When young Just Stop Oil activists threw tomato soup at a glass-protected Van Gogh painting at the National Gallery in London earlier this month, they sparked a thousand debates over whether their tactics were productive or not. While some rhetoric is more effective than others, this is entirely irrelevant. Many of these tactical discussions were not coming from other climate activists, but rather from other actors.
Welcome to the bad faith argument, a waved red herring to distract us from the stench of the critic’s thinly veiled agenda.
They have many faces and take many forms. Their motto: “not like that”. You may hear this used in a sentence like “Younger generations need to take over, but not like this” or “I support Black Lives Matter, don’t get me wrong, but vandalism?” Not like this.” They rarely offer workable alternatives to what activists might do, and when they do, another bad-faith actor steps in to take their place.
During the pre-pandemic iteration of BLM, activists in Hartford blocked roads. People who had never expressed concern about congested roads interfering with emergency vehicles were suddenly upset that ambulances couldn’t get through. When the movement entered the mainstream in 2020, occasional property damage was used as a form of expression. Once again activists were told this was not the right path.
What about those who want to improve to access? After the death of a cyclist, Chicago street safety advocates acted as crossing guards, using the street legally and preventing motorists from running red lights. For their efforts, they had bottles thrown at them. Another time, the police turned off the marching signal. They were told that their efforts were useless.
Whenever children protest anything – inaction on the climate crisis, gun violence, oppression of transgender students – by leaving school, they are told they did something wrong. , that they should be in school and that there are better ways to make their opinions known.
The eternal suggestion? To write letters. Write opinion pieces.
I love to write, of course.
But is this the answer?
Recently, I was told to “shut up” and “do something”.
In this particular case, I asked the spokesperson what exactly he would propose. You can still hear the crickets.
Allison, a seminary student from Manchester, also experienced mixed messages about using her voice as a type of nonviolent action. When Wayzaro Walton of Hartford was threatened with deportation, Allison wrote a polite letter to the acting director of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office asking for a show of compassion. She and others received no response, and calls to this manager’s office were blocked or redirected. So she sent a letter to the director’s home address. These days, it takes seconds to learn, via Google, where almost everyone lives.
This letter contained no harsh language. That didn’t stop Homeland Security from coming to Allison’s home and questioning her. Several others involved in this letter-writing campaign, but not all, received house calls from the Department of Homeland Security. In Connecticut, people simply using words have been silenced by those in power.
If using your words isn’t the way to make a difference, then what is? Some would suggest that you use the political process. To testify publicly, your choice is often to submit a letter or find time in the middle of a work day, which can be made trickier once you start factoring in travel time and custody of children. Virtual hearings expand who can participate in democracy, but they are newer and in some cases have been phased out. When residents asked for better accommodations, whether it was on-site childcare or Zoom meetings, they were met with the coldness of another version of “not like this”: we always did things any other way and you’re not even reasonable to think of asking.
What if you were even more immersed in the democratic process? Josh Michtom, a Hartford councilman, said majority members of council berated him for “not being polite enough to the police chief during a budget hearing.” Tone police jokes write themselves.
As they say, “direct action gets the goods,” and that’s what gets lost in all the fuss about which tactics have the most impact. And although it is possible to argue that correlation is not causation, the methods of protest did not prevent or get closer to the desired results. The Chicago activists who were told protesting was not working, have since seen streets physically redesigned to be safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Hartford woman threatened with deportation had her case dropped. After Phoebe Plummer splashed soup in the museum, she asked “Are you more concerned about protecting a painting or protecting our planet and people?” It has forced climate laggards to defend themselves. When people dare to make progressive demands in unpopular ways, we see shifts in thought and behavior, and we should be prepared to recognize it, even when our reaction is to roll back someone’s choice of nonviolent action. a.