“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
“We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
Many injustices are invisible to the mainstream. When you bring these wrongs into full view, you change the game, making the need to take action palpable.
Social problems are often obscured by distance, ideology, or simple chemistry (when was the last time you noticed PCBs in your drinking water?). If you can’t see it, you can’t change it: the first task of an activist is often to make the invisible visible.
There are several kinds of “invisibility.” Which one you’re dealing with will shape the approach you take.
Climate chaos might be stranding polar bears in the Arctic or submerging small island nations in the Pacific, but for most people in the global north it’s out of sight, out of mind. Countless artful interventions have sought to make accelerating climate changes more visible, whether by painting anticipated future sea levels on city streets and buildings or mock-drowning a polar bear in the fountain outside the Department of the Interior in D.C., as Greenpeace did in 2009.
People with privilege often have the luxury of putting distance between themselves and the consequences of their actions. When tackling an issue that seems distant, it helps to bring the issue home see PRINCIPLE: Bring the issue home by highlighting the human cost.
People who have the luxury of not seeing an uncomfortable truth often simply won’t, even if it’s in front of their faces. Privileged whites easily ignored the everyday injustices inflicted during the Jim Crow era until blacks organized and took action, sitting in the “wrong” seats in diners and on buses, marching in the streets, and so on.
Injustices made invisible by ideology can be brought to light by judicious reframing see PRINCIPLE: Reframe. A frame defines what is part of the story and, more importantly, what is not. Actions that target the point of assumption (the simple question of who can sit where on a bus, for instance) can focus attention on what was previously “outside the frame.”
Chemistry, and other easily overlooked facts of life
Many pollutants cannot be seen by the naked eye, yet cause great harm. The key is to bring that harm into public view. Consider the makers of the movie Gasland, who lit some Pennsylvania tap water on fire, powerfully refuting years of industry denial with a single powerful visual demonstration. Or the forest activists who filled several city intersections with the stumps of cut-down trees. When Kodak was caught discharging toxins from its manufacturing plant in upstate New York, Greenpeace created a public fountain that brought the effluent from the pipe — normally out of site below the water surface — cascading into public view. These kind of actions are particularly effective when the corporation has worked hard to hide or deny the damage, or simply done it far away from consumers.
The role of the activist often resembles that of the child in the Hans Christian Andersen story: even if everyone knows the emperor has no clothes, saying as much in public can have revolutionary consequences. Exposing previously hidden problems can be the first and most important step in resolving them.