Street Spirit, an anthology of protest that both moved me to tears and really bugged me

Street Spirit: the Power of Protest and Mischief, by Steve Crawshaw is a book that left me deeply confused. As I read it on a recent train ride, I experienced an

Subverting riot police at the G7 in Germany, 2007

Subverting riot police at the G7 in Germany, 2007

alarming level of cognitive dissonance. The uplifting stories of resistance, courage, uprising, revolution etc moved me to tears (something I can best describe as ‘political crying’ — awkward in public places). At the same time, my wonk-mind was shouting ‘how do we know any of these claims are true?’ More on that below.

First, the content. Street Spirit is a coffee-table anthology for trouble makers: thick, glossy paper, lots of photos, and 50 vivid 2-page vignettes of protest and demonstrations from around the world. Feelgood guaranteed (if protest is your bag).

Crawshaw definitely has the T-shirt as a protest connoisseur, with a track record as a senior figure in Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, and a journalist who reported on the Eastern European revolutions and the Balkan Wars. He co-authored a similar collection, ‘Small Acts of Resistance’ in 2010 — in many ways this is an updated, glossier (and shorter) version. It also reminded me of (and quotes) Srjdja Popovic’s wonderful book, Blueprint for Revolution.

Chapters cluster the vignettes into broad themes: passive protesting, using very small actions, confronting violence, the use of humour, satire and the arts. There is a treasure trove of tactics that any activist can mine — holding up mirrors in the Ukraine protests, so the police could see what they looked like (many then swapped sides); ironically applauding the President of Belarus at the same time every week, until the government ending up banning clapping. The endless creativity, humour and courage of activism is indeed deeply moving.

Truth to Power

But don’t read this book expecting a dispassionate weighing up of the strengths and weaknesses of different tactics, or the interaction between protest movements and formal political processes. Crawshaw is in the myth-making game (Alex Evans would approve), creating a narrative that moves people to action.

So, even as I choked back the tears, I was annoyed at being emotionally manipulated and stroppily asking, ‘what about selection bias (he makes the valid point that those in authority can seldom envisage change until it happens, but only talks about the protests that he says succeeded)? What about attribution (the books is full of highly questionable sentences along the lines of ‘this protest happened and five years later the government fell’ — how do we know that Kiev police swapped sides because of seeing themselves in mirrors rather than something else?) Even if a protest is successful, what about what happens next — can we really portray Egypt as an inspiring example given what has happened since protests helped overthrow Mubarak? I’m sure a lot of the activists in these pages had sophisticated theories of change, and I wanted to hear about them. No chance.

Which all highlighted for me the dilemmas around following Alex Evans’ advice, getting less nerdy and learning how to build narratives (myths) that speak to people’s hearts and underlying moral and normative frameworks. I worry that the professionalization of Advocacy and Campaigning (of which I guess I am part) has taken us in the other direction, and I think Alex is onto something. But if that’s true, and is exactly what Crawshaw is doing, why do I feel so uncomfortable?

It’s partly because filling the myth gap does not sit easily with recognizing the importance of systems thinking and complexity. Myths require simple Robin Hood narratives. Good v Bad. A → B. ‘Speaking Truth to Power’. Myths don’t go in for nuance, ambiguity and self doubt, which is exactly what’s required if you care about systems and (in my book) truth.

One way to reconcile the tension is by audience — ‘oh don’t worry, the myths are just for the public, but the wonks and campaign insiders need to get complex’. But that feels deeply patronising and/or manipulative, and anyway, you can’t ringfence messages and audiences like that any more (if you ever could).

OK, OK, I’m a navel-gazing killjoy, I’m sorry. Final recommendation? We all need a bit of a boost right now, so read this book and laugh and cry, but please don’t ignore the critical voice in your head that keeps on asking questions that the book doesn’t even try to answer.