Successful Activism Requires Imagination

By Ben Bull
Published August 11, 2007

The antics of the Tibet Freedom fighters along China's Hadrian's Wall on Wednesday are a wonderful example of how properly planned, targeted activism can yield tangible results.

I've always found the predictable 'sign my petition' activist efforts a little tedious, and the slow pace of 'ordinary activism' is mightily frustrating. I prefer to support the more imaginative ways of pushing forward the 'agenda' - which is why the Tibet banner was so cool.

By any standards the success of the Hadrian's Wall stunt was spectacular. Every national newspaper in Canada picked up on the story and the CBC's The National made it their top story on Wednesday night, devoting about five minutes to the Tibetan issue and China's human rights violations in general.

How many petition signatures would it take to buy that kind of publicity?

Of course, whether their efforts will effect change is another matter. The CBC's report featured a political professor who claimed that protests such as these were 'unlikely to make a difference'.

But that's not the whole point. The point is that this issue has now been thrust back into the spotlight and, better still, it's been linked with the on-going preparation by the Chinese for the Olympic Games in 2008.

One way or another, this issue is not going to go away.

The more I contemplate modern day activist methods, the more I am convinced that targeted activism, or a planned 'media assault' if you like, is the way to go.

I'm not the first person to claim this of course. Many of us will recall those infamous John Lennon bed-in interviews, in his hotel room in Montreal. I remember one piece of memorable footage where Lennon is on the phone with one of the Berkeley student riot organizers. He tells the guy to 'stop fighting' and that the future of activism is PR.

'You need to play to the media' he tells him, 'but not with violence ... with love'.

Positive, 'fun' type activist efforts are becoming increasingly common. From G8 protesters in monkey suits to Live Earth and Live8 it seems our imaginations are waking up to the idea that grabbing the spotlight and selling a positive message are the way to go.

Activism today is also becoming increasingly bizarre. Beyond the bed-ins, global concerts and use of national landmarks as backdrops for banners, modern day activists are increasingly resorting to more and more unusual methods to get their message across.

In July this year, a group called the Yes Men sabotaged the Go-Expo Oil Conference in Calgary. As the Toronto Star reported, "They created a fake website posing as ExxonMobil developers of a groundbreaking petroleum product they called "Vivoleum."

From their site they garnered an invitation to be keynote speakers at Go-Expo, Canada's biggest petroleum conference held last month in Calgary.

They explained in gushing oil-speak that as a result of the probability of global calamities the oil industry could "keep fuel flowing" by transforming the millions of people who will inevitably die into – um, oil.

The audience was then asked to light their commemorative "Vivoleum" candles. They elaborated that these particular candles were made from the flesh of an "Exxon janitor" who died as a result of cleaning up a toxic spill.

It was only when a video was shown of the supposed "dead janitor" professing his wish to be rendered into candles after his death that the penny dropped. Security escorted both men out.”


Here in Toronto, a group of green fingered locals calling themselves the 'Garden Gorillas,' have begun a campaign to beautify the streets by arriving unannounced at a desolate location, planting trees and flowers, and taking off into the sunset (word is that the city council provide their 'unofficial' support).

While music and the message is nothing new, it's still nice to see that modern day artists have not lost their fervour for rapping out a cause.

More encouragingly perhaps, in our globalized economy, even our modern day entrepreneurs - the dreaded Corporations - are starting to look beyond the bottom line and consider the ethical impacts of their money making.

Apparently the Free Tibet folks trained for nearly a year in order to pull off their stunt. In so doing, they brought the issue into millions of living rooms across the globe.

Their caper was daring, well organized, appropriately targeted and impeccably timed. It was also safe, positive, interesting, accessible to the cameras and, most importantly, newsworthy.

In short - it was made-for-TV.

How many of us have watched those hilarious lead story selection scenes from the CBC comedy The Newsroom? Producer Ken Finkleman and his team sitting around scoffing Chinese food and arguing about the relative newsworthiness of an earthquake in Algeria and a man bitten by a snake in Alberta.

"What's our lead today?" Finkleman would ask, "The Snake Guy or the Earthquake?"

"We're not sure..."

"Well, how many died in the earthquake?"

"About 200."

"And what happened to the snake guy?"

"He got sick. But he's OK now."

"...Let's go with the snake guy."

It's probably true that the Olympic countdown was always a contender for top slot but the unfurling of the Free Tibet banner gave the CBC and other media outlets an all important angle to frame their story. It pushed it over the edge, and up to the top.

Here at RTH we have advocated, for the most part, a more conservative approach to activism. The RTH article, How To Be An Activist lists a number of fundamental, yet unexciting, ways to effect change. But we don't act on our own advice very much.

Unlike Adbusters and other integrated media/activist outlets, RTH tends to avoid the fancy schmancy campaigns and focus mainly on the media side of our role - passing on the news and views through our lens of sustainable development.

We leave the action of activism to our readers. Although this is something I feel we do well, I wish we could do more.

I am convinced that this modern day approach of planned, targeted activism is a vital and vastly underused method of selling the important messages we create. I hope to see more of it.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By lorne (registered) - website | Posted August 11, 2007 at 17:32:19

Good article, Ben. Another aspect of the China protest is, of course, how well it demonstrates the power of the Internet to get out a message quickly and effectively, thereby forcing the traditional media to pay perhaps more attention than it normally would.

I think the same is true of RTH. You folks do a remarkable job in bringing to the public thoughtful perspectives that invoke discussion and encourage activism of one form or another.

Keep up the good work.

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