When young activists from Just Stop Oil tossed tomato soup on a glass-protected Van Gogh painting in London’s National Gallery earlier this month they launched a thousand debates on whether or not their tactics were productive. While some rhetoric is more effective than others, that’s entirely beside the point. Many of these tactics discussions were not coming from fellow climate activists, but rather it was from other actors.
Welcome to the bad faith argument, a red herring flailed about to distract us from the stench of the critic’s thinly veiled agenda.
They wear many faces and take many forms. Their motto: “not like that.” You may hear this used in a sentence like “The young generations need to pick up the slack, but not like that” or “I support Black Lives Matter, don’t get me wrong, but vandalism? Not like that.” They rarely offer feasible alternatives for what activists could be doing, and when they do, another bad-faith actor moves in to take their space.
During the pre-pandemic iteration of BLM, activists in Hartford blocked roads. People who had never expressed concern over congested roads interfering with emergency vehicles were suddenly upset that ambulances allegedly could not 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 the wrong way.
What about those who want to improve access? After a cyclist was killed, safe streets advocates in Chicago acted as crossing guards, legally using the street and preventing car drivers from running red lights. For their efforts, they had bottles thrown at them. Another time, police turned off the walk signal. They were told their efforts were useless.
Any time children protest anything – climate crisis inaction, gun violence, the oppression of transgender students – by walking out of 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 perennial suggestion? Write letters. Write op-eds.
I love writing, obviously.
But is this the answer?
Recently I was told to “shut up” and “do something.”
In that particular case, I asked the critic what specifically he would suggest. You can still hear the crickets.
Allison, a seminary student from Manchester, also has experienced mixed messaging around 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 requesting a show of compassion. She, and others, received no response and calls to this director’s office were either blocked or rerouted. So, she sent a letter to the director’s home address. In this age, it takes seconds to learn, through Google, where almost anyone lives.
This letter included no harsh language. That did not stop Homeland Security from going to Allison’s home and questioning her. Several, but not all, others involved in this letter-writing campaign received home visits from the Department of Homeland Security. In Connecticut, people merely using words have been bullied into silence by those in power.
If using your words is not the way to make change, then what is? Some would suggest you make use of the political process. To give public testimony, often your choice is 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 childcare. Virtual hearings expand who can participate in democracy, but these are more recent and in some cases have been eliminated. When residents have asked for better accommodations, whether that be on-site childcare or Zoom meetings, they’ve encountered the chilliness of another version of “not like that”: we’ve always done things another way and you’re unreasonable to even think to ask.
What if you’re even more immersed in the democratic process? Josh Michtom, a Hartford City Councilperson, said that Council Majority members took him to task for “not being polite enough to the chief of police in a budget hearing.” The jokes about tone policing write themselves.
As they say, “direct action gets the goods,” and that’s what gets lost in all the fuss over which tactics are most impactful. And while it’s possible to argue that correlation is not causation, the methods of protest did not hinder getting or moving closer to getting the desired results. The Chicago activists who were told that protesting does not work have since seen streets physically redesigned to be safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The Hartford woman threatened with deportation had her case dropped. After Phoebe Plummer splashed soup in the museum she asked “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” She’s forced climate delayers to go on the defense. When people dare to make progessive demands in unpopular ways, we see shifts in thought and behavior, and we should be willing to acknowledge this, even when our reaction is to at cringe someone’s choice of nonviolent action.