the most, if we are unable to solve
our problems: schoolchildren. (They must be recruited as well, to help protect
the world they are destined to inherit.)
Activists also must recognize that only one thing, historically, has led to large-scale
rebellion: the deaths of a great number of people. Rebellion has never been instigated
by the destruction of nature (although the taking of land has been a contributing
factor in some popular movements). This is a reflection of human chauvinism, that
we only get upset when bad things happen to us. For example, this is one of the
reasons why the debate over genetic engineering is finally starting to gain some
prominence: it involves a threat to people. (The history of the twentieth century
included a number of significant victories against government repression, but
far fewer against environmental destruction.)
Lastly, there is the problem that activism is usually reactive. We assume,
because we are ethical, that other people are as well; that they have a conscience
and are not wholly dominated by personal selfishness. Then, when they demonstrate
that they are so dominated, we have to react. To be effective we must build large-scale
movements, and we must anticipate this: we must be proactive, and unpredictable.
3. Letter writing and petitions: Send letters and petitions to the heads
of the organizations which are the target of your activism, and also to your elected
representatives in Congress, the heads of appropriate government departments and
agencies, and the White House. You can also organize email campaigns, but these
are considered to be less effective. Bulk emails are regarded as spam, as something
that can be ignored, but letters almost always generate a response. Indeed, such
responses are regularly well thought out, even though the signature will almost
always be stamped. (The point is, you have attracted the attention of someone
at the organization: someone has been compelled to respond to your argument.)
4. Direct lobbying: Lobby local government officials and, if you can arrange
it, take a trip to Washington, D.C. Doing this reveals the real (or at least the
remaining) power of a democracy. You can simply walk into the Senate or House
office buildings, and request meetings, on the spot, with your senators and congresspeople.
Of course, you will probably end up meeting with their legislative or policy aides,
but these are the people who create the documents, and originate the policies,
that the elected officials sign off on anyway. Inform the aides of your concerns,
and ask them to support your positions. (And, if they will not, ask them in strong,
direct and well-reasoned terms, why not!)
Anyone can do this. You should not worry about being out of place. This is your
right they have to listen to you thats what a representative
democracy is all about. This type of lobbying is easy, and its fun! (And
for too long it has been the province only of institutional special interests,
mostly corporate interests, seeking to make their arguments on the inside.
Activists need to counter this: we need to be on the inside, too.)
If you are unable to make such a trip, then just use the phone. Call up your representatives,
and others as well. If you identify yourself as a member of an activist group,
the chances are good that one of the aides will take your call. (If they do not,
or if they are out, then leave a message.)
5. Litigation: This is a straightforward tactic, albeit one that is usually
used only when other methods fail. With the assistance of sympathetic attorneys,
and legal-aid groups, who will often work free there are some good lawyers!
the law is enforced against the institutions. Lawsuits are filed against
institutions and their executives, and sometimes, a few times at least, justice
Indeed, precedents have been set of companies being held liable in domestic courts
for their international actions, particularly their actions in foreign autocracies
where there is no legal recourse. For instance, Unocal was sued in U.S. courts
over its actions in Burma (it settled out of court). This trend is closing one
of the most important loopholes for transnational corporations. (This is similar
to the closing of the loophole for dictators, as evidenced by Spains extradition
request for the Chilean dictator Pinochet. Because of this development, the dictators
of the world, and their co-conspirators, are falling into a trap. They cannot
leave home, for fear of imprisonment. And, when their nations achieve democracy,
they will be subject to imprisonment there as well. One can even foresee the day
when corporate executives not just their companies will themselves
be held responsible for the crimes against humanity which such regimes commit.)
A similar prospective use of litigation is against advertising. Advertising is
predatory, culpable abuse, and this has already been demonstrated, in a number
of courts, with the tobacco industry, which is finally being forced to pay the
enormous social costs of its brainwashing. It is now up to us, as activists, to
extend this precedent to all of the sources of advertising that use the techniques
of behavioral manipulation. The question is: where should we begin?
The obvious starting point is with the advertisers that brainwash children, and
there are many example of this: of weekend morning television programming; predatory
websites; the corporations that advertise in schools; and the makers of violent
films and computer games. (The Federal Trade Commission has revealed that the
last set of companies intentionally targeted their advertisements at children,
even though the children were not of sufficient age to be allowed to view the
films or buy the games.)
These companies must be forced to stop their practices, and to pay compensation
for what they have already done. And, this culpability must extend to the broadcasters
and publishers of the ads, and to their creators as well (including the actors
The victory with the tobacco industry was decisive. Given the awards that have
been granted, it has spread fear throughout the entire advertising industry. But
it is only a first step, in bringing the industry to account and forcing it to
Unfortunately, there is one other issue with litigation that must be mentioned,
which is its regular use by institutions against activists. Litigation
is used aggressively and immediately to shut down activist efforts. Institutions
do not have to worry about hiring external counsel: they already have their own
lawyers, in-house. As an example of current trends, corporations now make extensive
use of SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, to prevent
public activism, and undermine our democracy.
6. Consumer boycotts: For a company that is engaged in unethical activities,
organize a boycott of its products and services. This is one of the strongest
tactics that we have, and it is risk free. You cannot be forced to buy such a
Planning a boycott is conceptually simple: your goal is to organize as wide a
coalition as possible, so you can generate thousands of complaints to the offending
company. You should contact all groups that have a reason to censure the company,
including reasons other than your own. Following such a recruitment effort, the
standard practice is to arrange a conference call with representatives from the
various groups. For example, the strategy of the Free Burma Coalition (now reconstituted
as the United States Campaign for Burma), which conducted dozens of successful
boycotts against companies doing business in Burma, was as follows:
- The lead group sends a letter to the top executives of the company, describing
their grievances and announcing the boycott, accompanied by a cease and desist
- If the company fails to respond, or responds in an unacceptable manner, an action
alert is emailed to all the members of all the groups participating in the
boycott coalition (and posted to other email lists and websites as well), requesting
that they email the company. A sample complaint letter is provided.
- If the company still does not respond, this is followed with a call-in action,
a day when everyone is asked to telephone the company (using its toll free numbers),
including its head office, branch locations and stores.
- Lastly, demonstrations are organized at high-profile company facilities and
events. (For additional information on demos, see section 10 below.)
As the Burma campaign illustrated, there are few companies that can resist such
7. Selective purchasing ordinances: Through some organization that has
great purchasing power, such as your university or municipality (town, city or
state), work to enact a law that forbids the organization from doing business
with any company, or companies, to which you are opposed. For instance, these
ordinances, when enacted in the 1980s against companies doing business in South
Africa, were instrumental in bringing about the end of apartheid.
They have also had a strong impact for democracy activism in Burma, forcing some
companies to stop supporting the dictatorship, and leading others to forego commercial
relationships with it. However, such ordinances were challenged by a business
trade group, the National Foreign Trade Council. (We saw that corporations exhibit
great unity against activists, and also that they readily engage in litigation!)
The NFTC argued that the Burma ordinances (specifically, Massachusetts Burma
purchasing law) constituted foreign policy, and that only the federal government,
which in the present day is beholden to business (i.e., elected officials are
beholden, for their campaign funding), has the right to create and enforce such
In the summer of 1999, a U.S. Appellate Court accepted their argument, and this
is proof that our social checks no longer work. It says that no group of individuals,
at least under the auspices of any governmental organization, at any level other
than national, can organize to follow an ethical imperative regarding the behavior
of any other country. This is an issue of great importance: these corporations
want to take away our right of freedom of association regarding a crucial area
of our existence, how we express our ethics through what we buy. In one action,
they are attempting to restrict greatly the limits of human freedom.
The Massachusetts Attorney General appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which
agreed to hear it. (The Court hears less than five percent of the cases submitted
for its review.) The request for the appeal was accompanied by a grassroots campaign,
which solicited the support of a large number of congressional representatives
and dozens of activist organizations.
In June 2000, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Burma purchasing ordinance
in the State of Massachusetts was unconstitutional. The state had enacted a law
that effectively precluded companies that do business in Burma from winning state
contracts. The law was intended to take an ethical stance: if your company
supports the military dictatorship in Burma, which engages in widespread repression,
slave labor and murder, we do not want to do business with you.
The Supreme Court overturned the law. It viewed the case as an issue between states
rights and federal government rights, over who can set foreign policy. It ignored
the issue of individual rights, the Constitutions Bill of Rights,
including the right to speak out against unethical government purchasing, and
also to have ones elected representatives do so as well.
Strictly speaking, the Massachusetts law was rejected because it was in conflict
with the United States own sanctions against Burma (if you believe the rationale
presented by the Court). The U.S. was not speaking with one voice. However,
the story is more complex than this. The Massachusetts law was enacted before
the federal government imposed sanctions, and further: it had teeth. The sanctions
(passed in 1997) were much weaker. They were designed to suit corporate interests,
particularly those of Unocal, the American oil company that has a large investment
in Burma, since they (and other companies) were not required to divest their current
operations, only not to engage in new projects.
The Massachusetts law was principled. The government sanctions were crafted to
give the appearance of being principled.
The ruling, although seemingly narrow, had a broad impact. It undercut all government
procurement ordinances that had a specific ethical motivation, such as to forbid
the purchasing of goods made using child or sweatshop labor, or products made
from rainforest hardwoods. Had the ruling been issued in the 1980s, it would have
invalidated the aforementioned selective purchasing ordinances that helped bring
about the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Courts normally punish unethical behavior. It is rare indeed that they reject
the desire and restrict the ability of individuals, and local governments, to
The NFTC was triumphant. They called the ruling a victory for the U.S.
Constitution. They received vindication from the nations highest
court of the ethical standard that underlies corporate behavior, which is:
if we dont do it, someone else will. Corporate executives and spokespeople
say, if we dont exploit the oil and fund the dictatorship, someone else
will. If we dont use child or slave labor, someone else will. If we dont
destroy the environment for profit, someone else will. And if we dont brainwash
the general public, someone else will.
The Supreme Court is mistaken, though, in its belief that it had the final say.
You cannot legislate, including via judicial interpretation, against human will
and reason. When a nation does it, it is called dictatorship. And for the Court,
its decision inevitably created resistance. The people of Massachusetts, through
their representatives, made a decision to behave ethically in a very specific
way. The Supreme Court cannot force them to do otherwise: to behave unethically.
If it attempts to do so, it is being autocratic, and the people will find
other ways to fulfill their decision to do right. The positive motivation of life
is a greater force than any such efforts to contain it. (One can recall the fate
of prior Court rulings, for slavery and segregation.)
In July 2003, the United States passed a new law, the Burma Freedom and Democracy
Act, which prohibits the importation of goods from Burma. The consequences of
this law are that, excepting the few companies that remain able to do business
in Burma under the grandfather clause in the first Burma bill (largely oil companies,
including Unocal, Halliburton and Caltex), the country is now off limits to both
U.S. industry and importers.
Also, selective purchasing ordinances are not dead. New laws are being written
which conform to the Supreme Courts ruling, and which preserve the publics
fundamental rights of freedom of association and expression, including through
what we buy.
8. Ethical investing: In a manner akin to selective purchasing ordinances,
if you are part of an organization that has an investment portfolio, such as a
pension plan or university endowment, try to get investment guidelines implemented
that forbid the purchase of the stocks and bonds of unethical companies. (These
are known as negative screens. There are also positive screens, where
investors identify ethical companies for support.) The types of guidelines that
have been implemented so far preclude investments in companies which:
- conduct business with dictatorships and other repressive regimes
- destroy the environment
- manufacture weapons
- produce tobacco and alcohol products
- own casinos
- practice discrimination
- source goods from sweatshop factories
- produce violent media
One expects that these guidelines will someday also be extended to all of the
purveyors of mass consumerism, those companies that seek the McDomination
of the world, particularly to the firms that strive to brainwash children.
9. Economic sanctions: Following through on the lobbying point above, in
the case of nations that actively repress their citizens, encourage the U.S. government
to impose economic sanctions against them. There are different types of sanctions,
including the prohibition of investment in such nations, both of new investment
and also retroactive bans, where companies which currently are active are required
to suspend or divest their operations (activists would now like to see the U.S.
enact a retroactive ban against Burma); and also such things as bans on arms sales
and other forms of military assistance, the importation of goods from the country
(e.g., the new Burma law), etc.
10. Demonstrate: This is the core expression of activism, where you protest
against companies and other organizations (or groups) that are engaged in unethical
activities. There are many different types of demos, and they normally take place
at organization offices or other facilities. Demos include marches, strikes, sit-ins,
sleep-ins, teach-ins, street theater (such as anti-nuclear die-ins), and, in extremely
serious circumstances, e.g., to protest murder, hunger strikes. (Gandhi did it,
and the Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and animal rights activist
Barry Horne, among many others; so can you.)
There are even virtual sit-ins now, where large groups of people access, at one
time, the computer servers of obnoxious websites (as of unethical corporations),
causing them to crash.
A further distinction can be drawn regarding the purpose of the demonstrations.
In most cases it is to protest, but in others it is to shut down.
Marches in Washington, D.C. are generally the former; demonstrations at meetings
of the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are regularly the
Another important issue with demos is that they should not be wholly negative.
Criticism is not the only point. You want to encourage the organization and its
employees to change, to stop what they are doing. And, when you do this, the use
of reason, rather than emotion, is usually much more successful.
It is worth remembering that change cannot be imposed from without. It requires
movement within the target organization as well. You want to encourage reform,
to encourage the institution to develop a culture of ethics. For example, every
organization should have not only a mission statement, as in we
want to make a lot of money, but also a code of acceptable behavior,
which states: but in this effort we will not engage in the following
This code should enumerate all of the publics and environments that are affected
by the institution, and it should be updated periodically. And, it should be distributed
to every employee and also to all such publics. Furthermore, this code should
be enforced by a senior management compliance officer, who reports directly to
the institutions Board of Directors.
11. Civil disobedience, monkey wrenching, and other direct
action: For the more hard-core, the more committed, among you. This
is where activists directly intervene in a situation and attempt to halt destruction
on the spot. Examples include:
- Blockading the construction of new roads in roadless areas, pulling out survey
stakes, and disabling bulldozers being used to build such roads, or new pipelines,
- Locking down across roads to exploitative facilities, or across railroad
tracks or to ships, to stop unethical shipments.
- Reclaiming the streets in town centers, to protest unwarranted development and
the resultant degradation of our quality of life.
- Sitting in trees, to prevent them from being cut down.
- Hanging banners from institutional facilities, denouncing the institutions
- Pieing institutional leaders, for the same purpose.
- Product dumping, at organization offices and outlets, to protest unethical trade
and commercial practices.
- Redesigning billboards, so they present a more accurate message, an education
rather than brainwashing. (This is called subvertising.)
- Tearing up fields of genetically engineered crops.
- Hacking unethical websites.
- Cutting fishing long-lines and driftnets, which vacuum the sea.
- Liberating animals, saving them from torture and slaughter.
You should expect to be arrested (or at least pursued) if you do something like
this, and it is essential that you find out what this is likely to entail before
you engage in the action. The application of the law varies widely. In many cases
you will be let off, or only required to pay a small fine, but in other, repressive,
jurisdictions, you could be subjected to a lengthy jail sentence.
Also, please understand that I am not giving a blanket approval of direct action,
which can range from trespass and simple vandalism through to the extensive destruction
of property, and which in many cases is unjustifiable (e.g., Black Bloc
vandalism at institutional meeting protests). However, direct action is used legitimately
and with effect in many struggles around the world. For example, villagers in
rural areas regularly protest unwanted developments by destroying the equipment
and vehicles of the developers, of such things as garbage dumps, polluting mines,
and dams. It happens, and the villagers, who often number in the thousands, feel
completely justified in their actions. To them, it is a matter of self-defense.
Furthermore, sometimes a threat is enough. For instance, in the far north of Thailand,
powerful businessmen with government connections (Thailand is an extremely
corrupt society), planned to move power plant equipment across the border to a
Burmese town that is controlled by drug lords. The equipment was to be used to
build a generating plant that would have been fueled with dirty coal. The plant
would have spread severe air pollution throughout the region (and provided electricity
for narcotics factories). A large group of local Thai villagers rallied and prevented
the convoy of trucks carrying the equipment from crossing into Burma, with the
threat that if the convoy tried they would destroy the trucks. There was a standstill
that lasted weeks but the threat worked. The trucks withdrew and the power plant
was never built.
Direct action is a dramatic event, and it reflects a deep issue underlying our
society: who has the power, and when does this change. Power lies with the people,
with the general public. In a political dictatorship, then, where some group has
grabbed power, the people have the right to rise up against them, including through
the tactics of direct action and perhaps even armed rebellion, if the dictators
are waging war against them. (In Burma, numerous groups are fighting the military
junta that rules the country.)
In a representative democracy, though, the people transfer their power to government
officials through a vote. But this is not the end of the story. A contract is
created. The officials have a fiduciary responsibility, a legal obligation,
to serve in the best interests of the public. Problems arise when the officials
break this obligation, e.g., when they take bribes from companies that intend
to exploit the people in some way. If there is not an effective recourse, if the
judicial system is biased or corrupt as well, if the people have effectively been
sold out, then they have the right to reclaim their power. (The preferred
choice of course is that the government officials not be corrupt.)
This also reflects another issue with democracy. Even without the element of corruption,
in any society there are likely to be competing groups and interests. In an issue
over which there is a conflict, and that affects numerous levels of society, such
as a local community, a region and the entire nation, whose voice should decide?
For example, with a proposed dam the local community that would be affected by
it would almost certainly be opposed to it. But the region could desire it for
the water it would provide, and the nation for the electricity that would be produced.
(Of course, environmentalists at all levels would likely oppose the project.)
So, what course should be taken? As a principle, those people who are most affected
by the decision should have the final say. (In many cases this would be the smallest
group.) Otherwise, such democracy is actually a form of dictatorship. In this
example, then, unless the local communitys interests are fully satisfied
and their concerns fully addressed, they should be able to veto the dam, or, if
this option is not given to them, to act in such a way that they prevent its construction.
(For further perspectives on the ethics and consequences of such tactics, see
the Activist Ethics and Activism and the Law chapters.)
12. Agitate: If in your travels you visit peoples cultures
that are being exploited, you should encourage them to defend themselves.
13. Make a career of your activism: Seek employment in an activist or volunteer
group. Get a job with an NGO (or start your own), which is a new type of social
institution, of recent evolution, which seeks to function as a new social check,
and also to provide services to those groups that have been ignored, which are
not deemed important enough by the powers that be. A specific area that still
needs a lot of work, and therefore where there should be a lot of growth and opportunity
in the future, is in the international coordination of activism, to offset international
© Roland O. Watson 2005