Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.
This week, I want to highlight a new book that I think is greatly needed in this moment, and also profoundly uplifting. Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism (Verso Books, February 2017) by grassroots organizer L.A. Kauffman, is both a history of radicalism and protest in America since the 1960s and a how-to manual for contemporary protesters.
In an excerpt from the book at Longreads, Kauffman details the 1971 anti-Vietnam War protest executed by the Mayday Tribe that significantly disrupted government functioning in Washington, DC, and pressured the Nixon administration to end the war:
While neither activists nor anyone else would remember this unpopular protest for the outsized impact that it had, the political innovations of Mayday would quietly and steadily influence grassroots activism for decades to come, laying the groundwork for a new kind of radicalism: decentralized, multivocal, ideologically diverse, and propelled by direct action.
This analysis rings true for the protest movements happening today, from the Women’s March’s 10 Actions / 100 Days to Daily Action—a service that texts you each day with a concrete action to take—to Rise Stronger’s People’s Calendar of town hall meetings across the country. There is no singular anti-Trump movement. Instead, we have many with different focus issues, different proposed actions, different ideological bases.
Far from being a bad thing, Kauffman argues that this new breed of radicalism can be immensely effective in bringing about change. She brings up the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter as two contemporary examples.
Perhaps most heartening is the way Kauffman shows how even so-called unsuccessful protests and actions do, in fact, have an impact. While a record-breaking 7,000 people—not all of them protestors—were arrested during the Mayday protest and the government wasn’t actually shut down, the action provoked an outsized reaction from the Nixon administration and applied pressure that helped speed the end of the war.
Although Direct Action is a well-researched history, it is not impenetrable or dry. Kauffman’s writing is clear and direct, but still nuanced and vivid. Perhaps the best reason to pick up this book, though, is to better arm yourself for the long struggle ahead. As Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform, says in her blurb for the book, “Kauffman has done a tremendous public service: by helping us better understand the past, in all its glory and folly, we can be more effective dissidents and rabble-rousers tomorrow.”
Logo art by Max Winter.