How do you start a movement when the opposition is all powerful? How far can you go to make a difference? What chances are you willing to take to fight for a cause? Is it all for nothing?
As Bill Zimmerman points out in his enlightening book Troublemaker A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Sixties the word "activist" was rarely used before. The word used before was "organizer", it had the connotation of someone acting as a professional. An activist does not get paid. DailyKos is a community of activists, we are here because we want to change things for the better and we are involved in a myriad of causes.
Troublemaker is Bill Zimmerman's biography. I don't just recommend it, I believe that this book is a must read for any activist today who wants to learn what it takes to accomplish things. It also has enough material for 4 films. One about the Vietnam antiwar movement, another one about the Civil Rights movement, yet another about Wounded Knee and finally one about activism today. But the bottom line of the book is how all these progressive movements were and are intertwined and how activism in progressive causes can avoid making mistakes and succeed in transforming America against all odds.
I had the honor and pleasure to meet Bill when he spoke at a Single Payer event that I MCed last year, he is deeply involved in this present day movement. He actually gave me an autographed copy of his book which I just finished reading. It has been an education.
Bill became started his activism in 1963 when he became involved in the Civil Rights movement. But before that, in Paris, his mind became open to front line activism by French students who opposed the intervention in Algeria.
The story telling in Troublemaker a page turner. From Mississippi to Chicago, from Wounded Knee to Hanoi, from the Pentagon to Los Angeles, the action, adventure, confrontations, escapes from death, successes and lessons learned keep coming.
I learned things I didn't know I didn't know, about the antiwar movement and the Vietnam war, about the Civil Rights movement, about North Vietnam, about Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, about Nixon, about what works and what doesn't work. The book is actually very exciting, it's a whole course on recent history and how it relates to what is going on today.
One of the lessons learned that Bill highlights is that being a revolutionary does not work in America. After the largest mass arrests in US history in 1971 were unable to change the course of the war, he decided to change tactics and become a "troublemaker". He relates how he was able to smuggle a new form of penicillin that did not need refrigeration to Hanoi. This saved the lives of many wounded North Vietnamese. I was absorbed by his account of surviving bombings by the USAF.
His troublemaking lead him to found Medical Aid to Indochina that became an substantial organization and effective in raising the consciousness about the devastating effects of the war on the civilian population.
Bill is a pilot since a young age and his activism lead him to get involved in the planning and execution of the pivotal airdrop of food in Wounded Knee. This story is a cliff hanger. It's also an education on the revolting extremes that the FBI and the powers to be were willing to go to to stop the American Indian Movement.
All the experiences of those early years, Bill has become a most effective activist and is now a political action consultant. He has been involved in many causes and campaigns. From his involvement with MoveOn to medical marihuana, from Single Payer to overturning Citizens United to get money out of politics. Check out his website.
In the postscript he gives us fundamental advice;
The question we now face is not whether America is on the threshold of a new progressive era - it is - but rather whether we can use the legacy of the sixties and the new activism unleashed in 2011 by Occupy Wall Street to push ourselves off the threshold into a full embrace of progressive ideals. I am convinced that citizen activism is now the only way to do that. But as I learned in the sixties, activists are not revolutionaries, even though their objective is a revolutionary transformation of society. Activists achieve incremental gains, not massive and immediate upheavals. If those gains are sufficiently widespread, transformation can occur even when the activists themselves are unaware of how their work combines with that of others to affect the overall sweep of history.And he lists very specific and useful advice under these headings which have become my own activism framework;
. Stay a franchise; don't open a store
. Never lose the meme of the 1% vs 99%
. Don't bash big government
. Government should be our tool not theirs
. Unregulated capitalism is the fundamental problem
. Be the owner, not the repairman
. Be nice to Democrats
. Don't get upset about voting for Democrats
. Stop worrying about "the system" corrupting you
. Your mission is to destabilize society
. Be militant but nonviolent
. Be promiscuous
. Think strategically
. Dream up new tactics
And he proposes as an overall strategy to get money out of politics, pass a new tax policy, create green jobs, cut military expenditures.
And Bill is in the middle of things today, he has become an inspiration.