From fringe idea to law of the land — a look inside the creativity fueling the struggle to defund the police

Beautiful Trouble examines the principles and theories guiding this growing insurrection in defense of Black lives.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

It’s hard to keep up when the world lurches from pandemic to racial justice uprising seemingly overnight. After months of living in a quarantine pressure cooker, amidst a global pandemic that’s thrown millions out of work, exposed the vicious iniquities of our current capitalist system and killed hundreds of thousands, masses of people hit a breaking point.

Fueled by their righteous rage about the videotaped killing of George Floyd, people have flooded the streets and taken the fight against structural racism and police violence to new heights. Protests, marches, memorials — fierce and creative — have radiated out from Minneapolis, and across the world, from Mexico City to Copenhagen to East Jerusalem and beyond.

And in their wake, with dizzying speed, we’re seeing the range of politically feasible ideas shift in real time before our eyes. Here’s just a few of the recent victories

There’s also a growing list of more intangible wins, including:

 Ongoing massive public dialogue about defunding police, racial inequality and oppression.

 Widespread private conversations happening about race and privilege across/within families and many communities that have benefitted from white privilege. (See this important reminder from the Nap Ministry.)

 Acknowledgment by more white and non-black people of the virus of anti-black racism and the role policing plays in the United States and other countries in maintaining white supremacy.

Defund the Police!” has moved from fringe idea to nearly law of the land so fast, pundits have motion sickness. It shows what can happen when progressive ideas are backed by true people power in a kind of “People’s Shock Doctrine.” (This phenomenon is an inversion of the “Shock Doctrine” that Naomi Klein observed, in which a traumatized population cedes control to corporate power in a moment of crisis.)

So how has all of this moved so quickly? 

One answer lies in the massive scale of mobilization — protests in all 50 U.S. states, including many small, predominately-white rural communities, as well as many cities around the world. Black-led organizations and networks were already in place and ready to lead. Since the formation of Black Lives Matter, or BLM, in 2013, this female-led movement has continued to emphasize the development of young leaders and to innovate strategy and tactics. After its first national in-person action in Ferguson in 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown, the movement has honed its campaigning strategy using nonviolent direct action. It drew on the tradition of Black freedom movement and embraced the intersectionality of Black lives, while pushing for bold systemic changes to end racialized oppression. 

Another factor is the sheer fierceness of the response — the willingness to take to the streets in spite of, or because of, quarantine. The creative, distributed, self-organized style of civic engagement, with protests happening organically, aligned in principles and demands across geographic distance has also played an important role. And all this activity has been aided and abetted by access to cell phones and social media — with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #WeKeepUsSafe driving the growth and reach of organizing across both rural communities and international networks in record speed. 

A less obvious piece of the answer is that these actions have been built — consciously or unconsciously — on a supercharged set of principles for making beautiful trouble. For those who are committed to continuing the struggle, and potentially escalating or innovating tactics to increase effectiveness, it can be helpful to take a deeper look at some of the principles and theories behind what is being done on the frontlines of this growing insurrection in defense of Black lives.

Direct action
A tool that oppressed people have used to build their power throughout history. When communities don’t have billions of dollars to spend, they leverage risk. They put their bodies, freedom and safety on the line.

As Frederick Douglass famously noted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” In this moment, demands have coalesced around defunding the police and reimagining community security for a world that will have moved beyond anti-Black racism and other oppressions. 

But what has allowed these protests to press those demands so effectively? Beyond their scale and breadth, it’s their staying power and intensity; they are un-permitted, ongoing and willing to disrupt business-as-usual. It’s this combination that has allowed activists in the streets to build power. 

It’s not enough to be angry. But when you also have the moral high ground, — which is clearly the case for BLM — then that anger can grow your support and build your movement.

In addition, the protests themselves are a “virtuous circle,” if also a brutal one. Every time the cops use disproportionate force to try to contain the protests, they prove the protesters’ point. As famed community organizer Saul Alinsky said, “The real action is your opponent’s reaction.” 

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone sits on the site of an abandoned police station in Seattle. Twitter/@pgcornwell

In Seattle, an abandoned police station has become the hub of an ongoing occupation, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. A long-standing direct action tactic, occupations can become ground zero for intense protest activity and cultural shifts, as well as prefigurative experiments in new ways of living and being. On the downside, ongoing occupations can also be highly resource and time intensive, putting many burdens on the activists involved. 

And in an especially risky form of direct action and a striking show of intersectional solidarity, 21 ICE detainees at the Mesa Verde Detention center in Colorado went on hunger strike in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Use the power of ritual
Rituals like weddings, funerals, baptisms, exorcisms and vigils are powerful experiences for participants. By adapting sacred and symbolic elements you can use the power of ritual to give your actions greater depth and power.

Rituals can connect us to the deepest truths of why politics matters. In a crisis, ritualized expression can not only help people cope, band together and grieve losses, but can also make collective meaning from traumatic events, and build new stories for our path ahead.

As the world grieves untimely deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic and from police violence, the saying of the names of those we’ve lost helps us focus our grief, validate the lives of the fallen and re-commit ourselves to action. Many ancient traditions are reflected in some of today’s ritualized call and response chants that ring out in the streets: “Say her name … Breonna Taylor. Say his name … George Floyd.”  Embed from Getty Images

The fence surrounding the White House in Washington, D.C., became a focal point, a shrine, for creative statements and ritualized decoration, embodying demands and visions of the people. Similarly, the fence surrounding the Silver Lake Reservoir in Los Angeles became a memorial to those killed by police violence, as artists tied strips of fabric to spell out the names of those murdered.

The traditional African ritual of altar building was the cornerstone of actions called for by the Black Feminist Futures group, providing a container for community-building, safety and “honoring our ancestors who declared unapologetically that Black Lives Matter.”

Online rituals, like “The Soul of a Crisis” — an ongoing candlelight vigil, meditation and dialogue circle that began during the global quarantines in March — have provided additional space for reflection, processing and the important work of envisioning the systems change needed to dismantle structural racism and violence.

In a different kind of ritualized performance, #BlackLivesMatter was written with the ashes of a burnt police van on the street, and adorned with other offerings to the struggle. Others created a memorial with 100 tombstones, each inscribed with a name of an African American who died at the hands of law enforcement.

The Say Their Names Cemetery memorial in Minneapolis. Twitter/@marciaxthree

Joy is a revolutionary force
Protests can be fun! Find pleasure in the process and let your creativity and joy guide you. As adrienne maree brown said: “Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.”

Even as direct action is a key component of BLM activism, there is also an intentional emphasis on joy and healing, and building a beautiful struggle that is not depleting

Activists dance the electric slide in Stockton, California. (Twitter/@shumensa13)

Through engagement with arts and culture in programs like “Black Joy Sundays,” BLM has intentionally created a space for Black activists to focus on themselves and positive expression. And it’s not just on Sundays: The “electric slide” line dance has recently become a trademark of the protests, moving minds and bodies together. 

Music has long had an important role in Black resistance movements, and it is still true today, though the anthems are more likely to be remixes of impromptu standups or popular joyful rap songs than folk hits of the civil rights era. And these beats seem to better capture the mood of defiance and joy that characterizes the energy of the protests. 

In a modern take on the importance of music in protest movements, Korean pop music fans have shown their solidarity with BLM by flooding a police reporting line with K-pop fan videos — thus jamming the app, disrupting the flow of racist and pro-police posts and forcing them to take the app down.

Take risks, but take care Needlessly endangering the safety of you or the people around you hurts the movement. Don’t sacrifice care of self or others for the sake of being “hardcore.”

In-person and online healing events offer a way to ground the work and support each other’s physical and mental wellbeing. “This commitment,” said Katie Petitt of Current Movements, “led BLM DC to establish free access for all Black organizers to many kinds of healing modalities” through a Healers for Liberation program. It has been so successful that other groups have started to do similar programs.

An emphasis on healing justice and embracing the positives in Movement for Black Lives grew out of the need to fight systemic racist oppression and — at the same time — uplift Black lives and resilience. This emphasis on infusing healing and humanity into activist campaigns is a gift to the broader movement for social justice.

Making the invisible visible 
Many injustices are invisible to the mainstream. When you bring these wrongs into full view, you change the game, making the need to take action palpable.

Given that these protests started during a pandemic, there should be no surprise at the popularity of guerrilla projections, which can be done with small teams easily social distancing. In Seattle, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone is showing outdoor movies for inspiration and political education.

George Floyds image was projected onto the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia earlier this month. Facebook/Dustin Klein

In Richmond, Virginia, out-of-work theater lighting directors “turned their love light” on a controversial statue. The Illuminator crew projected martyred faces onto New York City skyscrapers, lighting them up with images of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and demands to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. 

In many places, toppling statues has become the iconic statement, literally knocking colonial rulers off their historical pedestals. In Bristol, England a crowd of citizens felled a statue of their slave-trading city father, Edward Colson, and unceremoniously dumped him in the riverNative women in Minneapolis pulled down a statue of Christopher Colombus. King Leopold II of Belgium, a vicious 19th century colonizer, was tagged and set on fire in Antwerp — then removed by authorities. Although ordinary people have led the way, many governments are now stepping in and officially bringing down hurtful statues in their communities. In Mobile, Alabama the mayor ordered the removal of “a potential distraction so we may focus clearly on the future of our city.”

Moving fast to play catch-up with the flurry of events, elected officials have started to embrace art-activist tactics, only to be subverted by those in the movement. To rankle the president, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, commissioned a huge Black Lives Matter painting on 16th Street near the White House. However, very quickly BLM and other local activists edited the mural to call for defunding the police, just to make sure she got the movement’s message to reduce, not raise, the police budget.

Similarly, huge and beautiful street murals went up in Berkeley, California and Charlotte, North Carolina, alongside many gorgeous and provocative paintings on boarded up buildings like those in Oakland, California. Street murals make a bold statement and can be done in relative safety during physical distancing. Some murals have taken to the sky, like this one of George Floyd’s last words pulled by a plane. Big, beautiful images also help do the media’s job for them, providing a frame about the story for the public.

Do your research
Whether you’re scouting an action location, doing a power analysis of your political target, or reviewing previous events — don’t skip the research.

Documentation has been essential to the success of BLM. Activists have been working to systematically track the all-too-widespread occurrences of police brutality in a crowdsourced spreadsheet. Murder-by-police captured on video has been instrumental in pushing authorities to hold officers accountable, support calls for defunding, and make the case that these racist and brutal behaviors are institutional across the police force — not just the work of a few “bad apples.” Successful campaigns to defund police, ICE, and mass incarceration, also may rely on data mined by organizations like the American Friends Service Committee’s Investigate database. This work is equal parts making-the-invisible-visible and political education.

Radical book clubs and teach-ins have been popping up as community members demand anti-racist curriculum and instruction, or move to educating themselves to be more strategic and/or better allies and participants in the struggle. And books on racial justice are on backorder, including “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem.

For people who benefit from white privilege, doing research into who is already leading the struggle locally, and following the leadership of those most impacted, is crucial, rather than trying to organize and “save the day” out of nowhere.

On the fourth anniversary of the Pulse shootings, The Illuminator projected this message supporting Black trans lives onto the Brooklyn Bridge. (Instagram/@the.illuminator)

Looking ahead

There are signs of escalation on all fronts. The Divider-in-Chief was planning his first post-COVID-19 rally for Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19, or “Juneteenth.” It’s no coincidence that this city was the site of one of the worst race massacres in U.S. history — when in 1921 Black neighborhoods were burned to the ground and an estimated 300 African Americans murdered by a white mob. While pressure forced him to postpone the rally to the following day, it is still happening on the weekend of the anniversary of the abolition of slavery. As Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted, this “isn’t just a wink to white supremacists, he’s throwing them a welcome home party.” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg condemned the move under the headline: “A racist president trolls his enemies with a rally on Juneteenth.”

BLM leaders are rightly furious, yet also recognize Trump’s tactical provocation for what it is. With protests already gearing up, what’s our movement’s best move? How can the fierce and innovative nonviolent action continue in the face of this kind of deliberate trolling and provocation?

The unfolding insurrection has been a master class in creative protest. The hope here is that by reflecting on the extraordinary creativity of the recent BLM uprising — through the lens of generations of social movement best-practices — activists will find ways to keep our eyes on the prize, as we continue to escalate strategically and build power. Even the rarely optimistic Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now.”

In whatever way you’re taking action, Beautiful Trouble is here to support. Our training materials are easy to find and use for street protests. Here are our three most relevant resources right now:

Greenpeace also has new guides for activists:

Additional support for this piece was provided by Andrew Boyd, Chelsea Byers, Rae Abileah of Beautiful Trouble and Katie Petit of Current Movements.


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Nadine Bloch is the Training Director for Beautiful Trouble. As an innovative artist, nonviolent action practitioner, political organizer, direct-action trainer, and puppetista, she combines the principles and strategies of people power with creative use of the arts in cultural resistance and public protest. She is a contributor to the books "Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution," "Beautiful Rising: Creative Resistance from the Global South" and "We Are Many, Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation." She is the author of a Special Report Education & Training in Nonviolent Resistance and the co-author of SNAP:An Action Guide to Synergizing Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding. Folabi Olagbaju is currently the democracy campaign director with Greenpeace USA and a long time social justice activist.