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Activist, slacktivist or inactivist?


Up until about seven years ago I had been an activist for all my adult life.

There was all the usual stuff at rallies and demos. Marching, yelling, making speeches, getting beat up by cops, trying to free arrested colleagues from paddy wagons.

There was paralegal work, prison visits in four countries, interviews and research for the media, submissions to parliament, testimony to committees, presenting evidence before courts and endless meetings.

There was organising community based initiatives to deal with crime without involving police or the judiciary, trying to support the families of death in custody victims in their futile fights for justice, helping to derail initiatives seeking to oppress sex workers or drug users and confronting forensic psychiatrists in tribunals and racist groups in the streets.

I’ve been arrested, publicly vilified, bashed by cops and skinheads, abused by politicians in parliament and had my life threatened by police in both Australia and Sri Lanka.

If I have ever achieved anything substantial it has been to get people out of prisons and psychiatric wards in Australia, Sri Lanka and India. I’ve probably saved internees from almost a decade of accumulated imprisonment when working on my own and many times that when working as part of a group.

Then in 2003 my always shaky mental health collapsed completely.

I tried to carry on with a scaled back version of my earlier trouble-making but it was no good. I’d gone from a highly motivated self-starter to an apathetic lump that on many days couldn’t even get out of bed. Time and again after I’d made a commitment I’d promised myself I’d keep I would just be staring at a wall while my colleagues gave up waiting and went to make trouble without me. By 2006 I gave up making promises. Then moved away to Newcastle. To die.

Ten months ago I recovered, but my activism remains comatose.

I still do a bit of cop-watching.

If I see they’re up to something I observe closely and if they’re exceeding their power or just being arseholesJustice Action card I call them out. Ostentatiously write down name tags and badge numbers. Ask the ranking pig what he thinks he’s doing and what his local area command is. Hand him and his victim one of my old ‘Justice Action‘ cards, telling the latter to contact us to receive advice on lodging a formal complaint. That’s usually enough. Australian cops are easy to bluff – at least when there’s witnesses around – because mostly they don’t know much about the law or the limits of their own power.

If they don’t back off, especially if the victim is distressed, I start giving some lip. Warn them they’d better start getting their stories to match because they’ll be filling out a lot of paperwork about this for the Ombudsman and Internal Investigation Branch. That gets them het up and distracts their attention from the victim onto me. I can usually count on a warrant check being run (I’m squeaky clean. Don’t try this if you’re not), threats of arrest and an attempt to search me that I can usually fend off by demanding to know their grounds for ‘reasonable suspicion’ (the NSW equivalent of ‘probable cause’). We don’t have arbitrary stop and search in NSW, but police dog handlers have trained their animals to give false positives on signal and that’s considered grounds for a frisking or strip search – often a rough one.

It’s been many years since that sort of behaviour earned me a bashing or a pair of bracelets and a trip in the paddy wagon though. Maybe my grey whiskers have conferred me some privileges.

I’ve been pulling that stunt for over thirty years and it usually works – although a variation of it once misfired badly and almost got me killed by police in Mackay, Queensland. The fuckers dumped me at dusk, semi-conscious just around a blind curve in the middle of a highway frequented by heavy vehicles. “Another drunken Abo hit by a truck”, the media would have said. “Smart-mouthing a sergeant while black”, the pigs would have laughed.

But mostly I’m no longer an activist at all.

These days I just type my vehemence over injustice into online forums, cheer my activist former colleagues from the side-lines and make small donations to activist causes when I can.

I’ve become a slacktivist.

But there’s something worse than a slacktivist and that’s an inactivist.

They’re the people who join activist groups but spend more time policing the words and thoughts of other activists than confronting authority.

They can tie up an entire meeting arguing over whether a placard should read “Fuck the pigs” or “Down with police” and why it should be on 100% recycled cardboard. They’ll carefully add up the amount of time each person has spoken then insist on implementing measures to address any ‘imbalances’ they perceive. They’ll call for a vote on whether to buy organic herbal tea or free trade coffee for the office kitchen. And they will demand that everyone else in the group comes into line with their morality and ideology.

Trotskyists are particularly bad with this sort of behaviour, especially if they have a background in student politics or academia, but they are by no means the only offenders. I doubt any of the ones I’ve struck have been undercover police but they couldn’t have hobbled a group more effectively if they had been.

Yeah, sure, as activists we need to be careful to avoid being sexist or racist or transphobic or whatever and we definitely need to do our utmost to be guided by those we seek to assist. But that doesn’t mean we should be criticising ourselves to the exclusion of all other activity. That’s the path to paralysis and ineffectiveness.

Inactivists were sent up brilliantly by Monty Python as the ‘People’s Front of Judea‘ but some people just didn’t get the joke. I’ve never heard of activists voting on whether Chelsea Manning should have the right to have a womb and bear children but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was writing up the resolution right now.

Activist groups need to be self-reflective and self-critical. They must listen closely to their constituency and be inclusive of all their members. Individuals and the group as a whole must check its privileges, especially against those it claims to represent.

But what they don’t need is to become so solipsistic they get their heads stuck up their own arseholes and are rendered completely ineffective.

A couple of aggressive inactivists can do that to almost any activist group.

If you have inactivists in your group try keeping them tied up in tedium. Make them responsible for keeping minutes or something. That will give them a taste of the passive aggressive authority they crave but hopefully keep them too busy to completely derail all other activity.

If that doesn’t work, kick them out. No matter how ‘uninclusive’ it may be.

Yeah, the revolution starts within you. But if you let someone keep it there for fear of having it labeled politically incorrect it will never get started at all.

One Comment
  1. Sounds like the inactivists just confuse themselves with being managers or something, like they are more interested in controlling the group than addressing the causes they are supposed to be serving.


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