What is ‘activism’?

Dave – the editor

As self defined activists, we read this piece with great interest: ‘Activism should be part of everyone’s lives’ – James Ward | B24/7 | 1.3.23. James Ward runs The Bristol Activist which covers a wide range of activism, campaigning and protest across Bristol. What follows are some brief, quite probably subjective thoughts on what constitutes ‘activism’.

I’ve put quote marks around the word ‘activism’ because it means different things to different people and as such, has acquired some negative connotations. The negativity comes from the mistaken perception some people have of activism as being little more than taking to the streets to protest, causing disruption in the process. Reading the piece by James Ward, it’s pretty clear by the way he writes about grassroots projects that he thinks there’s a lot more to activism in Bristol than taking to the streets. Unfortunately, the choice of the image of a protest that was used to illustrate his piece doesn’t help to dispel the misperceptions some people have about activism!

The two of us behind the Grassroots Alternatives project have been living in Keynsham for almost eight months. While there have been a number of protests taking place in the region we cover, a few of which we’ve attended, to say that these events are what activism is about where we are is way, way off the mark. Since we relocated to Keynsham from Essex last summer, we’ve been steadily building up a directory of local groups across the Avon region making a difference in their communities. There’s a heck of a lot going on at the grassroots which we’re only too happy to support and promote. What’s going in is listed in this section on the Grassroots Alternatives blog: Avon: Projects & campaigns. We also help to maintain such a directory for the south east of Essex where Alternative Estuary are active: Essex: Projects & campaigns.

There’s only so much that can be achieved by taking to the streets to protest. An activity that’s becoming increasingly constrained by tougher legislation regarding what is and isn’t permissible on a protest. A situation exacerbated by policing strategy and tactics intentionally designed to deter people from taking to the streets in the first place: Revenge policing, revenge sentencing and the future of protest 10.1.23. Obviously there are situations where there’s no alternative but to take to the streets, albeit with the caveat that everyone on the protest looks out for each other to ensure there are no arrests or situations where people are getting hurt as a result of police violence.

Pretty much the whole point of Grassroots Alternatives is to promote grassroots action that makes a real difference to where people live and which empowers them in the process. Supporting action at the neighbourhood level is not a cop out from taking to the streets. It’s all about building the kind of world we want in the here and now. It’s about experimenting with ways of doing things we want to take into the new world we’re building to see what does and doesn’t work. Regular readers will be aware that we’ve published a fair few posts looking at various aspects of grassroots, community action. This piece hopefully summarises the thinking underpinning these posts: Prefigurative action 3.2.22.

It seems to us that a fair amount of protest is about asking the powers that be to do something about a situation, or to not do something about a situation, depending on what the situation is. Regardless of how noisy and passionate a protest may get, at the end of the day, all too often they’re about making demands on others. Direct action on the other hand is people getting together to resolve a situation themselves. Here’s one example… The protest in London on Saturday 31 March 1990 against the Poll Tax was massive, passionate, noisy and ended up in a massive riot. That didn’t stop the Poll Tax. What stopped it was the sustained campaign of non-payment organised at neighbourhood level which made it increasingly unworkable.

That was an example of direct action being deployed to resolve a negative situation. What’s more interesting is community action that’s intended to make life where people live better, bring what power can be brought down to neighbourhood level, empower those taking part in it, offer some hints of what could be a better future and last but by no means least, undermine the dysfunctional system we’re currently obliged to endure. From community food growing and resident run parks through to skill shares and mutual caring arrangements, it’s about starting to build parallel systems and networks. It’s about people and communities taking control of their own lives and how they grow and develop.

In many ways, it’s the quiet start to the revolution… It’s flying under the radar of a state that is making street protest harder and harder. Obviously, there’s only so much that can be achieved by prefigurative action at the grassroots before we hit the constraints the system imposes upon upon us. The hope is that when that happens, what has been built in the way of parallel systems will be enough to sustain and see us through when the push against the system has to be made. Which is why, as I’ve written a few times before, Grassroots Alternatives is not a fluffy project.

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