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Shut It Down: Veteran Organizer Lisa Fithian Offers a Guide to Resistance in Era of Climate Crisis

StorySeptember 06, 2019
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Lisa Fithian is a longtime organizer and nonviolent direct action trainer since the 1970s. She has shut down the CIA. She has occupied Wall Street, disrupted the World Trade Organization and stood her ground in Tahrir Square. She has walked in solidarity with the tribal leaders at Standing Rock and defended communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She joined us at the Democracy Now! studio to talk about her new book, which was published this week, titled “Shut It Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance.” Fithian is currently on a book tour and doing a new workshop called “Escalating Resistance: Mass Rebellion Training.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show by looking at how people are engaging in nonviolent direct action to demand action on the climate crisis. Thursday was a Global Day of Action for the Amazon, with protests globally outside Brazilian embassies and the offices of corporations profiting from record destruction of the rainforest. This comes after CNN hosted a climate crisis town hall Wednesday with 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. And on the same day, The New York Times announced it will no longer sponsor one of the world’s biggest oil industry conferences, after pressure from climate activists, including Extinction Rebellion. Later this month, on Friday, September 20th and 27th, youth activists will lead a global strike for the right to a future.

For more, we’re joined here in our New York studio by someone with stories and tactics to share from the frontlines of protests over the past four decades. She was just in the streets of Manhattan yesterday at an action outside Brazil’s Mission to the United Nations. Lisa Fithian is a longtime grassroots organizer, nonviolent direct action trainer, who’s currently on the national team of Extinction Rebellion U.S. Her new book, published this week, is titled Shut It Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance. She’s now on a book tour and doing a new workshop called “Escalating Resistance: Mass Rebellion Training.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Lisa.

LISA FITHIAN: Thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t usually see you sitting in a studio; we see you out at protests. Talk about what happened yesterday. Talk about Extinction Rebellion, the latest group that you are on the board of, that you’re one of the leaders of.

LISA FITHIAN: Extinction Rebellion, for me, right now is the one movement that’s giving me a lot of hope, because the crisis is so great that we do need people rising up and taking action in ways that we have never imagined before and at a scale we’ve never imagined before. And so, when we saw this kick off in the U.K. last year, shutting down the city, blocking bridges for days on end, thousands of people going to jail, it has inspired people around the world. And that’s beginning to build power. Just yesterday even, there were actions on six continents in over 20 countries, dozens and dozens of actions. And, you know, the power of action does change things.

Just part of the action was not only at the embassy yesterday, but some of the groups with Extinction Rebellion, we were out blocking intersections, doing a dance in the middle of the intersection with drums, dressed in black. And it was amazing, the response. People came from everywhere and were just filming it. And when we were done, they were like, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” There was a tear coming down a woman’s face. So, I just think it’s an extremely important movement. I think that — it’s a new movement. It has a lot to learn. And I think anybody with political experience, that’s been in the streets, should get involved and help raise up a new generation.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about specifically — I mean, we’re talking about the slamming of the Bahamas with these climate change-intensified hurricanes, and the fires in the Amazon.

LISA FITHIAN: Yeah. I mean, my heart goes out to the people of Bahama. It was bringing flashbacks to me of being in New Orleans after Katrina and the devastation, the sense of an apocalypse has happened. And over this summer, when the Arctic started burning, I was like, “How can the Arctic be burning?” And then when the Amazon started burning, I was like, “I don’t even know if I can, like, bear what is happening.” And so, it’s an incredibly painful time.

But we can’t let that pain destabilize us. So, again, what I’ve been learning is that when we are feeling afraid, when we are feeling we can’t take it anymore, the most important thing to do is actually reach in and to take action and to do something, because that’s where we begin to get a sense of our power, that we can make a difference. And if history has shown us anything, it’s like, unless we actually organize, we aren’t going to make changes. So, it’s just a critical time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the various tactics. I mean, that’s what you are a master of, is tactics. The corporate media, they barely cover protests.


AMY GOODMAN: But, certainly, getting into the way in which the protests are carried out, that’s way beyond the corporate media radar screen.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your life of activism. I mean, you were there at Occupy Wall Street. You were there in the 1980s leading a shutdown, an attempted shutdown, of the CIA because of the U.S. history of involvement in shoring up military regimes in Latin America at the time.

LISA FITHIAN: Yeah. What we do in the streets is going to make the difference of whether we actually create the change and build our power with more people coming involved. We need to be willing — I always say, you need to be willing to shut things down. When I train people who are maybe trying to stop the destruction, are you prepared to block the bulldozers? Because if you’re not, you’re probably not going to win. And what I’ve also seen is that people are willing to take risks if they think it’s going to be meaningful and important. You know, there’s mass marches, there’s rallies, and that’s all got its place, but, fundamentally, it’s not triggering a sense of power and community that’s going to sustain us. It’s more like a one-off, and that was great, but where do we go from here?

So our tactics have got to be escalating. They’ve got to be beautiful. They’ve got to be telling our story through the pictures of it, which is why when I block bridges, I like to do it with the image of what we’re fighting for, like the bus and funding of education, or going to a key target like we did at the CIA. I mean, the CIA has been behind the destabilization of so many countries. And in the 1980s, both in South Africa and in Latin America, they were destabilizing right and left. And when people rose up, like they did in Nicaragua and actually overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator and began to build a new society —


LISA FITHIAN: Somoza, right — the U.S. was going to — was looking to invade it. And there’s no question in my mind that the people, hundreds of thousands of people across this country who committed to do civil disobedience and shut down federal buildings and went to military installations and blocked intersections, prevented that invasion.

So, what I do know is that we have to be willing to go where we — beyond before. And really, you know, we are so afraid to do things. We get so nervous, because we know that this is a government that will repress and bring violence on us. But that’s why I’m also a trainer, because we can’t just go and shut things down without being prepared, because, again, we won’t be able to build our power. So we have to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually to face what’s going to come at us and to, you know, be a part of that transformative change.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin chapter one with the present, with President Trump, or I should say President Trump — well, at the time, Donald Trump, election night, the crisis we’re in. Talk about the opportunity that you see was created by what you saw as a crisis, the book growing out of a handbook that you called Kicking Corporate Booty.

LISA FITHIAN: Right, yes. So much of the problems that we’re dealing with, you know, go back to the founding of this country, of white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism. And Donald Trump, president, is like the epitome of all of those things in terms of how he is engaging his presidency. And so, we knew in Standing Rock, when he was elected, that our fight to stop the DAPL pipeline would not prevail, because we knew he was going to let it go forward. As so, as he began his administration and moved with the Muslim ban and attacks on people, we saw people rising up — attacks on women, the Women’s March; people shutting down airports. And it was very inspiring. But what we didn’t see is the continued organizing and the continued resistance on all those fights, even with family separation. You know, two years ago, we rose up. We did actions. But then it went away to the next crisis. And so, part of what I think we have to understand is we can’t just react. We don’t win by reacting. We have to go on the offense. We have to, like, dig down deep, organize people, stay on the offensive and disrupt business as usual.

AMY GOODMAN: What does nonviolent resistance mean?

LISA FITHIAN: For me, it’s simply a willingness not to do harm to other living things. It’s a philosophy, it’s a strategy, just like direct action is a philosophy, a strategy. For me, it’s a way of life. And, you know, in this movement work, there’s a historical debate about what is violence and what is nonviolent. And it can become very destabilizing for our movements. But fundamentally, property, for me, you know, it’s not a living thing. In fact, the way property has been embraced, it’s quite destructive to living things in this country. So, for me, it’s not doing harm, and really having an approach that’s rooted in respect and compassion, not just for humans, but for the planet itself and all the species on this planet.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, and then we’ll do Part 2 and post it online, Shut It Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance, a final story you want to share, or message you want to leave people?

LISA FITHIAN: Yeah. There are so many stories and so many that haven’t been told. I think part of the message is, learn your history. And I try to share history here, because it will inform our future. Get to know the people close to you. Reach out. Every time you get afraid or think you can’t do something, really assess for yourself, because you can do it. You’re probably just afraid to because of what might happen. And again, this book is full of stories, from our willingness to tear down a fence in Cancún, that helped lead to the collapse of the WTO in 2003, to the people in Ferguson rising up in fierce resistance to violence and oppression, to people coming to New Orleans after Katrina and organizing in the face of a complete militarized state to take care of one another and make sure that people got the basic necessities met. So, you know, Dr. Martin Luther King called it the “beloved community.” We can’t do this without one another. We are all we really have.

AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Fithian, thank you so much for joining us. And, people, look for Part 2 online at democracynow.org under web exclusives. Lisa Fithian, longtime organizer, her new book, Shut It Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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