My Syllabus: Activism

For one of the most educated communities in the country I was about to learn just how gullible people can be when they focus only on their bank statements. This is a lesson that has been taught and re-taught over time, particularly with recent elections and political stances.

Several years ago I began writing commentary for the local newspaper and an NPR affiliate as a way to increase my activism and voice. This commentary focused primarily on local politics, and I retained the right to repost on the relatively new platforms of Facebook and Twitter, as well as my blog.

I work for the government to pay the bills, which makes being an outspoken, opinionated activist a risky endeavor given the lack of privacy afforded to public sector workers. Activism must always include risk – and recruiting activists to your cause will always mean inviting them to take a risk. I think it is important to be upfront about this fact, not to scare, but to open eyes to mitigation tactics. Let me use two separate actions I have been involved in to illustrate.

Early on as a commentator I’d become involved in a campaign supporting a library levy. I was asked to help with the social media campaign. The broader community I live in is considered one of the country’s most educated, yet it has a definite right-leaning bent to it. I was aware of an active group of fanatical anti-tax, anti-public-resources folks who would likely run a counter campaign based on their previous activities. I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time.

No lie was off-limits to this opposition organization. For those of us who disagreed with them, and called them out for the lies, we became the target of their attacks as much as the library levy itself had been. The anti-library group saw my fact-checking as a threat, and began making targeted Freedom of Information Act requests to my workplace in an attempt to prove I had been using work time to campaign for the library levy. Had this been true, it is against the law, and could’ve gotten me fired. In other words, my seemingly innocuous support of a public library was met with a form of violence against myself and family – the attempt against my very livelihood.

While legal, I argue (somewhat hyperbolically) that their actions were similar to the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of the McCarthy-era. A period leading to thousands of Americans blacklisted from employment, in some cases imprisoned.  By specifically targeting those of us who held public sector positions this group was attempting to cause a “chilling effect.”  Were our workplaces directly tied to the levy campaign this might be more understandable – such as if my position would be improved by passing the levy – that was not the case. This took place with the rise of the Tea Party, and this anti-library group affiliated with them, considering themselves defenders of the constitution while walking all over the 1st Amendment rights of myself and my comrades.

Hyperbole in this new Trumpian-era though, requires scrutiny. Under this new regime, activists such as myself may face even greater risks than those of the McCarthy era. For clarification, this took place several years ago when I was by the anti-library-activists and the lesson isn’t the method of attack – it was that I was surprised by it. Activists need to understand what forms violence can take, what creates tension, and how to apply both. This is crucial to also understanding how it may be used against you.

In the end as alluded to in the beginning; the library levy failed. Not until two years ago did legislation pass to make improvements – improvements that would have been less expensive and more complete had they passed during that first campaign.

Risk is more obvious when attending a march, wherein the police who work for the ownership class are empowered to trample dissent, literally and figuratively. The point I’m making about risk is that it may be impossible to know when some small act (like posting campaign literature online) can create a significant impact – positive or negative – on either the issue or the activist.

Another story that occurred much more recently will provide a different perspective of this same phenomenon.

At the end of the 2016 session of the Ohio legislature, the republican majority passed several pet-project bills that threaten our liberties, including attacks against labor organizing, removing concealed weapon controls, and two bills that unconstitutionally restrict a woman’s access to abortions. Every one demanded action to try and get the bills vetoed; but on the heels of our legislatures’ attempts to defund Planned Parenthood – a primary source of health care and pregnancy prevention for women – I focused on those two bills specifically.

A broad cross section of my comrades and I made calls, repeatedly, to republican Gov. Kasich asking him to veto them. With each passing day that Kasich was unresponsive we were losing hope. This wasn’t just a matter of whether he vetoed or signed the bills into law, it was also a matter that if he took no action in two weeks, they would become law automatically.

After a week of silence from the Kasich camp a simple idea came to me to place wire hangers along the fencing that separates the Ohio Statehouse from the Rife Tower, where Kasich works. Wire hangers serving as the long-held visual symbol of gruesome options women without access to safe and legal abortions have turned to. One post to Facebook about the idea grew into an event page which grew into hundreds and hundreds of wire hangers adorned with messages and red ribbons lining the fencing along three of the four city blocks surrounding the Statehouse.

National media coverage followed the local coverage including outreach from the NY Times, NY Magazine, and Think Progress.

So why’d the coat-hanger protest bring out so much support?

It was easy – people were invited to come down and put up their hangers at their own time and pace. Most of us have a few old wire hangers in the closet already. For the socially inclined, another activist organized a meetup and then yet another setup a protest march. People not able to come down to the Statehouse posted the postal address and links to buying wire hangers in bulk to ship directly to the Governor’s office.

Thankfully Kasich opted to veto the infamous “Heartbeat Bill” that would have virtually ended abortion rights in Ohio; however, he did sign in a 20-week ban that is similarly unconstitutional under the current Roe v Wade ruling. This is the spot wherein I remind you that local politics drive national, and not the other way round. With Trump in office and at least one, if not more, Supreme Court appointments in play Roe v Wade could be overturned and local laws banning abortion (among other things) could become the new ruling.

As a State employee I conceptually work for Kasich, but as I see it I work for the people of Ohio, the taxpayers – of which I am one. I take this very seriously, often to my own detriment. Given my outspoken activism I have lost out on various work opportunities over the years that more compliant employees receive. As an activist, I work for equality and liberty and use my privilege as a white male to mitigate some of the associated risk.

I must seriously consider how to mitigate risk.

For public employees specifically, but any activist, you protect your employment as best as possible by being a diligent and competent worker. Where possible, such as in my case, you join a labor union. If necessary, you organize a union. All activism and organizing takes place off-the-clock, and without the use of your employer’s resources. Never forget that the bedrock of capitalism is inequality, division, and exploitation. Until we replace this economic structure we must protect ourselves from it.

This is where I advocate for anyone reading this to join the Industrial Workers of the World. The only union radically engaged in defeating capitalism, fascism, and societal inequity.

Unfortunately, too many people shy away from person-to-person, face-to-face, or in-the-streets activism. The risk feels too big, the cost of taking time, of making picket signs, or just showing up feels too high while the ease of push-button-protest feels like enough.

In a recent interview with The Sun magazine, titled “It’s Easier Than We Think”, retired politician and activist Ralph Nader gave a critique of American activism. He explained why serious social issues often failed to overcome special interest and corporate lobbyists.

“It all comes down to us. One percent or less of the population in Congressional districts around the country could reverse Congress’s position on most of these issues, as long as that 1 percent represents majority public opinion.” Nader said. “Activists usually hold mass rallies against war or climate change in Washington, D.C., on a weekend, when members of Congress aren’t there. All this energy that it takes to put together a rally sort of goes up into the ether. The event doesn’t get that much coverage either, because there are not as many reporters working on the weekend. The activists don’t take up a collection at the rally and raise money to open an office with four full-time employees. With two hundred thousand people, you can quickly raise enough to pay four people’s salaries for a year. Then, when the members of Congress came back on a weekday, they would find more than just a bunch of crushed cups and soda cans on the Mall. They would find four full-time advocates who are connected with a lot more people.

“We have to be smarter in the way we lobby … Don’t just hope that the government will hear you. Summon the senators and representatives to your town meetings. We are the sovereign people, and we have to make our hired hands in Congress come to our events and do their homework on the issues … Why don’t more people do that? It’s so much fun to make these politicians squirm.” Nader finished.

Squirming – the feeling of tension – without this discomfort nothing changes. Risk causes discomfort as well, so that risk mitigation is expressly making your activism comfortable in order to make the target of your activism uncomfortable.

Minneapolis based musician POS frequently speaks out on leftist politics. A recurring theme is about increasing the tension. Tension is the key. This isn’t the difference between peaceful protest and violent protest, this is about making it clear that there is something to be lost and something to be gained.

In new-speak-corporate-ese this would be skin-in-the-game-buy-in. What is needed in these times are accomplices, not allies. The Indigenous Action organization expressed this best in their manifesto on the topic by stating that, “As accomplices we are compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other, that is the nature of trust.”

This is what the anti-library activists got right in the personal attacks against me and my comrades. They were willing to increase tension and to force our attention to be divided. Ultimately forcing me to decide whether I’m going to step up as an accomplice, or step back as an ally sitting on the sidelines. I’m all in. As the IWW motto states – Direct action gets the goods.

Below is my complimentary syllabus of further reading associated with this video, please consider supporting your local indie book store or radical infoshop where possible. If you’re using Amazon as your source for some of these materials, please consider using the Amazon Smile feature to donate a portion of your purchase to a pro-worker, pro-education, and pro-equal rights organization. Finally, I would recommend using a Google search or similar on all of these pieces as they’ll turn of innumerable critical essays worth reading for even further context – something my brief videos can only scratch the surface of. My books and more of my writing can be found via

Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race podcast:

Angela Davis:

Billy Wimsat:

Bookspace Columbus:

Indigenous Action Media:

Industrial Workers of the World:


Randy Shaw The Activist Handbook:

Spore Infoshop:

Staughton Lynd:

The Clash:

The Sun Magazine: