Art In Conversation
L.A. KAUFFMAN with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve
But there’s always going to be resistance somewhere: L.A. Kauffman, author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism (Verso, 2017) in conversation with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve
I contacted L.A. Kauffman in the summer of 2017 when I was first hired as the BR senior art editor. Although her book is not about art, it is about direct action and the history of American radicalism since the 70s, and I wanted to talk to her about action in the vile climate of 45. Also, not to stretch it too much but art is often mobilized in direct actions (e.g., Act Up), and some of the better social practice art pieces might be seen as direct actions. (I’m thinking of Dread Scott’s upcoming Slave Rebellion Reenactment—which will restage and reinterpret Louisiana’s German Coast Uprising of 1811, the largest rebellion of enslaved people in American history.)
Although ready in December, I decided to hold onto the conversation and publish it as one of our first web pieces for 2018 because the book, and L.A. herself, like such writers as Rebecca Solnit and her book Hope in the Dark, are such beacons of hope and movement forward. Kneecapped as some of us were on November 8, 2016, 2018 is a time of renewed vigor. For instance, the Women’s March on New York scheduled for January 20, 2018. L.A. and I met at her apartment in Brooklyn so I could also visit the bunnies she cares for; vulnerable fellows in arms.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail): Due to your activism, and now the upcoming Women’s March in NYC on January 20, I wanted to start the new year with your book because direct action and incremental activism such as Black Lives Matter and Ferguson, are even more essential in the age of Trump. I am also interested in what you think of the Whitney Museum’s “An Incomplete History of Protest” which has been up all fall. But we can get to this at the end. For now, introduce yourself to The Brooklyn Rail readers and tell us about the book Direct Action.
L.A. Kauffman: The book is my attempt to come to terms with what happened to the American left after the 1960s. I first became politically active in 1981, early in the Reagan years.
Rail: Were you in high school or college?
Kauffman: High school. And at that point—if you were on the left—there was a big shadow from the 1960s hanging over everything. The myths of the ’60s were powerful; they shaped the discourse and it was very hard to have a distinct identity as a separate political generation or to know how to organize in ways that would have a real impact.
Rail: Reagan’s election was traumatizing like Trump’s has been. It was a shock. I was living on West 86th street at the time and John Lennon’s assassination occurred almost back to back with Reagan’s election. We walked to the Dakota that evening and I remember thinking—The Beatles were one of the things that protected us in the 60s from all the assassinations and violence so the trauma of Lennon’s assassination feels all the more brutal and symbolic. As you were in high school, what distinct identity were you shaping at that time? Where did you grow up? What was your first cause?
Kauffman: I grew up outside of Milwaukee. My first cause was reproductive rights, specifically reproductive rights for teenagers, free and unlimited access to abortion without parental consent. The state legislature was trying to pass a law that would require parental permission, which I thought was outrageous, so I got involved in the National Organization for Women in Milwaukee. It was a city that was big enough for a lot of varieties of feminism, but small enough so everybody expressed that by working through the NOW chapter, whether their politics were aligned with the national organization’s political identity or not. So, there were socialist feminists and anarchist feminists, there were lesbian feminists and many other political strains in the group, and being part of it was an incredible political education for me.
Rail: So, when you left for college, feminist issues were paramount to you. You went to Princeton—was there any feminist movement there at the time?
Kauffman: Princeton was a pretty inhospitable place for women in those days, but there was a small and tenacious feminist movement. I was deeply involved in efforts to push the university to adopt real policies on sexual harassment; the anti-apartheid movement was also quite active on campus during those years, and I attended those actions. More generally, across that period, I was trying to make sense of the larger political landscape around me, particularly, what we meant when we talked about “the left” and what the rise of identity politics meant, which was a central question of the late ’80s early ’90s, as it still is today.
A couple of years out of college, in 1989, I became the executive editor of Socialist Review, based in the Bay Area. SR was a journal that was trying to bridge academic discourse and activist discourse, a place that very much valued public intellectuals. It was also a place where there were really interesting conversations taking place between the left socialist tradition and many of the new kind of radical traditions – not all of them because it was still a pretty white political environment, but it was very queer-focused, with a lot of attention to the new lesbian and gay movements and numerous interesting strains of feminism.
Rail: Well, I’m only smiling because it was where—before your time—they had the temerity to publish Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” in 1985. As you’re describing The Socialist Review at that time, I see why it was the perfect place for such a formative, but not completely formed, essay to emerge. She always describes the Manifesto’s origins as her answer to the assignment from The Socialist Review to write about socialist feminism under Reagan and out came the cyborg manifesto.
Kauffman: I still think of it as having profoundly influenced me intellectually and politically, and it was while I was there that I started working on my book.
Rail: Direct Action began that long ago? What provoked the writing of it?
Kauffman: Yes, believe it or not, I began writing the book in 1991. I was trying to make sense of how the larger left political landscape had shifted and what was new and distinctive about radicalism in that time. I left SR in 1992, partly to work on the book, but the process of finishing the book itself turned into a ridiculously long saga that we don’t have to go into. It took me 25 years to finish it for a variety of reasons.
Rail: But some of those reasons were because you were involved in various movements.
Kauffman: That’s right. Some of the reasons were personal and some of the reasons were political.
Rail: It’s almost unimaginable to think of you publishing it then—before 9/11, before the WTO protests, before Iraq, Afghanistan, and god knows, before Trump.
Kauffman: What originally sparked the writing of the book was the rise of ACT UP and the various movements that spun off from it, because I saw them as representing a genuinely new post-60s form of radicalism. At that point, the book was called Left Out, and the movements I was most focused on were very much outsider movements. I renamed it Direct Action after the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, because at that point I could begin to see how this model of organizing could function in the service of truly ambitious and transformative political agendas. I nearly finished the book in the years around 2000—I was clipping along nicely with the writing when 9/11 happened, which obviously was a huge interruption, as I was living in New York City at the time.
Rail: How did it affect you?
Kauffman: I threw myself into all kinds of organizing work right afterwards, but then also witnessed—among many big changes socially and politically after 9/11— the collapse of the global justice movement, which had seemed so promising in the years after the Seattle WTO actions. It was a fascinating model of anti-capitalist politics that was taking some of the best out of older radical traditions but had a newness and a freshness in the way that it was speaking to people. The global justice movement seemed to be successfully changing the dynamics of a larger conversation about global economic justice, and derailing some of the worst trade agreements, therefore having some measurable impacts. So, it was pretty devastating to see this promising movement just crumble like those towers.
Rail: So, writing became your outlet. I mean, you had been writing all along but post-9/11 you returned to the project of writing a history of radicalism; a history you yourself pieced together because you saw how movements built on each other?
Kauffman: No—on the contrary, that's when I stopped writing, when I put the book manuscript away for more than a decade. I was at Blue Mountain Center, a writer’s colony in the Adirondacks, during the one year anniversary of 9/11, where I was supposed to be finishing the book. I searched in my heart, and I decided I couldn’t keep working on it—that's not where my energies needed to be. It was clear that the Bush administration was going to use 9/11 as a pretext to go to war in Iraq, and I decided the most important thing to be doing was to organize to try to prevent that from happening. I boxed up my manuscript and files at the writers’ retreat, put everything in a closet when I got home, and I didn’t take it out again until 2014.
Rail: Wow. and think of those years, when the need for protest became so much more important. You were involved in organizing the big anti-war protests in 2003.
Kauffman: Yes, that was ultimately what I ended up working on. I joined the staff of United for Peace and Justice and served as the mobilizing coordinator for a series of major antiwar actions starting with the huge New York protest on February 15, 2003, which still stands as the largest single day of coordinated protest in world history. We also held a huge protest outside the Republican convention the following year in 2004. I stayed at UFPJ from 2003 to 2007, where I had different roles and responsibilities. For the huge protests, I was responsible for all the things that mobilized ordinary people to come, from street leafleting to email alerts.
Rail: It seems fortuitous that you didn’t publish it in the mid 90s, because protest, the culture of resistance, are so absolutely essential now.
Kauffman: I decided in 2014 to finish the book as my 50th birthday present to myself. I had done so much research, I had done so many interviews over the years, that it seemed like a shame to let the manuscript just keep gathering dust. When I came back to the material, I don’t know how much of it ended up being new writing—maybe a third, maybe half, of the final manuscript, it’s hard to say. But I definitely had the sense, after all that time away, that I could see connections and dynamics that I hadn’t seen before, thanks to the passage of time.
Rail: What exactly is “direct action”?
Kauffman: Direct action is the whole collection of pressure and protest tactics that are outside the established mechanisms of influence. Direct action movements rarely solve the problems they’re addressing; typically, what they do instead is set things in motion so that others feel compelled to come up with solutions. It’s very much about exposing an injustice that’s been hidden or silently accepted—that’s the classic move in direct action. You sit down at the segregated lunch counter and that dramatizes the fact that there’s injustice here that’s been hidden from view. Or you shut down a trade summit where agreements that will damage people and the planet are being made. Or you engage in direct action right at the site of industrial pollution. The protesters are not the same people who are going to be writing the new EPA regulations on how to handle industrial waste, or drafting better provisions in the trade deal—that’s a totally different process, but it’s catalyzed by protest. Direct action movements are often relatively small, and they're often outsider movements. The central example that I point to in my book of a movement that won big gains against insanely long odds, despite never having had a mass base or any real institutional power, is ACT UP, the AIDS activism movement. The largest demonstrations they ever had were maybe 20,000 people.
Rail: Sounds like a lot, but it’s not…a hundred thousand.
Kauffman: Yes, big marches in America typically draw a hundred thousand people and up. The Women’s March in DC last year was at least half a million; the 1963 March on Washington was 250,000. A movement that can draw 20,000 has a substantial following but it's not a mass movement. In its early history, the AIDS activist movement was really small. It was hundreds of people, but it was hundreds of people fighting for their lives, and the lives of people they cared for deeply.
Rail: The imagery of the gay AIDS person was so demonized in the mainstream media…until Rock Hudson…
Kauffman: There was a zine of the time that was called “Diseased Pariah News,” which poked fun at the truly ghastly way that people with AIDS were treated. And back then, HIV infection was an almost certain death sentence. You would go into an ACT UP meeting and you could see people who were very ill, there were people with visible KS lesions all over their faces and there were deaths announced at every meeting. And people were fighting back with a really unprecedented mix of fierce direct action tactics and very savvy research and knowledge. They really educated themselves about how, for instance, clinical drug trials were structured, so they could propose specific changes to the testing protocols. They pushed to have drug trials be opened up so that people could say, “Yes, I know this drug might kill me, but without treatment, HIV is definitely going to kill me, so I’m willing to take the risk, I want to have the right to sign the waiver to try this experimental drug. Let me be your lab rat.” Over time, they succeeded in transforming the medical system in all kinds of ways, so that millions of people are alive today who would not otherwise be, and many things about the way our healthcare is delivered were affected by what they did. And in our current era, if you look at who had boots on the ground during the fight to stop health-care repeal, and who was really out in front on that, there were a variety of forces in motion, but most notably it was disabled people and people with HIV and from the AIDS activist movement who really put their bodies on the line down in DC, sitting in the halls of Congress to save healthcare for everyone.
Rail: There were such great graphics and visuals too in the AIDS activist fight, because the art world was so affected. Gran Fury was a very important collective, and in the Whitney show, they show examples of those posters. I remember I even had one of the big t-shirts that said “Silence=Death.” Today, because of social media and hashtags, the visual has even more prime importance than in the age of broadcast TV. I think of the great signs that we’ve been seeing at the various anti-Trump rallies. I’m partial to the toddler on her dad’s shoulder’s holding up the abstract crayon drawing.
Kauffman: Well there’s no question that the visual style of ACT UP was part of what made them genuinely new, it was part of what communicated that it was a different kind of movement with a sophisticated approach to change. Different movements make very different choices about how they’re presenting themselves visually. Some movements very deliberately embrace a homemade aesthetic, and some very deliberately use collaborative art-making as part of the process of movement-bridging. That’s really happened in the climate movement, as part of a process of pivoting away from the kinds of environmentalism that were traditionally dominated by white organizers, and by concerns about the natural world divorced from social or political context.
Kauffman: There have been longstanding community struggles around environmental justice, but as a more robust environmental justice movement has arisen, part of the process of navigating relationships between the historically white wings of the movement and those parts of the movement led by people of color has been through art and art-making, for instance for the big climate marches in 2014 and 2017. At those marches you see lots of art that people made together, as opposed to using a model where everybody brings their own sign that they made at home. In the AIDS activist movement, Gran Fury and similar collectives functioned as the art committee, or the props committee, designing professional-looking images for each action. It was a very different approach, it was like having your own movement ad agency. In the current moment, Rise and Resist, which is a multi-issue direct action movement that’s been doing a lot of anti-Trump work in New York and has deep roots in the AIDS activism, has been using a similar approach to produce images for its actions. Often, these choices about visual representation and self-representation correlate to other aspects of the movement. Big protests where all the signs look exactly alike and have been handed out to the crowd, for instance, are often mobilizations where there’s a traditional top-down leader structure, and participants are mobilized as bodies but not necessarily as shapers of the action.
Rail: What are some of the direct actions you’ve been involved in?
Kauffman: I've been involved in a huge number of actions over the years. I'm especially proud of the campaign I helped organize that saved more than 100 community gardens in New York City from bulldozing in the late 1990s. I also helped organize two different smaller campaigns that saved two key New York City public libraries from luxury development. So, I've participated in quite a range of movements, from small campaigns where we had concrete victories to huge, massive mobilizations that didn't do what we hoped—those being the huge protests against the Iraq War. The book is definitely shaped by those experiences—by having participated in everything from small organizing campaigns that succeeded in their goals to big movements that failed to achieve what we wanted.
Rail: And so, Obama was president when you returned to the writing of your book?
Kauffman: Yes, and as I was nearing completion of my manuscript, the movement in Ferguson erupted. So much of the book was already about the relationship between black and white radicalisms in America, and after Ferguson, the story ended up coming full circle in a way I hadn't anticipated it would. One big aspect of the story that I tell is essentially a relay, a passing of the baton between certain movements, where the tactics and techniques of direct action that were development and refined in the black freedom movement of the Fifties and Sixties were adopted and transformed by mostly white movements from the Seventies onward, until being re-embraced and transformed against by movements of color in more recent years.
I had already been tracing the ways that activists of color had been experimenting in new ways with direct action in the environmental justice movement and the movement around police brutality and prisons beginning in the nineties. Most people don’t remember, for instance, that the big protest outside 2000 Republican convention was focused on policing and prisons, on the prison industrial complex. The rise of Black Lives Matter tied the story together in a way that I could have never anticipated. So, part of what I did to finish the book was to interview folks out in Ferguson, some of whom I had worked with in the antiwar movement. So that’s where the book ends, at the moment when Black Lives Matter really goes national as a protest movement in late 2014.
Rail: Where were you and the book on the day of the election in 2016?
Kauffman: Well, the day after the election, when we were all feeling ill, was when I read the final proofs of the book; it was my one last opportunity to make changes to the book I had worked on for twenty-five years.
Rail: That’s almost Shakespearean! How did you keep from going, “Oh my god, now I have to really stop and write another chapter.”
Kauffman: I had always envisioned the book as a story, with a beginning point and ending point, so I didn't feel any need to change that. But of course when I finished the book and it went into production, I assumed like everyone else did that Hillary Clinton would probably be elected. So, when I sat down to reread it after a very different election outcome, I was struck by the degree to which it was a book about how movements have dealt with backlash and defeat, and how they have adapted and found ways of winning meaningful change of various kinds when the main institutional pathways to change are essentially locked. So all I did was add two sentences, that was it; I made no other changes.
Rail: For someone like myself, who is more of an armchair activist if activist is even the right word, your commitment to local everyday incremental activism is very inspiring. I became familiar with your work on Facebook through our mutual friend Jennifer Terry, and our mutual love of bunnies. But your FB page is a source of direct action in the small sense where you are saying, “Let’s not get lost in how hard this is, how negative, how awful,” but more ask “How can I get involved?” You always know there’s going to be resistance somewhere.
Kauffman: There’s always going to be resistance somewhere, and some of it is also just expressive, where people are venting the way they feel. I'm always looking for places where activism is happening that has a real pragmatic focus, that creates or catalyzes meaningful change and doesn't just express dissent. Pragmatism can take many forms, sometimes it takes the form of personal or cultural changes that happens outside of institutions, like the way the process of “coming out” in the lesbian and gay community began shifting the culture long before anybody tried to change laws around marriage. So, I take a very broad view of how we can contribute to the long process of progressive change.
Rail: Indeed. And your book is the story of strategies that have worked, or even if they haven’t worked they’ve led to making connections across other movements where people learn from each other.
Kauffman: Yes, it’s definitely a story about learning, and about people and movements learning from experience and from the movements that came before them. We know we’re dealing with forces far more powerful than we are. The foundational fact of any of this work is we’re outnumbered and overpowered in most circumstances. And when we win it’s not because we have more money or more resources or more institutional power, we win for other reasons: because we're willing to be bold and persistent and leverage our collective power through targeted action.
Rail: I’m curious what you think of the Whitney show. When one walks in one sees all the posters of the anti-war movement in the ’60s, so you have that history, and then you walk around and eventually get to the AIDS stuff. Talk about your reaction to that show.
Kauffman: Well, there’s a lot of really wonderful work in the show, but I felt like, if the show had a specific point of view, other than “people have used art in many different ways to communicate strong feelings about issues of the day”—I couldn’t pick it up. To me there was a sort of flattening of history throughout the exhibition. For instance, some of the antiwar posters were created by organizations for particular protests or mobilizations; some were created by artists as cultural interventions in that moment, such as wheat pasting in the streets; and some of them were mass-produced to be sold in stores and shopping malls as a way of commodifying images of dissent and rebellion, which was where the cutting edge of consumer capitalism was in the ’60s and ’70s. And the Whitney put them all up on the wall without any of those distinctions clarified. So, it was all just mushed together, like, “Oh! Protest!”
People often talk about protest in that way, as if all protests are more or less equivalent, and they’re not. Protests come in very different forms and function in very different ways. Protesting as a category is like a big toolbox, which encompasses everything from one person getting down on a knee at a football game to a million people marching through a city. These different forms of protest have different meanings and they do different work, in much the same way that a screwdriver and a hammer work differently. At times you can say interesting things by taking a broad view and lumping many forms of protest together, but I have to say that I missed it if the show had something interesting to say by grouping together all these different anti-war posters with letters to the Whitney pointing out their lack of representation in the galleries, and with Ad Reinhart’s black void—like it’s a ‘protest’ against representation. I didn't understand the reason for putting all of that together in a single exhibition without discussing anything about the differences.
Rail: And the really odd part too was that the Whitney was the source of protest around the Dana Schutz “Open Casket” Emmett Till painting and there was no mention of the fact that this had happened. It would have been a good moment to talk about such a fresh, and generative, moment of protest, but like you said, instead they have these vitrines to show “see how great we are, we saved the letters from the artists protesting us.”
Kauffman: Right: we’re displaying people protesting us. It’s very self-congratulatory: “Aren’t we so daring?” And then, I don’t remember the name of the artist, [ed. Daniel Joseph Martinez (b. 1957), Divine Violence, 2007. ] with the bronze or brass plaques in the yellow room that have the names of different armed movements. You have the Zapatista National Army of Liberation, and the KGB, and the Khmer Rouge, the FMLN—a huge array of movements that have taken up arms or used violence to achieve their political objectives. But again, there’s a complete flattening there, with no distinction between, say, oppressive governments and people who have taken up arms against oppressive governments, or between armed movements that have massacred civilians and armed movements that have mostly protected civilians. I understand that’s part of the point of that piece, to get you to meditate on the continuities there. But to me it begs more questions than it answers. I don’t know what the analytical payoff is, of putting all those phenomenon on the same level, unless it is to spark a conversation about the differences, which the show never does.
Rail: And it’s almost like the more you know the more you might be able to find that, but the less you know the worse it is because it becomes more about “everything is equivalent.” In other words, it emphasizes the worst element; it brings everything down to the lowest common denominator.
Kauffman: Ultimately, I have to say that the show felt to me like protest as decoration. It pissed me off to go pay $25 to see this show that feels like it’s a mix of self-congratulation and protest art as decoration. Art has contributed in many ways to social and political change, and we know that these changes happens in very complicated ways; part of it is about changing laws and institutions, and part of it is about changing hearts and minds. Art shows can certainly make a political contribution, and the value doesn't have to be reduced to the purely instrumental. I just couldn't tell what this one was ultimately trying to say. And let's be honest: This is not my area of expertise, but clearly, contemporary art has become one of the disgusting repositories of the excess wealth of the 1%, and that's part of the back story of anything that happens at the Whitney (and part of why I resented that $25 admission fee).
Rail: And that’s why the art world is struggling to find a voice right now—not that there’s one voice of course.
Kauffman: I mean, you could say that “An Incomplete History of Protest,” merely perpetuates the aura of glamour that makes art be a safe place that global billionaires can take the money that they’re stealing from the rest of us and park it in an asset. That doesn't mean art can’t make a political contribution. You don’t have to be a propagandist. We need space for visions and products of the imagination that are not instrumental. Part of what art can be doing is just imagining a different reality, and a world in which things are different from what we can imagine achieving in the near term.