Beautiful Rising: Creative Resistance from the Global South
Reviewed by Jerry Mizell Williams
Edited by Juman Abujbara, Andrew Boyd, Dave Mitchell, and Marcel Taminato. OR Books, 2018. 272 pages. $22/paperback; $10/eBook.
“Agitate, agitate.” —Frederick Douglass, 1852 address in Salem, Ohio
Nonviolent activism is part and parcel of Quaker tradition, and our ministry continues to reflect its reach. New or unresolved problems dictate innovative approaches to address them. The authors of Beautiful Rising, a toolkit for understanding and organizing peaceful resistance, hold that an activist agenda must be well designed. The five interlinked tools that comprise the book’s framework—Stories, Tactics, Principles, Theories, and Methodologies—document the strategies and hands-on activities that groups living under repressive governments have used to counter and disrupt “business-as-usual politics.” Forty-eight contributors representing the global south (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) share their experiences and the challenges they’ve encountered while subverting corrupt rule. Conceived as an open-ended project to be updated online by contributors with new tools, each section includes references to supplemental readings. This volume is a continuation of Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (2012), also available on the toolbox website (beautifultrouble.org).
In the first section, “Stories,” 16 colorful accounts unfold against a backdrop of political and social injustice. The brief narratives analyze decisive behaviors and campaigns undertaken, along with a critique of their effectiveness and/or deficiency. “Sign Language Sit-In” relates the mobilization of hearing-impaired activists in Zimbabwe who unified around a common cause, despite their disparate economic and political traditions. Utilizing the tactic of civil disobedience and guided by a belief in the social model of disability as a theory, the advocates’ triumph affirmed that “the problem of disability does not reside in the individual, nor . . . in the impairment, but in the response of the society towards a person with a disability.” Similarly, female elders in “Stripping Power in Uganda” protest illegal land seizure and violate a cultural taboo against nudity by disrobing before a military convoy and government ministers. The successful tactic of nudity invoked a cultural curse: frightened soldiers refused to obey orders, and the convoy retreated back to the capital. One example of a moderately fruitful operation is the “Burmese Students’ Long March.” When the military government outlawed student and teacher unions, students marched 360 miles from central to lower Myanmar as a tactic to call attention to the undemocratic law. Although the demonstrators adhered to the theory and practice of direct action and the principle of nonviolence (“Why It Worked”), we are told that the campaign folded (“Why It Failed”) because students refused to curtail the march when the government sought a meeting to hear the grievances; instead, many were jailed and unable to monitor the promises of lawmakers.
The next component of the toolkit centers on “Tactics,” or forms of creative action to be employed wisely, given the uniqueness of a group’s circumstances: divestment, civil disobedience, subversive travel, music videos, flash mobs, jail solidarity, and blockades. In the same way readers are advised that tactics are fraught with risk, the same caveats apply to “Principles,” defined as “time-tested guidelines for designing successful actions and campaigns.” Here practical action rules range from the use of humor and everyday language over complex terms to establishing safe support networks and recognizing that as movements grow so do their decision-making processes.
“Theories,” the penultimate section, treats the origins of “big-picture” ideas that we must know in order to check the machinery of oppression. After young women were sexually abused following Kenya’s 2008 elections, defenders—underpinned by feminist theory—set up boxing lessons in many communities to empower the women and “politicize gender oppression.” There is insightful commentary on “Democracy Promotion” (to control emergent civil societies in targeted countries), “Al Faza’a” (a surge of solidarity that quickly disappears), and the “NGO-ization of Resistance” (transforming “resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job”).
“Methodologies” provides frameworks, intelligible diagrams, and implementable exercises to transition from apprehending the issues to planning, evaluation, and winning. Where “Pillars of Power” counsels how to identify institutions and ways to destabilize the pillars that uphold them, “The Onion Tool” is a method to peel back layers of rhetoric to reveal positions (what we say we want), interests (what we really want), and needs (what we must have). The message is unequivocal: when we are able to fathom the dynamics of power, we can discover “endlessly adaptable solutions to common challenges.”
As I weighed the creative approaches espoused in the toolkit and their relevance to current movements, I reflected not only on the manner in which each story was moving but also on how Quaker values have always placed human dignity at the forefront of ministry. Preserving and defending human dignity lies at the core of Quakerism, and the authors of Beautiful Rising remind us that in any struggle, dignity is not negotiable; when defiled or injured, we seek correction and redress. The risings that give title to the book translocate dignity from an abstract concept to its concrete embodiment in the individual and group and evince the interconnectedness of our struggles in politically repressive systems. The authors contend that in mounting discrete forms of resistance to combat oppression and safeguard human rights, it must be followed by constructive action, for “Resistance by itself does not create freedom from oppression.” Movements that spring from thoughtful organizing increase their likelihood of effectuating change.