A review of Beautiful Trouble edited by Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Beautiful Trouble
edited by Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell
Between the Lines
2014, ISBN 978-1-77113-1-159-9

Beautiful Trouble, subtitled “A toolbox for revolution”, presents creative ways of drawing attention to injustice. “If deployed thoughtfully,” write its “assemblers”, Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell, “our pranks, stunts, flash mobs and encampments can bring about real shift in the balance of power… Creative action gets the goods.” Andrew Boyd, an author and activist, led the ten year satirical media campaign, “Billionaires for Bush”. Dave Oswald Mitchell, a writer/ researcher, edited the Saskatchewan based magazine, Briarpatch, from 2005 to 2010.      

Beautiful Trouble began as a website, and beautifultrouble.org is the “fullest expression of the project,” say the editors. Over seventy individuals or groups contributed articles. Contributors’ names are listed with the articles in the index, with author bios at the end. The book is organized into five categories of content: Tactics (types of action); Principles (insights); Theories (big picture concepts); Case Studies (examples) and Practitioners (groups and individual activists). Each article runs two to four pages, and is cross-referenced to other categories. The article on “banner hanging”, for instance, has side bars indicating who has practised the tactic (e.g. Greenpeace), the principles behind the action (“Show, don’t tell.”) and the theory behind the action (“Ethical spectacle.”) Other tactics range from well-known ones like the sit-in, the vigil, the general strike, the blockade and the trek, to newer ones like media hijacking, icon-altering, guerilla projection, image theatre, invisible theatre, and flash mobs, to name a few.

The “Principles” range from pithy to profound, including tips like “Don’t dress like a protester” and deeper matters like “Take leadership from those most impacted.” This latter principle means that those on the receiving end of a great injustice have the most to gain from a successful action but will bear the brunt of a failed one. They know the problem and potential solutions better than outside experts do, and their knowledge must be heard and respected within the movement.

“Take leadership with those most impacted” ties in with two big picture ideas in the “Theories” section. A number of innovative radical thinkers including Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Noam Chomsky and Paolo Freire who wrote about the expertise of everyday people and the role of intellectuals in serving social change were the sources for Zach Malitz’s article, “Intellectuals and Power”.

The capability of everyday people is shown in many of the Case Studies that form the next part of Beautiful Trouble. One outstanding example of ordinary folks taking a theatrical and prefigurative actions the mothers’ sit-in at a Rhode Island low income housing project, where the authorities were dragging their feet about establishing a day care centre. The women occupied the housing director’s office, brought their children and turned the office into a day care program, with much attention from the media.

Omitted from the book are some interesting Canadian “case studies”, such as the Relief Camp Workers’ Strike and the subsequent On-to-Ottawa Trek of 1935, which involved worthwhile tactics and organizational principles. The more recent, decade-long struggle against dumping Toronto garbage into the Adams Mine pits in Northeastern Ontario, the subject of a recent book by New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, was also left out. The compilers note that some material on the site was omitted from the book because of time and space considerations.

One Canadian case study, the unforgettable “Teddy Bear Catapult” at the Quebec City protest against the April 2001 free trade summit, made it into the book, along with other memorable events like the 1999 Battle at Seattle, the 2011 Tar Sands Action in Washington, D.C., and the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin legislature. In many instances a total victory was impossible, but the actions were worthwhile for raising awareness and radicalizing radicalized people.

Including historical non-violent actions shows that today’s activists are part of an illustrious tradition. In her article on the 1930 Salt March, for instance, Nadine Bloch analyzes and explains this clever tactic in support of the Indian Independence strategy. Appointed by the Indian National Congress, Mahatma Gandhi originated the idea of a march to the ocean to make salt from sea water, in defiance of the British monopoly on salt production. He and his advance organizers framed the trek as a spiritual march thus appealing to Indian tradition and gaining widespread support. A trek by its nature picks up followers as it progresses. Anyone who could go to the sea could participate. The majority of people were poor and seriously affected by the cost of salt. By bringing together people of all castes, Gandhi’s inspired action “prefigured” a new way of life in India. Finally, it put the target, the British colonial administration, in a “decision dilemma.”

Urging readers to visit beautifultrouble.org, Boyd and Mitchell want reader participation to keep the site “abreast of emerging social movements and their tactical innovations.” Someday, probably, there will be a Beautiful Trouble 2. But Boyd and Mitchell remind readers that actions speak louder than words: “These ideas are nothing until they’re acted upon,” they conclude. “We look forward to seeing what you do with them.”   Ruth Latta’s books, which include They Tried: The Story of the Canadian Youth Congress, and Grace MacInnis: a woman to remember, are described on http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.

Ruth Latta’s novel, The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Canada, Baico, 2012) is available at baico@bellnet.ca. For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.