Canadian activist/organizer Aric McBay was the featured speaker on Thursday, Oct. 10, as part of Niagara University’s 2019-20 Social Justice Speaker and Discussion Series. McBay’s newest book, “Full Spectrum Resistance,” explores how activists can use a diverse array of tactics to build effective social movements.
McBay said the inspiration for the book came about in recent years as a number of regressive, authoritarian regimes have come to power around the globe. For social justice activists and environmentalists, the current geopolitical landscape appears bent on undoing many of the gains that these groups have fought for during the last century.
McBay believes this regression is in large part due to the fact that people have seemingly lost sight of the importance of activism and protest.
“Many people have forgotten how we won those rights in the first place, and forgotten about the tactics and the mechanics of social justice and resistance movements,” he said. Elsewhere he noted: “We know from the tradition of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that when people refuse, in large groups, to participate in political or economic systems, it can be really effective. The key factor, of course, is that people do have to participate in large groups.”
Throughout his speech, McBay highlighted a number of historic movements from around the world and discussed not only their successes, but also areas where some of these movements faltered. Among the common pitfalls was a lack of organization and cohesiveness among activists behind the cause.
Quoting activist Barbara Denninds, who said “The challenge to those who believe in nonviolent struggle is to learn to be aggressive enough,” McBay noted that many moderate activists would rather eschew direct actions (direct conflict and confrontation) for indirect actions (educating, lobbying, or protesting for a cause).
However, McBay insists that without a certain degree of militancy, many groups are almost sure to fall short. McBay pointed to the gay liberation group The Mattachine Society as an example: Their unwillingness to create any sort of direct social disruption weakened their cause and ultimately lead to the delegitimization of the group following the Stonewall Riots.
“Social change is almost never made by persuading the people in power. It's not made by convincing people in power that they're doing something morally wrong. It's actually about political force, and by force I don't mean violence, I mean getting in the way of ‘business as usual,’ causing enough disruption that it's easier for people in power to do good things rather than bad things,” McBay said.
During the closing Q & A, McBay was asked what educators can do to facilitate a culture of resistance among students. He said the most important thing educators can do is to tell kids these stories.
“We shouldn't have to hear these stories when we are adults,” he said. “I didn't get taught these things in school.
“Public education is meant to create a certain type of citizen, and to tell a certain narrative, especially about government,” he continued. “In Canada and the United States, this is often the narrative: … the government is there to protect our rights, the government gives us these rights. But as movement history shows, when we look beyond the sanitized version, it's not government that's handing these (rights) out, it's people struggling for them. These are important stories to tell. How people struggled for (their rights) and also how they won.”
He went on to advocate for classroom settings that allow for and encourage small groups of students to be compelled to work together for social justice issues.
“Top-down solutions are often not very effective. It's those grassroots, participatory movements that actually get things done. So giving people the chance to practice how we do conflict resolution, or how do we come to consensus on a decision, or how do we balance different competing priorities--these are skills most schools are not equipping people with. Most activists had to learn these as adults.”
The Social Justice Speaker & Discussion Series aims to spotlight a wide range of civil rights defenders, environmental activists, and political prisoners who fight for liberation “across a spectrum of political and social struggles.” The series is presented by Niagara’s political science department in partnership with the Buffalo-based bookstore Burning Books. The store is co-founded and owned by Leslie Pickering, a lecturer at Niagara in both the political science and sociology departments.