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Activists are people willing to campaign for change—who are prepared to be pariahs for their beliefs and who will fight for their principles even when deeply unpopular. KK Ottesen has filled her new book, Activist, with wonderful photographs of and interviews with 41 activists, from Harry Belafonte, Bernie Sanders, and Dolores Huerta to John Lewis, Ralph Nader, and Edward Snowden. Many of these people have devoted their entire lives to their causes. As Angela Davis tells the author: “I continue to be active in the campaign to free political prisoners, the campaign against the prison-industrial complex. This will be with me for the rest of my life. We all need to stand together. That is the only way we’re going to change the world.”
The people in this book are all fighters; many were thrown in prison for their beliefs. One, Edward Snowden, has fled the U.S. entirely. Many don’t expect to win their wars. But they fight anyway. Civil rights activist Harry Edwards says, “the obligation is not to win the war. It’s an impossibility.” But, they must make “contributions in terms of winning the battles that we’re confronted with.”
Several activists mention how taking a stand changes everything. As congressman John Lewis describes his first arrest for a Nashville sit-in: “I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I crossed over.”
Few devote their lives to fighting for justice. Most people keep their heads down and just try to get by. For many, the risks and the costs of leading such a fight are just too high, like going to prison and getting beaten by angry mobs or pepper sprayed by police. Harry Belafonte says, “if the [McCarthy] forces came after me and shut me down in theaters, I could just say Fuck you, you know, I’ll see you in Paris or London or Germany.” That’s why these activists are so important—they risk everything, and sometimes lose everything. They demonstrate courage. They prove that courage and sacrifice really can change the world.
Activism can also preclude pessimism. Ai-jen Poo, a labor and social activist who organizes domestic workers, explains her role is “to stay optimistic, creative, and generative and to be able to see ways forward that are otherwise really had to see if you are wrapped up inside of the suffering.” It’s about the process, and winning occasional battles. All the people Ottesen interviews are realists, but that does not stop them from thinking big or from attacking their Goliaths with slingshots.
“It took me a while to figure out that there was another side here—and that it was winning,” says climate activist Bill McKibben. “And it was not just arguing, it was fighting. The fossil fuel industry… having lost the argument, was easily winning the fight. Because the fight was about money and power.” The enemy is rich and strong, controls the media, and floods Congress with cash. Just getting a counter-narrative public is a major accomplishment for activists.
The point is the fight; the fight for justice, for what’s right for people who may not be quite ready to fight for themselves. “And once you make up your mind, you got to do it,” says Native American activist Clyde Bellecourt. “You got to put your life and your body on the line.”
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