Art as Resistance: David Solnit
“I don't think simply using arts will win, but I think using art strategically when you're amplifying the stories of people who are impacted by a struggle, and you work closely with the organizations or movements that are fighting the struggle, I think there's a place for art to really amplify and win.”
Andy Currier (AC): Hello and welcome back to the Oakland Institute podcast — my name is Andy Currier and I’m your host for today’s episode. The past decade has seen the number of non-violent protests movements surge around the world. The rapidly escalating climate crisis has intersected with a reckoning with the institutionalized disregard for black and brown life in America. Energized climate protests and the Black Lives Matter movement have taken to the streets to bring about change. Given the lack of action taken by those in power, they will likely only continue to grow in the months and years to come.
If you’ve participated in any actions over the past decade, chances are you’ve seen the work of today’s guest, Oakland Institute Senior Fellow David Solnit.
David Solnit is a climate justice, global justice, anti-war, arts, and direct action organizer, an author, a puppeteer, and a trainer. He was a key organizer in the shutdowns of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and in San Francisco the day after Iraq was invaded in 2003. David Co-founded Art and Revolution, a movement using culture, art, giant puppets and theater in mass mobilizations for popular education and as an organizing tool. He has co-created visuals for the campaigns of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, National People’s Action and numerous mobilizations and actions in the US and around the world. David also works with Courage to Resist, an organization supporting resistance to war and empire by former soldiers.
Thanks so much for taking the time to join me today, David. Now, your bio is quite impressive. And it contains many definitions of who you are. What do you say when someone asks, what do you do in life?
David Solnit (DS): I've been a carpenter for 30 years of my life, and I still do some construction. And that's how I've made a living. And up until recently, that was how I supported myself. Just in the last six years, I've tried to figure out how to be able to organize and support movements with art and not have to work in construction. So it's been doing contracts with nonprofits, and we're trying to find ways to, you know, pay rent and bring in some food and living money.
AC: How did you first become involved in activism? What was that first cause that got you to take action?
DS: I was in high school in Portland, Oregon. President Carter in 1979, just a few years after the Vietnam war stopped — five years after something, he brought back registration for young men when they turned 18, to register for military service or the military draft. And, you know, at the time, the US was funding the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet entrance into Afghanistan, and there was an oil crisis. And so many of us thought there was going to be a war for oil, and that we are going to be the cannon fodder sent over to fight, you know, like the recent generation who had been sent to Vietnam to maintain US Empire. So, kids in my high school and every high school in our city started to organize and created a network of all the high school groups and did demonstrations and education and, you know, got the sport school board to pass resolutions, you know, and then also, on a cultural level, at the same time, there was a cultural rebellion in many sectors. For young folks punk rock was just coming up and, you know, kind of rebelling against corporate music culture, and saying, we can make our own culture and we reject a lot of things about the system. Both those things were big influences.
AC: So moving forward to the Battle of Seattle in 1999. It's been over 20 years now, what do you reflect on the most as a key organizer in the shutdown of the 1999 WTO meeting? What can you share about this historic moment of people's resistance? And how might it be relevant even now, 20 years later.
DS: I think one thing is that there's a power when people in the Global North in the US, in particular, join, you know, in solidarity with movements from the South, which we saw ourselves as, like, we were stepping up and joining the more developed movements of the South that had been resisting corporate globalization in many forms for years and decades. You know, first, notably, the Zapatistas rising up against the implementation of NAFTA a few years before. So I think that's one thing of the power of acting in solidarity with Global South and others just that, uh, ordinary people can, can rise up and rebel and make change that ordinary people how power and when we organize ourselves and act with some strategy, we can actually change things and that, you know, on the shoulders of the global south movements, that helped to derail that WTO Summit. It helped to unravel the global one percent's "plan A" for how they were going to run the world — using the WTO as a central vehicle to override communities and countries trying to protect themselves from unregulated corporate power through local state and national worker protection, environmental protection and human rights protections. And so, you know, so they didn't win their "plan A", because we were in the streets and people all over the planet were in the streets, and acting with some strategy and disrupting it and, you know, also breaking the facade that people in the United States and the Global North supported the way things were headed. And significantly, we centered the use of arts in the organizing. The direct action shutdown was initiated by a network of artist’s collectives, called Art Revolution, a collective up and down the West Coast. We sort of came up with a basic plan of having action convergences and planning for mass direct action shut down, but also centering arts in our organizing and education.
AC: So, speaking of the art projects that you've been a part of, and we will include a link to your social media pages, so listeners can see these incredible works firsthand. In a past interview, you said that "using the arts, visual art, music, song poetry, spoken word performance crafts culture, can perhaps most effectively change the stories or narratives needed to win changes." Why is it important to change the popular narratives or framing used by those in power? And how does art help reframe these debates?
“We are in an epic battle over whose story will dominate and whose story will fill the consciousness of people in our community. So if we're not better storytellers than our opponents, you know, we lose.”
DS: I think humans understand the world through stories and through narratives, you know, it's not that those are the only ways to carry facts and analysis and understand things, but that, you know, if you want to explain your data, to tell it through an actual human story, is most powerful. The arts, I think, are the most powerful way to tell stories. Theater and poetry and music and visual arts, you know, and those skills. Those arts really sharpen our ability to tell stories. It's called narrative strategy that we're involved with. We are in an epic battle over whose story will dominate and whose story will fill the consciousness of people in our community. So if we're not better storytellers than our opponents, you know, we lose. And people believe the status quo stories, you know, and we're up against, you know, the folks in power have 100 years of developing media manipulation, propaganda, and public relations, to attempt to control people. Edward Bernays, who was sort of the grandfather of modern propaganda, whose book was used by Goebbels and Nazi Germany. He was very explicit that this is how we're going to control the masses. And so, I believe we counter that by telling our own stories, but not based on manipulated propaganda, but based on our lived experience, but also to be able to tell them powerfully, and you know, and also to, to have a kind of a democratization of that where ordinary people can lift up their own stories.
AC: So while some may just think of protest signs, you've been active in using things like massive puppets, street murals during mobilizations — what inspired you to turn into this direction? Also, if you could speak to any favorites that you think have been particularly successful that you've been a part of.
DS: I mean I've spent my life working with my hands. And so, you know, when I was young, I wanted to be an artist. But I also saw there was a lot wrong in the world and didn't see how fine arts and gallery art, you know, where if you're successful, you have a gallery show and sell paintings to people with wealth to hang over their couches, I didn't see how that was going to change anything. So I went into construction for a living and organized with all my other time. And then after 15 years of organizing, I realized that our movements needed help finding better ways to communicate, better ways to resist and so I started to invite artists and performers to help us shape our actions in a different way than conventional protests. That really had a power that reached people, inspired people, and also allowed people to help create what the actions look like, and make art themselves and work together to make things with our hands. So I think there was, there was a power in that. And so I don't think simply, using art will win. But I think using art strategically, when you're amplifying the stories of people who are impacted by a struggle and you work closely with the organizations or movements that are fighting the struggle, I think there's a place for art to really amplify and win.
“And the Governor who had refused to return the phone calls of the farmworkers, on their way home driving back from Tallahassee, they received a call from the Governor's office requesting a meeting at their earliest convenience. And we believed it was due to the images of the silent theatre, dramatizing the story of the farmworkers. So that was a case where using the arts was able to amplify their struggle and win a victory.”
One story that illustrated this for me, I've been working for over 20 years with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, low wage, mostly tomato pickers, farm workers from South Central Florida. And they've suffered, you know, decades of modern day slavery where workers were held against their will. And there was a case, I think, about 10 years ago, where there was a group of farmworkers who were literally shackled in a box truck at night and forced to work during the day. And so the Coalition of Immokalee Workers helped to free them and they've campaigned for many decades to try and stop these practices. And so they asked the Governor of Florida if he would speak out and condemn it, and he wouldn't return their calls. When they reached the head of the Agriculture Department, he said, "well, it's good, there's not that many cases, it's not a big deal." So they said that was an inadequate response. And then they held an action in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida, and they asked me to help a little bit on the props for the art. Farmworkers use a tradition called Mistica, silent theater with no words, just silence or music. It's a Haitian and Brazilian tradition. And so they created a Mistica of what it was like to live under slavery as a farm worker and being forced to work in the fields all day and shackled. And they just repeated it on the steps of the state capitol for three hours, while allies spoke out. And that really, there's some power to that. We created a cardboard box truck that was life size and actual shackles and a theatrical dramatization of what the life was like. And it got picked up by the media by TV and described in the newspapers because it was so compelling. And the Governor who had refused to return the phone calls of the farmworkers, on their way home driving back from Tallahassee, they received a call from the Governor's office requesting a meeting at their earliest convenience. And we believed it was due to the images of the silent theatre, dramatizing the story of the farmworkers. So that was a case where using the arts was able to amplify their struggle and win a victory.
AC: That's a great example. And it's rewarding to see such an immediate impact that the action had. So, from your work, mobilizing against globalization, and the war in Iraq, you've protested against banks and fossil fuel companies, as well as large corporations exploiting their workers, as you just mentioned. So to listeners who may at first think that these are separate issues — that someone would just focus on one of them — what common threads in these movements have you identified?
DS: I mean, I think there's a historic and fundamental conflict between communities and concentrated power in the form of, you know, the dominant form being corporate capitalism and neoliberalism these days. I think most people want to have healthy families and the stuff they need for their communities to flourish, clean air and water, a place to live, health care, all that stuff. There's been a historic conflict between people being able to stay in their communities and elites concentrating wealth through, you know, capitalism, feudalism, and so forth. And so, I think that manifests itself in imperial wars, in corporate globalization, you know, and now, sort of the, the cutting edge is over the, the very existence of our ability to sustain life as humans on the planet through climate change, where they've sort of, you know, what they've done on a smaller scale, which is wreck lives and wreck communities to squeeze out profits they've now done with the entire planet. So we're in an epic battle for the survival of our species in our ecosystems. The hope is that we can save the planet through decolonization and climate justice to also win a much better life for our communities all over the world.
AC: And now, for listeners who aren't as familiar with the Defund Line 3 campaign, could you speak to the background of this mobilization, and also how art has been a critical part of this movement?
DS: Line 3 has become sort of the flagship struggle, the most visible struggle against the fossil fuel industry in the United States. And it's a tar sands pipeline that would run through Minnesota, crossing Indigenous lands, and, you know, all pipelines spill. So that pipeline ran through a lot of the Indigenous territories where, for thousands of years, people have gathered wild rice. So it would likely wreck those. So it is an Indigenous led struggle in Minnesota that has been hugely effective in really escalating the battle. And so, you know, a lot led by our Indigenous comrades up in Minnesota, art has been a super central part of it, you know, and those of us who don't live in Minnesota, have been doing working with the network, Stop the Money Pipeline, we've been doing a campaign to defund the pipeline by getting banks and investment institutions to take their money out, which is also a great way to engage our communities, because everyone has a bank in their community that they can do an action at. And so art has been a central part of that. One project I was involved in was with the NDN Collective, we asked 10 artists, Indigenous and moving artists around North America to create 10 poster designs, we printed them up as newspapers and we shipped out 8,000 of them to 500 different activists and communities and all over the country. They were wheat pasted in around communities on the front of banks used as picket signs, pop up art shows, so it was an enriching way to bring together artists using the language of visual art with community activists, getting those images out and using them in their campaigns.
AC: I think it's good how you mentioned for those aren't who aren't in Minnesota, just all the ways you can still get involved specifically around targeting the money. So I think, you know, we've seen an increase in the number of Americans joining protests recently. How do you think, as someone on the frontlines of these movements, that we can mobilize even more people around some of these critical issues?
“I think there's a challenge for us to, to create organization in our communities, involve a lot of people, get outside of the echo chamber of small, insular groups, and actually really reach out to all the working folks in our community and try and build up mass organizations.”
DS: I think mass mobilizations are important and critical, you know, which we saw with Black Lives Matter movement over the last couple years. I mean, what shifted things quite a bit. But I think even more important is for people to self organize themselves — you know, that wherever you are, you're involved in an organization in your community. and then for those organizations to engage in strategic campaigns where they can win concrete things and build up their muscles to fight and win struggles. You know, so I think there's a challenge for us to, to create organization in our communities, involve a lot of people, get outside of the echo chamber of small, insular groups, and actually really reach out to all the working folks in our community and try and build up mass organizations. Figure out how to fight and win things for our communities. And, you know, and then to create, you know, I think what we've been building on since the anti corporate globalization or Global Justice Movement, which is trying to link together all our different movements into a movement of movements that's strong enough to take on and overthrow corporate capitalism. Which is I think what we're doing right now. We're talking at the very end of the COP , the UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. And, you know, we're seeing movements in every part of the world coming together and cooperating, you know, and being a counter power against the fossil fuel industry, corporate capitalism and the governments that they have captured largely with a few exceptions.
AC: And just to wrap up, what is next on your agenda? We have a lot of listeners in the Bay Area. So is there any upcoming event that listeners can join or a way that they can kind of keep track of, of actions and become engaged on down the road?
DS: I mean, there's a lot of toolkits, we were just talking about Defund Line 3, if you look up Defund Line 3 art kit, you can see the images, download them, and it has a lot of tips. And so you know, one thing people can do is work with the organizations you're connected to or in your community and learn art skills to be able to contribute art, music, theater, dance, whatever your calling is. I largely respond to and support movements, so I sort of follow where they go and try and figure out how to use art collaboratively to support them, and involve lots of people, involve artists, and tell our stories so powerfully that we win.
AC: Well, that's perfect. David, thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions. And, again, we'll have links to your work and sort of what you've been involved with for people who want to learn more in the episode description.
DS: Oh, thank you so much for your time and all that effort.
Links to David Solnit’s social media: