Shut It Down: Tips And Tales From A Lifetime Of Activism

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Shut It Down: Tips And Tales From A Lifetime Of Activism


Activist Lisa Fithian has been at the forefront of the civil justice movement for the past five decades. In her memoir come manual, Shut It Down, Lisa draws on a lifetime of taking action to Shut Down injustice in all its ugly forms.

Shut It Down walks us through her life’s story and how she has devoted it to shaping history for the better.

Phoebe Young

Thu 28 Nov 2019

Described by Mother Jones as “the nation’s best-known protest consultant”, Lisa Fithian is an expert in non-violent direct action and civil disobedience. She has successfully and creatively used these forms of activism in her anti-racist organising efforts since the 1970s. 

It is no coincidence that Lisa’s personal backstory coincides with some of the most pivotal moments in American and world history of recent decades. She has made it her life’s mission to seek out and combat oppression of all kinds. Her book tracks how she has used her much beloved methods of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action to fight colonialism, racism, sexism, capitalism and homophobia, to name but a few. 

"I propose that we have the courage to resist belief systems of hate; to shut down the power centres of greed, to topple the unjust structures that oppress"

Many of the periods of upheaval she documents have been covered in the news, from behind a camera and the history books. Still, they are explored in a totally unique way in Shut It Down

These accounts are from the frontline and told by someone who impacted the outcome of numerous turbulent times. 

Her book is packed full of wisdom and experience that will inspire you to follow in her footsteps. Her message is simple: Individuals who work to replace paradigms of oppression, with structures that embody love and liberation, can create real positive change. 

We look at a few excerpts from her book that will inspire anyone to create change.

woman standing near poster
“We must do the demanding work of creating something radically new”

1. Why We Need Nonviolent Direct Action Now More Than Ever

Election Night, North Dakota, 2016

Shut It Down does not begin at the beginning, but kicks off with US election night 2016. For Lisa, the result is yet another resurgence of ‘The White Wing’, which she has been fighting to shut down for years. She sees Trump’s election as a prime example of why we need to engage in nonviolent direct action now more than ever. 

Lisa describes non violent direct action as:

‘A way of life and a lens through which to view the world...It means working together democratically, to take care of the problem we face, instead of waiting for others to make the is inspirational and life affirming… about shutting things down to open things up.’

"It's about shutting things down to open things up"

2. Why Affinity Groups Are Key To Preventing Isolation 

Area Pledge Training, Boston, 1983.

‘The trainers started out by splitting us into small groups for an active listening exercise where one person spoke first, uninterrupted, while the others not only listened for words but tuned in to emotions and body posture’. 

Shut It Down fleshes out all kinds of methods for taking successful direct action. 

Making sure everyone involved remains motivated and safe is a key element. In her chapter about shutting down the CIA, Lisa goes into detail about how crucial ‘affinity groups’ are in this regard. 

She describes them as small, close-knit, self sufficient groups of around five to fifteen people. The members of each group support one another before and after action. This is meant to combat the feeling of isolation that can come up for people who act alone within a wider cause. 

Affinity groups are practical and pivotal in delivering direct action as well. Each one has its own spokesperson, who represents the group when ideas are being discussed. An ultimate plan of action is decided upon and curated by a ‘spokes council’ who takes into account the ideas of all the groups.

woman talking in a crowd

Affinity groups are practical and pivotal in delivering direct action

Image Photography | Kisha Bari

3. Why Going To Jail For Justice Is Good For You And The World

The Battle of Seattle, Seattle 1999

‘If you’re white or affluent, incarceration might not affect your family at all. This is why I encourage white or otherwise privileged people to make the choice to go to jail for justice’.

Throughout her book, Lisa explores the amazing personal transformation taking direct action has on individuals as well as the world, and how the two are interlinked. 

She sees going to jail as an eye-opening means of personal development for those of us who are privileged. For her it is a way of experiencing what it is like to be stripped of your privilege and treated as a criminal. 

According to Lisa, it is important to get a small taste and simulation of the dehumanising feeling that non-white people have had to live with for generations. Once you see how the state treats its malcontents, you cannot un-see it. 

Still, she attaches some riders to her encouragement of the exercise. If you do decide to be arrested for justice, she explains that you must attend training to grow physically, mentally, spirituality and ideologically strong enough to deal with the above.

woman being carried by police officers
“When they treat you like a criminal, you feel like one”

4. Creativity: The Ultimate Tool For Shutting Down Injustice

Opposing The WTO, Cancun, Mexico, 2003

Creativity meets core beliefs and action in Lisa’s account of attempting to shut down the World Trade Organisation summit in Cancun Mexico, September 2003. 

She holds a strong affiliation with the Indigenous peoples affected by the WTO, and their connection to the land

The traditional ways in which they worshipped the natural world, upon which they depended and were in danger of losing, were built into the protests. They set up altars built to deities using flower seeds and incense. Drums were beaten, Mayan ceremonies were held and prayers to the threatened land were made. 

‘In Cancun, we demonstrated peacefully and powerfully with our humanity, our creativity, and our hearts’. 

"Many indigenous people, particularly Mayans, offered ceremony, making prayers for the and and for a good outcome for the people. I felt a deep sense of love well up inside"

Imagination came into the logistical side of the protests too. Lisa and her fellow organisers conceived a plan called ‘Operation Ballpark’ to get closer to the location of the summit. 

Lisa recounts how the protestors got into the target zone by disguising themselves as tourists. They entered in small groups, playing the part by eating ice creams and looking into souvenir shops. On the planned cue they rushed into the road where the ministerial delegates were having dinner. The drums and seeds that had been hidden in their tourist bags came out in full force, and the activists chanted, sat down in the road and danced. 

This was one of the steps in the creative, non-violent chain of actions that resulted in the delegates being persuaded to step away from deals that would have devastated the indigenous peoples and their land. It also contributed to the ultimate end of FTAA.

woman on stage in front of crowd
“No matter what strategies we explore, we will get push back from those who desire the continuation of colonisation”

5. A Backstage Pass To The Reality Of Natural Disaster 

The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi and Louisiana, 2005

We all saw it reported on the news, but Lisa sheds a frightening and unique light on the nature of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She discusses the lesser talked about ‘human-made tragedy that unfolded’ behind the scenes in conjunction with and on the back of the physical devastation.  

‘The media and government strummed up largely inaccurate reports of civil unrest...Amid a city that had broken down, the government’s response was militaristic and, in many cases, inhumane.’

Through her involvement in the relief effort, Lisa witnessed the racism and violence that became rampant in the wake of the hurricane. Under the guise of punishing looters, law enforcement actually killed many black people who were trying to evacuate, prevented resources reaching them and obstructed them from returning to their communities

Lisa explains how these shocking acts actually exemplify the devastating, age old racial divides that exist in so many communities. She says that these show up and play out in awful technicolour when a natural disaster hits.

Against this inhumane backdrop, she also shares uplifting stories of the acts of radical beauty and kindness people made to help people whose lives were on the line.

"Amid a city that had broken down, the government's response was militaristic and, in many cases, inhumane"

6. Activism Is About Practicalities As Well As Spirit

Occupy Wallstreet Movement, Manhattan, 2011  

Throughout the book, Lisa includes ‘OUT OF THE TOOL BOX’ sections of tips and advice about the nitty gritty practicalities of taking action. A lot of planning and resources go into her work and she is tactical, savvy and specific about this side of activism too. 

Here are a few snippets from her ‘Materials for a Week of Action’ box. It is not an extensive list, but gives you an idea of the equipment required for shutting something down. The list includes:

  • Promotional materials. This refers to objects like public fliers, social media campaigns, posters, online and newspaper ads, reports, press releases, the list is long!
  • Art Space Materials, such as big sheets of cardboard, bedsheets, paint, duct tape, bamboo poles for flags, paintbrushes, tool kits, puppets. Any visual material you can think of can be used. 
  • Materials for marches. In order to plan a successful march, you’ll need things like: route maps, banners, anything that makes noise like whistles and drums, cameras, chant sheets, chalk for leaving messages.
  • Food and Beverage Needs: You need to keep the strength of the protestors up with food for meetings, training sessions and action days. Any restaurants that might be willing to donate food need to be contacted and arrangements made. People also need to be on hand to go on runs to fetch things like water and cereal bars. 

Tactical Communication Materials. This covers items like phones, bikes, runners and radios. Information with which to communicate over social media, flags and phone numbers are also important.

woman talking in a crowd
“Multiplying our strategies and tactics means multiplying our power”

7. Action Mottos Keep You Going

Water Is Life Movement, Standing Rock, North Dakota, 2016 

Mottos, refrains and sets of self-imposed rules run through Shut It Down and Lisa’s story. They have kept her inspired and on track through the years. One of her favourites is the acronym used by the United Farm Workers: ‘AHUY!’

The letters stand for:

ANGER: Righteous anger that exposes injustice and propels action.

HOPE: That another world is possible and that together we can make things better.

URGENCY: Knowing that injustice has existed for hundreds of years, yet we still need to act in the now, continuously, to mitigate damage while creating alternatives.

YOU can make a difference. Not tomorrow, not when you are braver, but today. You already have everything you need!

This captures that spirit of conscious organising for Lisa, and she often returns to it.

Shut It Down is published by Chelsea Green Publishing and is out now.

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