Beautiful Trouble’s guide to defending democracy and challenging business as usual

As part of #ChalkTheVote, street artists created this piece near the Post Master General’s home in Washington, DC. (Twitter/@Chalkriot)

This article originally appeared in Waging Nonviolence.

Turnout, especially in polarized times like these, wins elections. The stakes in this election — whether we have a livable planet, whether kids are incarcerated in detention centers and, perhaps, whether we continue to have a functional democracy — are high. And when the stakes are this high, it’s time to get creative.

While many means are necessary to combat a potentially devastating blow to American democracy (which would certainly send shockwaves around the world), creative, visionary tactics are fundamental. They capture people’s attention, provide an on-ramp for education, speak to the urgency of the moment and help us overcome potentially paralyzing fear.

Embracing a creative and playful strategy is essential to the development of a critical mass of political power. Check out the inspiration below from the Beautiful Trouble toolbox on how to win the numbers game, defend democracy and challenge business as usual to build for the fabulous future we all deserve.

1. Winning the election
It’s a numbers game, after all

Across the country, people are channeling the revolutionary spirit of Beautiful Trouble by using creative tactics to do more than simply get out the vote. They’re showing solidarity and strength in numbers by Dragging Out The Vote, Chalking The Vote with their kids and organizing with friends to deliver pizza to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots. [See BT Principle: Breakfast is Persuasive].

A poster for Busk The Ballot, which is organizing musicians to perform for lines at polling stations. (Twitter/@busktheballot)

Performers are making plans to Busk the Ballot by entertaining voters at the polls, while Songs for Good held a competition for musicians to motivate the vote. Lift Every Vote 2020 is also encouraging musicians to perform every day in the 30 days leading up to the election, engaging the tactics of creative disruption and artistic vigil. Activists and accomplices are creating new art to fund the cause, creating murals, merch and artistic communities.

Celebrities are doing their part too. When Pennsylvania threatened voter suppression a la “naked ballots,” actors Mark Ruffalo and Chris Rock got naked on camera to explain how to get your vote counted. A great way to capture attention is to show you have skin in the game.

Even professional dominatrixes are leveraging their, um, position to offer “Trump Conversion Therapy” and  “force”  submissive clients to vote!

These actions use online/offline synergy to reach voters where they’re at. As the coronavirus pandemic makes door knocking and other get-out-the-vote tactics like tabling and rallies potentially life-threatening, using innovative approaches to reach voters is crucial. Creativity also helps reach people who are not actively engaged in politics — according to the New York Times, 80 to 85 percent of Americans follow politics casually or not at all.

All elections are important, but this one in particular may be the most critical opportunity in our lifetimes to change course on climate, racism and corporate control. We will not be able to move beyond the current degenerating political and environmental situations until we can (re)integrate culture into politics and build community. According to CTZNWELL, “There is no apolitical, there is only not paying attention. And that has cost us too much. Where your attention goes, energy flows. So let us channel our attention and energy towards building the future that we all deserve.”

2. Protecting the election
Shifting gears to democracy defense

Motivating people to vote is only the first step of defending democracy. Repeat after us: First participate, then protect. Centuries of struggle have taught us that if we don’t exercise our freedoms, they disappear; if we don’t vote, the right to vote will be threatened. The more we engage, the more we win. But engagement doesn’t stop at the ballot box, it continues until every vote is counted, which could be days if not weeks after Nov. 3.

Authoritarian leaders thrive on chaos and count on shock to paralyze mass action. So if we take POTUS’ word that he won’t accept the results of the election, we must prepare for organized response and resistance — at a scale that matters. In this worst case scenario, winning looks like mobilizing millions to contest an authoritarian threat to vote counting.

If we suspect foul play in vote counting, our first step is to mobilize pressure on elected officials to guarantee a full vote count. If this arm of democracy fails, we must be prepared to intervene to ensure the safety of ballot counting machines and access to legal recourse.

But what if these limited tactical “election protection” actions are not enough? What if the fraud is wide-scale, at a national level?

Disrupting business as usual in unusual ways

If we have a “stolen election” scenario — where ballots are seized and not counted, where there are discrepancies between the state certifiers and the Electoral College delegates, or when the loser refuses to concede — then we must exercise our full people power to right the wrongs.

One of the main reasons that so many injustices persist is not that the powerful can simply do whatever they want with impunity, but that most people are ignorant of their power. If we understand that we, the people are governed only by giving our consent to those that govern, we recognize that we can withdraw that consent [see BT Tactic: General strike] and collectively wield power. Using the Pillars of Power analysis, we can imagine our government as the roof of a building, held up by pillars such as the education system, the courts, the military, federal employees, media and so on. Each institutional pillar that has the power to uphold or neglect counting votes is made up of real people. We can reach these people and get them to walk away from their role, weakening and possibly crumbling this pillar, thus bringing down the whole structure.

There may be a moment where we all need to register our support for counting all ballots by withdrawing our consent from daily life continuing on as if nothing is wrong. We have recent muscle memory of this kind of action by ceasing business as we know it during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this summer’s mass actions during BLM protests. Even large, established non-governmental organizations that are typically risk averse are recognizing that we may need to mobilize widespread noncooperation or civil disobedience.

Artists with League of Women Voters paint a mural in Massachusetts. (Instagram/@lwvfalmouth)

Applying innovative lessons from around the world

A pipedream, you say? Not so fast. People all over the world have risen up to disrupt fraudulent elections and secure their democratic rights many, many times.

A webinar hosted by Beautiful Trouble & Nonviolence International one month before the U.S. election highlighted several stories of creative resistance from Serbiathe PhilippinesGambia, and elsewhere that demonstrate how to prepare for a possible stolen election scenario using humor and hopeful action.

Ivan Marovic — a founder of the Otpor student collective central to the overthrow of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosovic in 2000 — noted how crucial it is to set up structures and messaging that directly address people’s fears, especially through creative means. In one classic creative “dilemma action” [Principle: Put your target in a decision dilemma], the collective placed a big barrel and a bat in the street and invited the public to put a coin in to help pay for Milosevic’s retirement. If they were broke because of the dictator’s policies, they could just hit the barrel with the bat instead. The Serbian police couldn’t win: Either they let crowds gather to bang on the barrel, ridiculing the regime and making it look weak, or they themselves looked foolish arresting the barrel! This caused the police to question their own role in enforcement, helping shift their allegiance away from the regime and towards family and friends who were part of the protests.

Joaquin Gonzalez, an organizer in the uprising to defend democracy in the Philippines, recalled the critical presence of religious leaders on the front lines of the struggle during the Filipino Yellow Revolution. Their impassioned prayers calmed soldiers and inspired protesters to remain peaceful yet determined while surrounded by military tanks. This points to the strength of cultural grounding and ritual as part of your creative toolbox to build people power. In a country where religious leadership was a key part of the cultural fabric of society, the church also had a huge role in preparing the masses to practice nonviolent resistance through trainings they hosted around the country.

In Gambia, a 22-year-long dictatorship was voted out, only to have the dictator reverse his decision to step down a week later. Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan and his fellow activists were ready with #GambiaHasDecided, a hashtag that went viral and was plastered across billboards and T-shirts. The message was intentionally positive to help keep their eyes on the prize, as was the decision to replace every destroyed billboard by two more billboards. In this way, Gambian activists continued to promote the people’s decision, make the inspirational statement visible everywhere and keep the country focused on winning.

Official logo of Chile’s NO campaign during the Chilean national plebiscite in 1988. (Wikimedia)

Another strategic campaign that harnessed the power of positive messaging encouraged masses of Chileans to vote and end the vicious Pinochet dictatorship in 1988. Campaigners integrated criticism of the regime with an optimistic vision of the future — mobilizing people out of despair with a colorful rainbow symbol, bright music and happy commercials for the future.

“Those of us engaged in creative activism need to be able to navigate the broader cultural landscape in which we wage our campaigns, and use it to our advantage,” writes Stephen Duncombe in BT Principle: Know your cultural terrain. “Marketing campaigns, for instance, are developed to exploit emotion in order to sell product, but to do this they need to tap into the deep-seated dreams and nightmares of large numbers of people. Sometimes these desires are scary and reactionary (brush with Pepsodent or you will die a spinster), but they also tap into positive, often utopian dreams (drink this beer and you will be surrounded by a beloved, albeit tipsy, community).”

Such creative tactics can also be used in our current, uncertain period to anticipate, deflect and undermine violence. They can also provide ways to keep demonstrators upbeat, on-issue, focused on goals and engaged with appropriate strategic responses.

White power supremacist violence has been effectively deescalated and undermined by gaggles of clowns throwing “white flour” while men and their brides yelled in support of “wife power.” Check out the out and proud reclaiming of #ProudBoys from the right wing by the LGBTQ movement recently with inspirational viral images.

Giant street murals — Black Lives MatterClimate Action Street Mural Actionchalking outside McConnell’s house and more — have offered a way to focus the energy of a crowd and make a huge statement, even while shutting down an intersection. In Ferguson, Missouri, during a march honoring Mike Brown, protesters carried a mirrored coffin “to evoke reflection and empathy for the deaths of young people of color who have lost their lives unjustly in the U.S. and worldwide … and to challenge viewers to look within and see their reflections as both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and aggressor.”

Imagine at this moment a classic dilemma action: A public campaign to pledge $1 for every minute or every right-wing person who showed up to intimidate or thwart free and fair access to voting, with the money donated to groups defending democracy and building an anti-racist future. It’s a win-win for democracy: If the right-wing aggressors stay, we increase funding for groups working on a better future; If they leave, we gain a peaceful voting place!

Let us state the obvious. Creativity must come with good planning and training. Masses of people all over the United States are doing a variety of education and training. Particularly worth a read are guides such as: Stopping the CoupThe Count and Hold the Line. There’s also a new Resistance Hotline to support those who want coaching on how to put in place effective actions. The hotline invites activists to call, email or post to Facebook their questions about finding direct action training. Ask for information about finding a direct action training, a checklist for action logistics, or coaching on unique action ideas. Creative innovation is a key part of a winning campaign strategy.

3. Depolarizing post-election

Flex our muscle in November, then power-lift for the next four years

Let’s imagine a scenario where Biden and Harris are installed in the White House. (Deep breath. Shelve your anti-anxiety meds.) Let’s be honest, the pandemic and white supremacist violence will still be very much alive in 2021. We will have witnessed (and been part of) the efficacy of creative action to increase voter turnout and stop election suppression, and it will be time for the next layer of innovative action.

In polarized societies, the role of creativity and culture workers becomes ever more crucial to repair and heal society. Cultural action engages and allows dialogue, reaches hearts, gets us out of the purely intellectual realm and demonstrates patriotism by making visible the heart and soul of a nation. [See BT Principle: Re-capture the flag.]

A beautiful example of harnessing culture is the Myanmar Flower Speech campaign that began in 2014 during an uptick in anti-Muslim violence. Activists launched a social media campaign showcasing images of people holding flowers — a traditional Buddhist symbol of peace — in their mouths to call for purity of speech. These flowers became a viral symbol online, and led to a traveling education program as well. Recently in Slovakia, The Peace Sofas project helped launch dialogue around polarizing and controversial topics from the comfort of one’s own sofa.

As Joaquin Gonzalez shared on the Democracy Defense webinar, “The people power we showed cannot stop. It’s a continuing revolution. Whenever there is a threat we must come back to the streets and protect the ballot boxes again.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we can meaningfully talk about depolarization, we need to get in formation and win (and protect) this election. So find a group to work with, and call the Resistance Hotline at 1-800-NVDA-NOW with your questions. Trusted professional troublemakers are standing by to support you.

Keep in mind this is not a finite struggle for the immediacy of the POTUS election; this moment is hopefully part of a longer-term movement toward systemic change. The problems didn’t start with #45 and they won’t end with #46; we must build people power for the long haul. Now is the time to shore up personal reserves, form an affinity group, make plans where you are (see an ambitious plan from a local group here) and get your creative juices going. Let’s remember all that’s at stake in this moment and get busy. We all have a part to play.

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.

Rae Abileah is a social change strategist, author and editor for collective liberation. She is a trainer at Beautiful Trouble, and co-creator of the global Climate Ribbon art ritual. She was the co-director of CODEPINK, consulted on digital strategy for social justice at ThoughtWorks, and now runs her own consultancy, CreateWell. Rae is a contributing author to books including “Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists.” Rae graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University, and received ordination by the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute.

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