Most activist events, even (especially?) the ones that are supposed to be energising are, imho, demoralising and dis-visioning. Stale repertoires, ritual denunciations that show us – and others – our powerlessness and lack of imagination.Today, while setting the mood and giving information, an activist used a word you don’t hear often – joy.
When I went to activist meetings, I used to invoke the law of two feet (apparently my reputation is as someone who never stayed till the end of a meeting. More rarely did anyone ask why I left). These days I mostly don’t even turn up (this is where The Wife, were she to read this, would say under her breath ‘he’s finally doing what I tell him’).
Most of the things I’ve been to in the last year or three I went to mostly out of anthropological interest, rubbernecking the car-crash that is the smugosphere.
Today was different. Today I went to a ‘Divestment Day’ event in Adelaide. Plenty of people think divestment (and the ‘market forces/your money brings social change’) thing to be problematic, a propping up of the System (‘man’) and a cul-de-sac for radical change. They may well be right, but at this stage, nothing is going to ‘work’, so it’s moot. What is far more interesting is that this event – that could have been dreary and despondifying (that’s not a word, I know, but it should be) – was … not. It could have been the same worthy, angry (I’ve nothing against anger, but it needs to be containerised) and joyless display of moral righteousness that sustains the inner clique, but pushes away the peripherals and actively alienates the onlookers (see this great piece from the Onion).
In the rest of the post I will just outline some of the things that worked particularly well, divided, imaginatively, into beginning, middle and end.
I turned up at the meeting place and was warmly welcomed, offered a t-shirt to wear and able to chat without being overwhelmed by paper-sellers etc. The organisers had sorted out a couple of ‘official welcomers’ but they were not too effusive, and everyone was pitching in too.
The opening introduction was short, not overwrought with detailed explanations of the problems of the world. Crucially – and this should be totally unremarkable of course – there was concern that we get to know each other. Because we were relatively small in number, it was decided that each of us would say our name and a bit of the world we currently felt protective towards/concerned about. The two people who would act as liaison with police/calmers-down if needed were identified (with some useful co-facilitation to get them to stick their hands up). We then did some warm-up singing (when I say ‘we’ I mean everyone else), with enough song-sheets (and some fun reworked lyrics of well-known songs) to be going on with.
The walk to the site of the first (and only) bank was short. Once there the banner was positioned so that photos of it did not take in the internal layout of the bank (the organisers knew this could/would provoke a security response). We kept singing, and there were very basic postcards to hand out to passers-by.
The two people who did the closing of the accounts were cheered and applauded as they came out. Someone did short video interviews with them both, around very basic questions. We sang more.
Now, this was good. Rather than it just petering out, or going on forever, we were gathered together in a circle (I don’ t think anyone had left) and asked to say our names again (more people had turned up) and what we liked most about the event. I said the singing, other people cited the moral support offered to the account-closers, and other things). And then the event was ‘officially’ over, closing on an upbeat note. Again, this use of the ‘peak end effect’ should come as totally standard, and not even be worth writing about. Would that it were so.
Nietzsche and singing
If you look into the abyss, be careful that the abyss does not look into you, said Freddie Nietzsche. I had a brief chat with the lead organiser after the event, and she said that one of the motivations for setting up ‘Rise Up Singing Adelaide’ – a group that designs and performs songs for progressive social change events (esp climate change) – was to overcome/deal with the feelings that thinking about the dark things can unleash. She harked back to the anti-(nuclear) war movement in the 1980s, and the need then (as now) for ‘Despair and Empowerment’ work (think Joanna Macy).
There’s another book that might be of interest – Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, by William McNeill. He posits the term ‘muscular bonding’ to describe how groups feel (and act) better when doing repeated action together. As one of the folks at the event said, this is something indigenous people’s all around the world understand very well.
What happened today is hardly new – singing is of course a major tool in the social movement toolbox (see also Samba). What was heartening was the care shown to integrate new faces, to prepare everyone for what was to be done and – crucially – to do a mini-debrief that focused on the positive. In the mobilising ‘versus’ movement-building, this was sharply towards the latter pole.
I know some people will only have read this far to find out what my ‘big but’ is, why this action was useless, this group hopeless. That’s what I always do, right? Well, sorry to disappoint you, but this wasn’t a disappointing event…