Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

The Accidental Activist

Sara Marcus


The conservative counterrevolution in American politics has its roots, so the story goes, in a broad-based revulsion at the radical excesses and battles of the 1960s. That long right-wing ascendancy continues today in free-market supremacy and hyperindividualism: in sum, a wholesale repudiation of ’60s-movement values. This plot has become the conventional account of the era. Like any master narrative, though, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Amid the rightward shift, a host of radical movements flared as well—gay rights, women’s liberation, Puerto Rican independence, prisoners’ rights—suggesting that the idealism associated with the ’60s remained relevant long after Kent State and Altamont supposedly brought that era to a close. It is this idea of a “long ’60s,” across which activisms morph and survive, that Michael Stewart Foley aims to expand upon in Front Porch Politics. Here, Foley trains his gaze on the lesser-known community-organizing endeavors that surged in the ’70s and ’80s, taking shape around bread-and-butter issues like jobs and housing.

By chiefly examining small-scale, local efforts, Foley builds a case that the ’60s movements influenced civic action across the political spectrum, changing the look of democracy in the United States, at least for a while. These campaigns, he writes, “demolish the myth that Americans retreated from activism after the Sixties” and “demonstrate how little it matters whether Americans identify as conservative or liberal when the question before them is the safety and security of their families, their homes, and their dreams.” He pulls together dozens of stories that until now have been narrated mostly in single-group or single-issue case studies: homeless families squatting in abandoned buildings in Philadelphia until the city sells them the houses for a song; farmers in Minnesota using slingshots to destroy the glass insulators on a power line that runs across their land; Love Canal residents who, having been temporarily put up in motels by the state of New York,refuse to check out of their rooms until the state agrees to buy their toxic waste–ridden houses and relocate their families.

This is what Foley means by “front porch”: local issues that hit hardest at home, spurring people to band together against perceived threats to their quality of life. The “accidental activists” (as he calls them) who led these campaigns are the main heroes of his story. And, though they took pages out of the ’60s playbook, not all of them pursued progressive causes: Black families fighting to hold on to their homes in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, are front-porch activists, but so are white antibusing advocates in North Carolina singing “We Shall Overcome” as they vow not to send their kids to racially mixed schools.

What they all shared was a trust in the power of collective action and a belief that government was not going to solve their problems—tenets that are, in Foley’s estimation, direct legacies of the ’60s. And their efforts, he writes, added up to a vigorous public practice of democracy rarely seen in our current age of “politics as spectatorship,” when “the prospect of successful political action in the service of shared goals seems almost laughable.”

Foley has done important work by assembling these disparate histories into a single, readable volume. And his snappy formulation of “front porch politics”—the glass-half-full counterpart to Daniel Rodgers’s 2012 analysis of the same political era as an “age of fracture”—helps to advance an understanding of the era that cuts across well-worn ideological lines. His focus on accidental activists is helpful, too, in challenging the easy opposition of extreme politicos and complacent Middle Americans: Once upon a time, even Middle Americans held marches and staged sit-ins. Yet this model risks oversimplifying the issues. Foley’s assertion, for instance, that ACT UP members were merely “pushed . . . out of their homes and into the streets” in the ’80s by the “existential threat” of AIDS downplays the role of the veteran organizers who brought their expertise to the new organization, and points to a problem that doubtless underlies many of his other narratives as well.

Plus, belying Foley’s argument about people practicing nongovernmental self-help, many of the most successful groups in the book won only when they figured out how to put effective pressure on their elected officials. African Americans in South Central LA derailed the building of a trash incinerator by ousting the city-council president, for example. And ACT UP’s protests forced the FDA to speed up its testing of AIDS drugs.

Foley consistently plays up the central importance of citizen action, even when it fails, as many of the campaigns in the book ultimately did. And this bias distorts the thrust of his argument: He laments the passing of front-porch politics (and exaggerates the death of community organizing in the process), but he doesn’t fully address the paradoxes in his own stories. If activism switched from principled visions of society-wide transformation to matters of parochial self-defense, how does this relate to the rise of privatization that he wants to see as separate? And when so many of these campaigns were ultimately defeated by the superior powers of corporations and government, what is it, precisely, that makes the model worth celebrating? These are not rhetorical questions. They have many possible answers, and Foley’s decision not to seriously consider them represents a missed opportunity.

In the end, Foley’s tales of organizing and defeat have more to say than he seems to realize. They show that building movements capable of surviving setbacks, and sustaining a democracy with an ongoing role for popular involvement, requires more than merely accidental activism. It demands strategy that goes beyond matters of immediate or local concern. It calls for a broad institutional memory that extends past the most recent tactical victory or defeat. And it requires a vision of social change that sees much farther than the front porch.

Sara Marcus is the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (Harper Perennial, 2010).

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