Rebuilding Activism From The Ground Up

Photo by Ryan McGuire
Photo by Ryan McGuire

I. I recognized a familiar sound
I’d just finished working with a personal training client near Central Park before hopping on a downtown R train. Over my shoulder was a canvas bag holding five “FOR packs.” Each of these packs contained food and supplies for homeless women on the streets of Manhattan. FOR is the moniker I bestowed upon this venture (name subject to change as I move towards non-profit status). It stands for Female-Oriented Relief and is my way of making myself useful in a direct manner — a small gesture of giving back to the most oppressed class on this planet: females.

After de-boarding the R at 34th Street, I slowly strolled in the shadow of Macy’s (the world’s largest store), my eyes scanning the landscape. There are homeless men everywhere and they’re not hard to find. They’re men, after all. They yell, sing, dance, play instruments, impose themselves into your space, harass women, and generally colonize their immediate surroundings. Like I said, they’re men.

Homeless women, on the other hand, are virtually invisible. 

As I approached 7th Avenue, I recognized a familiar sound, a sound that could once make my rebel heart skip a beat: The rhythmic chanting of a protest in process. A few more steps and I could make out the words: “One ugly woman! Fifty dead animals!” Yep, it was an anti-fur demo — ostensibly designed to challenge the policies of the world’s largest store. 

In precisely the same instant, my awareness honed in on two people. To my right, crouched into a long-sealed Macy’s doorway was a young homeless woman. Directly in front of me strolled a middle-aged white woman in a fur coat, snickering with her friends about the “crazies.” Clearly, she’d been the target of the protestors’ misogynist ire.

After a fleeting contemplation of activist tactics, I focused on the homeless woman. She was curled up close to the famous Christmas windows where dozens of tourists were blissfully snapping selfies, but I couldn’t see her face. The words she’d scrawled on on piece of cardboard began: “My name is Amber.” 

I crouched down and said “excuse me” three times before Amber peeked out with one eye from under her stained hoodie. With a friendly smile, I showed her the bag and explained how she might be able to use its contents. She nodded and reached for it. The movement revealed a tiny bit more of Amber’s face. She was blonde, very young, very petite, and clearly had been crying… a lot. 

It’s heartbreaking and downright frightening how I often see the younger homeless girls only once. Homeless women, in general, may be invisible. But some of them are quite visible to the male predators roaming these streets. Encountering “Amber” on that Sunday brought me to tears. I wondered if I’d ever cross paths with her again.

I stood back up and snuck a glance at the anti-fur protest, making certain I wasn’t seen. You see, I was once their hero. Their articulate and charismatic spokesman. I never missed such actions, even if it meant wearing multiple layers of clothes and toe warmers. I promoted these events, helped with the set-up, took and shared photos, went out to eat with them afterwards, and even gave talks (for free) at related gatherings. Less than three years earlier, in fact, I was the featured speaker at a screening of an anti-fur film at Bluestockings Bookstore (a venue in which I no feel longer welcome).

But I moved on. I moved on after finally learning the lessons I could’ve learned a long, long time ago.

II. SPOT the War!
Even as a young child, I understood:

  1. The war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly unpopular
  2. Being on TV is a really big deal to most people

So, it was while hanging out on the stoop with my grade school friends — just two blocks from the 59th Street Bridge, connecting Queens to the east side of Manhattan — that I hatched a cynical scheme to allegedly capitalize on the above two facts.

About six of us staged our very own anti-war protest amidst the high volume of motor vehicles streaming down Crescent Street on their way to the city (Queens may be one of New York’s five boroughs but, for us, only Manhattan is and will ever be “the city”).

Mimicking the images we saw nightly on our black-and-white TV sets, we made rudimentary signs and posters. One of my fellow subversives wasn’t a regular on the block. He was a little older than me, perhaps a classmate of my big sister. I can’t remember his full name but I do recall that his last name was Castro and that he later became notorious for ending up in the hospital after attempting to ride a motorized mini-bike down a flight of concrete steps.

By the time I was in my teens, I heard a rumor that Castro had died during the commission of a crime. Considering how many of my childhood friends ended up in jail or dying young, this was a rumor to be taken at face value. Anyway, I can still see Castro’s chastened expression when I scolded him for a misspelling on his sign: “SPOT THE WAR!” it read. 

I insisted he correct it. With or without proofreading, we enthusiastically held up our protest posters to passing cars and trucks and yelled “stop the war” until our pre-pubescent voices grew hoarse. “Someone will call the news,” I promised, “and we’ll all be on TV tonight.”

Our children’s crusade lasted maybe 20 minutes and, when it neither ended the war nor landed us on TV, we got bored. One by one, we heard our mothers’ voices calling us to dinner from different windows in the tenement building looming above us. Hunger trumped revolution, and the experiment was over. I don’t believe any of us ever mentioned it again.

All the necessary lessons were right there in front of me, so many years ago, but I wasn’t ready to learn. Not even close. Nope, that part would only happen after decades had passed, many other wars were waged, and I could finally recognize modern activism for what it is. And what it could potentially be.

Today, that same anti-war demo or rally or protest or march or whatever would’ve had its own social media event page. It would’ve been livestreamed. And it would’ve been deemed a “success” if it garnered even just one of us a kick-ass profile pic for which we could use the caption: #warrior. 

To help clarify what I mean by “I could finally recognize modern activism for what it is,” please allow me to introduce some statistics about the industry that was being protested the day I encountered Amber:

  • From 1990-2015, fur sales in the United States grew by approximately 50 percent.
  • From 2011-2013, global fur sales jumped by more than 50 percent — from $16 billion to $36 billion.
  • According to the Fur Information Council of America (FICA), the largest U.S. fur industry association, the number of designers who use fur has dramatically increased, climbing from 42 in 1985 to approximately 500 today. 
  • FICA also asserts that 55 percent of the people who buy fur today are under 44, dispelling the myth that fur is primarily consumed by older people.

Clearly, holding signs and chanting did much more to soothe our egos than slow the carnage. Do I still believe fur farms must be shuttered and rendered a barbaric relic of the past? Absolutely. Of course I do. Do I know how to make this happen? Not yet. But I certainly know, firsthand, how not to make it happen.

I also know how unpopular one can become by sharing such analysis. The animal rights scene adored me… until I started questioning our tactics. Those activists built entire identities around the belief that they were dedicated warriors in a battle to empty every cage. Challenging the groupthink got me outcast, slandered, and threatened. This even included some rather creative death threats from the “ahimsa” crowd.

Looking back, sure, I could’ve chosen my words and my battles more judiciously but I stand by my challenges and my ongoing evolution. And I still do. That’s why I’m writing another book. 

I’m writing it because each and every minute of each and every day, individual humans hit critical mass. For innumerable reasons, they reach the proverbial point of no return, accept that they’ve been lied to since forever, and decide they want to toil in the name of creating change. They become activists.

However, there’s a very dogmatic and counterproductive template for so-called activism in the United States and this endless wave of new energy is quickly gobbled up by existing groups and funneled into the same old paradigm. Variations exist but the hive mind reigns supreme. It cuts across all causes. Sure, it’s more pronounced in white males but the template is willfully embraced by the full gamut of activists.

Imagine what might be accomplished if we radical veterans publicly accepted that we’ve made some tragically wrong choices and instead, we: 

  • Smashed the ineffective template
  • Begged the next generation of activists (whatever their age) for forgiveness 
  • Listened to and heeded their ideas

III. But where’s your solution?
Far too many folks imply that unless a critic expounds a specific strategy for change, their opinion is nothing more than worthless negativity. This reaction misses the essential role critical analysis plays in a society where problems and their causes are so cleverly disguised. When discussing the future, the first step is usually an identification and demystification of the past and present.

Besides, of what value would my alleged “solutions” be while we are still in the midst of myriad global crises? I like to imagine if we began detaching ourselves from this necrophilic system, we’d create a space in which we could recognize paths and options beyond our current line of sight.

That said, I have been suggesting a HUGE first step for quite some time now: Recognize how ineffective we are and how badly we need new perspectives, voices, and ideas. How do I know this is a good idea? I’ve been working in the fitness industry for more than three decades, that’s how!

I’ve spent more time in gyms than I can ever begin to calculate. Yes, this choice instilled in me a skewed and unhealthy body perception and heavily reinforced my masculine conditioning. However, there were also meaningful and affirmative life lessons to be learned within those mirrored walls. For example:

Lesson #1: Let the results (or lack thereof) guide you

Whether I was working with a client or working on myself, I was always encouraged to evaluate, experiment, and evolve on a regular basis — based on results

In gyms, I learned how to remain receptive to fresh approaches and ideas and to understand the need for perpetual modification and adaptation. If you’re not happy with your outcomes, you automatically try something else. Let the results (or lack thereof) guide you.

Also, as a trainer, it’s my job to point out to others what needs to be addressed. No one calls me “self-righteous” for suggesting their previous attempts were flawed. When new members join the gym and get an evaluation, they don’t call me “negative” for identifying where changes must be made and work needs to be done. I don’t, for example, focus on how neatly their fingernails are trimmed for fear of appearing “divisive” by telling them about their high blood pressure. Nope, we work together to diagnose problems and to create a fluid plan for addressing these problems.

It’s long overdue we apply such a logical, results-based approach to our resistance.

Lesson #2: Use it or lose it

You may play a sport, practice a martial art, or run, run, run. Your preference might be yoga or boxing or Crossfit or Pilates or spin or old school weight lifting. Whatever you do to exercise and use your muscles will make them grow. And strengthen. And become more flexible. And more enduring. Use your body and it becomes more powerful.

The same is true of your courage. And your will. And your love. Use them. Challenge them. And they will respond. They will grow. And strengthen. And become more flexible. And more enduring. Use your justice muscles every day and they will become more powerful.

Lesson #3: It’s not a hobby

It’s a funny thing, working out. You might start out dreading it, even hating it. But if you stick with it and start to see some results and find the method that lights you up, you begin to look forward to it. You will even find yourself thinking about your workouts when you’re not at the gym. You’ll talk about your workouts and encourage others to get involved. And they will. Soon, they’ll be talking about their workouts even when they’re at school or work or out socializing.

It can be the same when you resist oppression. You may begin such work as a reaction or even a resolution. At first, it will be challenging. But if you stick with and start to see some results and find the method that lights you up, you begin to look forward to it. You will even find yourself thinking and talking about your activism all the time.

You’ll wake each morning on a mission. You’ll go to bed each night knowing you did the work. 

Lesson #4: The more resistance you handle, the stronger you get

Do the work. Every single day.

IV. I’m no angel
Later that day near Macy’s, after I dodged the anti-fur crowd, I crossed paths with a black homeless woman who was at least 60. I asked if she’d like a bag of supplies. Her face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. “Oh my,” she said in a Deep South accent, “you’re an angel to do this.” I was immediately disarmed and entranced by her positive energy.

I asked if I could typically find her in that spot. She said yes so I asked if there was anything particular I could bring her. She replied: “I’ll take whatever you bring me, angel. It’s just so nice of you.”

She did a curtsy of sorts as we made our introductions. She was Lilly Mae. I told her my name but she said again: “I’ll just call you angel. I met an angel today.” I was utterly flabbergasted by Lilly Mae’s kind words, shook her hand, and urged her to be extra careful. I promised her I look for her again and she just waved and said, “Goodbye angel and thank you again!”

I’m no angel. But, after falling hard for the “activism” template, I’m now choosing to focus my skills and gifts more productively. And I suggest you do, too. 

What does that mean for me, for you, and for the world? 

I say we find out… 

Donate to FOR here, and please spread the word!

Mickey Z. is currently writing two books, a political memoir called How to Change Minds & Influence the Future: Rebuilding Activism From the Ground Up (Microcosm Publishing) and a graphic novel entitled stain red. In the meantime, he can be found here.

Rebuilding Activism from the Ground Up by Mickey Z. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at


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