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A New Guide to Making Beautiful Trouble

Issue: 83 Section: Ideas Geography: Canada Vancouver Topics: direct action, Tactics

May 23, 2012

A New Guide to Making Beautiful Trouble

"It's like an Anarchist Cookbook for the 21st century, but without the bombs"

by Sandra Cuffe

Beautiful Trouble was released in May, 2012. Photo: O/R Books

VANCOUVER—Every chair, couch space and rolling computer seat, as well as some floorspace and standing room, were needed to accommodate the dozens of people who came out to the Purple Thistle Centre on Tuesday evening for the Vancouver launch of Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution.

Along with local contributor Harsha Walia, co-editors Dave Oswald Mitchell and Andrew Boyd were in town to discuss the book, a sort of encyclopedia for creative activism. More than 70 artists, authors, organizers and other shit-disturbers contributed entries.

"It's like an Anarchist Cookbook for the 21st century, but without the bombs," quipped Boyd. His other marketing brainstorm likens the book to the offspring of 1960s Yippies founder, activist prankster and writer Abbie Hoffman and community organizer Saul Alinsky, author of the seminal 1971 book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.

Boyd's joking aside, the comparison of Beautiful Trouble to Alinsky's Rules for Radicals has its merits. Both works focus on strategic planning and organizing for effective actions and campaigns. To that end, each of the modular entries in Beautiful Trouble's four main categories—tactics, principles, theories, and case studies—is accompanied by sidebar references to other entries in the various sections as well as to books and websites for further reading.

"It actually came from the field of architecture," said Mitchell of the book's modular organization, derived from the concept of pattern language in architecture. "It puts the tools into people's hands so that they can apply them to their situation."

The collective organizing experience and activist knowledge of those gathered at the youth-run Purple Thistle would likely add up to a few centuries' worth. As people commented on slideshow photos of past actions, such as a famous snapshot of a lunch counter sit-in for racial desegregation in the southern United States, co-editors Boyd and Mitchell described some of the tactics, principles and theories at play in each example.

Local South Asian activist and writer Harsha Walia participated in the Beautiful Trouble project, contributing the entries "Challenging Patriatchy as You Organize" and "Consensus is a Means, not an End" to the Principles section of the book. She had not seen the final edited version of the publication before Tuesday.

"It was all kind of compiled in this wiki-type thing," Walia said of the process for contributors. She added that the book really encourages strategic thinking, reflecting that often when people are organizing, they are not really focused on the differences between strategy, tactics, goals and so forth.

"There's all kinds of ways that we don't really think things through," said Walia.

One of the tactics discussed at the launch was Prefigurative Intervention, an action that creates "a little slice of the future we want to live in." Its common uses are listed in the book as follows: "To give a glimpse of the Utopia we're working for; to show how the world could be; to make such a world feel not just possible, but irresistable."

Walia shared her reflections from a seat at the back of the room alongside some of the women who participated in the tent city that took place during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. At the end of the tent city, housing was found for some 80 homeless participants, but Walia considers it to have been more than just a successful direct action.

"The community that developed at the tent city was a prefigurative community," she said. "A lot of people refer to it as a place of freedom."

Boyd envisions that people will use Beautiful Trouble in two different ways: as an introduction to new ideas for people who are new to activism, and as a sort of reference book for "veterans."

"It's like a network of ideas and principles and tools," he commented, describing the book as "rhizomatic."

"I don't think that it really works reading it cover-to-cover," added Mitchell. "You just sort of navigate by association."

The launch of the book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution will be followed by the launch of a website in the same vein as the design and purpose of the print publication. In fact, blank module formats are included in the book so that anyone can outline a tactic, principle, theory or case study to submit a new entry to the web-based project.

"We will be able to continue to add modules as they come up," explained Mitchell, adding that the website will be just as important as anything in book in that it will encourage activists to think in strategic terms.

Because publisher OR Books is printing the book on demand, Beautiful Trouble will likely not be available at many bookstores anytime soon but can be ordered online.

Mitchell and Boyd have moved on to book launch events in other cities and will be in Edmonton on May 23, but hopefully the discussions about strategic and creative activism that they inspired on Tuesday evening will continue in Vancouver.

Sandra Cuffe is a Vancouver-based journalist and regular contributor to the Vancouver Media Co-op, where this article was originally published.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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