“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
Your enemy’s prejudices about you are a weakness that you can exploit to your advantage.
A prejudice is a mental shortcut that leads a person to make assumptions about others — assumptions that are often false in predictable, and therefore useful, ways. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism — all the -isms and the stereotypes associated with them — can be used in one way or another.
Want to know when that shipment of nuclear waste is going to be docking so you can shut down the port at the right time? Maybe someone posing as a distraught, pregnant girlfriend whose guy is on the ship could make some calls and get the info.
Need to distract a security guard so you can complete your action? Activists in D.C. planned to dump a ton of bloodied scallop shells on the doorstep of Shell Oil to commemorate the anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death and pressure the company to withdraw from Ogoniland, Nigeria. One cute young woman posing as a lost tourist was all it took to distract the guard and provide enough time for the truck to position itself, dump its load and drive off.
Need to get information through enemy lines? During the First Intifada or uprising in Palestine, 1987–1993, Israel tried to quash the nonviolent resistance in many ways, including cutting communication and limiting travel between Palestinian cities. In order to get the word out to coordinate strikes, boycotts, and other actions, youth were enlisted to carry memorized information between cities. The Israeli soldiers let the kids through, never imagining they were doing the real work of connecting the resistance.
Need to put more pressure on a target from unexpected directions? Saul Alinsky relates a classic example of using racism to win in Chicago in the 1950s: In a campaign to improve slum conditions in an organized black ghetto, organizers took the fight beyond their neighborhoods into the lily-white suburb where the slumlord lived. The presence of black men and women picketing outside his house led to a flood of phone calls from the neighbors who didn’t care at all about the slums and would not have gotten involved otherwise, but wanted to keep their own neighborhood segregated, and so pressured the slumlord into capitulating.
Need to find your way into a corporate office or exclusive event? Many a time the most radical, hairy and scruffily adorned activists have shaved, ironed and primped their way into a situation that would have been off limits to those in scrappy activist garb. You know you are hardcore when you will cut your hair, or wear pantyhose, to insure the success of an action!
Beware of simply reinforcing negative stereotypes. Try to only deploy stereotypes in situations where the bigot eventually realizes that it was his own prejudices that put him in a compromised position. Also, try to be transparent within your own work group about what forces are at play.