critical review essay

pick a film and some readings to write a critical review essay, around 1800 words. the first file includes the film list and the rubric, other files are the readings. also write some notes about the film separately.

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Westside Stories: Critical Review Essay

Essay Assignment Components – 35% of final grade, 5-7 pages
• 1st draft DUE 2/12, hard copy in class.

o Should include essay, works cited & media notes
o You must turn in your notes on the media text, stapled to the end of your essay

§ You can use a format similar to the ones we use for films in class, or feel free to
create your own

• You will select one piece of popular media set in California, either from the Film or Television
Review list below, or you may propose your own piece of media to review (including, but not
limited to a television episode, a film, an advertising campaign, a viral social media moment, or a
public art project).

• This review essay will recap the content of the media under review, place it into the context of the
themes addressed in the course, and give your evaluation of the media ‘text.’ You must cite three
or more readings from the course, and one peer reviewed academic source that is not on the
syllabus. Two or more themes/keywords from our discussions should also be tied in. At some point
in your essay, the following questions should be answered:

o How does this text connect to the larger historical and contemporary story of race and place in

o How do the creators of this work use one of more narrative elements (conflict, characters,
imagery, foreshadowing, assumptions) to influence the audience’s story of California? Put
another way, what is the intervention of this text?

o What gets obscured or left out of this depiction of California? Does this omission matter, and if
so, to whom?

Review Media Suggestions:

• Terminator (any film in series)
• Last Black Man in San Francisco
• Day Without a Mexican
• Medicine for Melancholy*
• Killer of Sheep
• Big Hero Six
• Always Be My Maybe*
• Bladerunner
• Blood In, Blood Out
• Straight Outta Hunter’s Point
• Quinceañera*
• Mosquita y Mari (available streaming

through UCSC libraries)*

For television series, it is important to focus on one
episode in order to generate a detailed analysis.
• Vida*
• Insecure
• Sons of Anarchy
• Snowfall*
• Animal Kingdom
• The OC
• Fear the Walking Dead
• The L Word
• On My Block
• East Los High
• Looking
• Silicon Valley

*denotes particularly excellent artworks in case you haven’t seen them
Peruse these options, or propose something else! Media should be scripted/creative (not documentary or
reality), and widely available on a popular platform (TV, cable, Youtube, Netflix, etc.). NOTE: Films on
the syllabus CANNOT be used for this assignment.

PROPOSAL DUE 2/2 here:

Name ______________________

Westside Stories: Midterm Essay Rubric

Media Notes
q Are notes on the media text included with the essay? ________ /5
q Do the field notes contain detailed and specific information? ________ /15


Media Review
q Is there specific evidence from the media text in the form of quotations,

clear character descriptions or visual description? ________ /10
q Does the author offer original insight into the political, aesthetic,

or methodological intervention of the review ‘text’? ________ /5

Scholarly Labor
q Does the essay cite at least four peer-reviewed academic sources

(3 min from syllabus, 1 min outside)? ________ /10
q Does the analysis demonstrate an understanding of two or more

course themes and texts by making effective use of the sources cited? ________ /10
q Does the essay analyze the use of at least one narrative element (conflict, characters, imagery,

foreshadowing, assumptions)? ________ /5

q Is the writing clear and beautiful? ________ /5
q Are proper citations included? (Chicago or APA format for full credit) ________ /5

1st DRAFT ESSAY GRADE _________/50

Revision Suggestions:

In addition to filling the gaps above and attending to the comments written on the printed copy, how can
this essay be further developed? How can the author move this piece closer to academic excellence?


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Chapter One
“We Desire Only a White Population in California” the Transformation of Mexican California in Historical­Sociological 

In his comparative study White Supremacy, historian George Fredrickson astutely observes that “race relations are not so much a fixed pattern as a changing set of 

relationships that can only be understood within a broader historical context that is itself constantly evolving and thus altering the terms under which whites and 

nonwhites interact.” 1 California’s racial and ethnic patterns give ample support to this understanding of race relations in the United States, and so I want to begin by 

characterizing both the “historical context” within which California’s racialization process evolved as well as the “terms under which white and nonwhite interact[ed].” 

This requires situating California’s various racial histories within the broader history of race relations in the United States and clarifying the underlying social dynamics of 

the new state. In so doing, I want to argue that California’s racial patterns were not monolithic but contained multiple racial histories that were unique in their own terms 

while also sharing elements with the racial formation process elsewhere in the United States


For analytical clarity on these matters it is useful to turn to the important early work by sociologist Herbert Blumer. Writing in a period when sociological analysis 

focused attention on race prejudice as an irrational manifestation of individual pathologies, Blumer recognized that race relations were fundamentally organized at the 

group level, through a “collective process by which a racial group comes to define and redefine another racial group.”2 He suggested that an analysis of racial matters 

“should start with a clear recognition that it is an historical product. It is set
































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originally by conditions of initial contact. Prestige, power, possession of skill, numbers, original self­concepts, aims, designs and opportunities are a few factors that 

may fashion the original sense of group position. Subsequent experience in the relation of the two racial groups, especially in the area of claims, opportunities and 

advantages, may mold the sense of group position in diverse ways.” 3

Blumer appreciated the complex relationship between the stigmatization of social groups on the basis of physical characteristics and ancestry and the struggle for 

“group position” among racial and ethnic populations in this country. In fact, “the sense of social position emerging from this collective process . . . provides the basis of 

race prejudice” and crystallizes “four basic types of feelings” among the superordinate racial group: “(1) a feeling of superiority, (2) a feeling that the subordinate group 

is intrinsically different and alien, (3) a feeling of proprietary claim to certain areas of privilege and advantage, and (4) a fear and suspicion that the subordinate race 

harbors designs on the prerogatives of the dominant race.”4

In drawing our attention to the relationship between racial ideology and social structure, Blumer made central “the sense of proprietary claim” of the dominant racial 

group in the structuring of racialized relationships among these ethnic populations. This sense of entitlement, according to Blumer, rested primarily on “either exclusive 

or prior rights in many important areas of life. The range of such exclusive or prior claims may be wide, covering the ownership of property such as choice lands and 

sites; the right to certain jobs, occupations, or professions; the claim to certain kinds of industry or lines of business; the claim to certain positions of control and 

decision­making as in government and law.”5

Frank Parkin’s insightful work in social stratification theory has also shown how these sentiments of superiority and entitlement to valued social rewards are structured 

historically. Working in the Weberian tradition, Parkin has argued that status monopolies, or “social closures,” have historically served as institutional mechanisms that 

structure and reproduce racial and ethnic hierarchies in this country. According to Parkin, these closures refer to “the process whereby social collectivities seek to 

maximize rewards by restricting access to resources and opportunities to a limited circle of eligibles. . . . This monopolization is directed against competitors who share 

some positive or negative characteristic; its purpose is always the closure of social and economic opportunities to outsiders.”6 At their most basic sociological level, 

then, these closures represent attempts by one group of people to secure for themselves a privileged position in the social structure at the expense of stigmatized and 

subordinated social groups.

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Since they typically entail the creation of a group of legally defined inferiors, such actions represent the use of power in a downward direction and “can be thought of 

as different means of mobilizing power for the purpose of engaging in a distributive struggle” over valued social rewards. 7

These important sociological principles allow us to view the racialization process in nineteenth­century California, and the United States more generally, as a 

contestation over privileged access to either productive property (i.e., physical capital such as land or factories) or positions in a highly stratified labor market. 

Consequently, the broad historical context in which these racial lines were drawn and class­specific relationships constituted provides the main sociological framework 

informing this study.

Racialization and White Supremacy in Historical Perspective

I have suggested that the racialization process that evolved in nineteenth­century California was primarily an extension into the new territory of what Fredrickson has 

characterized as “white supremacy”: the “attitudes, ideologies, and policies associated with the rise of blatant forms of white or European dominance over ‘nonwhite’ 

populations . . . making invidious distinctions of a socially crucial kind that are based primarily, if not exclusively, on physical characteristics and ancestry. In its fully 

developed form, white supremacy means ‘color bars,’ ‘racial segregation,’ and the restriction of meaningful citizenship rights to a privileged group characterized by its 

light pigmentation.”8

Furthermore, Fredrickson argues that this systematic and self­conscious attempt to make race or color a basis for group position within American society was initially 

defined during the colonial period and the years following Independence.9 He contends that such action reflects “a long and often violent struggle for territorial 

supremacy between white invaders and indigenous people” that was part and parcel of the global European colonial expansion inaugurated during the “Age of 

Discovery.”10 Starting with the small colonial settlements of the seventeenth century, Anglo­Saxon colonists established dominion over North America by successfully 

appropriating Indian communal land and transforming it into private property within an emergent capitalist economy. According to Fredrickson, “Land hunger and 

territorial ambition gave whites a practical incentive to differentiate between the basic rights and privileges they claimed for themselves and what they considered to be 

just treatment for the ‘savages’ who stood

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in their path, and in the end they mustered the power to impose their will.” 11

The white colonists contesting the native peoples of North America for control of coveted land brought with them well­developed assumptions about themselves and 

the people they encountered. As Fredrickson has shown, fundamental to these assumptions were the differentiations between Christians and heathens and between 

civil and savage peoples.12 These eurocentric binary distinctions provided the cultural standard by which European settlers initially racialized the “nonwhite” black 

and Indian populations they confronted in America and were later used to differentiate the new cultural groups European Americans encountered during their mid­

nineteenth­century expansion into the Southwest.

According to Fredrickson, the notion of “heathenism” initially “reflected the religious militancy nurtured by the long and bitter struggle for supremacy in the 

Mediterranean between Christian and Islamic civilizations. . . . In the fifteenth century, when Spain and Portugal were in the vanguard of Christian resistance to Islamic 

power, the Pope authorized the enslavement and seizures of lands and property of ‘all saracens and pagans whatsoever, and all other enemies of Christ wheresoever 

placed.’ This harsh and unrelenting attitude . . . was carried by the Spanish and Portuguese empire­builders of the sixteenth century to the New World and parts of 

Africa and Southeast Asia.”13 As a consequence, through the notion of heathenism religion became pivotal in socially differentiating the diverse populations that 

encountered one another in the course of European colonial expansion.

What typically differentiated “civilized” human beings from “savages” in the European mind was whether or not “they practiced sedentary agriculture, had political forms 

that Europeans recognized as regular governments, and lived to some extent in urban concentrations.”14 To these three factors we might add difference in the social 

organization of kinship, gender, and sexuality.15 Fredrickson persuasively argues in White Supremacy that Europeans widely believed that civility was the original 

state of mankind and that “after the dispersal of the progeny of Noah after the flood some branches of the human race lost their awareness of God and degenerated 

into an uncivilized state. Sometimes this descent into barbarism and savagery was linked directly to the Biblical curse of Ham, which would later be used to justify 

African slavery.”16 Fredrickson further reminds us that Europeans drew upon classical thought when making their assessments of the newly encountered peoples. 

Although ”Aristotle had maintained that even barbarians were social beings, Europeans had be­

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lieved since the Middle Ages that some men were so wild and uncouth that they wandered in the forests and had no society of any kind. This category of ultra­

barbarians or pure savages, who allegedly lived more like beasts than men, seemed to many Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century appropriate for 

peoples like . . . the North American, Caribbean, and Brazilian Indians, who were commonly thought to be wilderness nomads utterly devoid of any religion or 

culture.” 17

These were the lines around which Europeans since the Renaissance and Reformation distinguished themselves from the diverse populations they encountered during 

the Age of Discovery. Notions of civility and savagery and clear distinctions between Christians and heathens provided the ideological basis for a social order that 

stigmatized the Indian population initially encountered in New England as well as the West Africans imported as slaves. Fredrickson argues, however, that these 

categories “were not yet racist in the nineteenth­century sense of the term because they were not based on an explicit doctrine of genetic or biological inferiority; but 

they could provide an equivalent basis for considering some categories of human beings inferior to others in ways that made it legitimate to treat them differently from 


Beginning in the colonial period, America’s English settlers drew upon these value­laden notions to craft a collective identity based upon the categories English, 

Christian, free, and, above all, white, and specifically defined in opposition to another, nonwhite category of people, initially Native Americans and Africans. 

According to Winthrop Jordan’s study of this period, White Over Black:

When referring to the Indians the English colonists either used the proper name or called them savages, a term which reflected primarily their view of Indians as uncivilized. . . . 

When they had reference to Indians the colonists occasionally spoke of themselves as Christians, but after the early years almost always as English.

In significant contrast, the colonists referred to Negroes and in the eighteenth century to blacks and to Africans, but almost never to Negro heathens or pagans or savages. Most 

suggestive of all, there seems to have been something of a shift during the seventeenth century in the terminology Englishmen in the colonies applied to themselves. From the 

initially most common term Christian, at mid­century there was a marked drift toward English and free. After about 1680, taking the colonies as a whole, a new term appeared—


In Iron Cages, his comparative study of race relations in the nineteenth century, historian Ronald Takaki has proposed that these opposing identities increasingly 

equated European Americans with the mind and non­

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whites with the body. All that was rational, civilized, and spiritually pure was set off from that which was irrational, uncivilized, and tied to the body. Anglo­Saxon men 

became civilized republican men of virtue, devoting their lives to hard work, frugality, sobriety, and the mastery of both their passions and their lives. The nonwhite, in 

contrast, became the foil for the lofty self­image that white men accorded themselves. They were associated with qualities such as filth or dirtiness, impurity, vice, 

intoxication, and the lascivious indulgence of carnal “instincts.” European Americans projected onto people of color all the qualities of depravity that they had difficulty 

repressing in themselves. 20

White Americans also believed that they needed to control these evil qualities if they were to prosper economically and achieve salvation. In this context, labor 

assumed a spiritual dimension; belief in the dignity of labor was pervasive in colonial America and found its clearest expression in the Protestant Ethic, which held that 

all persons had a divinely appointed calling that expressed their service to God on earth. It was also a way of ascertaining whether they were among those predestined 

to enter heaven. Individual economic advancement in this world was regarded as a Christian duty to which all aspired. Success in one’s calling necessitated strict self­

discipline; to this end, the elect were guided by Christian virtues such as honesty, frugality, diligence, punctuality, sobriety, and prudence. There was no Christian value 

in poverty; in fact, poverty was disdained as a sign of God’s disfavor. It was seen as a product of individual shortcomings and vices such as laziness, drunkenness, or 


The initial distinctions Europeans made between themselves and nonwhites had significance for the social organization of the colonial economy. In addition to assuming 

a divinely appointed, spiritual dimension, individuals’ economic positions generally reflected their racial status as well. Access to various economic opportunities was 

cast largely in racial terms. Questions of who owned property, became property, and entered “free” and “unfree” labor markets were answered in racial terms. These 

associations were not simply the product of irrational prejudices or ethnic chauvinisms: they had deep material moorings in the social organization of economic life.

The English colonial population, for instance, institutionalized labor status distinctions among themselves through the introduction of indentured servitude. As many as 

one­half to two­thirds of Anglo­Saxons who emigrated during the colonial period came as indentured servants. In return for passage to America they provided 

upward of seven years of unremunerated labor.22 Indentured servants, however, were insufficient in

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number to meet labor needs and were expensive to retain; moreover, they often negotiated successfully for favorable terms and freely entered the wage labor force 

upon completion of contractual obligations. Because of these complications, chattel slavery ultimately proved more expedient and profitable than indentured servitude. 

Economic advantage intersected with racial prejudice to forge the equation associating whites with free and nonwhites with unfree labor. The temporary subordinate 

labor status of Anglo­Saxon indentured servants and the permanent, inheritable slave status of blacks put these differences into broad relief. Slavery economically 

subordinated this nation’s black population to Anglo­Americans, and their second­class social and political status structurally ensured that blacks could not compete 

effectively with Anglo­Americans at any level of the social structure.

Unlike blacks, the Indians of North America generally were not seen as a useful laboring population worthy of even a subordinate place in the Anglo­Americans’ 

economy. Although attempts were made during the colonial period to enslave Indians, they proved unsuccessful, because of Indian susceptibility to European­

American diseases, their sparse population in the colonial region, their ability to effectively flee enslavement and exact reprisals, and their unwillingness to adapt to the 

system of production that white Americans had introduced. 23 As a result, in Anglo conceptions of progress, Indians were generally seen as obstacles to civilization. 

They became extensions of the untamed territory Europeans confronted in America. The traditional hunting and gathering of Indian subsistence, as well as their social­

cultural world, were anathema to the society whites were creating in America. Indians remained “savages” and “heathens” in the eyes of the colonial population.

In The Ethnic Myth, sociologist Stephen Steinberg has noted that at its inception the United States was remarkably homogeneous both ethnically and religiously. He 

reminds us that by Independence the colonial population was overwhelmingly white, Anglo­Saxon, and Protestant and that in 1790 over three­quarters of the U.S. 

population had origins in the English­speaking states of the British Isles; 61 percent were of British descent and another 17 percent of Scotch and Irish extraction. A 

smaller number of Germans, Dutch, and Swedish settlers and a minute proportion of other nationalities accounted for the remaining population. Despite the initial 

presence of a few Jews and Catholics, nearly 99 percent of the colonial population was Protestant.24

According to one historian, by the late 1840s most Americans either thought of themselves as the descendants of English immigrants (bound

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together by a common culture and a common language) or as part of the superior, “American” race drawn from the very best stock of western and northern Europe. 
25 The distinctive cultural values and world view of this population provided the normative standards by which other groups were later judged. The language and 

dominant customs of America were English, and all non­English groups immigrating to the United States were expected to conform fully to English culture.

Moreover, at a time when its population was still relatively homogeneous, the new nation decreed that only whites were eligible for U.S. citizenship and access to the 

opportunities generated by economic development. Neither African Americans nor Native Americans were accorded the legal rights and social status of free white 

men. The explicitness of this color line was captured clearly in one of the first congressional statutes enacted after Independence. Debates over naturalization led to 

enactment of the Naturalization Act of 1790, which stipulated that only “free white persons” were eligible for citizenship and the rights held by white men in the country. 

Although this statute imposed restrictions on immigration, its supporters did not want to discourage the immigration of white Europeans. In this regard, Steinberg 

observes that “long before the onset of mass immigration, there was a deeply rooted consciousness of the nation’s Anglo­Saxon and Protestant origins. From the 

beginning, the nation’s political institutions, culture, and people all had an unmistakably English cast, and despite denominational differences, Protestantism was the 

near­universal creed. The early stirring of nativism clearly signaled the fact that however much the nation might tolerate foreigners in its midst, it was determined to 

protect its Anglo­Saxon and Protestant legacy.”26 The symbolic significance of this legislation cannot be overstated. Eligibility for citizenship was not meaningfully 

altered until one hundred and sixty­two years after this statute’s enactment, when the Walter­McCarran Act of 1952 eliminated the racial basis for United States 


The importance of racial status to the colonial and post­Independence economy laid the foundation for its continued centrality during the period of widespread 

immigration to the United States in the nineteenth century. Rapid economic development and industrialization during this period provided the structural foundations 

upon which further economic and social opportunities were systematically granted or denied on the basis of race. In this regard, Robert Blauner has argued in Racial 

Oppression in America that white European immigrants historically benefited from a labor market organized along racial and ethnic lines. In addition to advantages 

gained from voluntary immigration, white immigrants experienced more rapid

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social and economic mobility due to “the association of free labor with people of white European stock and the association of unfree labor with non­Western people of 

color.” 28

This overriding racial labor principle placed white immigrants in the free, wage­labor sector of the economy while relegating nonwhites to precapitalist labor systems. It 

had tremendous implications for the initial employment opportunities accorded immigrant groups and also for their collective movement up the occupational hierarchy. 

From the beginning, European immigrants had a foothold in the most dynamic centers of the economy and rose successfully to semiskilled and skilled positions. Racial 

minorities, on the other hand, were largely denied access to the industrial jobs that enabled millions of white immigrants to attain a modicum of social and economic 


Thus, the racialization process profoundly affected the social positions immigrants assumed upon entering this country. Beginning in the colonial period and continuing 

after Independence, race and ethnicity served as the basis upon which access to particular positions in the class structure was largely determined.30 This was seen 

most clearly in the Southern slave economy but was also discernible in the capitalist sectors of the Northeast and West. The social organization of the economy 

mediated the broad allocation of groups into various class positions. This gave the nation’s class structure in many regions a decidedly racial and ethnic form—

European ethnic groups being disproportionately placed at the upper end of the class system and racial minorities at the bottom.

Historically, differential access to valued social rewards have shaped the course of ethnic and race relations in the United States. Their unequal extension to white and 

nonwhite groups via social closures led to divergent mobility routes and different “life chances” for these groups. Not every ethnic population that entered into 

competition with whites equally threatened their mobility aspirations, nor were they equally granted access to important institutional spheres. It is here that each group’s 

collective attributes (such as their internal class stratification, gender composition, population demographics, literacy rates, occupational skills, employment 

background, physical differences from the white population, collective association with precapitalist labor systems, and explicit cultural factors such as values, religion, 

and ethnic traditions) were critically important. This complex of factors explicitly delineated these groups in racial terms and historically conditioned their mobility 

opportunities and potential conflict with the white population.

These collective attributes primarily served as benchmarks whereby the

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white population further differentiated itself from minorities. These perceived differences became the basis for group stigmatization that ultimately fueled racial 

antagonisms. They also were drawn upon to justify the enactment of discriminatory legislation designed to impede minority economic competition with European 

Americans. In sum, a complex matrix of attributes have at every historical moment shaped the broad contours of white competition and conflict with the racialized 

population in the United States. Let us now turn to how this drama unfolded in California after it passed from Mexican control to that of the United States in 1848.

The Peopling of Anglo California, 1848–1900

The United States’ annexation of California and the momentous discovery of gold in 1848 sparked the rapid immigration of a diverse population into the newly 

acquired territory. It transformed California from a sparsely populated Mexican frontier department to a new state in which European­American immigrants quickly 

provided the mainstay of its population. Population demographers have noted that as late as 1848 the total non­Indian population in California was estimated at 

approximately fifteen thousand, or scarcely one person to every ten square miles. The majority of these individuals were Mexican Californians, followed by a few 

thousand European Americans, who had settled in the territory prior to U.S. annexation, and a smattering of individuals from other parts of the world. 31 Although 

estimates vary considerably, California’s Indian population in 1850 is generally thought to have numbered approximately 100,000 men, women, and children.32

Between 1848 and 1870, however, the state’s population rose to well over half a million people.33 The vast majority of the new inhabitants who settled in the state 

were young and male. According to historical demographer Doris Marion Wright, “In 1850, for example, 73 percent of the residents in the state were between the 

ages of 20 and 40, and 92 percent of them were males. . . . When the census was taken in 1860 the number of females was still less than 30 percent of the total 

population of the state, and ten years later it had increased to only 37 percent.”34 Aside from this stark gender imbalance, another important demographic feature of 

the new state’s early population was the significant presence of a foreign­born stock. In 1850, the foreign­born population already comprised 24 percent of the state’s 

total population. By 1860 the percentage rose to 39 percent and declined slightly ten years later to 37 percent.35 Further, the principal source of the foreign­born 

population in California shifted dramatically

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during this early period. In 1850, for example, Mexico provided the single largest segment of the foreign­born population (6,454 of 22,358 foreign­born individuals 

enumerated on the census; as will be discussed in chapter 3, many of the foreign­born Mexican population were Sonoran miners who typically returned to Mexico 

after the gold rush). The Mexican­born population was followed by European immigrants from England (3,050), Germany (2,926), Ireland (2,452), and France 

(1,546). By 1860, China had become the source of the largest foreign­born population in the state (34,935 of 146,528 foreign­born individuals). Chinese immigrants 

were followed numerically by Irish (33,147), German (21,646), English (12,227), and Mexican­born (9,150) immigrants. Ten years later, Chinese immigrants 

remained the single largest foreign­born population in the state, followed by individuals from the British Isles, Germany, France, and Mexico. 36

The class background of the European­born population was apparently not as diverse as one might have expected. The Irish immigrants who came to California, for 

example, had been displaced largely by the introduction of labor­saving devices in the spinning and weaving trades and by the fluctuations in Ireland’s agriculture 

industry. According to Wright, they were “not of the poorest classes but were persons who could get together enough money to pay for their passage.”37 Speaking 

the same language and sharing the same cultural heritage as Anglo­Americans made Irish immigrants more assimilable than other European and non­European 

immigrants emigrating at the time.

California’s German and French immigrants were also drawn from occupational strata in their native lands that in California were still in the nascent stages of 

development. Many German immigrants, for example, were from farming backgrounds and were more likely to venture into this industry than to seek their fortunes in 

the gold mines. They were described in one state report as “mostly all tillers of the soil, and invariably bring money with them to purchase lands.”38 Their occupational 

backgrounds facilitated their dominance in the grape industry and the grocery business, and their overrepresentation as mechanics and skilled laborers. Moreover, 

being northern European, these immigrants learned English quickly and more readily adapted to the pace of the new Anglo­dominated society.39

Similarly, the French immigrants who settled in the state were not generally impoverished or drawn from the peasant class. Instead, the “majority of those who arrived 

in California from France . . . were largely from the middle class; many of them were skilled mechanics, while others were drawn from the professions. Some came 

hoping to establish commercial

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houses, but most of them, especially during the extensive emigration of the early years, expected to dig for gold. . . . [T]hey came confident that the new life would be 

better than the old.” 40 Unlike German or Irish immigrants, however, the French were not as rapidly assimilated into the Anglo­American population in California. 

According to one contemporary, the French were described as adhering “much to their own habits and society, and seem stoutly determined against acquiring the 

English tongue.”41

The largest segment of California’s new population in 1870, however, were native­born Americans: immigrants drawn from various regions of the country and persons 

born in the state. Unfortunately, Wright has little to say about the class background of this population. She does document, however, their regional origins and notes 

that they comprised 76 percent of the total state population in 1850, 61 percent in 1860, and 63 percent in 1870. According to Wright, most of the native­born, 

American immigrants in 1850

were from the northern section of the United States, although the West was a close competitor. Over the next two decades the West was by far the largest contributor to 

California’s population, while the percentage of residents born in the South grew successively smaller. Thus in 1860 the Southerners in the state numbered less than 29,000, 

whereas there were more than 74,000 persons from the northern section of the country. In 1870 the difference between the contribution of these two sections was even more 

marked; not quite 28,000 Southerners were reported in that year, while the number of those born in the North approximated 85,000.

As we will see, the regional origins of the American immigrant population had tremendous implications for the type of society they sought to create in the state. 

California’s Northern and Western immigrants, who carried with them antislavery and “free labor” sentiments, played a key role in the racial conflict that raged during 

the last half of the nineteenth century. Wright attests to the pivotal role these immigrants played in nineteenth­century California:

Evidently during this period there was little doubt as to what sort of community California was destined to be. It was fairly obvious that Anglo­American civilization would 

predominate, and that, although there might be a number of Chinese or Mexicans or French in the region, the social and political and economic institutions were as clay in the 

hands of Americans from the United States. Foreigners who were not readily absorbed by the dominant society formed their own groups, but these did not seriously threaten the 

Anglo­American ascendancy. The northern Europeans were most readily assimilated, and in those instances in which a diversity of cultural heritages led to conflict, the 

newcomers usually accepted the customs of their adopted land.

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By 1900, California’s population had skyrocketed to over one and a half million persons. Although the population was now largely European­American, other cultural 

minorities comprised a sizable segment of the state’s total population. For example, the indigenous Mexican population remained relatively small, numbering 10,000 to 

15,000 between 1848 and 1900. California Indians experienced a dramatic decline in their total population during this period. Most sources agree that the estimated 

100,000 Indians in 1850 dropped precipitously to about 20,000 in 1870 and reached its nadir of approximately 17,500 in 1900. 44

The number of other nonwhite immigrants in the state also fluctuated greatly during this period. The Chinese immigrant population, for instance, rose to its highest point 

in California at over 75,000 in 1880. It then declined slightly in 1890 (72,000) before settling at approximately 45,000 at the turn of the century. Japanese immigrants 

did not comprise a significant part of California’s population until 1890 when just over 1,000 were enumerated on the state census. By 1900, the number of Japanese 

immigrants in the state rose sharply to over 10,000.45 Blacks, on the other hand, remained a very small segment of the state’s total population throughout the 

nineteenth century. Black immigrants numbered around 5,000 in 1860 and 1870 and climbed to just over 6,000 in 1880. The black population in the state would 

increase steadily after that date to over 11,000 at the turn of the century.46

The Capitalist Transformation of Mexican California

The diverse population that settled in California during the last half of the nineteenth century quickly entered into a competitive struggle over social resources and group 

position within the state’s new class structure. Unequal access to the mobility opportunities engendered by capitalist development unleashed bitter conflict among the 

various ethnic populations: Native American, European, Mexican, African, Chinese, and Japanese. Western historian Patricia Limerick has succinctly assessed this 

racialized contention and social transformation in Legacy of Conquest: “Race relations [in the American Southwest] parallel the distribution of property, the 

application of labor and capital to make the property productive, and the allocation of profit. Western history has been an ongoing competition for legitimacy—the 

right to claim for oneself and sometimes for one’s group the status of legitimate beneficiary of Western resources. This intersection of ethnic diversity with property 

allocation unifies Western history.”47

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The principal difference between the precapitalist economy of the Mexican period (1821–1848) and that which European Americans introduced after the United 

States­Mexico War was the predominance of a formal free­wage labor system: the coercive and paternalistic class relations of the Mexican period were quickly 

replaced by the instrumental and impersonal class relations of capitalism and its apparatus of legal enforcement. It was a period in California’s history when once 

prominent Californios such as Mariano Vallejo, José del Carmen Lugo, Pio and Andres Pico, Pablo and Antonio De la Guerra, Manuel Dominguez, Ygnacio Del 

Valles, and Juan Bandini were displaced by nineteenth­century European American entrepreneurs and developers with names like Wells, Giannini, Huntington, 

Stanford, Hollister, Spreckles, Scott, Bard, Teague, and Oxnard.

Beginning quickly in the northern section of the state and expanding more slowly into southern California, white speculators and developers gained private control of 

land and created the basis for industrial development and the capitalist transformation of the state. Mining became the first major industry organized along a new 

system of production. The introduction of quartz and hydraulic mining techniques in the early 1850s rapidly transformed gold mining from an individual, labor­intensive 

undertaking to a corporate, capital­intensive venture. By 1860, there were over 7,000 firms engaged in gold­mining operations employing approximately 46,000 

persons. For nearly two decades mining was both the single largest source of employment and the largest capital investment sector in the state. 48

The mining industry’s growth quickly led to the establishment of numerous small­scale businesses in the state. Gold­rush immigration resulted in the opening of 

merchandise stores, hotels, bank, restaurants, and saloons. Most of these concerns were family­run ventures that European Americans quickly monopolized. These 

small business ventures typically employed only a few wage workers. By 1860 there were also approximately 1,450 manufacturing firms in the state with a capital 

investment of $11 million. These firms were comprised of both small and large­scale employers who in 1860 paid wages estimated at $5.5 million.49

Mining’s importance for the state’s new economy waned after 1859. The annual gold yield reached $50 million in that year. Thereafter, the annual yield declined 

steadily until it stabilized at approximately $17 million in 1879, where it remained for the next thirty years. The decline in the importance of mining was accompanied by 

the rapid growth of extensive grain production and the further development of urban manufacturing. The most important new industry in this period, however, was the 

railroad industry, which dominated the expanding economy in the late 1860s and

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1870s. It rapidly became the first ”big business” in California and emerged as the largest employer of wage laborers for nearly twenty years. 50

Agriculture succeeded the railroads as the center of economic development during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The emergence of capitalist 

agriculture presupposed the resolution of a number of technological, climatic, and social obstacles. Adaptation to unfamiliar farm land, improvement in the state’s 

transportation network and irrigation methods, and technological innovations such as the refrigerator car occurred during the late 1870s and 1880s. Expansion of the 

domestic market, the organization of growers’ associations, and the avoidance of exorbitant commission fees extracted by “middlemen” helped agriculture become an 

extremely profitable venture.51 In the process, California’s farm labor force expanded dramatically, from 19,000 workers in 1870 to over 119,000 by 1900.52

Capitalist agriculture rapidly passed through two phases of development in California. The 1870s and 1880s were characterized by extensive farming on small­scale 

operations by a large class of self­employed or petit­bourgeois farmers. Grains such as wheat, barley, and corn became the main crops, and although the state market 

burgeoned, the principal markets for these products were the East Coast and England. By 1872 approximately two­thirds of the agricultural goods grown in California 

were destined for markets outside the state.53 During the late 1880s and the 1890s, extensive farming gave way to intensive, as large­scale captitalist farmers became 

dominant in the industry. Under their leadership production shifted from grains to fruits and vegetables. In 1879 intensive crops accounted for only 3.9 percent of the 

value of all crops produced in California, but by 1899 their value had risen to 43.3 percent. During these twenty years, the annual value of intensive crops rose from 

$2.8 million to $52 million.54

By the turn of the century, California’s new economy had passed through its formative stages. Most vestiges of the precapitalist, rancho economy of the Mexican 

period, which relied on Indian peonage and slavery, had vanished irretrievably by the end of the nineteenth century. By the early 1900s, California became a 

quintessential capitalist society based on free wage labor. The vision of the early white settlers who immigrated to the state had been realized in less than fifty years, as 

capitalist replaced Californio and incoming European­American settlers replaced Indian villagers and Mexican small landholders and pobladores (town dwellers).

Three major groups composed the new class structure at the turn of the century. At the top were the European­American landholders and businessmen whose names 

are so prominent in California’s history. These entre­

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preneurial capitalists employed large numbers of wage workers and invested substantial sums of money in developing the mining, manufacturing, railroad, and 

agricultural industries. The next class comprised small­scale independent businessmen and small farmers who owned or leased land. This “middle class” was 

predominantly self­employed and occasionally hired a few workers. At the bottom of the new class hierarchy was the rapidly expanding laboring class. As the 

availability of farm land and opportunities for self­employment diminished, thousands of incoming white and minority immigrants were drawn into the capitalist labor 

market and became part of California’s multiracial working class.

Access to the best skilled and semiskilled jobs, however, was largely reserved for the white population. European Americans rapidly monopolized the most coveted 

employment opportunities and gained virtual control of the middle and upper tiers of the new class structure. 55 It soon became apparent that avenues for social 

mobility and other fruits of unbridled capitalist development were to be reserved jealously for a single group: the white “producing class.” Its members alone were seen 

as the “value carriers” of the new social order; only they would enjoy the enormous opportunities that rapid economic development made possible. Nonwhite 

populations, on the other hand, continued to be viewed as unwelcome obstacles to the economic mobility of European Americans.

“Manifest Destiny” and the “Free Labor Ideology”

The rapid transformation of Mexican California into a white masculinist preserve for European­American men found popular support in racializing ideologies that 

rationalized the superordinate position of the white population. In the century after the American Revolution, as Reginald Horsman has argued, two powerful ideas 

reflecting this sentiment were ingrained in the Anglo­American psyche and drawn upon during the United States’ westward expansion: Anglo­Americans believed “that 

the peoples of large parts of the world were incapable of creating efficient, democratic, and prosperous governments; and that American and world economic growth, 

the triumph of Western Christian civilization, and a stable world order could be achieved by American commercial penetration of supposedly backward areas.”56 

European Americans saw it as their providential mission to settle the entire North American continent with a homogeneous white population, bringing with them their 

superior political institutions, notions of progress and democracy, and economic system. The United

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State’s incursion into sovereign Mexican territory in the war of 1846–48 was only the most explict political expression of this notion of “manifest destiny.”

In symbolic terms, the notion of manifest destiny implied the domination of civilization over nature, Christianity over heathenism, progress over backwardness, and, 

most importantly, of white Americans over the Mexican and Indian populations that stood in their path. United States’ dominion over what was then Mexican territory 

laid the basis for rapidly developing the region along new socio­cultural, political, and economic lines.

Another important rationalization of white supremacy over the indigenous Mexican and Indian inhabitants of the new American Southwest grew out of the “free labor” 

ideology of the antebellum Republican Party. 57 Historian Eric Foner demonstrates that, during the mid­nineteenth century, white Americans of all classes—the 

European­American working class, petite bourgeoisie, and self­employed propertied class—accepted the social world this ideology promoted: an expanding capitalist 

society based on free labor, individualism, market relations, and private property.

The sanctity of free labor had a long history preceding the widespread immigration of European Americans into California during the mid­nineteenth century. Since the 

colonial period, white Americans had sought to establish a society unencumbered by the precapitalist feudal ties that had shackled peasants in Europe. They sought to 

build a society in which free labor was the source of all value as the embodiment of bourgeois ideals. An outgrowth of the Protestant ethic, this commitment found 

expression in numerous political doctrines, for example, the “producer ethic” of the Jacksonian period. Andrew Jackson viewed the “producing class” in society as all 

occupations involved directly in the honest production of goods, such as farmer, planter, skilled and unskilled laborer, mechanic, and even small businessmen and 

independent craftsmen. These productive workers—whether agricultural or industrial, self­employed or wage laborers—constituted the honorable and creative 

elements of society and included persons traditionally considered part of the middle class or petite bourgeoisie. They were viewed as having interests antagonistic to 

those of the wealthy, propertied class—slaveholders, big businessmen, industrialists, bankers, monopolists, and speculators—who were excluded from the “producing 

class” as profiting directly from the honest labor of others.58

A significantly different and more influential version of the free labor ideology, however, was formulated by the Radical Republicans in the decades preceding the Civil 

War. According to Foner, the Republican

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Party’s antislavery rhetoric represented much more than mere opposition to slavery. It also signified “an affirmation of the superiority of the social system of the 

North—a dynamic, expanding capitalist society whose achievements and destiny were almost wholly the result of the dignity and opportunities which it offered the 

laboring man.” 59 Unlike the Jacksonian version, Republican ideology did not seek radically to subvert the United States’ class structure. On the contrary, free labor 

thought was entirely consistent with the underlying tenets of competitive capitalism. Its advocates believed that free labor created all value but that “the interest of labor 

and capital were identical, because equality of opportunity in American society generated a social mobility which insured that today’s laborer would be tomorrow’s 

capitalist.”60 This vision deeply influenced the social, political, and above all, economic relations eventually forged between the majority and the minority populations in 


The “Baneful Influence” of Nonwhite Labor in California

The associations made by European Americans between nonwhite labor and unfree labor systems had tremendous import for the racial conflict that erupted in 

California after 1848. White Americans sought to create a society in which the presence of any labor system that threatened free white labor would be eradicated. 

Given the historical context in which the free labor ideology flourished, slavery was what initially preoccupied the white population immigrating to California. The 

introduction of black slavery, or the widespread use of other unfree laborers, threatened the creation of the capitalist society European Americans envisioned in the 

area. As a result, the status of blacks in California loomed as a question of more than symbolic significance to free labor advocates.

Because of widespread migration of persons from the Northeastern seaboard of the United States into California after 1846, sentiment on this issue crystallized around 

the entrance of California into the union as a free state. This commitment to a system of free labor was captured vividly in editorials of the first English­language 

newspapers published in California. On March 15, 1848, nearly two years before statehood was granted, editors of The Californian unequivocally argued against the 

territory becoming a haven for unfree labor:

We desire only a White population in California; even the Indians among us, as far as we have seen, are more a nuisance than a benefit to the country, we would like to get rid of 

them. . . . [W]e dearly love the Union, but declare our

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positive preference for an independent condition of California to the establishment of any degree of slavery, or even the importation of free blacks. 

Expression of this free labor sentiment was also echoed by the editor of The California Star a few days later:

We have both the power and the will to maintain California independent of Mexico, but we believe that though slavery could not be generally introduced, that its recognition 

could blast the prospects of the country. It would make it disreputable for the White man to labor for his bread, and it would thus drive off to other homes the only class of 

emigrants California wishes to see: the sober and industrious middle class of society.

White male opposition to the introduction of slavery in California was widespread in these early years. Purveyors of the free labor ideology expressed the belief that 

slavery inevitably led to decadence, laziness, and economic degeneration in the free white population. Their opposition to slavery was not based on lofty abolitionist 

convictions, but rather on the belief that slavery would inevitably degrade free white labor and undermine white workers’ entitlement to economic development in the 

state. Slavery would effectively discourage white migration and settlement by stunting economic development, crippling society, and making white social mobility 

virtually impossible. The presence of an exploitable slave labor force would invariably drive enterprising white men from occupations leading up the economic ladder 

and thus undermine their dreams of becoming rising capitalists. It would lead to an economy headed by slaveholders and others who would profit from the exploitation 

of an unfree labor force. Thus, from the free labor perspective the recreation of a Southern society in California ran counter to the interests of the majority of the state’s 

earliest white immigrants.

These free labor sentiments were salient during the California State Constitutional Convention debates on slavery and the immigration of free Negroes. Convened in 

the fall of 1849, forty­eight delegates from districts throughout California met at Monterey to draft the state constitution. Submission of this document to Congress, 

after its ratification by the people in the territory, was a necessary prerequisite to the admission of California into the Union. The question of slavery was first raised on 

September 10, 1849. While outlining articles for the proposed “Declaration of Rights” of the new constitution, delegate W. M. Shannon of Sacramento, a lawyer 

originally from New York, moved to insert a section specifically prohibiting slavery in the territory. Shannon’s motion stipulated: “Neither slavery nor involuntary 

servitude, unless for the punish­

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ment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this state.” No objections were raised to Mr. Shannon’s motion and the proposed section was adopted unanimously without 

debate. 63

This opposition to the introduction of slavery in California was not a sign of an enlightened social attitude toward black people. It reflected a common belief that the 

presence of blacks or any nonwhite group associated with unfree labor posed a real or symbolic threat to the status of free white labor in the state. This was vividly 

demonstrated during the convention debates on whether or not to prohibit free Negro immigration into the state. Although the convention did not approve such an 

exclusion (largely from political considerations affecting California’s rapid admission into the Union by Congress), debates on the matter illustrated the pervasiveness of 

free labor sentiment and the delegates’ general antipathy toward the presence of nonwhites.

Perhaps the most explicit proponent of the free labor ideology was Delegate O. M. Wozencraft from San Joaquin. Wozencraft, formerly from Ohio and Louisiana, 

staunchly supported the prohibition of free Negro immigration:

If there is just reason why slavery should not exist in this land, there is just reason why that part of the family of man, who are so well adapted for servitude, should be excluded 

from amongst us. It would appear that the all­wise Creator had created the negro to serve the White race. We see evidence of this wherever they are brought in contact; we see the 

instinctive feeling of the negro is obedience to the White man, and, in all instances, he obeys him, and is ruled by him. If you wish that all mankind should be free, do not bring the 

two extremes in the scale of organization together; do not bring the lowest in contact with the highest, for be assured the one will rule and the other must serve.

Wozencraft’s position reflected a belief, shared with other Northern men, that blacks, whether free or slave, would unfairly compete with free white labor. Such 

competition already existed in the North and would surely flourish in California if blacks were allowed to emigrate freely. During debates on the prohibition of free 

Negro immigration, Wozencraft implored delegates to consider the evils that such immigration would inflict on the white workingman.

I wish to cast my vote against the admission of blacks into this country, in order that I may thereby protect the citizens of California in one of their most inestimable rights—the 

right to labor. . . . I wish, so far as my influence extends to make labor honorable; the laboring man is the nobleman in the truest

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acception of the word; and I would make him worthy of his high prerogative, and not degrade him by placing him upon a level with the lowest in the scale of the family of man. . . .

I desire to protect the people of California against all monopolies—to encourage labor and protect the laboring class. Can this be done by admitting the negro race? Surely not; for 

if they are permitted to come, they will do so—nay they will be brought here. Yes, Mr President, the capitalists will fill the land with these living laboring machines, with all their 

attendant evils. Their labor will go to enrich the few, and impoverish the many; it will drive the poor and honest laborer from the field, by degrading him to the level of the negro. . . 


The golden era is before us in all its glittering splendor; here civilization may attain its highest altitude . . . and the Caucasian may attain his highest state of perfectibility. . . . We 

must throw aside all the weights and clogs that have fettered society elsewhere. We must inculcate moral and industrial habits; we must exclude the low, vicious, and depraved. 

No better statement of the virtue of free labor, and the Northern Republican critique of the South, can be found in the debates that shaped the foundation of 

California’s entrance into the union as a free state. But Wozencraft was not alone in using free labor arguments to oppose free Negro immigration. During the debates 

on this issue, Delegate H. A. Tefft, a Northerner representing San Luis Obispo, also argued against the “introduction into this country of negroes, peons of Mexico, or 

any class of that kind.” Tefft claimed that such immigration would “degrade white labor” and make it impossible for Anglos ”to compete with the bands of negroes who 

would be set to work under the direction of capitalists.” San Francisco delegate W. M. Steuart, a lawyer formerly of Maryland, similarly opposed black immigration 

because of what he termed ”its baneful influence.” In his estimation it was “utterly impossible to unite free and slave labor” in one state. Even those who favored free 

Negro immigration often did so as a matter of expedience. Delegate Shannon, for example, favored free Negro immigration because “the necessities of the territory 

require them.” Shannon believed that free Negroes were “required in every department of domestic life (in California)”; it did not matter to him if “they were baboons, 

or any other class of creatures.”66

Shannon’s belief in the degrading influence of “other class[es] of creatures” was shared by other convention delegates and by the white population in California more 

generally. These sentiments later provided the lens through which other racialized ethnic groups also were viewed as posing a threat to the white population immigrating 

into the new state at mid­century.

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Neutralizing the Presence of Blacks in Anglo California

Given these sentiments, it is not surprising that the same 1849 California State Constitutional Convention initially relegated blacks to second­class legal status. The first 

draft of the “Right to Suffrage” emphatically stated that only “white male citizens of the United States” would be entitled to vote. 67 No serious thought was given to 

enfranchising blacks who settled in California. To the contrary, one motion adopted by the Convention stated that “Africans, and descendants of Africans” were to be 

exempted from the right to suffrage.68 Despite the later deletion of this explicit reference to blacks, there was no ambiguity in the minds of white Californians: blacks 

were nonwhite and, therefore, not eligible for the citizenship rights reserved exclusively for white men.

The subordinate political status of blacks in California carried tremendous implications for their “life chances” in the state. They were denied the rights to vote, to hold 

public office, to testify in court against white persons, to serve on juries, to attend public schools, or to homestead public land.69 It was not until 1870, with the 

ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, that blacks were granted the same legal rights as white citizens in California. Furthermore, it was not until 1880 that the 

segregated school system created for black (and Indian) children in the state was formally abolished.70

Widespread white antipathy toward blacks was also expressed in numerous attempts made to prohibit their immigration. An interdiction against free Negro 

immigration into California was formally approved at the 1849 Constitutional Convention. This section was deleted later when it became apparent to delegates that it 

might delay or even threaten congressional approval of statehood. Rather than hazard that possibility, the convention decided to leave the issue to the first state 


Subsequently, bills prohibiting free Negro immigration were introduced unsuccessfully in the California State Legislature in 1850, 1851, 1855, and 1857. A final 

attempt to bar blacks from entry into the state was made by Assemblyman J. B. Warfield in 1858.72 The near passage of the Warfield Bill resulted in the large­scale 

exodus of many blacks in California to Victoria, British Columbia. An estimated four hundred to eight hundred blacks left for Canada in the spring of 1858, over 15 

percent of their total population in the state. Life for the more than four thousand who remained was marred by continued discrimination and white hostility.73

Despite opposition to black emigration, hundreds of Northern free

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Negroes came to California as independent miners during the Gold Rush. Others were brought into the state as slaves from the American South. According to 

historian Rudolph Lapp, “Coastal city free blacks, many from Massachusetts as well as New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, came largely by the Panama route 

and some around the Horn. From the upper Mississippi valley states many earned their way as employees of the overland companies. From the slave states hundreds 

of blacks came with their gold­hunting masters, some with the promise of freedom in California if rewards of mining were great enough. By 1850 there were 962 

Afro­Americans in California, mostly in the Mother Lode counties, probably half of them slaves.” 74 The vast majority of these black immigrants settled in the six 

mining districts of northern California: Sacramento, Mariposa, El Dorado, Calaveras, Yuba, and Tuolumne.75

Despite the constitutional prohibition against slavery of 1849, from 1848 until 1856 slaveholders were granted continued legal possession of black slaves brought into 

the state. Slaves often were “hired out” to other parties by masters who found it more profitable to do so when returns from mining were scant. Through this 

arrangement a slaveholder received from $150 to $300 a month for the use of “rented” slaves who toiled as cooks, waiters, domestic servants, or mine workers for 

their temporary employers.76 Their presence quickly raised the ire of a white population overwhelmingly committed to free labor sentiments; they did not want 

California to succumb to the “damning influence” of unfree black labor.77 Nevertheless, the power of slaveowners was extended with the passage of the state’s 1852 

Fugitive Slave Law. Provisions of this bill affirmed the right of a slaveholder to obtain a warrant for the arrest and return of fugitive slaves or simply to seize such a 

slave himself. The 1852 law further permitted former slaves to satisfy outstanding claims their owners may have had to their labor by working off their debts in 

California. This provision notwithstanding, there are numerous instances during this period when fugitive slaves were openly sold in the state. In other cases, blacks 

brought into California under an agreement with their owners to work for their freedom were often forcibly seized after satisfying their obligations and reenslaved by 


With the decline in mining opportunities in the mid–1850s, most free blacks left the mining region for urban centers such as San Francisco and Sacramento. By 1860, 

the largest black populations in the state resided in San Francisco (1,176 persons), followed by Sacramento (468 residents). Blacks in these northern California cities, 

as well as in towns like Stockton and Marysville, were racially segregated into separate communities or

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residential enclaves. 79 Blacks in San Francisco during the 1850s also were prohibited from using the city’s three public libraries and relegated to sections reserved for 

“colored” people in other public facilities.80

Blacks in San Francisco, Sacramento, Stockton, and Marysville overwhelmingly were employed as unskilled day laborers. A few others toiled as bootblacks, porters, 

waiters, bell­ringers, laundrymen, cooks, stewards, and barbers, although a handful successfully established modest businesses such as furniture stores, clothing stores, 

boardinghouses, and saloons, and a very few even became doctors or engineers.81

The overrepresentation of blacks at the bottom of the new occupational structure largely reflected their subordinate legal­political status in the state. Smoldering 

competition and resentment between black immigrants and the large Irish population in California played a pivotal role in this subordination. According to Lapp, 

“Rivalry between the Afro­American and Irish working­class communities had arisen out of job competition at the lowest rung of the labor ladder in the early decades 

of the nineteenth century. This hostility in New England and New York then spread to the West Coast. The attitude of blacks toward unions is easy to understand 

since the emergence of unionism was so often associated with black exclusion from jobs.”82 Thus, the earlier competition between white and black labor elsewhere 

was partially reenacted in California during the 1860s and 1870s.

Despite the racial hostility they endured in the state, the black population in California grew steadily in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Although blacks 

accounted for only one percent of the total state population at the time, the number of blacks in the state reached over 11,000 by 1890. Whereas during the gold rush 

period blacks were heavily concentrated in northern California, this new population settled largely in the southern part of the state. “The near doubling of the state’s 

black population by 1890 is explained by the real estate and land boom in southern California, which produced a black population gain in Los Angeles County from 

188 in 1880 to 1,817 in 1890, a tenfold increase. In the same general area similar sharp increases took place. In 1880 the Fresno County black population was 40 

and by 1890 it was 457. Even Kern County went from 4 to 130 in that ten­year period.”83

The successful completion of the transcontinental railroad also contributed to this population increase as many black railroad workers (especially sleeping car porters 

and “redcaps”) settled or retired with their families in southern California. Also important in redirecting their settlement was the continued hostility by white trade 

unionists toward black labor in the

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northern part of the state. According to Lapp, “In the turn­of­the­century decades unionism made significant strides in San Francisco but was deterred in Los Angeles 

by powerful antiunion sentiment among employers led by Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times. . . . Blacks planning migration to California were often 

urged to avoid San Francisco and to go instead to Los Angeles, which was considered a ‘good town for colored folks.'” 84

The intense animosity toward blacks in San Francisco even caused many blacks to move across the bay to Alameda County and contribute to the significant increase 

of Oakland’s black population. By 1900, there were over one thousand blacks in that community, an increase that occurred during a decade when the northern 

California black population either remained steady or numerically declined.85

Although antiblack sentiment was widespread, white Californians were never drawn into the same frenzied competition with blacks as they were with the thousands of 

Chinese immigrants who also immigrated into the state during the gold rush period. California’s black population was never allowed to effectively compete with 

European­American immigrants in the state and, consequently, were never perceived as the same formidable threat that other racialized groups posed for white men. 

Repeated attempts to thwart black immigration, to deny blacks important human and civil rights, and to relegate them to the bottom of the new class structure militated 

against the eruption of widespread economic competition between black and white Californians.

The same, however, can not be said in the case of the indigenous Mexican and Native American populations. Their ruthless subordination was essential to the 

successful introduction of the new Anglo­American society in California. Its realization required the immediate dispossession of Mexicans and Indians from land 

needed for the development of the new political economy and class structure. Control of Mexican ranchero estates and Indian tribal lands was a fundamental 

prerequisite for this economic transformation. The Mexican ranchero class became the first formidable barrier to the realization of Anglo class aspiration in the state.

The next chapter chronicles the process by which Anglos struggled to undermine the superordinate position held by the rancheros during the Mexican period and 

successfully reorganize the underlying basis of production in the newly acquired territory.

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Chapter Six
“They Can Be Hired in Masses; They Can Be Managed and Controlled like Unthinking Slaves”

The consignment of Indians and Mexicans to different “group positions” in the social structure of Anglo California vividly illustrates how the racialization process helped 

structure the imposition of white supremacy in the state. Although each ethnic group was racialized differently, neither was ever seen as the equal of white Americans; 

neither ever posed a serious threat to the superordinate racial status or privileged class position of white male immigrants. Indians became a marginal part of the new 

society while Mexicans were subordinated at the lowest levels of the working class, where they did not pose a serious problem for European Americans. Moreover, 

both groups remained tied to the precapitalist ranching or hunting and gathering economies of the Mexican period for decades after statehood and did not contend 

with European­American men who were rapidly being integrated into the capitalist labor market.

White Californians, however, grew rapidly alarmed by the presence of other racialized, non­European groups in the state: African­American, Chinese, and Japanese 

immigrants. As discussed earlier, the arrival of black slaves during the Gold Rush heightened anxiety among European Americans that slavery might compromise 

California’s prospect of becoming a haven for free white labor. When Chinese immigrants followed blacks into the mining region, whites drew close analogies between 

black slaves and Chinese “coolies.” This relationship was further reinforced by the unfortunate timing of the arrival of the Chinese; they came to California in the midst 

of mounting sectional conflict over slavery. The replace­
































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ment, to all intents and purposes, of the African slave trade by the traffic in Chinese “coolies” only reinforced the image of the Chinese as a threat to the status of free 

white labor. 1

It is against the backdrop of this class­based controversy among white Americans over the presence of unfree labor in the state, and the displacement of antiblack 

sentiment onto Asian workers, that the Chinese experience in nineteenth­century California initially unfolds. These concerns, plus widespread anxiety over the Chinese 

immigrant’s ostensible “heathenism” and “savagery,” rapidly ignited virulent anti­Chinese sentiment throughout California during the last half of the century.

This chapter examines the major features of this anti­Chinese sentiment, situating it specifically within the context of the emerging class antagonisms and conflicting 

interests between white capitalists and white workers. Racialized hostility against the Chinese is best understood in light of the way class­based interests among 

European Americans were defined in relation to this immigrant population. American capitalists sought to utilize Chinese labor whenever possible and profited 

handsomely from doing so. White workers, on the other hand, railed against the Chinese because of the threat they ostensibly posed to their status as a “free” laboring 

class. They believed that the Chinese were mere pawns of capitalist interests and other monopolistic forces that relied upon unfree labor. Consequently, white male 

laborers believed that Chinese workers threatened both their precarious class position and the underlying racial entitlements that white supremacy held out to them and 

to the white immigrants who followed them into the new class structure.

The Unwelcome Arrival of “John Chinaman”

The Chinese immigrants who first arrived in California during the 1850s came from the agricultural district of Kwangtung province in southeastern China. These 

immigrants were largely an agricultural peasantry drawn to California by either the lure of the Gold Rush or by promises of lucrative employment opportunities made 

by overseas shipping companies. Within China, overpopulation, floods and other natural catastrophes, and the social dislocation wrought by the Opium Wars and the 

Taiping Rebellion also stimulated Chinese emigration.2 Although these immigrants initially were seen as “coolies,” they were not actual victims of the coolie trade that 

enslaved many Chinese nationals at the time.

The vast majority of Chinese who came to California arrived as indentured immigrants through the “credit­ticket system.” They were a semifree

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population who secured passage to America by entering into contract labor arrangements whereby they were bound for a period of time to labor “bosses” in order to 

repay their debt. 3 They were typically bonded for passage by Chinese merchants in California who then rented them out in gangs of fifty to one hundred men. 

Alexander Saxton succinctly summarizes the major features of this debt bondage system:

In effect [the worker] was at the mercy of the American employer, and of the Chinese merchant associations, agents, or contractors, who had arranged his passage from Canton, 

who hired him out, received his wages, provided his food and protection, and determined when, if ever, he would return home again. To complete this circle, an extra­legal but firm 

understanding between Chinese merchants associations and the Pacific ship operators hindered any Chinese from booking return passage until he had been cleared by the 

merchant association. It was a tight system, not exactly the same as slavery, but not altogether different.

Although indentured Chinese workers were typically advanced approximately seventy dollars (fifty for passage and twenty for expenses), they were routinely required 

to repay upward to two hundred dollars.

While most came to the United States as indentured servants, some Chinese immigrants managed to secure the necessary funds for the trip from informal rotating 

credit associations in south China or from family resources.5 A few of the first Chinese immigrants were merchants and shopkeepers who later became part the 

Chinese community’s small middle class. This merchant class became a localized ruling elite within San Francisco’s Chinatown between 1847 and 1858. According to 

Stanford Lyman, “Because commercial success was so closely tied to social acceptance and moral probity in America, this elite enjoyed good relations with public 

officials. Chinatown merchants controlled immigrant associations, dispensed jobs and opportunities, settled disputes, and acted as advocates for Chinese sojourners 

before white society.”6

Historian Sucheng Chan also notes that the largest merchants owned import­export businesses and often established political organizations on the basis of homeland 

ties. According to Chan, “as almost all the imported goods were sold to Chinese—who favored food, clothing, and utensils from China—it was in the interests of these 

merchants and directors of community associations to help their customers and clients maintain strong ties to China. After all, provisioning their fellow countrymen was 

the chief source of the merchants’ profit, and helping to retain an orientation to the homeland was the main basis of the association leaders’ power.”7

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Furthermore, Chan estimates that between 1870 and 1900 approximately 40 percent of the Chinese residing in San Francisco and Sacramento were entrepreneurs 

and 5 to 12 percent professionals and artisans, while the working­class population comprised less than 50 percent of the urban Chinese. In sharp contrast, 80 percent 

of the Chinese rural population were farm laborers and service workers, 1 to 3 percent professionals and artisans, and only about 15 percent farmers, labor 

contractors, and merchants—the “rural elite.” 8

While only a few hundred Chinese immigrants arrived in California during the initial phase of the Gold Rush, by 1851 that number had swelled to 2,716 and by 1852 

reached over 20,000. By 1870, approximately three­quarters of the 63,000 Chinese in the United States resided in California, where they comprised 9 percent of the 

total population.9 Most of these Chinese immigrants initially settled in rural areas as well as the northern mining region of the state. Only one­quarter of the Chinese 

population resided in San Francisco by 1870, with other urban centers such as Sacramento, Stockton, and Marysville also having significant Chinese populations. In 

1900, however, 45 percent of all Chinese in the state resided in the San Francisco Bay area alone; over two­thirds were already urban dwellers by this date.10

A crucial demographic feature of Chinese immigration was that it was overwhelmingly male from the outset. In 1860, for example, only 1,784 of the more than 34,000 

Chinese residing in the United States were women—a ratio of one to eighteen. This ratio increased to a high of one to twenty­six in 1890 before settling once again at 

the 1860 figure in 1900. Even as late as that, there were only 4,522 Chinese women enumerated on the federal census of that year.11 This accounts for the common 

reference to the early immigrant population as a “bachelor society.”

According to historian Ronald Takaki, Chinese immigrants brought with them three main social organizations that structured their lives in California: the huiguan 

(district associations), the tongs (secret societies), and the fongs (clans) which were comprised of close family and village members or larger village associations. The 

latter two organizations were devoted primarily to the provision of illegal goods and services (such as the tong’s opium trade, gambling, and prostitution) and to mutual 

aid activities (such as the fong’s maintenance of clubhouses and temples, its transmission of letters to China, and its shipping home of the remains of deceased 


Takaki maintains that the most important of these organizations was the huiguan or district associations from regions such as Toishan, Tan­

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ping, or Namhoi in southern China. These associations received immigrants, provided initial housing, secured employment, and administered the “credit­ticket” system. 
13 The main district associations in San Francisco during the 1850s were the Sze Yup, Ning Yeung, Sam Yup, Yeong Wo, Hop Wo, and Yan Wo. These 

organizations came to be known as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) or, more popularly, as the Chinese Six Companies. The CCBA settled 

interdistrict conflicts and provided important educational and health services to the community.14 They also played a major role as spokespersons for the Chinese 

immigrant community. They often hired prominent white attorneys to represent their commercial trade as well as the general interests of the Chinese community.15 

Lacking any meaningful recourse to state and local government, the Chinese Six Companies frequently functioned as a quasi­government for the Chinese community. 

Indeed as one scholar maintains, the Chinese community was “more like a colonial dependency than an immigrant settlement in an open society.”16

Sucheng Chan maintains that three fundamental differences between the Chinese­American communities established in the U.S. and the original communities in China 

profoundly shaped the Chinese immigrant experience in California.

First, Chinese immigrant communities, though semiautonomous enclaves, were profoundly shaped by forces emanating from the larger society around them. Not only did the 

Chinese quickly adapt to the functioning of a capitalist economy, they persisted despite legal exclusion and anti­Chinese violence. Second, since few members of gentry families 

emigrated . . . merchants who had a low status in China became the elite in Chinese­American communities by virtue of their ability to deal with whites and to provide for the needs 

of other Chinese. Finally, as few women emigrated to the United States, Chinese America was virtually a womanless world, especially in rural areas. Consequently, Chinese­

American communities were socially incomplete.

The “Damning Influence” of the “Heathen Chinee”

European Americans found much about Chinese immigrants distasteful—physical appearance, language, manner of dress, food, religion, and social customs. If being 

Christian and civilized were the principal cultural criteria by which white Californians evaluated new groups they encountered in the state, then the Chinese fell short in 

both areas: they were “heathen” as well as “uncivilized.” Their clothing, for example, was radically at odds with European­American conceptions of proper attire. The 

Chinese immigrants

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wore broad trousers, blue cotton blouselike shirts, wide­brimmed straw hats, and closely cropped hair with a long black queue down their backs. 18

“The first impulse of an American, when he see for the first time a Chinese, is to laugh at him,” wrote an American trader in 1830. “His dress, if judged by our 

standards, is ridiculous. . . . His trousers are a couple of meal bags . . ., his shoes are huge machines, turned up at the toe, his cap is fantastic and his head is shaven 

except on the crown, when there hangs down a tuft of hair as long as a spaniel’s tail.”19 The invidious comparison between the queue and a dog’s tail symbolically 

reflected the inferior status the Chinese held in this trader’s mind. The Chinese, like Indians in the state, were routinely likened to animals and unequivocally deemed 


Stuart Creighton Miller’s exhaustive study of white Americans’ perceptions of Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century perceptively documents the demeaning 

racialized representations that crystallized in the popular white imagination. According to Miller, the Chinese were viewed as “ridiculously clad, superstitious ridden, 

dishonest, crafty, cruel, and marginal members of the human race who lacked the courage, intelligence, skill, and will to do anything about the oppressive despotism 

under which they lived or the stagnating social conditions that surrounded them.”20 Miller concludes that the Chinese were seen as a “peculiar” people having “bizarre 

tastes and habits” that included making medicines from rhinoceros horns and soup from bird’s nests, and for allegedly eating dogs, cats, and rats.21 ”Virtually every 

aspect of Chinese life was used to illustrate and lampoon the Chinese propensity for doing everything backwards: wearing white for mourning, purchasing a coffin 

while still alive, dressing women in pants and men in skirts, shaking hands with oneself in greeting a friend, writing up and down the page, eating sweets first and soup 

last, etc.”22

These early images of the Chinese found fertile soil in the United States, where they were further expanded upon by other racializing American commentators. Ronald 

Takaki argues, for instance, that Bret Harte’s popular poem the “Heathen Chinee” greatly influenced public perception of the Chinese in America as “mice­eaters,” 

“pagans,” “dark,” ”impish,” “superstitious,” “yellow,” and as “heathens” with a “peculiar odor” that reeked of ginger and opium.23

As noted earlier, white Californians’ derisive stereotypes of blacks apparently shaped their initial perceptions of Chinese immigrants as well. As competition between 

white and Chinese laborers increased in later years, a number of the negative stereotypes associated with black slaves were displaced onto the Chinese. Both groups 

were seen as being docile, humble, irresponsible, lying, thieving, and lazy.24

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Like blacks, the “China boys” were infantilized and summarily relegated to a subordinate status in relations to “white men.” 25 While white immigrants arrogantly 

viewed themselves as rational, virtuous, civilized, libidinally controlled, and Christian, the Chinese were perceived as irrational, morally inferior, savage, lustful, and 

heathen. The most noxious representation of the Chinese portrayed them as a cross between a bloodsucking vampire, with slanted eyes and a pigtail, and a “nagur” 

with dark skin and thick lips.26 One author has referred to this racial stigmatization as the “negroization” of the Chinese stereotype.27

Religious differences provided a major basis of the broad cultural chasm that socially differentiated the Chinese and white populations in the state. Most Chinese 

immigrants practiced a folk religion that combined the beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. They built altars to honor deities such as Kwang Kung, god of 

literature and war; Bak Ti, god of the north; Hou Yin, the monkey god; and Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy.28 Nothing, of course, offended the Christian sensibilities of 

European Americans more than having a heathen group of “pagan idolaters” in their midst. Horace Greeley, for example, in an 1854 editorial in the New York Tribune 

lashed out against the religious practices of Chinese immigrants, arguing that only the “Christian races” or “white races” should be allowed to settle and “assimilate with 


Reverend S. V. Blakeslee, editor of The Pacific, the oldest religious paper on the West Coast, echoed a similar view in his 1877 address before the General 

Association of Congregational Churches of California. Reverend Blakeslee warned that the presence of the Chinese in California posed a greater threat to the state’s 

Christian population than blacks had to the South’s:

Slavery compelled the heathen to give up idolatry, and they did it. The Chinese have no such compulsion and they do not do it. . . . Slavery compelled the adoption of Christian 

forms of worship, resulting in universal Christianization. The Chinese have no such influence tending to their conversion, and rarely—one or two in a thousand—become 

Christian. . . . Slavery took the heathens and by force made them Americans in feeling, tastes, habits, language, sympathy, religion and spirit; first fitting them for citizenship, and 

then giving them the vote. The Chinese feel no such force, but remaining in character and life the same as they were in old China, unprepared for citizenship, and adverse in spirit 

to our institutions.

White intolerance and racial animosity toward the Chinese were further exacerbated by inflammatory characterizations of social life in California’s “Chinatowns.” 

Everywhere the Chinese lived, their detractors argued, one found crowded living conditions, gambling, opium smoking, prostitution,

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and a number of other despicable vices. Chinatown was “simply a miniature section of Canton transported bodily,” proclaimed one anti­Chinese spokesperson. 31 

Indeed, such perceptions later led to the enactment of San Francisco’s infamous “Cubic Air” ordinance of 1870, which required lodging houses in Chinatown, the only 

place where the ordinance was enforced, to provide “at least five hundred cubic feet” of clean air “for each adult person dwelling or sleeping therein.” Violation of this 

ordinance resulted in a fine of ten to five hundred dollars, imprisonment from five days to three months, or both.32

Gendered and Sexualized Representations of Chinese Immigrants

The perceived menace that the few Chinese immigrant women in the state posed to white men was yet another aspect of anti­Chinese sentiment at the time. Like 

lower­class Mexican women and Indian women in general, Chinese women were portrayed as hypersexual and readily available to white men. In his annual address to 

Congress in 1874, for example, President Ulysses S. Grant openly addressed the issue:

The great proportion of the Chinese immigrants who come to our shores do not come voluntarily. . . . In a worse form does this apply to Chinese women. Hardly a perceptible 

percentage of them perform any honorable labor, but they are brought for shameful purposes, to the disgrace of communities where they settled and to the great demoralization of 

the youth of these localities. If this evil practice can be legislated against, it will be my pleasure as well as duty to enforce any regulation to secure so desirable an end.

Horace Greeley echoed a similar view in an 1854 New York Tribune editorial. The arrival of Chinese women in the United States had to be prohibited because they 

were “uncivilized, unclean and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their disposition; every female is 

a prostitute of the barest order.”34

Like Chinese women, Chinese men also were perceived as a threat to the moral well­being of the white population, and most especially to white women. As an 

overwhelmingly male immigrant population, Chinese men were initially seen as menacing sexual “perverts” that preyed upon innocent white women. This view first 

gained currency on the East Coast, where newspapers sensationalized accounts of Chinese men luring and debauching young white girls in opium dens and laundries. 

An 1873 New York Times article, for instance, reported the presence of “a handsome but

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squalidly dressed young white girl” in an opium den in that city’s Chinatown. When the Chinese owner of the den was asked about the girl, he was reported to have 

“replied with a horrible leer, ‘Oh, hard time in New York. Young girl hungry. Plenty come here. Chinaman always have something to eat, and he like young white girl, 

He! He!.'” The Times later reported that Chinese men were so depraved that they often attended Christian Sunday schools only to solicit sexual favors from the white 

female instructors. As proof they cited the case of one Sunday school teacher who apparently married one of her Chinese students. The girl’s father publicly insisted 

that she had been drugged into marrying the man. “No matter how good a Chinaman may be, ladies never leave their children with them, especially little girls,” warned 

another 1876 article in Scribner’s. 35

Expressions of public concern for the virtue of white women were more than mere moral posturing, for they often led to direct violence against Chinese men. In one 

incident in 1889 an angry mob of two thousand people demolished a Chinese laundry in Milwaukee after its two owners were accused of ravaging more than twenty 

young white girls in the back room. In 1883 in Waynesboro, Georgia, townsmen chased the “rat­eaters” out of town and burned their business to the ground, fearing 

that white girls would be “caught in the toils of Chinese duplicity.”36

Fears and suspicions similar to these led to the enactment of an antimiscegenation statute in California in 1880 that prohibited the issuance of a marriage licence 

between white persons and “a Negro, mulatto, or Mongolian.”37 Consequently, there are only a few cases in California of Chinese men marrying white women in the 

state. Those who did were most often drawn from the Chinese immigrant middle class: urban merchants, entrepreneurs, or agriculturalists in rural areas.38 As in the 

case of Mexicans, class position apparently moderated the otherwise rabid antimiscegenation sentiment directed at the Chinese in the state.

There is evidence that some Americans were sympathetic toward the first Chinese immigrants, especially those of the merchant class, and perhaps—as long as their 

numbers were small—even welcomed them. This reception quickly changed, however, as the Chinese increasingly ruffled the cultural sensibilities and sexual anxieties 

of the white population.39 Most public expressions of anti­Chinese hostility centered on their cultural differences and on the fact that the Chinese were unambiguously 

nonwhite. Pointed testimony to this effect is captured in the minority report to the 1877 Joint Special Committee of Congress on Chinese immigration. Therein, Senator 

Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, chair of the committee, summarily acknowledges that “if the Chinese in California were white

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people, being all other respects what they are, I do not believe that the complaints and warfare made against them would have existed to any considerable extent. 

Their difference in color, dress, manners, and religion have, in my judgment, more to do with this hostility than their alleged vices or any actual injury to the white 

people of California.” 40

The Subordinate Political Status of the Chinese in Anglo California

From the standpoint of popular opinion, the Chinese were clearly perceived as nonwhite, a fact that was reinforced by their close association in European­American 

consciousness with blacks. The official political status of Chinese immigrants in California was formally adjudicated in 1854, when the case of People v. Hall legally 

restricted the Chinese to the same second­class status of blacks and Indians; they too were officially deemed nonwhite and, therefore, ineligible for citizenship rights.

This case turned on the question of whether or not three Chinese witnesses would be allowed to testify against three white men (one of whom was George W. Hall) 

accused of murdering a Chinese man named Ling Sing. The California Supreme Court overturned Hall’s murder conviction, ruling that the testimony of Chinese 

witnesses was inadmissible because state law stipulated that “no black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be permitted to give evidence in favor of, or against, any 

white person.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Charles J. Murray stated that “the words, Indian, Negro, Black and White,” were generic racial terms that embraced all nonwhites and 

as such prohibited Chinese immigrants “from being witnesses against whites.” In support of the decision, Justice Murray argued that the legislative prohibition against 

blacks and Indians entering testimony had “adopted the most comprehensive terms to embrace every known class or shade of color, as the apparent design was to 

protect the white person from the influence of all testimony other than that of persons of the same caste. The use of these terms must, by every sound rule of 

construction, exclude every one who is not of white blood.”41 Thus, this case juridically decreed that the Chinese were unambiguously nonwhite and therefore not 

entitled to testify against white citizens in the state.42

The court’s decision was made on the basis of some curious anthropological reasoning. In his majority decision, Justice Murray argued that the Chinese should be 

prohibited from entering testimony because they were

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ancestrally related to the California Indians. Murray made special note that “the name Indian, from the time of Columbus to the present day, has been used to 

designate, not alone the North American, but the whole of the Mongolian race, and that the name, though first applied probably through mistake, was afterwards 

continued as appropriate on account of the supposed common origin.” 43 Moreover, “The similarity of the skull and pelvis, and the general configuration of the two 

races; the remarkable resemblance in eyes, beard, hair, and other peculiarities, together, with the contiguity of the two Continents, might well have led to the belief that 

this country was first peopled by the Asiatics, and that the difference between the different tribes and the parent stock was such as would necessarily arise from the 

circumstances of climate, pursuits, and other physical causes.”44

People v. Hall had far­reaching implications. Murray’s closing arguments show that the court was fully aware of its impact:

We have carefully considered all the consequences resulting from a different construction and are satisfied that, even in a doubtful case, we would be impelled to this decision on 

grounds of public policy.

The same rule that would admit them to testify, would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench and 

in our legislative halls.

This is not a speculation which exists in the excited and overheated imagination of the patriot and statesman, but it is an actual and present danger . . .

The effects of the People v. Hall decision were catastrophic for the Chinese. After the case, they were subjected to numerous legislative initiatives that specifically 

targeted them on a racial basis. In 1863 and 1864, for example, the California State Legislature included the Chinese in a law prohibiting the entry of “non­whites” into 

public schools. Reorganization of the state’s educational laws in 1870, which formally institutionalized a policy of segregating white and nonwhite students into separate 

schools, also mandated the segregation of the Chinese. This law remained in effect for the Chinese until 1929, when the revised School Code repealed the sections 

that had racially segregated both Chinese and Japanese children.46 This was eight years after such segregation was rescinded for Indians and thirty­one years after 

blacks were no longer required to attend segregated public schools.

It was not until 1872 that the 1854 People v. Hall case was rescinded with the passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act.47 In the period during which it was legally in 

effect, Chinese immigrants were frequently targeted by discriminatory legislation and by unprincipled white men who commit­

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ted crimes against them with impunity. Denied the basic right to have recourse to the state apparatus on their own behalf, Chinese immigrants in California were 

relegated to a second­class status.

The Class Basis of Anti­Chinese Sentiment in California

Despite the animosity and political marginalization that the Chinese experienced in California, they nonetheless made valiant efforts to survive and prosper in the face of 

daunting odds. In so doing, they managed to secure a modest foothold in the self­employment sector of the new economy, where their entry was greeted with 

widespread hostility from whites of this class.

Although anti­Chinese sentiment was widespread in California, it was powerfully mediated by short­ and long­term class interests of the white population. Although 

privately many capitalists held the Chinese in contempt, they were not oblivious to the advantages of their use as a tractable and cheap labor force. Such material 

interests often outweighed or counterbalanced the private racism that these entrepreneurs harbored.

White workers who were drawn into competition with the Chinese, however, had little reason to mitigate their racial and cultural antipathies. Instead, they routinely 

attempted to create, extend, or preserve their social position against the perceived threat that the Chinese posed to their super­ordinate status in the state. White 

supremacist sentiments were readily inflamed and provided ample justification for driving the Chinese out of sectors of the economy where they competed with skilled 

white workers. (The racial animosity exhibited by the white working class has been well documented by numerous scholars of the anti­Chinese movement and will be 

discussed briefly below.) 48 Small­scale, independent businessmen (petit commodity producers) such as self­employed laundrymen and independent miners were also 

drawn into competition with the Chinese and responded similarly, seeking to drive the Chinese from areas of the economy in which they were making inroads and to 

undermine the competitive threat they posed through the use of racially discriminatory legislation.49

During the initial period of their settlement in California, mining served as the principal sector of the economy in which the Chinese secured a livelihood. Initially arriving 

in small numbers during the Gold Rush, by 1855 two­thirds of the 24,000 Chinese in the United States, having fulfilled the terms of their indenture, worked placer 

mining claims as independent prospectors or in small group partnerships.50 The Chinese population

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engaged in mining climbed rapidly to nearly 35,000 in 1860, when over 70 percent of all gainfully employed Chinese male adults were placer miners. 51

Opportunities in mining, however, were finite, and success or failure of the Chinese in this endeavor structured other employment opportunities. According to Sucheng 

Chan, the presence or absence of mining in a particular area affected what other occupations the Chinese successfully entered. She has shown that there was an 

inverse relationship between the percentage of the Chinese population in the mining industry and the percentage earning a more menial living. “When mining was 

available, a few became laborers and providers of personal services, but as mining waned from the 1860s onward, an increasing number of Chinese became 

laundrymen, laborers, servants, and cooks. When mining was not available, the first Chinese to enter those areas had to take menial jobs from the beginning.”52 

Consequently, as the Chinese turned away from mining, “the more enterprising ones became manufacturers or merchants in the urban areas and truck gardeners in the 

rural and suburban areas, while the less fortunate everywhere became laborers, cooks, and servants.”53

Opposition to Chinese immigrants in California, however, developed as soon as they came into direct economic competition with the white population. The first 

expressions of such anti­Chinese sentiment came from independent white miners in the mining districts of northern California, who quickly concluded, despite evidence 

to the contrary, that Chinese miners were primarily gang laborers unfairly competing with the white “producing class.” European­American miners claimed that the 

Chinese drained wealth from the country by sending part of their earnings to China, encouraged “monopolies” in the state, posed a serious moral threat to the entire 

white population, and, finally, threatened the tranquility of the mining districts.54

This early opposition to the Chinese was spearheaded by self­employed, independent white miners. It was largely through their efforts that many Chinese placer 

miners eventually were driven from the mines.55 In addition to committing brutal acts of violence against the Chinese, these miners successfully lobbied for the passage 

of “foreign miners” tax in 1852. This legislation required non­citizens to secure a license in order to mine in California. While these laws also affected “foreign miners” 

from Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia, and the Pacific Islands, the Chinese were the primary targets of this social closure.

In May 1852, the California State legislature enacted the first foreign miners’ tax which required a monthly payment of three dollars from every foreign miner who did 

not desire to become a citizen. (Since the Chinese

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were deemed nonwhite, they were ineligible for citizenship.) This blatant discrimination remained in effect until it was overturned by the federal Civil Rights Act of 

1870. 56 While it was in effect, however, it garnered the state over $100,000 in annual fees and through the 1860s accounted for a large segment of the state’s 


Clearly delineated class lines emerged around the “Chinese question” in the mining district. Anglo slaveholders, monopolists, and “foreign task masters” (such as 

Mexican patrons and rancheros who profited from the use of unfree labor in the mines) were drawn into competition with white independent miners in the region, who, 

as we have seen, considered themselves the embodiment of Andrew Jackson’s “producer class.” The class nature of this racial antagonism is clearly captured in the 

various resolutions put forth by the white miners who opposed both the Chinese and the white “monopolist” interests aligned with them. One such pronouncement 

stated: ”It is the duty of miners to take the matter into their own hands [and] erect such barriers as shall be sufficient to check this Asiatic inundation. . . . The 

Capitalists . . . who are encouraging or engaged in the importation of these burlesques on humanity would crown their ships with the long tailed, horned and cloven­

hoofed inhabitants of the infernal regions [if they could make a profit on it].”58

Widespread hostility along with diminished opportunities in placer mining effectively drove many of these Chinese immigrants from the mining districts and into the new 

capitalist labor market. The railroad industry, in desperate need of labor at the time, immediately benefitted from the sudden availability of “surplus” Chinese labor. 

From 1866 to 1869 the Central Pacific Railroad became the employer of over ten thousand Chinese, who dug the Sierra tunnel and extended the railroad across the 

deserts of Nevada and Utah.59

There were at least three advantages that large­scale employers like the Central Pacific saw to using Chinese laborers. First, they were readily available. The 

prohibition against slavery, the relatively small free Negro, Indian, and Mexican populations in the state, and the opportunities for self­employment of white immigrants 

made labor a scarce commodity in California. From the viewpoint of American capitalists, the Chinese were ideal in that they could be employed for a short period 

and then conveniently sent back to China.

Second, the Chinese were also a source of cheap labor. Alexander Saxton has estimated that the Central Pacific Railroad hired unskilled Chinese laborers at 

approximately two­thirds the cost of unskilled white laborers. Although both white and Chinese workers received the same

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monthly wage of thirty dollars in 1865, the railroad had to provide room and board for its white employees, whereas Chinese laborers were housed and fed by their 

contractors. 60

Third, American employers found the Chinese more reliable and tractable than other laborers. The contract labor system made them extremely exploitable and 

compliant, and employers of Chinese labor in California readily attested to the system’s advantages. In testimony before the Joint Senate Committee on Chinese 

Immigration in 1876, for example, Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad acknowledged that he preferred Chinese labor to white because of their “greater 

reliability.” He also admired the Chinese laborers’ “steadiness, and their aptitude and capacity for hard work.” Moreover, Crocker argued:

I think that the presence of Chinese as laborers among us goes very far toward the material interest of the country. . . . I believe that the effects of Chinese labor upon the white 

labor has an elevating instead of degrading tendency. . . . I believe, today, if the Chinese labor was driven out of this State . . . there are 75,000 white laborers who would have to 

come down from the elevated classes of laborers they are now engaged in and take the place of these Chinamen, and therefore it would degrade white labor instead of elevating 


Farmers struggling to develop capitalist agriculture at the time also appreciated the role that a cheap and tractable labor force afforded them. William Hollister, the 

aforementioned agriculturalist from Santa Barbara, stated in 1876 that there was “common sentiment and feeling in favor of the Chinamen” among agriculturalists in the 

state. “They are our last resort,” Hollister told the committee, “They are the only thing that the farmer can rely upon at all.”

At a meeting of the California Fruit Growers’ Association at the turn of the century, one farmer argued that Chinese labor was indispensable to California agriculture 

because the Chinese were so “well adapted to that particular form of labor to which so many white men object. They are patient, plodding and uncomplaining in the 

performance of the most menial service.” Another member of the association added that one distinct advantage to the use of “the short­legged, short­backed Asiatic” 

was his ability to tolerate even the most adverse working conditions. “He works in every sun and clime, and as far as the Chinese are concerned they faithfully perform 

their contract and keep their promise, whether the eye of the employer is on them or not.” According to this agriculturalist, the need for Chinese labor in California was 

not merely ”a question of cheap labor, but of reliable labor.”62

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The Class Nature of Anti­Chinese Sentiment in Rural California

After the decline in mining and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Chinese laborers began to enter the nascent truck and fruit farm industry in 

California as seasonal laborers. By 1870 they accounted for one­tenth of all agricultural laborers, and by 1880 they had become the backbone of the industry, one­

third of the total farm­labor force in California. They also were used throughout the state in land reclamation and irrigation projects. 63

By 1880, a few Chinese immigrants had successfully begun small farming ventures as owner­operators and tenants. Sucheng Chan’s splendid study of the Chinese in 

California agriculture comprehensively documents the extent to which the Chinese entered this sector of the new economy. In areas where white farmers had not 

already preceded them, Chinese truck gardeners were able to capture the Chinese market as early as the 1860s and, in the northern mining region, even part of the 

non­Chinese market.64

Despite these modest advances and occasional success stories, only limited opportunities existed for Chinese farmers in the state’s agricultural districts. In the 

Sacramento—San Joaquin delta, for example, most Chinese farmers were cash tenants who grew potatoes in the backswamps. Only a few Chinese sharecropped. In 

contrast, white farmers were overwhelmingly owner­operators who farmed grain, hay, vegetables, fruit, beans, and livestock. Chan has shown that most of the white 

farmers originally from New England and the Middle Atlantic states were owner­operators who eventually dominated grain farming; other white owner­operators, 

such as Northern European immigrants, grew grain but also engaged in diversified farming.65

Assessing the nature of the class forces that structured the lives of the Chinese in rural California, Chan stresses that they differed significantly from those in urban 

centers such as San Francisco. In rural California, the Chinese ”ruling elite” were often agents for urban­based firms who helped distribute imported goods to Chinese 

clients. More importantly, they primarily served as intermediaries, or as Chan refers to them, as “compradors,” who facilitated the interaction between Chinese and 

white employers and Chinese laborers in farming and construction projects. They occupied a contradictory class location in that they were both benefactors and 

exploiters of the Chinese workers bound to them through the contract labor system. “Since it was difficult for Chinese workers to survive without the knowledge and 

contacts that the tenant farmers, rural merchants, and

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labor contractors possessed, the latter were in a position to exploit as well as aid the former. At the same time, since white landowners found their services so 

convenient, these members of the rural Chinese elite were also in a position to strike relatively good bargains in land leasing and other business transactions.” 66

In this context, it would be a mistake to see the Chinese intermediary class of tenant farmers, labor contractors, and merchants as merely exploiters of less fortunate 

Chinese laborers. As a class of “middlemen,” they also served as the first line of defense for their compatriots against the abuses of American employers. This was 

particularly true in instances where bargaining favorably on behalf of the laborers, as labor contractors often did, also benefited these intermediaries monetarily. As 

Chan has perceptively noted, in their leadership they tended to “facilitate rather than dominate agricultural production,” and consequently they cannot assume the full 

blame for the mistreatment that befell many Chinese laborers in that sector of the economy.67

In this regard, Chan argues that, although

there seemed to be no rigid class barriers among different groups in the Chinese population in rural California—movement in and out of various occupations being quite fluid—

such divisions become more apparent by the turn of the century as upward mobility became more difficult to achieve. On the other hand, it is important to realize that whatever 

class divisions that might have existed were mitigated by mutual dependence, kinship and village ties, and ethnic solidarity in the face of hostility from society at large.

Given these differences in regional class actors, hostility toward the Chinese in rural California crystallized along different class lines than in urban centers such as San 

Francisco where white, working­class men swelled the ranks of anti­Chinese groups. According to Chan, hostility to the Chinese in rural California was “led either by 

men espousing white supremacist values or by hoodlums out to enjoy themselves by tormenting ‘Chinamen.'”69 Moreover, the main rural class—white farmers—with 

the potential to rally forcefully against the Chinese saw them as tools of “land monopolists” and turned their hostility toward the latter rather than scapegoating the 

Chinese. White farm workers, the other important class protagonist in rural California, were often characterized as tramps, drunkards, and shiftless individuals and thus 

generally perceived by Californians as not particularly organizable.70

In the absence of concerted class opposition by the rural white population, anti­Chinese sentiment was spearheaded by white supremacist orga­

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nizations such as the Order of Caucasians (also known as the Caucasian League), who agitated against the Chinese in Truckee, Red Bluff, and Marysville in 1876. 71 

Opposition to the Chinese also occurred in Chico and in Sacramento, where in 1877 one group threatened local farmers with the following letter: “Notice is heare 

given to all men who owns lands on the Sacramento River is heare ordered to dispense with Chinese labour or suffer sutch consiquinces as may follow within tenn 

days. We have heaved and puked over Chinese imposition long a nuff. Good­by John Long Taile.”72

In April 1882 another organization, carrying the name “American and European Labor Association,” formed in Colusa County in reaction to Chinese workers 

demanding wages equal to those paid white Americans. The new organization sought to replace these Chinese workers with young women imported from Europe and 

the East Coast and also called upon the local white population to patronize only businesses that employed white labor.73 It was common practice at the time to pay 

white farm laborers one­and­a­half times the wages paid Chinese laborers.74

Anti­Chinese sentiment in rural California developed, as it did elsewhere in the state, against the backdrop of an emergent class conflict within the white population 

between white capitalist interests and white immigrants, who were increasingly being proletarianized and placed into competition with nonwhite labor. One anti­

Chinese proponent writing in the Pacific Rural Press in April 1886 vividly expressed the popular belief among white farmers that the Chinese were the hapless pawns 

of capitalist and other monopolists attempting to degrade the status of white labor. He railed against both the Chinese and their employers in these terms:

A class supporting and degrading civilization in China has chained with the shackles of a relentless superstition and unresisting subservency an inbred race of miserable slaves, 

who are satisfied with a miserable fare the merest pittance can procure. What more natural than that the services of such a race is desirable by men disposed to regard labor as a 

mere article or commodity to be purchased low that the proceeds resulting, may, in competition with his fellows, bring him greater profit? . . .

The Chinese slave invasion of our State has been imposed upon us against our constant expostulation as a people. It has been encouraged only by scheming companies and 

equally selfish individuals. . . . This slave system must not only stop its invasion, but it must leave our shores.

In short, the racialization of the Chinese in rural California often reflected the way class lines were being forged and contested among the white population in these 

regions of the state. The antimonopolist senti­

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ments of white small farmers provided an important basis of their bitter opposition to Chinese laborers and their opposition to the commercial interests utilizing them.

Racialized Class Relations in Urban Manufacturing

After 1867 the Chinese found work in a number of the newly opened manufacturing industries in the urban centers of northern California. San Francisco already had 

about two hundred manufacturing firms employing approximately fifteen hundred workers in 1860. By 1870 the number of laborers employed in local industries in the 

city had skyrocketed to over twelve thousand, making San Francisco the ninth­leading manufacturing city in the United States. 76

Paul Ong’s study of Chinese labor in early San Francisco provides us an extraordinary glimpse into the structure of the urban economy and the class relations that 

bound the Chinese and white populations in that city. He has shown that relatively few Chinese were available for wage work during the 1860s. Most who initially 

settled in San Francisco developed an ethnic economy that catered to their compatriots’ demands for Chinese goods and services. Chinatown became the core of this 

economy, serving as the major retailing, service, vice, and entertainment center for Chinese in the entire state. As late as 1860, only 10 to 15 percent of the Chinese in 

San Francisco earned a living as laundrymen and laborers in the city’s Anglo­dominated labor market. But this ethnic economy could not absorb the continuing influx 

of immigrants, and so, according to Ong, “by 1870, over half, and perhaps as much as three­quarters of the Chinese were a part of the larger urban economy. In the 

labor market, they constituted up to one­fifth of the potential wage workers.”77

This proletarianization process reflected the racial division of labor that became an integral component of the white supremacist transformation of urban California. The 

Chinese primarily labored in lower­paying industries and firms, with those unable to secure jobs in manufacturing usually forced to take service jobs, such as domestic 

and laundry work.78 According to Ong, there were several facets to the placement of Chinese laborers in this racially segmented labor market. First, the Chinese were 

concentrated in low­wage industries such as those that produced cigars, woolen goods, and boots and shoes. Second, the Chinese often worked for lower wages 

within certain industries. Shoe firms, for example, paid Chinese laborers an average annual wage of $311, while similar firms employing

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white laborers paid $901. Third, employers hiring a racially mixed labor force assigned the less desirable jobs to the Chinese while whites held the skilled and better­

paying jobs. Whites also generally served as foremen in these plants even when the crew was overwhelmingly Chinese. 79

As a result of this racialized division of labor, Chinese became the principal work force in San Francisco’s woolen mills, cigar factories, and boot, shoe, and textile 

industries during the 1870s, accounting for 46 percent of the total labor force. As in other segments of the urban labor market in which they were employed, these 

workers either were heavily concentrated as the principal work force in the low­wage industries or held the most menial jobs in racially mixed firms where they were 

routinely paid less than white workers performing the same task.80

Other Chinese immigrants dominated the local fishing industry, which provided employment for 15 percent of the Chinese population at the time.81 In addition, many 

Chinese secured employment as cooks, laundry workers, and personal servants.82 A significant number also became artisans working independently or with a small 

number of partners and assistants as shoemakers, cigar makers, tailors, and seamstresses. It is difficult to determine, however, how many of these individuals were 

independent producers and how many were actually wage laborers in these industries.83

The degree to which the Chinese successfully entered sectors of urban manufacturing varied according to the status of the firm and the way white employers defined 

their class interests in relation to the Chinese. According to Ong, the “role of Chinese labor within an industry depended on the relative power of white capital and 

white labor and the strength of these two groups was influenced by the degree of competition in the product market and the prevailing production process. It was only 

in industries where competition was high and labor was in a weak bargaining position that the Chinese were used.”84

White labor in the competitive sector of small manufacturing (of such things as cigars or shoes) was in a tenuous position vis­à­vis white capital, having to contend both 

with owners who had great incentives to use cheap labor and with a host of newly established businesses that made it difficult for workers to organize.85 Capitalists in 

these competitive industries routinely sought the Chinese as a cheap labor force whenever it was profitable to do so without arousing the opposition of white laborers.

Capitalists in noncompetitive industries based on large factories, on the other hand, could not successfully employ Chinese because of the powerful position that skilled 

white laborers held in the production process, and

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thus such sectors of the urban economy as the metal, machinery, and sugar industries did not hire large numbers of Chinese. Owners of these firms often catered to the 

racial prejudices of the white craftsmen who participated actively in anti­Chinese organizations in San Francisco. 86 Only a few large­scale enterprises such as the 

cigar box, cordage, and woolen­goods industries were able to hire Chinese workers, because the white laborers in these industries needed fewer skills and thus had 

less direct control over the production process. Employers in these industries successfully manipulated the racial composition of their work force in order to dampen 

efforts by labor to organize against them, creating a racially mixed labor force in which Chinese held the most menial jobs and the lowest of the semiskilled 


The opposition of the white working class to the Chinese in urban manufacturing centered on a number of related factors. One was the threat that the Chinese 

ostensibly posed as strikebreakers. During the period when the Chinese entered the urban manufacturing centers of California, they were successfully used as 

strikebreakers on the East Coast. For example, in September 1870, seventy­five Chinese laborers were transported from San Francisco to North Adams, 

Massachusetts, to break a strike by white workers in a local shoe factory. During this same period, Chinese laborers were also used as strikebreakers in Beaver Falls, 

Pennsylvania, and Belleville, New Jersey.88 Their use as strikebreakers in California first occurred in 1869, when a large number of Chinese laborers were brought in 

to break a strike in the San Francisco boot­and­shoe industry.89 These strikebreaking activities were bitterly resented by the white working class and fueled their 

virulent opposition to the Chinese.

A second area of contention concerned wages. As we have seen, employers were able to hire the Chinese at wages lower than those paid white workers. The vast 

majority of Chinese in California were single male laborers who had their basic necessities provided by labor contractors. Arriving in California with hopes of 

improving their families’ standard of living, white workingmen were unable and unwilling to live as cheaply as the Chinese workers. The 1878 report by the California 

State Senate Committee on Chinese Immigration stated explicitly that white labor

cannot compete with Chinese labor, and are now suffering because of this inability. This inability does not arise out of any deficiency of skill or will, but out of a mode of life 

heretofore considered essential to our American civilization.

Our laborers have families, a condition considered of vast importance to our

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civilization, while the Chinese have not, or if they have families they need but little to support them in their native land. . . . The cost of sustenance to the whites is four­fold greater 

than that of the Chinese, and the wages of the whites must of necessity be greater than the wages required by the Chinese. The Chinese are, therefore, able to underbid the whites 

in every kind of labor. They can be hired in masses; they can be managed and controlled like unthinking slaves. But our laborer has an individual life, cannot be controlled as a 

slave by brutal masters, and this individuality has been required by the genius of our institutions, and upon these elements of character the State depends for defense and growth. 

This passage suggests one final basis of working­class anti­Chinese agitation: the ostensible threat that the Chinese posed to the overall status of free white labor in the 

state. Because of their early use as strikebreakers and as cheap labor, the Chinese were viewed as having a degrading influence on the white population. As noted 

earlier, this perception was also largely shaped by white labor’s previous attitude toward blacks and the institution of slavery.

Some anti­Chinese even argued that the Chinese contract labor system in California was more degrading to the white Californians than was Southern slavery. When 

comparisons were made, black slavery was typically seen as more desirable. The California State Senate Special Committee on Chinese Immigration in 1878, for 

instance, argued that the use of Chinese contracted laborers in California lacked any semblance of the “beneficial influence” associated with chattel slavery. While “the 

slaves of the south were, as a race, kind and faithful,” the Chinese were characterized as being “cruel and treacherous.” In weighing both systems, the report summarily 

concluded that “all the advantage was with Southern slavery.”91

The Status of Chinese Women in Urban California

The final sector of the urban economy in which the Chinese successfully carved a niche and evoked the ire of European Americans was the vice industry. By 1860 

over 10 percent of the Chinese employed in San Francisco were males working in gambling, the sale of opium, or prostitution. Another 23.4 percent of the city’s 

Chinese, all of whom were female, worked as prostitutes. “Thus, fully one­third of the gainfully employed Chinese in the city were engaged in providing recreational 

vice—an unfortunate fact which gave rise to strong negative images of the Chinese.”92

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Sociologist Lucie Cheng Hirata’s important research on Chinese immigrant women in nineteenth­century California provides us with the most detailed and sympathetic 

analysis of their experience to date. Hirata situates Chinese female prostitution within the context of the patriarchal gender relations of Confucian China and the 

“semifeudal” system that was carried over into the Chinese immigrant experience in California. As other scholars have also noted, the relegation of Chinese women into 

prostitution was facilitated by their utterly subordinate status in patriarchal Chinese society. A Chinese woman was obligated to serve her father during childhood, her 

husband during adulthood, and her sons during widowhood. Her marriage was arranged by parents and clan elders and the betrothed typically met for the first time on 

their wedding day. The wife subsequently moved into her husband’s family home, where she was, in turn, obliged to serve her mother­in­law. Not surprisingly, Chinese 

women’s labor was less valued than men’s; her primary contribution was the bearing of children, especially male children. 93

In this context, female prostitution was an important and acceptable recourse to a family facing impoverishment.94 According to Hirata, prostitution relieved the family 

of having to “provide for the girl’s upkeep, and her sale or part of her earnings could help support the family.”95 Consequently, “the family, not the girl, arranged for 

sale. Girls often accepted their sale, however reluctantly, out of filial loyalty, and most of them were not in a position to oppose their families’ decision. In addition, the 

sheltered and secluded lives that women were forced to live made them particularly vulnerable to manipulation, and many were tricked or lured into prostitution.”96

Some of the first Chinese women who came to California in the gold rush period were self­employed, “free­agent” prostitutes who through various means had attained 

some individual agency. (One such woman, one Ah­Choi, arrived in late 1848 or early 1849 and within two years had accumulated enough money in prostitution to 

own a brothel. Most of her customers were reportedly non­Chinese men).97 The majority of Chinese prostitutes, however, were pressed into service by the Chinese 

secret societies, or tongs, that organized this lucrative operation in the state. Hip­Yee Tong appears to have been the main importer of Chinese women for prostitution 

during the last half of the nineteenth century. One source estimates that this tong alone imported six thousand Chinese women between 1852 and 1873 and netted an 

estimated $200,000.98 Their operation afforded a lucrative profit for Chinese men who acted as procurers,

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importers, brothel owners, and highbinders, and also proved profitable for white policemen who accepted money for keeping them from being arrested and white 

property owners in Chinatown who leased the buildings where these businesses operated. 99

The highly organized nature of this operation, plus the lack of alternative employment opportunities, facilitated the widespread relegation of most Chinese immigrant 

women into prostitution. In 1852 there were only seven women out of a total of 11,794 Chinese immigrants in California. Two of these women were independent 

prostitutes and two others were thought to be working for Ah­Choi in San Francisco.100 Hirata has documented that by 1860 there were 654 Chinese prostitutes 

enumerated on the San Francisco census: this represented 85 percent of the total Chinese female population. The other women listed on the census were employed as 

laundresses, gardeners, laborers, shopkeepers, fisherwomen, or clerks. Ten years later, the number of Chinese women in that city working as prostitutes had doubled, 

to 1,426, but had dropped proportionally to 71 percent of the total employed female population. Finally, in 1880 the total number of Chinese prostitutes had declined 

to only 435 and represented only 21 percent of Chinese women in the city. These figures indicate that the “heyday of Chinese prostitution in San Francisco was 

around 1870, and its precipitous decline occurred just before 1880.”101

Chinese female prostitutes were procured in three ways: deception and kidnapping, contractual agreements, and sale. The following account is a poignant example of 

how Chinese women could be lured into prostitution through false promises:

I was nineteen when this man came to my mother and said that in America there was a great deal of gold. Even if I just peeled potatoes there, he told my mother I would earn seven 

or eight dollars a day, and if I was willing to do any work at all I would earns lots of money . . . so my mother was glad to have me go with him as his wife. . . . When we first landed 

in San Francisco, we lived in a hotel in Chinatown, a nice place, but one day, after I had been there for about two weeks, a woman came to see me. She was young, very pretty, and 

all dressed in silk. She told me that I was not really Hucy Yow’s wife, but that she had asked him to buy her a slave, that I belonged to her, and must go with her, but she would 

treat me well, and I could buy back my freedom, if I was willing to please. . . . I did not believe her. . . . So when Hucy Yow came I asked him why that woman had come and what 

she meant by all that lying. But he said that it was true; that he was not my husband, he did not care about me, and that this was something that happened all the time. Everybody 

did this, he said, and why be so shocked that I was to be a prostitute instead of a married woman.

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In the case of contractual agreements, women typically were offered free passage to America and an advance of over $400 in return for a promise of four and a half 

years of service. Each woman was required to work a minimum of 320 days a year and faced an extension of up to one additional year if she failed to meet this 

obligation. 103

An example of the process whereby Chinese women were sold into prostitution is found in an 1870s account from San Francisco, which came to light when the slave 

girl’s owner was arrested for striking her.

I have been in this country about nine years. I was brought here from China by an old woman. . . . She bought me in China for something over $20. I stayed with her for about a 

month. . . . I was bought by Dr. Li­Po­Tai for something from $20 to $40. . . . I lived with the Doctor for a short time only, his wife saying I was of no account. Li­Po­Tai owed a man 

named Loo Fook some money, and I was given to Loo Fook in part payment of that debt. . . . I was afterward transferred to one Lee Choy, who said he intended to make a 

courtesan of me. I was then between eleven and twelve years old. One night I went with Lee Choy, and we met a man who say I was young, and said I was good looking, and he 

wanted to know if I was for sale. . . . I was finally sold to him for about $100. . . . I lived with him about three or four years, and he sold me to Lee Chein Kay for $160. I lived with him 

both as servant and wife. . . . I have lived at different wash­houses during the last four months, acting as servant for the men there. . . . I have received no pay for my labor in the 

wash­houses, and, worse than that, have been whipped a number of time . . .

Other Chinese women were also routinely abused and beaten; in addition, they were susceptible to syphilis and gonorrhea and always in danger of being killed by their 

customers or owners. They often anesthetized themselves from their daily abuse and degradation by smoking opium; some committed suicide by taking an overdose of 

drugs or drowning themselves.105 Adding insult to injury, the remains of these women were rarely sent back to China for burial (as was the common practice for 

Chinese men who died in the United States). According to Hirata, “few cared about the remains of these women. The [San Francisco] Alta reported in 1870 that the 

bodies of Chinese women were discarded and left in the streets of Chinatown.”106

Those who survived these physical abuses were also subjected to legal harassment from white authorities. Despite the bribes and other extralegal measures used to 

protect this operation, Chinese female prostitutes were specifically targeted with legislation designed to curtail public “vice.” Between 1866 and 1905 at least eight 

California laws were passed designed to restrict the importation of Chinese women for prostitution or to suppress

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the Chinese brothel business. ”Although white prostitution was equally if not more prevalent, these were additional and specific laws directed only against the Chinese. 

Chinese prostitutes, if caught, were sentenced to a fine of $25 to $50 and a jail term of at least five days.” 107 It appears that Chinese women in this industry were 

perceived as constituting a more “damning influence” on white men than were white female prostitutes.

Such sentiment also led the California state legislature in March 1870 to enact an “anti­prostitution” measure that required any Chinese or Japanese woman entering 

the United States to present satisfactory evidence that she had “voluntarily” immigrated and was “a person of correct habits and good moral character.” Proof to this 

effect was necessary to obtain a permit authorizing immigration from the Commissioner of Immigration.108

One cannot avoid concluding that these women were taken advantage of by both Chinese and white men as well as by a few Chinese women who managed brothels 

and served as intermediaries in the procurement process. Chinese male entrepreneurs, who may have been merchants or associated with various tongs, profited 

handsomely from this lucrative operation. Most of the prostitutes procured through contracts, calling for an initial $530 capital outlay, earned an estimated $850 a 

year, or $3,404 for the four years of servitude. (This is based on earning an average of 38 cents per customer and seven customers per day.) Since their upkeep was 

less than $100 per year (which included two or three meals per day and a place to sleep), profits from this type of prostitution were very high.109

Those who came voluntarily or were lured into prostitution proved even more profitable. In a case discussed by Hirata, one female procurer obtained the consent of 

the mother of one women to take her to America for a mere $98. Upon arrival, the woman was immediately sold for $1,950. After working two years for her new 

owner and reportedly earning no less than $290 per month, she was resold for $2,100. The gross income that this brothel owner received from her labor during these 

two years was in excess of $5,500. This does not include the profit from the sewing and other forms of work that this woman was assigned to do in the brothel during 

the day.110

White Working­Class Claims to Racial Entitlement

Although the plight of Chinese female prostitutes evoked a sympathetic response from some white women, only a few strata within the European­

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American population looked favorably upon the presence of Chinese men in the state. 111 Sentiment favoring the use of Chinese male labor generally was limited to 

such economic interests as large­scale agriculturalists, railroad operators, manufacturers, and merchants interested in trade with the Far East. Continued Chinese 

immigration was also supported by some Protestant clergymen who saw proselytizing possibilities.112

Opposition to the Chinese, in contrast, was widespread among other segments of the white population elsewhere in the class structure. Once the Chinese were driven 

from the mines and resettled in urban manufacturing centers, it was the white working class which took up the anti­Chinese banner. The urban anti­Chinese movement 

of the late 1860s was, from the very beginning, dominated by skilled crafts workers who rallied against both the Chinese and the capitalists who employed them.

This widespread antipathy of the white working class toward the Chinese in California during the last half of the nineteenth century served a number of purposes. First, 

anti­Chinese sentiment among the white population brought together various white ethnic groups in a common cause, helping to bridge even the most diverse cultural, 

religious, and linguistic differences among white immigrants. Secondly, this antipathy was used by politicians to mobilize support of these settlers for the Democratic 

and, to a lesser extent, the Republican parties.113

Above all, the anti­Chinese sentiment of the period served as a major unifying force for the organization of white skilled labor in California. Rather than viewing the 

Chinese as a particularly vulnerable and unorganized sector of the working class, craft union leaders used racial antipathy as a tool to further the organization of an 

exclusively white skilled labor movement. It was precisely this sector of the white working class, which ironically had the least to fear in terms of direct economic 

competition with the Chinese, that spearheaded the anti­Chinese movement in California. There is agreement among historians that the leaders of the white craft union 

movement used the anti­Chinese agitation as a means of unifying and strengthening their political influence in the state. Such agitation also served as a means whereby 

these leaders diverted the attention of unskilled workers and the unemployed from the privileged position that unionized, skilled occupations were developing at the 


Largely through the efforts of leaders of the craft union movement and anti­Chinese agitators, a number of legislative bills were enacted benefiting this segment of the 

white population. Most of these bills were designed to curtail the threat that the Chinese posed to the white working class and functioned as a form of social closure. In 

1852, for example, white workers

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played a key role in the legislative defeat of a bill which would have sanctioned the importation of Chinese contracted laborers into the state. The so­called Tingley 

“coolie bill” proposed that contracts made between Chinese laborers and Anglo employers in California, who paid their passage to the United States, be legally 

binding and would have required Chinese contracted laborers to serve employers for a period of ten years or less at a fixed wage, further institutionalizing the 

subordination of the Chinese population to capitalist interests. 115

In addition to this legislative victory, white labor was able to manipulate the state apparatus into a number of measures targeting Chinese labor. In 1860 the state 

legislature passed a $4 monthly tax on Chinese fishermen. In April 1862, the legislature enacted the “Chinese Police Tax” whose stated purpose was to “Protect Free 

White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California.” In 1876 the San Francisco 

Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance which levied a quarterly tax of $2 on horse­drawn laundry deliverymen (who were mostly white) and a $15 tax on those 

who delivered their laundry without a vehicle (mostly Chinese). Finally, in 1879 a provision was included in the new California State Constitution which specifically 

prohibited the employment of Chinese laborers on any public works projects.116

Perhaps the most important victory of the white working class in California and the West against Chinese labor was the passage of federal legislation that ultimately 

prohibited their further immigration. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States for a ten­year period and 

expressly excluded the Chinese from naturalization. In 1892 the Geary Act extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for another ten­year period, at the end of which the 

1902 Immigration Act permanently prohibited further Chinese immigration. It was not until 1943 that the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by Congress.117


Who ultimately orchestrated and benefited from the calamity that befell Chinese immigrants in nineteenth­century California? What was the relative role of white capital 

and white labor in structuring the placement of the Chinese in the urban economy and promoting the racialization of the Chinese in California? Did capitalists divide the 

working class along racial lines to maximize profits and thwart class opposition? Or did segments of

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the white working class define their class interests along narrow racial lines so as to exclude and vilify their Chinese counterparts?

In the final analysis, the answers to these questions lie partly in the tenuous balance of power between white capital and labor in the state—one which shifted with 

fluctuations in the business cycle, growing competition, and the mechanization of industry. The ability of these class actors to realize their narrowly defined interests 

helped structure the integration or exclusion of the Chinese in the urban labor market. Privileged white workers clearly turned their hostility toward the Chinese 

underclass rather than joining with them in a common struggle against capitalism or its agents. As Paul Ong has perceptively concluded, “While capitalists such as those 

in the woolen industry attempted to ‘divide and conquer’ workers, the economy provided few such opportunities. The most active agents in dividing labor were the 

workers themselves . . . [who] often succeeded in protecting a desirable niche of the labor market from outsiders, creating monopolies which maintained high wages. 

Racism, along with trade unions and nativism, became the bases for organizing such a group—in this case white labor.” 118

At its most fundamental level, this process of exclusion represents the utilization of social closures by white workers who attempted to limit Chinese access to 

privileged sectors of the new capitalist labor market. Their racial animosity toward the Chinese reflected both the general acceptance of white supremacist sentiments 

among white Californians and also reflected the emerging class tensions within white society.

However, at the moment when capitalism created a common labor market and the basis for collective class organization, the white working class responded by 

narrowly defining their interests solely as white workers—rather than in more inclusive class terms. Although Chinese and white workers may have shared some 

underlying class interests, these interests never crystallized in common opposition to capitalist interests. Instead, white craftsmen and other skilled workers consistently 

sought to maintain their privileged racial status over the Chinese and, in the process, reaffirmed the centrality of race as the primary organizing principle of nineteenth­

century Anglo California. In sum, only a historical analysis of the Chinese immigrant experience that explores the complex way white supremacy racialized class as well 

as gender relations illuminates the broad contours of their nineteenth century experience in the state.

The next chapter extends this analysis and examines how anti­Chinese sentiment was displaced onto the Japanese who immigrated into the state

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in the aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It does so through an analysis of the Japanese­Mexican Labor Association’s successful agricultural strike in 

Oxnard, California in 1903. The issues raised by this organization of Japanese and Mexican farm workers highlight the complex ways that racial status and class 

position structured social relations between white Californians and racialized ethnic groups at the turn of the century.

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Skate Life
Yochim, Emily C

Published by University of Michigan Press

Yochim, Emily C.
Skate Life: Re-Imagining White Masculinity.
University of Michigan Press, 2010.
Project MUSE.,

Single-Family Rentals Increased Faster than Apartments in 22 of 30 Big Cities, Led by Phoenix

Single-Family Rentals Increased Faster than Apartments in 22 of 30 Big Cities, Led by Phoenix

Single-Family Rentals Increased Faster than Apartments in 22 of 30 Big Cities, Led by Phoenix

Here are the top 10 most expensive rental markets in the U.S.

Here are the top 10 most expensive rental markets in the U.S.

Here are the top 10 most expensive rental markets in the U.S.

    Making housing unaffordable

  • ‘Sunbelt Bolshevism’
  • ‘Renters’ revolt’
  • Centering urban politics on Los Angeles

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ISSN: 0044-7471 (Print) (Online) Journal homepage:

Skate and Create
Skateboarding, Asian Pacific America,

and Masculinity

Amy Sueyoshi

To cite this article: Amy Sueyoshi (2015) Skate and Create, Amerasia Journal, 41:2, 2-23, DOI:


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I. Race, Gender, and Asian
American Sporting Identities

Dat Nguyen is the only Vietnamese American drafted by a National
Football League team. He was an All-American at Texas A & M
University (1998) and an All-Pro for the Dallas Cowboys (2003).

Bookcover image:


Truck company Gullwing featured two Japanese Americans in their platter
of seven of their “hottest skaters,” Skateboarder Magazine, January 1979.


Amerasia Journal 41:2 (2015): 2-2


10.17953/ aj.41.2.2

Skate and Create
Skateboarding, Asian Pacific America,

and Masculinity
Amy Sueyoshi

In the early 1980s, my oldest brother, a senior in high school,
would bring home a different girl nearly every month, or so the
family myth goes. They were all white women, punkers in leath-
er jackets and ripped jeans who exuded the ultimate in cool. I
thought of my brother as a rock star in his ability to attract so
many edgy, beautiful women in a racial category that I knew at
the age of nine was out of our family’s league. As unique as I
thought my brother ’s power of attraction to be, I learned later
that numerous Asian stars rocked the stage in my brother’s world
of skateboarding. A community of intoxicatingly rebellious Asian
and Pacific Islander men thrived during the 1970s and 1980s
within a skater world almost always characterized as white, if not
blatantly racist. These men’s positioning becomes particularly
notable during an era documented as a time of crippling emas-
culation for Asian American men. Skateboard magazines, inter-
views, and memoirs detail how API boys and men found a home
and an identity in the apparently white world of skateboarding.
Asian Pacific American men formed a loose fraternity of die-hard
individualists, alongside whites and other people of color across
broadly middle-class backgrounds. For these youth, race mat-
tered less than their love of skating in forging friendships, even
as they identified unquestionably as Asian in America. Addition-
ally, these young men never questioned the legitimacy or consti-
tution of their masculinity nor saw themselves as subverting a
racialized superstructure of emasculation in a sport that appeared
definitively manly. They sought to simply have fun and feel free

Amy SueyoShi is the Associate Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San
Francisco State University. She is the author of Queer Compulsions and has
a second book titled Sex Acts forthcoming with University of Colorado








among other youth who accepted them. API skaters who chose
to “rip” instead of joining a basketball or baseball league thrived
in an alternative space, distinctly anti-conformist even as it re-
mained conventionally masculinist.

“Skate to Create” spotlights the experiences of API skaters to
expose how discourses on the sport have become whitewashed.
Racism within the documentation of skateboarding has erased as-
tounding Asian Pacific American success within the sport. This
erasure has notably squashed the public proliferation of robust
Asian Pacific Islander masculinities in the 1970s and 1980s. The
history of skateboarding, too, might take on new meaning by cen-
tering skaters of color. Expressly opposed to “groupthink,” Asian
Pacific Islander skaters found belonging, perhaps curiously, in an
activity with racist roots. More significantly, these API men—who
American media insisted were castrated—joined hands with other
men across race with ease and confidence to form a brotherhood
built upon practice and skill in one of the most masculine profes-
sional sports that came to embody rebellious American manhood.1

Scholarship on Skateboarding
Geographers, sociologists, and other skateboarding specialists
have frequently documented skating as a fringe sport of demon-
strative irreverence against authority and institutions. Iain Borden
describes skateboarding as “counter cultural,” a totalizing way of
being with its own aesthetics, language, music, and even junk food
that rejects normative American values. According to Borden,
skaters are proud to subscribe to a single binary choice, “skate or be
stupid.”2 Scholars working at the intersection of race and gender
have more significantly challenged these pervasive romanticized
views of skateboarding-as-rebellion by characterizing the sport
as a site of reactionary whiteness. Media critic Emily Chivers Yo-
chim placed skateboarding’s beginnings in the conformist middle
America of the 1950s. As California experienced an unprecedented
growth in populations of people of color, whites perceived them as
threatening to their well-being. Skateboarding’s birth from quiet
and spacious suburban streets marked it as a leisure activity spe-
cifically for whites who preferred to be away from crowded urban
neighborhoods increasingly populated by Asians, Latinos, and Af-
rican Americans. It symbolized a “more carefree time when streets
were safe and children could go out alone.” Skateboarding’s roots
in surfing from the Pacific Islands and Hawai‘i even became de-
racialized as teenagers viewed it as merely an exotic edge to the

Skate an



defiant sport. According to Yochim, the skate life as a cultural
movement became a site of young white men “reveling in adoles-
cent humor” and “mocking dominant norms of masculinity, all the
while maintaining its power at the expense of women, people of
color, homosexuals, and working class whites.”3

More recent scholarship further underscores skateboard-
ing’s neoconservative underpinnings. Kinesiologist Kyle Kusz
outlined how skateboarding’s rise in popularity as an extreme
sport was a reaction from white men against the entry of African
American athletes into professional sports. The celebration of
extreme sports as “hearty, pioneering, and masculinizing” in fact
expressed white desires to “recenter white masculinity” within
mainstream sports culture and, therefore, American national
identity. Extreme sportsmen and their “insatiable appetite” for
risk and adventure became the contemporary “American fron-
tiersmen,” heroic (white) men living in a modern jungle filled
with new dangers and challenges.4

Skateboarding’s inextricable relationship to punk rock fur-
ther reinforced its relationship to white supremacy, according to
Konstatin Butz. “White males” who comprise the primary par-
ticipants of both skateboarding and skate punk culture embraced
music that appropriated “minority” discourse as they grew anx-
ious about losing their own hegemonic status. Butz noted that
the leading skateboarding magazine Thrasher fueled sales by pro-
moting their “Skate and Destroy” slogan through destructive and
militaristic characters aimed at appealing to white, suburban mid-
dle-class adolescents. Thrasher aligned with other productions of
popular culture as well as governmental discourse that marketed
exaggerated white masculinity as a backlash against civil rights
and feminism during the 1980s. Curry Malott and Milagros Peña
have also asserted that racist and misogynist elements of punk
rock culture are inseparable from skateboarding in their study on
the rise of anti-racist and feminist punk rock.5 Within these narra-
tives in which skateboarding becomes inextricably linked to neo-
conservativism, Asians and Pacific Islanders, along with women,
queers, and other people of color, can appear only as objects of
hate, rather than as actual skaters, even in an America growing
increasingly brown.

Skateboarding and Asian Pacific America
In Asian America, skateboarding has appeared as a lighthearted
recreational pursuit or an activity associated with whites. In




1985, Carl Yamamoto, a dancer and the artistic director of the San
Diego Dance Theater, incorporated a childhood scene of trying to
learn how to skateboard and failing in his “InnovAsian” dance
concert. Nisei Week organizers in 1987 also programmed a
skateboarding demonstration in their annual Japanese American
festival in Los Angeles. On a more serious note, a racial attack
on the Cal Poly Pomona campus two years later against an Asian
woman by a “white student on a skateboard” became one of sev-
eral lightning rods for the implementation of anti-harassment
policies at a number of institutions, including Stanford Univer-
sity and Emory University. Skater Jimmy Lam in the 1980s field-
ed questions from other Asian Americans in San Francisco who
asked why he engaged in something “white.” Lam, who at the
time did not associate skateboarding with any race thought to
himself, “that’s who I am, and I’m not white.”6

Since the 1990s, the Asian American community has more
actively raised the visibility of Asian American skaters. In 1994
Kenneth Li profiled a number of professional skaters in A. Maga-
zine, such as Japanese American and Native Hawaiian Christian
Hosoi, Filipino American Willy Santos, and Chinese Vietnamese
American Kien Lieu, also known as the “Donger.”7 A year later
Caldecott Medal winner and Asian American illustrator Allen
Say published a children’s picture book titled Stranger in the Mir-
ror in which a disrespectful boy Sam is saved only through riding
a skateboard after being rude to his grandfather.8 Yet, even in the
midst of this increasing incorporation of skateboarding as part
of Asian American popular culture, Vietnamese American Huy
Lee, a junior at University of Washington, Seattle, in 1996 noted
that, “a lot of Asians view it as a white sport.”


Not until the 2000s would skateboarding appear more ex-
plicitly as an unquestionable part of Asian American popular cul-
ture. In 2001, Giant Robot, considered to be the arbiter of “cool”
Asian American consumer culture, teamed up with renowned
Asian American filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña to create a video
titled Skate Manzanar. Though Asian Pacific Americans had al-
ready been skating for at least three decades, this collaboration
to produce a skateboard documentary at Manzanar, a Japanese
American concentration camp during World War II, would more
definitively mark the sport as a part of Asian America.10 In a
further act of validation, acclaimed comedian, actress, and Asian
American icon Margaret Cho remarked in the Los Angeles Times,
“To go and skate Manzanar is such a brilliant thing. . .to take a

Skate an

horrible, painful memory and reclaim it by skating it is so punk
rock—it’s so cool.”11 Tajima-Peña, however, would have a less
celebratory interpretation of her own video. While she acknowl-
edged popular conceptions of skateboarding as an outsider sport
that violates the sanctity of corporate or public places, she noted,
“At Manzanar, the irreverence of skateboarding is no match for
the violations of history.”12 In 2009, Skate Manzanar would go
on exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, in per-
haps the most formal act of legitimating skateboarding in Asian
American culture.13 Giant Robot would additionally solicit the
creators of the popular Uglydoll, David Horvath and Sun-Min
Kim, as well as graffiti artist David Choe to create graphic de-
signs on skateboards to be sold as Asian American art. Despite
the central role skateboarding has come to take on in the Asian
American hipster scene, scholarship on skateboarding continues
to render Asian Americans and other people of color virtually

For sure, Asian Pacific Americans have played a central
role in skateboarding since its revival in the 1970s and 1980s, a
fact never forgotten among many old timers in the community.
On Saturday, July 19, 2014, close to a hundred surfers, many of
whom bore evidence of more than thirty years in the skateboard-
ing community, paddled out along Venice Pier in Southern Cali-
fornia to memorialize the passing of Shogo Kubo. As one of the
original Z-Boys, the Zephyr skateboard team that supposedly
changed the face of skateboarding to “cool” through its smooth,
surfer-inspired style, Kubo had been a pioneering force in skate-
board history.14 He had moved to Santa Monica, California in
1971 from Japan at the age of 12, speaking only Japanese. He had
difficulty adjusting, not really developing the confidence to con-
verse in English until three years later. Surfing and other sports,
however, helped things go “smoother.” And within a handful
of years, Kubo would gain national fame as a skateboarder with
“sublime style.” In 1979, Skateboarder in an eight-page interview
had heralded him as a “top pro.”


Skateboarding magazines, in fact, featured Asian Americans
prominently in a number of issues in the late 1970s. In October
1977, just two years before Skateboarder featured Kubo, Tom “Wal-
ly” Inouye appeared on the cover of the magazine teetering on
the inside edge of a massive concrete pipe. “Did he make it? . . .
look inside,” the magazine teased. Seventy-six pages later, a se-
quence of three photographs showed Inouye in orange kneepads



and a yellow t-shirt skating out without a hitch. In the same is-
sue, 16-year-old Darren Ho appeared under the column “Who’s
Hot” as an up-and-coming “Hawaiian Sizzler.” As Ho came off
the plane to visit the continental U.S. for his first time, three Z-
Boys including Kubo greeted him, and proceeded with the usual
“Dogtown style howzit,” shredding down the escalators, skat-
ing in between the passengers, and “causing general skate havoc
throughout the baggage claim area.” Ho, stunned by the Z-Boys’
aggressive skate style, supposedly responded with just one com-
ment, “This is really different. I know I am going to have to ad-
just.”16 In this scene of public disruption, notably two of the four
skaters, or half of the group, were Asian Pacific Islander.

Tom “Wally” Inouye at old Upland Pipeline Skatepark in
1977, Skateboarder Magazine, September 1977.

Photograph by Cassimus

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Moreover, Asian Pacific Americans, many of them of mixed
heritage, dominated skateboarding competitions through the
1980s. Skaters such as Christian Hosoi, Tom Inouye, Steve Ca-
ballero, and Lester Kasai, all of Japanese ancestry, consistently
placed in the top five, often wrangling for pole position with
Tony Hawk, who would later become the most commercially
famous skater. Professional skateboarder Jeff Pang noted that
Asian American skaters in fact “rule[d]” with their “super-cool,
lingoized, secret-handshake” style of contemporary skateboard-
ing. Pang remembers Asian American skaters were some of the
“most consistent and stylish skateboarders.”


A. Magazine’s Kenneth Li counted hundreds of Asian Ameri-
can professional skaters in the 1990s who collectively comprised
a significant twenty percent of registered members of the Nation-
al Skateboarding Association. The proportion of Asian Pacific
Islanders in professional skateboarding nearly matched the pro-
portion of API undergraduate students at University of Califor-
nia, Davis as well as University of California, San Diego during
a time when Asians only made up three percent of the national
population.18 With such a significant proportion of Asians and
Pacific Islander skaters, their participation signals more than
just the marginal presence of a group of masochistic, self-hating
Asian Americans who engaged in what many skateboarding
scholars have documented as a white supremacist sport. Indeed,
Asian “overrepresentation” in skateboarding might signal a dif-
ferent kind of “model minority” than the image that conserva-
tives extracted from college campuses to pit Asians against other
people of color.


A Place for Asian Pacific Americans
While the early history of skateboarding in the 1950s may cer-
tainly be infused with racism and reactionary whiteness, Asian
American skaters for the most part remember the skating com-
munity as one of racial tolerance where different people could
come together and be judged purely for their skating ability.
Wallace Sueyoshi remembers being drawn to skaters because
they seemed less judgmental about race. “In the 1970s rock‘n’roll
was a white person thing and all the other people had to listen to
soul music or disco.” He remembers also being asked if he liked
low-rider or high-rider cars. Sueyoshi—who leaned more to-
wards rock, a genre synonymous with whites, and liked low-rid-
ers, cars associated with Chicanos—hung out with ease among




his skater friends who cared little about his apparently inconsis-
tent cultural tastes. Additionally, the families and friends of the
white skaters he befriended in the late 1960s told Sueyoshi on
more than one occasion to be proud of his heritage. When Su-
eyoshi attended a family picnic of his friend Phillip Bright, who
lived around the corner from 41st Avenue and Noriega Street
in San Francisco, one of his grandfather ’s friends called out to
him, “Don’t let these racist people in the neighborhood bring
you down. I was in the war, but I soon appreciated the Japanese
fighting spirit along with the culture.” According to Sueyoshi,
inclusion in the skating community would be dictated by your
skill rather than your skin color: “If you can skate, then you can
skate and that’s cool, if you can’t skate, then leave.”20

Judi Oyama and Kent Uyehara both remember the skat-
ing community as “colorblind.” Oyama remembers not having
faced racism from skaters, even when she traveled to a competi-
tion in North Carolina, a state she had imagined as racist, while,
in her daily life in California, a stranger on the street from time
to time would yell out “Jap” to her in Santa Cruz County. Kent
Uyehara too never felt minimized as an Asian male during the
1980s despite being “small.” Uyehara, as a teenager, had grown
his father ’s sporting goods store by incorporating skateboard-
ing paraphernalia. Uyehara recalled that even the white surfer
“jocks” at San Diego State University, the school he attended at
the time, appreciated and recognized his success.


While API skaters generally felt accepted, the skate world
was hardly immune from larger structural prejudices around
race, as well as nationality and gender. Jimmy Lam, who im-
migrated with his family to the United States in 1980 from Hong
Kong, remembers facing the most discrimination from a hand-
ful of Chinese American students rather than whites in the San
Francisco public schools. One Asian American skater who lived
in Lam’s neighborhood told him, “go back to where you came
from” in the late 1980s. Notably, Lam, along with Uyehara and
an African American skater from San Francisco Jovontae Turner,
all recounted moments of racism from white skaters outside of
California.22 As a woman in a man’s world of skateboarding,
Oyama recounted the clearest incidents of discrimination. So
often had Oyama been mistaken for Peggy Oki, the one other
Japanese American woman professional skater from the 1970s,
that she has joked with a friend about getting a t-shirt with
the imprint “I’m not Peggy.” In her early decades of skating

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as well, sponsors often overlooked her because she did not fit
the “blonde, surfer ideal” even as she took home trophies from
countless competitions—no matter that the original surfer from
the Pacific Islands more likely looked similar to Oyama than the
golden-haired “California girl.” Oyama also made a deliberate
decision to move towards timed competitions such as slalom or
speed skating rather than place her fate in the hands of partial
judges who would subjectively score her performance in areas
such as pool skating. Still, she insists that in the world of skat-
ing, she, as an Asian woman, could actually aspire to become a
professional and be featured in skateboarding magazines as pre-
vious skaters like Peggy Oki had.


Unfazed by Castration
While Jimmy Lam claimed that skateboarding did nothing for
his sex appeal, other skaters such as Christian Hosoi became ele-
vated to god-like status in the 1980s, so much so that he adopted
the nickname “Christ” for one of his aerials where he took to the
air with his arms out to the side, his body in the shape of a cross.
Hosoi, perhaps the most famous Asian Pacific American skate-
boarder, pulled in $350,000 annually in the mid-1980s through
endorsements and the sale of his Hosoi skateboard decks during
a time when the average salary for a National Basketball Associ-
ation player hovered at $300,000. Celebrities such as River Phoe-
nix, the Beastie Boys, and Ice-T made up his circle of friends. Ho-
soi remembered, “I could have anything I wanted, do whatever
I wanted,” which included “girls, cars, and drugs.” While most
teenagers sat in a high school classroom, Hosoi’s typical day con-
sisted of skating along the Venice Beach boardwalk and lying on
the beach with “a bikini-clad girl or two.” Hosoi’s long-time ri-
val Tony Hawk noted that he needed skateboarding to make him
attractive to women, unlike Hosoi, for whom skateboarding just
amplified his already charismatic and compelling masculinity to
ridiculous heights. So popular had Hosoi grown in his manly
appeal that at vertical skate competitions white women would
cheer hysterically for him when he walked on to the ramp and
in the next moment boo and hiss with equal fervor when Hawk
appeared. At a young age, Hosoi reached what he perceived as
the apex of “money, sex, power,” which he described as “the bot-
tom line for a man.” He wore his hair long and donned hot pink
shirts with no concern that rivals such as Hawk mistook him for
a girl. Hosoi declared, “I don’t care what people think, and I




won’t cut my hair for them or anyone else, no matter what they
say. They’ll find out soon enough that I’m a boy, when I smoke
them in all the contests.”24

Aside from the “full rock-star life” experienced by Hosoi,
other Asian American skaters also appeared to have no short-
age of women or a masculine sense of themselves.25 Steve Cabal-
lero also remembered that “I had the girls, the money, and the
fame. I had it all.” Even Lam—who exclaimed, “we’re a bunch
of sweaty skate rats, who’s attracted to that?”—had a girlfriend
in high school in the 1980s. Kent Uyehara, who at one point
weighed just over 90 pounds, also noted that girls frequently ap-
proached him but he “didn’t know what to do.” He attributed
not having a girlfriend to his Japanese shyness, rather than emas-
culating media images.26

Confident and well-respected Asian male skaters in the 1970s
and 1980s become particularly noteworthy when these very same
decades are often cited as the height of Asian American emascula-
tion in movies, television, and popular culture broadly. The servile
houseboy character Hop Sing from the television series Bonanza
and an asexual, nerdy foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong
in Sixteen Candles became icons of Asian masculine impotence.
Cultural theorist Celine Parreñas Shimizu detailed how Asian
America negotiated pervasive Hollywood film representations of
Asian American men as asexual, effeminate, or queer. In Slanted
Screen, a documentary on Asian American men in film, comedian
Bobby Lee described representations of Asian American mascu-
linity in the 1980s as particularly “shameful.” Skater Judi Oyama
remembers feeling embarrassed about Hop Sing and Long Duk
Dong since they embodied the “typical stereotype.” Though she
appreciated actors such as Mako Iwamatsu and George Takei for
the more assertive roles they played, it would not be until Keanu
Reeves appeared on screen, when she looked upon Asian men as
“attractive.” So powerfully has the 1984 image of Long Duk Dong
shaped Asian American masculinity that, even 26 years after the
“Donger” debuted in Sixteen Candles, a blog post by Geeky Asian
Guy in 2010 still invoked the asexual exchange student in an en-
try that discussed the struggles of Asian American men asserting
themselves as attractive to white America.27

For many API men skaters who looked up to Shogo Kubo,
Lester Kasai, and Christian Hosoi as role models, however, Hop
Sing and Long Duk Dong did not impact their sense of them-
selves nor their romantic realities. Kent Uyehara remembers Ho-

Skate an


soi and the crowds of white women who screamed after him at
each competition during the 1980s. Though Uyehara knew that
Hosoi’s amplified sex appeal was unique even among profession-
al skaters, he did not think that Long Duk Dong even remotely
represented how others viewed him. Uyehara was a Japanese
American skater immersed in a “manly” sport in which he could
see his own image amongst the top competitors. So “manly” did
skateboarding appear that people typically assumed that “wom-
en don’t skate.”28 API skaters never felt emasculated growing up
in the 1970s and 1980s. Sueyoshi remembered Sixteen Candles as
a “stupid, Hollywood movie” that meant nothing to him. Lam,
who may have the most similar history to the fictional character
Long Duk Dong solely because he was not born in the United
States, also felt the character had little impact on him.

Shogo Kubo at old Marina Del Rey Skatepark in 1979,
Skateboarder Magazine, May 1979.

Photograph by Miller




Proud to Be Asian
Notably, these skaters for whom negative media representations
seemed irrelevant also chose not to socialize exclusively with
Asian Americans in 1970s and 1980s. In both high school and col-
lege, when social groups of foreign-born versus American-born
Asians proliferated in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sueyoshi, Uye-
hara, and Lam “hung out” in multi-racial groups of students with
Latinos and African Americans, as well as Asians and whites.29

Still, Asian Pacific Islander skaters strongly identified as
Asian American even as they chose to not socialize in all-Asian
circles. Christian Hosoi, who strove to be “Bruce Lee on wheels,”
held up shin-Issei Shogo Kubo as his “original skate hero.” Both
Hosoi and Uyehara, who saw many professional skaters as “Jap-
anese like me,” believed it was “normal” to be a skater. Oyama
too annually attended the Monterey Obon, a Japanese American
summer festival, to eat chicken teriyaki, watch bon odori, and
view the flower arrangement exhibit for which her aunt Joanne
Nishi played a critical role as an ikebana instructor.30 When Su-
eyoshi heard about Tom Inouye showing up at the grand open-
ing of various skate parks in the late 1970s he thought to him-
self, “Who is this nihonjin who is ripping on everyone.” After
he missed the opportunity to see both Kubo and Inouye at a
1978 pool contest in Newark, California because a promised ride
failed to show up, Sueyoshi was “pissed.”31

Indeed, not once did Asian Pacific Islander skaters ever think
that skateboarding was a world in which they did not belong. As
Hosoi and Inouye became established in the skateboarding world,
both mentored a significant number of Asian Pacific Islander and
other skaters of color.32 Even Jimmy Lam, who did not necessarily
see himself in Asian Pacific Islander professional skaters such as
Christian Hosoi, still strongly identified as “Asian” and “skater,”
and knew that he was a part of a very small community in the
1980s.33 As recently as 2002, when fellow Z-Boy Jay Adams inter-
viewed Shogo Kubo and asked him if people ever thought team-
mate Peggy Oki was his sister, Kubo answered, “Fuck you. No.
Nobody has ever asked me that.” When Jay prodded him more
with, “Are you sure?” Kubo retorted, “Maybe you, asshole.”34
These early skaters remained unforgivingly secure in their Asian
identities, refusing to tolerate racial idiocy even in the form of a
joke from an old friend. In fact, many consistently declared only
their Asian heritage to the public even if they were of mixed back-
grounds from other communities of color.35

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Skateboarding as Brown
Decentering whiteness within skateboarding reveals new in-
sights not just about the sport, but also lesser-heard voices on
Asian American history and masculinity. While Iain Borden has
summarized skateboarding culture as ideologically “reject[ing]
work, the family, and normative American values,” in fact Asian
American skaters of the 1970s and 1980s refer to how much
“work” is revered and respected in skating. To them, the “art” of
skateboarding requires “practice” and “persistence,” and skaters
support each other in mastering tricks developed along an indi-
vidual style. Unlike conventional team sports such as baseball
and basketball, the sense of competition is about a skater doing
his or her best rather than being the best player on the team.36

Asian Pacific American skaters too remained close to their
families rather than “rejecting“ them. During the 1970s Steve
Caballero’s mother drove him to the skate park every weekend
and waited for him in the parking lot until he came out. When
skate parks began closing across California due to insurance and
licensing issues, Caballero’s mother allowed him to build a ramp
in the backyard. Hosoi’s father took a job at the local skate park
so his son could skate there anytime. Sueyoshi also recounts
family road trips from San Francisco to Los Angeles to attend
skate competitions.37

Additionally, none of the API skaters felt like outsiders or
rebels going against American normative values even as they still
identified themselves as different from the mainstream. Jimmy
Lam, who didn’t want to be “part of the herd,” described him-
self as having “pretty typical values.” Kent Uyehara viewed the
skating community as likely not so different ideologically from
the mainstream. Moreover, the prominence of skaters mixed
with Kanaka Maoli, Chamorro, Samoan, or Uchinanchu heritage
reveals how early skateboarding serves a productive site where
Pacific Islanders centrally comprised what might be superficially
seen only as Asian American history.38

In the twenty-first century, however, mainstream representa-
tions of skateboarding continue to depict Asians as marginal if
not non-existent, silencing Asian Pacific Islanders from its his-
tory and therefore rendering API skaters invisible even within
Asian American Studies. The award-winning documentary Dog-
town and Z-Boys and the later fictionalized account Lords of Dog-
town, respectively, minimized and then completely erased the
participation of Asian Americans Jeff Ho, Shogo Kubo, and Peg-




gy Oki from the original Z-Boys.39 Ho’s marginal role in these
representations becomes particularly conspicuous since the team
grew out of his surf shop, which was called Jeff Ho. Peggy Oki,
who rode with 11 other members, would not only be the only
woman on the team, but also was the one Z-Boy to take home
a first-place trophy at the 1975 Del Mar Nationals.40 Jay Adams
had recruited her to join the team when he spotted her skating
just one year earlier on Bicknell Hill in Venice, California. Oki
remembered the Z-Boys saying, “she skates, she rips, let’s put
her on the team.”41 In 2012, the Skateboarding Hall of Fame and
Museum inducted Peggy Oki as an honoree.42

Both Shogo Kubo and Jeff Ho appear very much aware of
their marginalization in skateboarding history and memory.
When former teammate Adams interviewed Kubo about his
thoughts about the documentary, movie, and later book that
came out on Dogtown, he hesitantly expressed his unhappiness
around his lack of representation. Kubo noted with a chuckle,
“There are a lot of good shots. . .but they should have put more
of me in there.” Regarding the movie, Kubo commented more
seriously, “I wish I was in more of it, but it felt good.”43 Jeff Ho
declared his displeasure more explicitly in how the founding of
his surf/skate shop had been misrepresented, with him as one
co-founder among three:

Okay this is the real story. I bought the shop. It was my mon-
ey. I financed it. Those guys want to take credit for it. That’s
not right. And they’ve done it, and all the articles, all the mov-
ies, all that crap. Everybody is taking credit for stuff that I did,
and it doesn’t sit right with me.

Ho had begun skating in the 1950s and had worked in Phil
Castagnola’s Select Surf Shop. Ho later bought the store from
Castagnola in the early 1970s to turn it into his own shop, be-
fore he had met Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk, the two who
would later claim on film and in print to be co-founders with
Ho.44 Indeed, societal structures that privilege whites over other
people of color in not just the recounting of the past, but also in
the production of culture, would literally erase the significance
of Asians and Pacific Islanders in skateboarding history.

In reality, Asian and Pacific Islander men, as well as a handful
of African Americans and a greater number of Latinos, had a sig-
nificant presence in the supposedly white world of skateboarding.
As early as 1971, African American Rick “Bongo” Mitchell was

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skating the “Vermont Drop” in Gardena, California with Cyrus
Ho. By 1979, Bongo would become so big that Skateboarder would
dedicate six pages of their May 1979 issue to an interview with
him and use him as a model to promote their products. “If you
skate hot and want to look and feel cool like Bongo, give the new
Skateboarder Magazine sleeveless T and Cap a try.”45 In northern
California, Jovontae Turner would attract attention from sponsors
in the late 1980s, put together the first team from Kent Uyehara’s

Wallace Sueyoshi in downtown San Jose, c. 1988.

Courtesy of Frankie Shea, photographer




skate shop FTC, and landed the cover of Thrasher Magazine in Sep-
tember 1992.46 As Richard Lapchick wrote for ESPN, original Z-
Boys Stacey Peralta and Tony Alva in the 1970s were both Mexi-
can American. The two of them would later go on to open now
legendary skateboard companies, Alva Skates and Powell-Peralta.
Alva and Peralta would additionally sponsor teams and support
other skaters of Mexican descent such as Mark Gonzales and
Chicano skater Tommy Guerrero. In fact, the skate blog “I Skate,
Therefore I Am” claims that the iconic skull or calavera that served
as a logo for Peralta’s team Bones Brigade originated from Lati-
nos such as Ray “Bones” Rodriguez, Jesse Martinez, Steve Alba,
Micke Alba, Eddie Elguera, and Steve Caballero who critically
shaped the sport in California. According to “I Skate Therefore I
Am,” “cholos and pachucos have influenced everything in South-
ern California from Low Riders to skateboarders.” Conversely,
skateboarding scholars such as Kyle Kusz have been more critical
of white skater culture as appropriating iconography to project a
“cool” image of multiculturalism.47

When cast through the lens of skaters of color, current under-
standings of skateboarding and the origins of its resurgence as
an act of neoconservative, white supremacist rebellion might
more accurately be characterized as a multi-racial movement
in which young men from the broader middle class forged in-
dividualism and technical excellence outside of conventional
norms of success and respectability. While sociologist Michael
Lorr argues that skateboarding has been co-opted and main-
streamed through its incorporation into a X Games culture and
lost its critique of government, an analysis that centralizes actors
of color reveals how skateboarding in the twenty-first century, as
urban and of color, may in fact have had a sharper political edge
since the 1970s. Indeed, Borden notes that skateboarding in the
1980s had increasingly “gone back” to inner-city cores of urban
areas, with Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco
as “major concentrations of skate activity.”48 A return to cities as
central to skateboarding culture suggests a different origin and
therefore social meaning to skateboarding—perhaps one that in-
cisively points to a rolling towards rather than a running away
from race, with youth of color gathering to skate together. A
skateboarding core located in “minority majority” cities, urban
areas in which whites comprise the numerical minority, certainly

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points to the central role of men of color in the skate revolution
of the past four decades. Not until 2013 did Matthew Atencio
and Becky Beal acknowledge that “minority racial masculinities
are actually closely connected with urban skateboarding histo-
ry,” though they painted a darker picture of their involvement by
underscoring the market’s exploitation of masculinities of color
as a commodity in the skateboarding industry.49

In the alternative yet still uber-masculine sport of skate-
boarding, where style became central in displays of technical
skill, the success of Asian American men goes directly against
pervasive tropes of emasculation that Asian Americanists docu-
ment as dominating American consciousness in the 1970s and
1980s. It is not just the existence of Asian and Pacific Islander
men, but rather their achievement in a masculine sport with a
vast influence on mainstream popular culture second only to hip-
hop that stands as notable. Their success goes directly against
ongoing discourse on how Asian American men experienced
their lives in the face of effeminizing media images. These skat-
ers who chose “fun” and “freedom” never felt castrated as Asian
Pacific American men.50 As API skateboarders in the 1970s and
1980s skated and created space and identity for themselves, their
work would largely be forgotten in not just a wash of whiteness,
but also by an academic compulsion to fixate on discrimination
and deficiency rather than acts of alternative empowerment. No
doubt, Asian Pacific American skaters ripped and shredded their
way to impress masses of whites, typically considered neocon-
servative, in what promoters of extreme sports would later mar-
ket as the “final frontier” of American athletics.

Special thanks to my brother Wallace Sueyoshi for his assistance with this article.
This essay is dedicated to him.
1. For more on the racial castration of Asian American men, see David Eng,

Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2001).

2. Iain Borden, “Speaking the City: Skateboarding Subculture and Recompo-
sitions of the Urban Realm,” Research in Urban Sociology 5 (2000): 139.

3. Emily Chivers Yochim, Skate Life: Re-Imagining White Masculinity (Ann Ar-
bor: University of Michigan Press, 2010): 28, 32-33, 112. For more on Cali-
fornia’s decreasing white population, see Dale Maharidge, The Coming White
Minority: California, Multiculturalism, and America’s Future (New York: Vin-
tage, 1999): 4. Even Sean Brayton, with his more sympathetic approach to
skater whiteness, argued that skateboarding “repudiates middle class white-



ness only to replace it with a rejuvenated heteromasculinity that is often in-
formed by a black other.” Sean Brayton, “‘Black-Lash’: Revisiting the ‘White
Negro’ Through Skateboarding,” Sociology of Sport Journal 22:3 (2005): 357.

4. Kyle Kusz, Revolt of the White Athlete: Race, Media, and the Emergence of
Extreme Athletes in America (New York: Peter Lang, 2007): 9, 71.

5. Konstantin Butz, Grinding California: Culture and Corporeality in American
Skate Punk (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012): 38, 123, 171; Curry Malott and
Milagros Peña, Punk Rocker’s Revolution: A Pedagogy of Race, Class, and Gen-
der (New York: Peter Lang, 2004): 24-29, 61-54.

6. Mayumi Tsutakawa, “‘Finesse and Sophistication;’ ‘InnovAsian’ Dance
Concert: A Milestone in Asian Cultural Development,” International Exam-
iner, December 4, 1985: 7; Alvina Lew, “Nisei Week,” Asian Week, August
28, 1987: 16; Judith A. Lyons, “Alleged Racial Attack at Cal Poly Pomona,”
Asian Week, March 17, 1989: 3; Lyons, “Universities Consider Anti-Ha-
rassment Rules,” Asian Week, May 12, 1989: 32; Jimmy Lam, Interview,
San Francisco, CA , July 27, 2014. All interviews were conducted with the
author of this article, unless otherwise noted.

7. Kenneth Li, “The-air Up-there: Look Up in the Sky—Asian American
Skateboarders,” A. Magazine 10 (1994): 28.

8. Sam woke up as an old man after making disparaging comments about
his grandfather. When his classmates and sibling ridicule him for his old
man appearance, Sam escapes through riding a skateboard. As he rattles
down the street with his board, he forgets that he is “old” and laughs with
joy. His classmates clap and cheer him on when he coasts through his
playground doing kick flips and rail slides. As he falls asleep that night
he realizes, “Pretty good for an old man. But what’s the difference? Who
cares what I look like?” The next morning, Sam wakes up as a young
boy again, redeemed by the freedom he finds and the lessons he learns
through skateboarding. Allen Say, Stranger in the Mirror (Boston: Hough-
ton Mifflin, 1995).

9. Christine Lam, “Skateboarding: Getting the ‘Good Pop’,” Northwest Asian
Weekly, September 6, 1996: 4.

10. Renee Tajima-Peña, dir., Skate Manzanar DVD (Los Angeles, 2001). For
more on Giant Robot, see Calvin Reid, “Giant Robot Takes New York,” Pub-
lishers Weekly, September 19, 2005: 10; Randy Kennedy, “Asian-American
Trendsetting on a Shoestring,” New York Times, July 5, 2004. For more on
Renee Tajima-Peña, see M. Rosalind Sagara, “Political Filmmaking: Talk-
ing with Renee Tajima-Peña,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30:1/2 (Spring
2002): 178-188.

11. Peter Noah, “Giant Robot Magazine: Asian Pop Culture with an Atti-
tude,” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1997, available online at: http://articles.

12. Renee Tajima-Peña, “Skate Manzanar Synopsis,” email to author, August
15, 2014; Nancy Russell, “‘Super Awesome Art and Giant Robot’ Take
Over Oakland Museum,” International Examiner, June 4, 2014: 13.

13. Eric Nakamura, “Opening Tomorrow: Crossings: 10 Views of camp exhibit
opens at Japanese American National Museum—APRIL 2 THROUGH JUNE

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21,” Giant Robot blog, April 1, 2009, available online at: http://www.giant-
html; “Crossings: Ten Views of America’s Concentration Camps,” Japanese
American National Museum, available online at:

14. “Shogo Kubo Paddle Out and Memorial Big Bowl Session,” Venice Beach
Photos, available online at:
boarding/Shogo-Kubo-Paddle-Out-And/; Wallace Sueyoshi, email to au-
thor, July 16, 2014. For how the Z-Boys transformed skating see G. Beato,
“When Skateboarding Shook the World,” The Guardian, August 23, 2001,
available online at:

15. J. Smythe, “Skateboarder Interview: Shogo Kubo,” Skateboarder, May 1979:

16. Cover of Skateboarder, October 1977; John Smythe, “Skateboarder Interview:
Tom Inouye,” Skateboarder, October 1977: 50-59; Lainey Adams, “Who’s
Hot: Darren Ho,” Skateboarder, October 1977: 95.

17. Cesario Montano, dir., Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi
DVD (Chatsworth: Image Entertainment, 2006); Li.

18. Li. At both UC Davis and UC San Diego Asian Pacific Islanders comprised
approximately 24 percent of the undergraduate population in 1993 (Uni-
versity of California, Table VIIb: Enrollment by Campus, Ethnicity, Gender, and
Level, Davis, available online at:
enrollment/enr1993/93sst7b.html; University of California, Table VIIb: En-
rollment by Campus, Ethnicity, Gender, and Level, San Diego, available online
html; United States Census Bureau, Resident Population Estimates of the Unit-
ed States by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: April 1, 1990 to July 1999, with
Short-Term Projection to November 1, 2000, available online at: https://www.

19. Numerous scholars have detailed how government and media juxtaposed
Asian educational “success” with “failure” among other communities
of color to blame Latinos and African Americans for their own poverty,
rather than attributing it to structural inequality. See Robert G. Lee, Orien-
tals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 199): 184-186. For more on the “model minority,” see Ellen D. Wu,
The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

20. Wallace Sueyoshi, “My Life” unpublished manuscript (2014); Wallace Su-
eyoshi, Interview, San Mateo, CA, August 20, 2014.

21. Judi Oyama, Interview, Santa Cruz, CA, September 1, 2014; Judi Oyama,
email to author, June 23, 2015; Kent Uyehara, Interview, San Francisco,
CA, August 18, 2014.

22. Jimmy Lam, Interview, San Francisco, CA , July 27, 2014; Uyehara August
18, 2014 interview; “Postscript: Jovontae Turner,” Chrome Ball Incident
blog, November 2, 2013, available online at: http://chromeballincident.




23. Oyama interview; Uyehara August 18, 2014 interview.
24. Lam interview; Rising Son; Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Skate and Detroy,” Sports Il-

lustrated, June 7, 2004: 66-80; Christian Hosoi, “Christian Hosoi—My Story,”
YouTube video, May 19, 2013, available online at:
watch?v=oHdo7iZUfEA; Christian Hosoi, with Chris Ahrens, Hosoi: My Life
as a Skateboarder Junkie Inmate Pastor (New York: Harper Collins, 2012): 26.

25. For how Hosoi’s life paralleled that of a “rock-star,” see Greenfeld.
26. “Steve Caballero Interview,” Poweredge Magazine, May 14, 2010, available

online at:; Lam in-
terview; Uyehara August 18, 2014 interview.

27. Jeff Adachi, dir., Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television (2006; New
York: Films Media Group, 2010); Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Straitjacket Sex-
ualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies (Stanford: Stan-
ford University Press, 2012): 119; Judi Oyama, email to author, September
1, 2014.

28. Judi Oyama often felt “invisible” at the skate park, though the skaters thirty
years later explained to her that they were too shy at the time to approach
her. When Oyama began working at the Santa Cruz Surf and Skate Shop on
41st Avenue in Santa Cruz in the early 1980s, customers, including the moth-
ers of young boys interested in skating, would insist on assistance from a
man rather than Oyama, the professional skater (Oyama interview).

29. Uyehara August 18, 2014 interview; Kent Uyehara, Interview, San Fran-
cisco, CA, August 21, 2014; Sueyoshi interview; Lam interview.

30. Oyama interview.
31. Uyehara August 21, 2014 interview; Wallace Sueyoshi, email to author,

August 11, 2014.
32. Hosoi, Hosoi, 22, 35, 41; Rising Son; Uyehara August 21, 2014 interview.
33. Lam interview.
34. Jay Adams, “Dogtown Chronicles—Shogo Kubo,” Juice: Pools, Pipes, and

Punk Rock, 2002: 37.
35. Christian Hosoi, Wallace Sueyoshi, and Steve Caballero most publicly de-

clare only their Japanese heritage, even though all three were of mixed

36. Borden, 138; Uyehara; Sueyoshi interview.
37. Dan Levy, “Bones Brigade Chronicles: Steve Caballero,” Juice: Pools, Pipes,

and Punk Rock, November 1, 2012: 40; Hosoi, Hosoi; Sueyoshi, “My Life”;
Sueyoshi interview.

38. For more on the marginalization and also inaccurate merging of Pacific
Islanders with Asian Americans see J. Kehaulani Kauanui, “Asian Ameri-
can Studies and the ‘Pacific Question’,” Kent A. Ono, ed., Asian American
Studies after Critical Mass (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).

39. Stacey Peralta, dir., Dogtown and Z-Boys DVD (2001; Culver City: Sony Pic-
tures Home Entertainment, 2005); Catherine Hardwicke, dir., Lords of Dog-
town DVD (Culver City: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2005). For
more on the erasure, see Kusz, 122-124.

Skate an

40. Dogtown and Z-Boys; Ben Marcus, “The Dogtown Package Part 5—Jeff Ho
Interview,” AXS Long Board Retailer Magazine, October 29, 2011, available
online at:

41. Steve Olson, “Dogtown Chronicles: Peggy Oki,” Juice: Pools, Pipes, and
Punk Rock, available online at:

42. “2012–Peggy Oki,” Skateboarding Hall of Fame and Museum, available
online at:

43. Adams, 37. For the book on Dogtown in which the author marginalized
Asian Americans, see C.R. Stecyk III, Dogtown and the Legend of Z-Boys
(New York: Burning Flag Press, 2000).

44. Marcus. Judi Oyama too noted how at a recent La Costa reunion with
women skaters from the 1970s, she was omitted from the group photo-
graph (Oyama interview).

45. B. Schwartz, “What Is a Bongo?,” Skateboarder, May 1979: 53-58; “This
Bong’s Cool,” Skateboarder, May 1979: 27.

46. Joel Rice, “FTC Skate Shop Grew From Family Values,”, available
online at:
san-francisco-famed-ftc-skate-shop-family-tradition; Chrome Ball Incident.

47. Richard Lapchick, “Latino Influence Shapes Action Sports,” ESPN.
com, available online at:
itage2009/columns/story?id=4516693; Andrea Kurland, “Mark Gonzales:
Unrecorded Hearsay,” Huck, February 25, 2013, available online at: http://; Mackenzie
Eisenhour, “Pioneer: Tommy Guerrero, Full Interview—The Streets of San
Francisco, Skateboarding, September 25, 2012, available online at: http://
view-the-streets-of-san-francisco/2/; Xavier Lannes, I Skate, Therefore I Am
blog, “Feliz Día de los Muertos, Happy Calavera day!!,” November 2, 2012,
available online at:
happy-cavalera.html; Kusz, 124.

48. Borden, 138; Michael Lorr, “Skateboarding and the X-Gamer Phenomena: A
Case of Subcultural Cooptation,” Humanity and Society 29:2 (2005): 140-147.

49. Matthew Atencio, Becky Beal, and Emily Chivers Yochim, “‘It Ain’t Just
Black Kids and White Kids’: The Representation and Reproduction of Au-
thentic ‘Skurban’ Masculinities,” Sociology of Sport Journal 30:2 (May 2013):

50. Existing literature on African American women and their body image sim-
ilarly reveals how they disregard media images that they deem irrelevant
to forge body satisfaction higher than white women. See Jane Ogden and
Sheriden Russell, “How Black Women Make Sense of ‘Black’ and ‘White’
Fashion Magazines: A Qualitative Think Aloud Study,” Journal of Health
Psychology 18:12 (November 2013): 1588-1600.


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Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning





How to use story-based strategy
to win campaigns, build movements,

and change the world

Advance Praise for

Re:Imagining Change

“Re:Imagining Change is a one-of-a-kind essential resource for everyone
who is thinking big, challenging the powers-that-be and working hard to
make a better world from the ground up. is innovative book provide


the tools, analysis, and inspiration to help activists everywhere be more
effective, creative and strategic. is handbook is like rocket fuel for your
social change imagination.”
~Antonia Juhasz, author of e Tyranny of Oil: e World’s Most Powerful
Industry and What We Must Do To Stop It and e Bush Agenda: Invading
the World, One Economy at a Time

“We are surrounded and shaped by stories every day—sometimes for bet-
ter, sometimes for worse. But what Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsbor-
ough point out is a beautiful and powerful truth: that we are all
storytellers too. Armed with the right narrative tools, activists can not
only open the world’s eyes to injustice, but feed the desire for a bett


world. Re:Imagining Change is a powerful weapon for a more democratic,
creative and hopeful future.”
~Raj Patel, author of Stuffed & Starved and e Value of Nothing: How to
Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy

“Yo Organizers! Stop what you are doing for a couple hours and soak up
this book! We know the importance of smart “issue framing.” But
Re:Imagining Change will move our organizing further as we connect to
the powerful narrative stories and memes of our culture.”
~ Chuck Collins, Institute for Policy Studies, author of e Economic
Meltdown Funnies and other books on economic inequality

“Politics is as much about who controls meanings as it is about who holds
public office and sits in office suites. Knowing how to knock on doors, or-
ganize community meetings and plan a street protest is no longer enough,
today’s activists need to know how to generate symbols, tell stories, and
tap into popular dreams. smartMeme’s Re:Imagining Change is THE hand-
book for fighting on this cultural terrain. e only problem I have with
the book is that I can’t keep it on my desk—all my activist friends keep
borrowing it.”
~Stephen Duncombe, author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in
an Age of Fantasy

“Re:Imagining Change is worthy of praise. As an introduction to story-
based strategy, the book offers organizers and advocates a new and nec-
essary way to understand and transform the impact of stories on our
public life.”
~ Malkia Cyril, Director, Center for Media Justice

“Our stories are powerful enough to change the world—if you believe.
SmartMeme’s Re:Imagining Change will give you the tools and confidence
to unleash the power of the stories that live in your community and make
the dream of ‘another world is possible,’ a reality.”
~Robby Rodriguez, Executive Director of the SouthWest Organizing
Project and co-author of Working Across Generations: Defining the Future
of Non-profit Leadership

“Once upon a time, left-wing activists thought being right was good
enough, but the past decade has seen a more elegant and effective under-
standing that you need to be a lot more if you want to win. SmartMeme’s
guidebook to being that more—smarter, more engaging, more subversive,
more powerful—should be in every activist’s hands and imagination. It’s
a great toolkit for change.”
~Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: e Extraordinary
Communities that Arise in Disaster and Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild

“Brilliant and invaluable… Lakoff introduced the progressive movement
to the power of framing. Canning and Reinsborough take framing to a far
more powerful level and provide practical tools essential to the success of
every progressive organization that seeks to bring forth a world of peace
and justice. It gets my highest recommendation.”
~David Korten, board chair, YES! Magazine and author e Great Turning:
From Empire to Earth Community and Agenda for a New Economy

“SmartMeme’s Re:Imagining Change is such an incredible resource! is is
a book to consume, to go over meticulously, mark up, share with friends,
and keep within arm’s reach on the shelf. e format is so accessible, the
analysis and case studies show how important their groundbreaking
story-based strategy is for all of the work we’re doing. Ruckus wants every
group we work with to grab this book!”
~Adrienne Maree Brown, Executive Director, e Ruckus Society

Re:Imagining Change
How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build

Movements, and Change the World

Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning

PM Press

Re:Imagining Change–How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win
Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World

Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning

2010 Creative Commons Non-Commercial License
This edition © PM Press 2010
This book is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-
commercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. To view a copy of this license,

ISBN: 978-1-60486-197-6

Library of Congress Control Number: 2009912453

Cover and interior design by Nick Jehlen, The Action Mill

PM Press
PO Box 23912

Oakland, CA 94623

Published in Canada by Fernwood Publishing
32 Oceanvista Lane, Black Point, Nova Scotia, B0J 1B0
and 748 Broadway Avenue, Winnipeg, MB R3G 0X3

Fernwood Publishing ISBN: 9781552663936

Cataloguing data available from Library and Archives

10 9 8 7 6 5 4

Table of Contents

1.1 From Improvement to Innovation 11
1.2 Our Approach: Story-based Strategy 12
1.3 About Re:Imagining Change 13

Story-based Strategy Campaign Model


2.1 We Are Made of Stories 17
2.2 Narrative Power Analysis 18

Reflections: Storytelling 19
2.3 Power and Mythology 21
2.4 Creation Myths of the United States 24

Reflections: Narrative Power 26
2.5 Filters vs. Facts 27
2.6 Designer Stories & the Branded World 28
2.7 Memes 32

Movement Memes 34
Reflections: Memes 34

2.8 Control Memes 35
2.9 Applying Narrative Power Analysis:

Elements of Story 38
Reflections: Elements of a Story 40

3.1 The Story of the Battle 43
3.2 The Battle of the Story 44

Reflections: Story of the Battle 46
Worksheet: Battle of the Story 47

3.3 Framing the Conflict 48
Reflections: Information Warfare 49

3.4 Creating Narrative Frames 51
3.5 Reframing 52
3.6 Characters 53
3.7 Imagery: Show Don’t Tell 56
3.8 Foreshadowing 57

Brand Busting 58

3.9 Designing a Framing Narrative 60
3.10Action Logic & Meta-Verbs 62
3.11Going Viral: Meme Campaigns 63

4.1 Social Change as Intervention 67
4.2 Point of Production 70
4.3 Point of Destruction 70
4.4 Point of Consumption 71
4.5 Point of Decision 72
4.6 Point of Assumption 73
4.7 Offering New Futures 74
4.8 Reframing Debates 75
4.9 Subverting Spectacles 76

Selling the World Bank on eBay 77
4.10Repurposing Pop(ular) Culture Narratives 78
4.11Making the Invisible Visible 80

Reflections: Starting with Assumptions 81
Worksheet: Point of Intervention 83

5.1 Strategic Improvisation 85
5.2 Greenpeace: Save the Whales 88
5.3 Rural Vermont: One Contaminated Farm is One Too Many 90
5.4 Protect Our Waters: Our Most Precious Resource 93
5.5 The Coalition of Immokalee Workers: 96

Consciousness + Commitment = Change

6.1 Beyond Talking Points 101
6.2 The Slow-Motion Apocalypse 103
6.3 Psychic Breaks 105
6.4 Toward Ecological Justice 107


Gratitude and Acknowledgements

Gratitude and Acknowledgements

As the poet Audre Lorde reminds us, “ere are no new ideas.
ere are only new ways of making them felt.” In that sprit we
humbly offer gratitude to the giants on whose shoulders we stand,
and offer a dedication to everyone everywhere who has ever
dreamed of a better world and had the courage to move towards
that vision.

e story-based strategy framework has evolved through the
collective study, experimentation, and application of the
smartMeme Strategy & Training Project in its various formations
since 2002. Although this manual was written by Doyle Canning
and Patrick Reinsborough, these ideas, methods, and tools have
emerged from the collaboration and shared imagination of
smartMeme collective co-founders James John Bell, Doyle
Canning, J Cookson, Ilyse Hogue, and Patrick Reinsborough, as
well as past and present extended-collective members Katie
Joaquin, Kaitlin Nichols, Sean Witters, Kip Williams, and
particularly Jen Angel who provided critical editing support for
the project. We offer our gratitude to Libby Modern for her
assistance and to Antonia Juhasz and Jessica Hoffman for their
excellent proofreading. A special thanks to our designer Nick
Jehlen for support above and beyond the call of duty and to Josh
Kahn Russell for donating his artwork for the cover of the book.
We also offer gratitude to our colleagues at smartMeme Studios,
all past and present smartMeme Board members, STORY board
members, all of the participants in the national incite/insight
gathering, and Invoking the Pause gatherings, and other training-
for-trainers events. ank you.

We offer shout-outs to our cousin organizations and
community of innovators: Jethro Heiko and Nick Jehlen at the
Action Mill for applications of the “consent theory of power” in a
U.S. context; Kenny Bailey and crew at the Design Studio for
Social Intervention for the vision of “an imagination lab for social
justice”; Andrew Boyd at AgitPop for tireless creativity and
coining “meme campaigning”; Matthew Smucker and Beyond the
Choir for getting us beyond the “story of the righteous few”;
Cynthia Suarez for her wise words on innovation and bold ideas
about the power of networks; Maryrose Dolezal and the
Nonviolent Youth Collective for the application of story-based
strategy in anti-oppression work, and the meme of “mutual

mentorship”; the Movement Strategy Center for the brilliant
alliance-building model and being spirit in motion; the Center for
Media Justice for their articulation and application of media
justice as self-determination; Movement Generation for moving
the “ecological justice” meme; David Solnit for helping us go
beyond “(disem)PowerPoint”; Gopal Dayaneni for pushing the
points of intervention into direct action vernacular; the Ruckus
Society for reminding us that actions speak louder than words;
and countless communities, conversations, ideas, and people
who’ve touched our hearts and imaginations. anks also to all
those that have given us feedback on both the ideas and how we
put them into practice, particularly Sujin Lee, Rosi Reyes, Zara
Zimbardo, and Justin Francese. ank you.

We offer respect to our elders, community of peer
practitioners, and like-minded visionaries and radicals in the
movement and in the academy; our 3,000+ training alumni; and
the 100-some-odd social change organizations with which we
have had the pleasure of partnering. We also would like to
acknowledge the generous support of the Panta Rhea Foundation,
the Compton Foundation, the Hull Family Foundation, the Ben &
Jerry’s Foundation, the Solidago Foundation, the Foundation for
Global Community, and all of smartMeme’s members and
supporters who have given generously to this project. ank you.

Finally we would like to thank our beloved friends, families,
mentors, ancestors, and loved ones. Your faith and support keeps
our hearts brimming with hope, curiosity, love, and gratitude.

Each one of you has taught us something—and your inspired
work is the force of progress that will change our world. ank
you, and let us walk, sing, dream and struggle together! Onward


Re:Imagining Change

If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect
wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach
them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

~ Antoine de St. Exupéry

1. Introduction: The Power of the Story 11

1.1 From Improvement to Innovation

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we
used when we created them.
~ Albert Einstein

Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to the ideas and methods
of the smartMeme Strategy & Training Project. We founded
smartMeme to innovate social change strategies in response to
the movement-building and messaging demands of the global-
ized information age. We are moti-
vated by the social and ecological
crises facing our planet and by a belief
that fundamental change is not only
possible, but necessary. Our mission
is to apply the power of narrative to
organizing, movement building, and
social transformation. Our dream is a
movement of movements with the
power, creativity, and vision to change
the world by changing the stories that
shape our collective destiny.

SmartMeme is dedicated to holistic social change practices—
shifting from issues to values, supplementing organization build-
ing with movement building, and exploring creative new
strategies for confronting systemic problems. We believe that

1. Introduction:
The Power of Story

Movements have won public
support with powerful stories
like Rosa Parks’ refusal to
change seats, the AIDS quilt
carpeting the National Mall in
Washington, or the polar
bear stranded in a sea of
melted ice.

people-powered grassroots movements, led by those who are
most directly affected, are the engines of true social progress.

SmartMeme convenes innovators from different movements
to share ideas and reconsider strategies in the timeless endeavor
of social change. e heartbeat of the work—building relation-
ships, critical thinking, action, and reflection—remains constant.
But these practices evolve with new technologies, tools, and tech-
niques. Over the course of our work, we’ve recognized that inno-
vation doesn’t just mean improving what is already happening;
innovation requires rethinking underlying assumptions and find-
ing the courage to re-imagine what could happen.

Innovation requires creative thinking and testing hunches
with real world experiments. Re:Imagining Change is an introduc-
tion to our methodology and a report-back from our first
seven years of experimentation in what we’ve come to call story-
based strategy.

1.2 Our Approach: Story-based Strategy
The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
~ Muriel Rukeyser

Stories come in all shapes and sizes: daily anecdotes, movies, fa-
bles, or pre-packaged “news” stories created by the media. e
stories we tell show what we value; the deepest personal narra-
tives we carry in our hearts and memories remind us who we are
and where we come from.

Historically, the power of stories and storytelling has been at
the center of social change efforts. Organizers rely on storytelling
to build relationships, unite constituencies, name problems, and
mobilize people. Movements have won public support with pow-
erful stories like Rosa Parks’ refusal to change seats, the AID


quilt carpeting the National Mall in Washington, or the polar bear
stranded in a sea of melted ice.

SmartMeme uses storytelling to integrate traditional organizing
methods with messaging, framing, and cultural intervention.
Our training curriculum explores the role of narrative in main-
taining the entrenched relationships of power and privilege that
define the status quo. Story-based strategy views social change
through the lens of narrative power and positions storytelling
at the center of social change strategy. is framework provides

12 Re:Imagining Change

1. Introduction: The Power of the Story 13

tools to craft more effective social change messages, challenge as-
sumptions, intervene in prevailing cultural narratives, and change
the stories that shape popular culture. Re:Imagining Change is an
introduction to story-based strategy and outlines some of the
analytical tools and practical strategies smartMeme has used to
fuse storytelling and campaigning.

1.3 About Re:Imagining Change
Risk more than others think is safe,
Care more than others think is wise,
Dream more than others think is practical,
Expect more than others think is possible.
~ Anon

Re:Imagining Change is a stand-alone introduction to story-based
strategy and a curriculum reader that can accompany story-
based strategy workshops. We offer
tools that can be applied to existing
campaigns and explore narrative itself
as a social change lens that, when used
effectively, can lead to new types of
strategies and action. is manual is a
resource for people who want to create
change and shift our society toward a
more just and sustainable future.

We caution that, like all political
strategies, narrative approaches must
be grounded in principles and ethics.1 In our case this means a

It is our sincere hope that
Re:Imagining Change will be
a conversation starter
with people from all walks of
life who are willing to think
big, dream hard, and struggle
like hell for a better world.

Musicians and dancers
from Son Del Centro in
Santa Ana, California,
lead a pageant of
creative resistance at
the 2005 Student/
Farmworker Alliance
Youth Encuentro in
Immokalee, Florida.

commitment to honesty, undoing oppression, and accountability
to our partners and the communities we serve. We situate our
applications of story-basedstrategy in the context of struggles for
social justice, self-determination, and an ecologically sane society.2

e ideas and tools presented in Re:Imagining Change are
ingredients for a story-based strategy, and should be applied
alongside the time-tested tools of strategic nonviolence,3 strategic
communications,4 community organizing,5 and antiracism.6

is manual is divided into five primary sections. e book
opens with a visual overview of the story-based strategy
campaign model. Section II introduces the theoretical framework
of narrative power analysis. is includes using the elements of
story to deconstruct the stories we want to change as well as to
construct the stories we want to tell. Section III presents the battle
of the story method for creating social change narratives and
messages. Section IV outlines the points of intervention model
with a focus on action at the point of assumption as a means of
shifting narratives. Section V presents four case studies of story-
based strategy applied in grassroots struggles. e final section
explores the unique relevance of story-based strategy in
addressing our present political moment as defined by the
unfolding ecological crisis.

We have inevitably borrowed theoretical concepts from
existing bodies of work. We also humbly offer some new
specialized language to communicate innovations in our thinking.
Our intent is not to mystify with jargon, but rather to embrace
the power of naming to communicate new ideas. We have
included a glossary to define key terms throughout the manual.
Glossary items are marked in bold throughout the text.

At smartMeme, we approach this work with a curious spirit of
experimentation. After five years of developing and applying these
ideas, we still have far more questions than answers. It is our
sincere hope that Re:Imagining Change will be a conversation
starter with people from all walks of life who are willing to think
big, dream hard, and struggle like hell for a better world. Share
your critiques, ideas, questions, and stories…join the conversation

14 Re:Imagining Change

Story-based Strategy Campaign Model

We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, an-
ticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize,
construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.

~ Barbara Hardy

2. Narrative Power Analysis 17

2.1 We Are Made of Stories

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.
~ Zora Neale Hurston

We live in a world shaped by stories. Stories are the threads of our
lives and the fabric of human cultures. A story can unite or divide
people(s), obscure issues, or spotlight new perspectives. A story can
inform or deceive, enlighten or entertain, or even do all of the above.

As humans, we are literally hardwired for narrative. Harvard
University evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues that sto-
ries are essential to human learning and building relationships in
social groups. ere is growing consensus in the scientific commu-
nity that the neurological roots of both
storytelling and enjoyment of stories
are tied to our social cognition.1

In one widely cited 1944 experi-
ment, psychologists Fritz Heider and
Mary-Ann Simmel showed subjects
“an animation of a pair of triangles
and a circle moving around a square,” and asked what was hap-
pening. e subjects’ responses (e.g. “e circle is chasing the tri-
angles.”) revealed how they mapped a narrative onto the shapes.
Numerous subsequent studies have reiterated how humans, as
social creatures, see stories everywhere.2

Just as we tell ourselves stories about the world we live in, sto-
ries also tell us how to live. A myth is “a traditional story accepted
as history that serves to explain the worldview of a people.”3 Myths

Just as our bodies are made
of blood and flesh, our
identities are made of

2.Narrative PowerAnalysis

18 Re:Imagining Change

may be mistakenly dismissed as folktales from long ago, but
even today a sea of stories tell us who we are, what to do, and
what to believe.

People use stories to process the information we encounter
from our families and upbringing, educational institutions, reli-
gious and cultural institutions, the media, our peers and com-
munity. We remember our lived experiences by converting them
to narratives and integrating them into our personal and collec-
tive web of stories. Just as our bodies are made of blood and flesh,
our identities are made of narratives.

2.2 Narrative Power Analysis
Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their
lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it,
and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they
cannot think new thoughts.
~ Salman Rushdie

In order to make systemic social changes, change agents must
understand the histories and institutions that underlie contem-
porary social systems, as well as how these histories and institu-
tions shape culture and ways of collectively making meaning.

For example, imagine the following flashback to grade-school

Q: What is the definition of a continent?
A: A large landmass surrounded by water.
Q: And how many continents are there?
A: Seven.

Sound familiar?

A geographical map also
provides information about
the mental maps and
cultural assumptions of
the people who made it.

2. Narrative Power Analysis 19

Let’s take another look. With the definition “a large landmass
surrounded by water,” and allowing that the Americas are two sep-
arate continents, there still seems to be one continent that doesn’t
quite qualify. Apparently Europe as a geographical area has differ-
ent rules than the rest! It is neither large nor actually surrounded
by water. So who made the rules about continents and defined the
orientation of the modern map? Maybe Europeans?

A map is a tool to navigate the
physical world, but it is also an ex-
pression of the deeper shared mental
maps a culture provides to understand
the world. is is one example of how
the history of European colonization
continues to influence the way we col-
lectively see. Historic power rela-
tions—the social, economic, and
political forces of the past—can con-
tinue to shape how we understand the
present, which in turn impacts our imagination of the future.

SmartMeme describes culture as a matrix of shared mental
maps that define how we collectively create meaning and under-
stand the world around us. Inevitably, popular culture is an ever-
evolving, contested space of struggle, where competing voices,
experiences, and perspectives fight to answer the questions:
Whose maps determine what is meaningful? Whose stories are
considered “true”?

Name stories
� What is your full name?
� Why is that your name? Tell the story.

� Are there myths, stories, fables, or tall tales that you were told as a
child? Choose one and retell the story.

� Where did it come from (family stories, religious texts, elders, movies,
books, etc)?

� Are there lessons you draw from this story?
� How does it impact your life today?

In order to make systemic
social changes, change
agents must understand the
histories and institutions that
underlie contemporary social
systems, as well as how
these histories and
institutions shape culture

20 Re:Imagining Change

Whether you call them stories,
cosmologies, myths, meta-narra-
tives, the status quo, or some other
word,5 it is clear that powerful stories
can shape and inform how we see the world.

As certain ideas, practices, and worldviews become normal-
ized over time, they form a dominant culture that dispropor-
tionately represents powerful institutional interests and
perpetuates the stories that validate their political agendas.
ese stories can become invisible as they are passed from gen-
eration to generation—carrying assumptions that become “con-
ventional wisdom.”

Many of our current social and ecological problems have their
roots in the silent consensus of assumptions that shape the dom-
inant culture: Humans can dominate and outsmart nature. Women
are worth less than men. Racism and war are part of human nature.
U.S. foreign policy benevolently spreads democracy and liberation
around the world…

To make real and lasting social change…these stories must

A narrative power analysis recognizes that humans under-
stand the world and our role in it through stories, and thus all
power relations have a narrative dimension. Likewise, many sto-
ries are imbued with power. is could be the power to explain
and justify the status quo or the power to make change imagina-
ble and urgent.

A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: Which sto-
ries define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from?
Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? What
new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we
see? And, perhaps most urgently, what are the stories that can help
create the world we desire?

Narrative power analysis starts with the recognition that
the currency of story is not necessarily truth, but rather meaning.
In other words, we often believe in a story not necessarily because

When discussing culture, media theorist
Marshall McLuhan often reminded his
students, “We don’t know who discovered
water, but we can assume it wasn’t a fish.”

2. Narrative Power Analysis 21

it is factually true; we accept a story as true because it connects
with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is

e role of narrative in rendering meaning in our minds is
what makes story a powerful force. ese power dynamics oper-
ate both in terms of our individual identities—whether or not
you get to determine your own story—and on the larger cultural
level: Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our
world? For example, which individuals, groups, or nations are por-
trayed as heroic—and whose story is presented as villainous,
weak, or just irrelevant?

ese questions show the narrative dimensions of the phys-
ical relationships of power and privilege, the unequal access to re-
sources, and denials of self-determination that shape
contemporary society. Asking these questions is key to bringing
a narrative power analysis into social change work.

2.3 Power and Mythology
Myths which are believed in tend to become true.
~ George Orwell

Just as activists apply a power analysis to understand relations
between key decision makers and relevant institutions, activists
can apply a narrative power analysis to understand the narra-
tives shaping an issue, campaign, or specific social context.

Narrative power analysis provides a framework to extend
power analysis into narrative space—the intangible realm of sto-
ries, ideas, and assumptions that
frame and define the situation, rela-
tionships or institutions in question.

Narratives can often function as
a glue to hold the legitimacy of power
structures in place and maintain the
status quo. When working for social
change, it is essential to understand
specifically how these narratives operate.

For example, when confronted with ongoing injustice, some
people will say, “that’s just the way things are.” In this domi-
nant culture narrative, politicians, generals, and corporate ex-
ecutives have power but the rest of us don’t. This is one of the

Narrative power analysis
starts with the recognition
that the currency of story is
not necessarily truth, but
rather meaning.

22 Re:Imagining Change

most common assumptions that normalizes existing power dy-
namics and makes them appear unchangeable.

But people-powered movements around the world have
shown us that power is a relationship; it is a malleable and dynamic
relationship between those who have more power and those who
have less. e “consent theory of power,” popularized by Gene
Sharp,6 posits that power structures are inherently unstable and
propped up by societal institutions that are operated by rulers
with the tacit consent of the ruled. When the governed remove
their consent or obedience from the power holders, dramatic
changes can happen.

is has been the story of countless organizing campaigns
and nonviolent revolutions around the world from the resistance
to legalized segregation in the Southern United States to the over-
throw of dictatorships in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Yu-
goslavia, and several former Soviet Republics.

Social change history can be interpreted as a struggle between
collaborative power (“power-with” or “power-together”) and coer-
cive power (“power-over”). When grassroots movements mobilize
and make change by uniting people to challenge the coercive power
of an illegitimate and oppressive authority, this is a clear contest
between collaborative power-with and coercive power-over.

It is easy to see coercive power in its most physical forms: the
policeman’s gun, the invading army’s tanks, or the economic co-
ercion when the boss threatens to fire anyone who supports a
union drive. In many cases it is harder to see coercive power when
it is operating as narrative.

In the 1930s, the imprisoned Italian Communist leader Anto-
nio Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony (coming from the
Greek word hegemonia, meaning leadership) to describe how the
elite don’t just physically rule society, but, more importantly, they
define society’s moral and intellectual leadership. Capitalism,
Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence
and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a hegemonic
culture in which the values of the elite became the “common sense
values of all.”7 e power of hegemony is expressed through coer-
cion and consent rather than through armed force. is multifac-
eted cultural process limits the terms of the debate to make ideas
that challenge the status quo almost unthinkable.

Hegemony operates in cultural stories that over time gain
widespread acceptance and reinforce a dominant perspective or

2. Narrative Power Analysis 23




























































































































































































































24 Re:Imagining Change

worldview. ese webs of narratives are cont r ol myt hologies,
which shape a shared sense of political reality, normalize the sta-
tus quo, and obscure alternative options or visions.

Referring to these stories as “mythologies” is not about
whether they are true or false—again, it is about how much
meaning they carry in the culture. Like religious mythologies
(both ancient and contemporary), these stories are powerful in
that they give people a lens for interpreting and understanding
the world. Some myths evolve over time carrying harmful as-
sumptions of hegemonic culture, while others are specifically de-
signed to manipulate for a particular political purpose.

From the notion that “You can’t fight city hall” to the idea
that our economies must always “grow,” cont r ol myt hologies
often operate as the boundaries of political imagination and
shape the dominant cultur e. is impacts not only the political
education work of social change movements, but also our own ac-
tivist imaginations. By noticing and analyzing contr ol mytholo-
gies, we can reeducate ourselves and re-imagine our world.

2.4 Creation Myths of the United States
Thanksgiving is the holiday of peace, the celebration of work and
the simple life…
~ Ray Stannard Baker, 1919

We gave them forest-clad mountains and valleys full of game, and
in return what did they give our warriors and our women? Rum,
trinkets, and a grave. Where today are the Pequot? Where are the
Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once
powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the
avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a
summer sun…
~ Tecumseh (Shawnee leader), 1810

e anksgiving story is a snapshot of rosy relations between
European colonizers and the native peoples of the Americas that
emphasizes cooperation, peace, and the native peoples welcoming
the Pilgrims.

However, as many of us know, that was not the reality. In
fact, the first historical record of colonists celebrating a “thanks-
giving” is not related to a harvest festival or to the idea of cross-

2. Narrative Power Analysis 25

cultural cooperation, but to a celebration of a massacre of over
700 Pequot women and children in 1637. e late-November
date (which is six to eight weeks after harvest in New England)
appears to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre, which
was seen as a great military victory.8

is example reveals key aspects of a narrative power analysis.
First, that dominant stories in the culture—ones that are widely
accepted as true—are often worth examining to understand what
they really say and what they leave out, as well as the underlying
assumptions that allow them to operate. In this case, one under-
lying assumption is that Europeans were a peaceful and welcome
presence in the Americas.

Second, this example shows that power shapes point of view.
Clearly the story of anksgiving that has been passed on in the
dominant culture is from the perspective of the Pilgrims, and
not the native peoples. As the famous saying goes, “History is
written by the winners.”9

ird, the anksgiving story has universalized the Pilgrims’
perspective as the only truth and has normalized their experi-
ence. is universalization masks the realities of the genocide of
native peoples, and the mythology continues to uphold white
privilege today.

And finally, the control mythology of Thanksgiving is both
challengeable and changeable. Since 1970 Native American ac-
tivists and allies have marked Thanksgiving as the “National
Day of Mourning” to draw attention to the genocide of native
peoples and their ongoing struggles against racism and colo-
nization. A group called the United American Indians of New
England organizes an annual demonstration at Plymouth Rock

Thanksgiving is one
of the most
recognizable origin
myths and cultural
rituals of the United
States. It operates as
a powerful control
mythology in the
dominant culture.

26 Re:Imagining Change

in Massachusetts. In recent years, through grassroots and legal
pressure, the group has even won several commemorative
plaques acknowledging the Day of Mourning and native histor-

ical figures.10
Thanksgiving is a central origin

story of the United States, but there
are many others: from “Columbus dis-
covered America,” to “the land of the
free,” “40 acres and a mule,” and “Give
me your tired, your poor, your hud-
dled masses yearning to breathe
free.” These origin myths tell believ-
ers who we are, where we come from,
and what we stand for as a country.
These mythologies shape the terrain
of our contemporary narratives. Un-

derstanding how these origin stories and their (often contra-
dictory) histories impact our social change efforts today is an
essential part of winning tangible victories.

Control Mythologies
� Is there a control mythology you once believed, but now question, chal-
lenge, or refute?

� When did you start to challenge the conventional story?
� Was there a person, incident, media piece, or experience that led you
to question your existing beliefs?

� What lessons do you draw from this experience?

� Have you heard a piece of information (on the news, from a friend, etc)
that you did not believe?

� Why didn’t you? Take a moment to write down some of your own nar-
rative filters for information.

� What makes you believe? Disbelieve?

Dominant stories in the
culture—ones that are
widely accepted as true—are
often worth examining to
understand what they really
say and what they leave out,
as well as the underlying
assumptions that allow them
to operate.

2. Narrative Power Analysis 27

2.5 Filters vs. Facts

There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can
obscure the truth.
~ Maya Angelou

A narrative power analysis is not only useful for identifying and
challenging control mythologies. It is also an important frame-
work for change agents creating a strategy to reach people with a

Many activists spend a lot of time telling people about what’s
going wrong in the community and trying to persuade them to
take action for change. Have you ever tried to convince people
(who didn’t already agree with you) about a social issue by telling
them “the facts”? Did you tell them all the statistics and data
about your cause, and they still didn’t change their mind?

You’re not alone.
It is easy to define the problem as “the general public doesn’t

know the facts.” Oftentimes activists assume that if we could just
inform people about the issue and give them the information they
are lacking, then they would join our movements for change. But,
in most cases, “the facts” alone are not
enough to persuade; assumptions,
emotions, internal narratives, and
pre-existing attitudes can get in the
way of the facts making sense.

A narrative power analysis sug-
gests that the problem is not neces-
sarily what people don’t know (the
facts). Rather, the problem may be what they do know (underly-
ing assumptions).

In other words, people have existing stories about their world

� Examine dominant-culture stories
� Consider how power shapes point of view of the story
� Explore how the story normalizes the status quo by universalizing
certain experiences and invisibilizing oppression

� Overcome filters: It’s not what people don’t know, but what they do know

Current estimates are that
the average person in an
urban or suburban area in the
U.S. is subjected to 3,000
commercial messages daily.

28 Re:Imagining Change

that may act as narrative filters to prevent them from hearing
social change messages. As years of psychological study have
shown us, people are conditioned to ignore information that
doesn’t fit into their existing framework for understanding the
world (often called “confirmation bias”). ese biases are deep
enough that we can even track our neurological pathways of de-
nial. As Drew Weston explains in his book, The Political Brain:

When confronted with potentially troubling political
information, a network of neurons becomes active that
produces distress…e brain registers the conflict be-
tween data and desire and begins to search for ways to
turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion.11

Information that contradicts our existing beliefs is rarely able
to reach through the filters of people’s pre-existing assumptions.
e big challenge is that these filters are frequently rooted in the
dominant culture’s control mythologies.

So how does a movement challenge those assumptions and
shift a story in the dominant culture? is question is central to
developing a story-based strategy. A narrative power analysis
can help us:

1. Understand the story we are trying to change.
2. Identify the underlying assumptions that allow that story

to operate as truth.
3. Find the points of intervention in the story where we

can challenge, change, and/or insert a new story.

2.6 Designer Stories and the Branded World
Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their
product you’re a loser.
~ Nancy Shalek

Human hardwiring for stories comes from our deepest impulses
as social creatures who want to build connection in community.
What does this mean in a wired, branded, and globalized world?
Understanding narrative power is even more critical in the con-
temporary cultural context, where advertising and marketing
have become central engines of the economy. Despite the

2. Narrative Power Analysis 29

impact of the global recession Global advertising revenues are
still projected to reach $450 billion in 2010.12

e vast majority of messages that are circulating in the mass
media are created with the specific purpose of affecting the think-
ing, behavior, and purchasing habits of the target audience. ese
are designer stories created by some of the world’s most talented
creative minds.

e U.S. dominant culture is increasingly shaped by multime-
dia, consumer spectacles, and other sophisticated forms of ad-
vertising that attempt to penetrate our most personal desires and
relationships. Current estimates are that the average person in
an urban or suburban area in the U.S. is subjected to 3,000 com-
mercial messages daily. Not surprisingly, recent studies have
found that two-thirds of Americans feel “constantly bombarded”
by ads, and nearly as many respondents felt that these ads have “lit-
tle or no relevance to them.”13

is commercialized media assault targets all consumers re-
gardless of age. e Federal Trade Commission estimates that in
the year 2004 children ages 2–11 saw about 25,600 television ad-
vertisements. is equals roughly 10,700 minutes (the equivalent
of over a full week of non-stop view-
ing) of TV advertising a year. For com-
parison, adults saw approximately
52,500 ads and 22,300 minutes of ad-

Numerous studies have shown
that young children are not able to dis-
tinguish between commercials and TV
programs and are thus unable to rec-
ognize that commercials are trying to
sell them something.15 Other studies

Marlboro used the cowboy
image and mythology to
create their brand. The
“Marlboro Man” campaign
began in the 1950s (when
filtered cigarettes were most
popular with women), and
succeeded in dramatically
increasing Marlboro’s male
market share.

30 Re:Imagining Change

have shown that chil-
dren as young as age
two can be influenced
by branding, and by
age three they can rec-
ognize brand logos.16
is awareness has
driven marketers to
target children at in-
creasingly young ages
and use the “nag fac-
tor” to manipulate
children into pressur-
ing their parents to
purchase things. Now
children are literally
targeted from birth by

sophisticated manipulation techniques designed to create a con-
sumer identity at the earliest possible age.

Our society has essentially submitted to a mass psychological
experiment that is increasingly defining the values of popular
culture as individualism and consumerism. Media theorist and
researcher Sut Jhally has described advertising as providing “the
dream life of our culture” that sells us products by selling us
dreams.17 Author Stephen Duncombe has coined the phrase “e
Age of Fantasy” to describe how image and spectacle shape con-
temporary society and politics.18

e influence of advertising is not new, and advertising has
historically played a key role in shaping U.S. popular culture. One
example: the contemporary image of Santa Claus (the jovial
white-bearded man in the red suit) is the result of a successful ad-
vertising campaign by the Coca-Cola company that began in the
1930s. e branding process created a dominant image of Santa
clothed in Coke’s red and white colors that replaced a diverse
range of other depictions coming from a range of Northern Eu-
ropean traditions.19

Another example is the decades old branding strategy of the
De Beers diamond company. In the 1930s and 1940s, De Beers
sought product placement in movies with romantic engagement
scenes to popularize the offering of a diamond ring as THE en-
gagement ritual, and to equate the desire for life partnership with

1931 Coca-Cola
advertisement with
illustration by
Haddon Sundblom.

2. Narrative Power Analysis 31

the symbol of a large diamond. Within a few decades, diamond
engagement rings became the norm and “diamonds are forever”
became part of the cultural vernacular. is campaign is consid-
ered by the industry to be one of the most successful advertising
campaigns in U.S. history.20

Branding operates like a magical process where a thing—usu-
ally an inanimate product, but sometimes an idea, candidate, or
political agenda—is endowed with specific narrative and emo-
tional qualities. e expression comes from the Greek and Roman
penal system where criminals had markings representing their
crimes burned onto their flesh.21 Modern branding metaphori-
cally burns emotional and narrative qualities into a thing so as to
create in the customer (or target audience) an inseparable

How many of these branded letters do
you recognize in Heidi Cody’s
“corporate alphabet”?22 How many
logos do you think you can recognize?
Compare that to the number of non-
edible plant species you can name. Or
U.S. state capitals? Or perhaps the
number of North American indigenous

32 Re:Imagining Change

recognition. e brand is not merely a logo, color scheme, or spe-
cific flagship product. e brand is the sum total of the stories that
are told about the branded entity and encompasses images, im-
pressions, gut feelings, and associations.

Branding is one of the ways that narrative power is experi-
enced, referenced, and discussed. But the popular discourse
around branding frequently lacks a critical power analysis.

e “corporate alphabet” by artist Heidi Cody is instructive.
One letter is enough to cue your mind to a specific product and pos-
sibly an entire narrative about it. Let’s remember these aren’t even
logos—these are just snippets of the font treatments of the prod-
uct names. Y is for York Peppermint Patties (and makes you feel
cold like you’re in the mountains), C is for Campbell’s Soup (“Mmm
Mmm good!”) and J is for Jell-O (Bill Cosby saying, “J-E-L-L-O!”).

How did these advertising images and stories get inside of
our heads? How do some stories spread and saturate popular cul-
ture while others are ignored? is is the power of memes.

2.7 Memes
“Just as in the game of ‘Telephone’ (where a message is whis-
pered from person to person, being slightly mis-replicated each
time), selection favors the memes which are easiest to under-
stand, to remember, and to communicate to others…Rather than
debate the inherent ‘truth’ or lack of “truth” of an idea, memetics
is largely concerned with how that idea gets itself replicated.
Memetics is vital to the understanding of cults, ideologies, and
marketing campaigns of all kinds, and it can help to provide im-
munity from dangerous information-contagions. You should be
aware, for instance, that you’ve just been exposed to the Meta-
meme, the meme about memes…”23

~ Glenn Grant

e concept of a meme is a helpful analytical tool for exploring cul-
tural influence and the ways in which narrative power operates.
Memes are self-replicating units of cultural information that
spread virally from person to person and generation to genera-
tion, with a life of their own. e term meme rhymes with
“dream.” It is derived from a Greek word meaning “to imitate,”
and was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in
1976. Dawkins created the word meme as an analogy to the word

2. Narrative Power Analysis 33

Memes (pronounced “meems”) are units of self-replicating cultural
information such as slogans (Just Do It!), iconic images that can be easily
referenced (Abu Ghraib torture), catch phrases (“wardrobe malfunction”),
symbols (the peace sign), or rituals (candles on a birthday cake). Memes
can act as capsules for stories to spread virally through cultures.

34 Re:Imagining Change

“gene,” as a way to explain how cultural practices spread. A meme
is any unit of culture that has spread beyond its creator—buzz
words, catchy melodies, fashion trends, ideas, rituals, images, and
the like. Writer and memeticist Glen Grant defines memes as
“contagious information patterns.”24

At smartMeme we think of a meme as a capsule for a story to
spread. If you want to challenge and transform the dominant cul-
ture and spread new ideas, you need some vocabulary to talk about
the units of culture, and analyze how stories spread, stick, morph,

My Memes
� Are there favorite slang words, fashions, ideas, slogans, or rituals that
you’ve “picked up,” practiced, and spread?

� Have you been a “carrier” for a new (to you) meme lately?
� Are there memes that you don’t want to spread?

Movement Memes
� What are some of the memes of the social movements that you are a
part of or of campaigns that you support?

The term meme may be new(ish), but spreading memes is an age-old
movement building practice. In many ways, the defining manifestation of
a social movement is the emergence of a common story that allows peo-
ple to express their shared values and act with a common vision. These
stories are encapsulated into memes—slogans, symbols, and rituals—
that can spread throughout culture:

No taxation without representation
A raised fist
Peace sign
Si se puede!
Human rights
Living wage
Environmental racism
Fair trade

Green jobs
Media justice
The Great Bear Rainforest
Separation of oil and state
Climate justice

2. Narrative Power Analysis 35

and change. Memes are rapidly fertilized and cross-pollinated in
today’s 24/7 multimedia environment. As change agents we need
ways to track how information spreads and shapes political dis-

Memes are everywhere, from per-
sonal mannerisms and collective ritual
to the advertising slogans and political
jargon that dominate the media. Al-
most anything can be called a meme—
but how effective a meme is it? Will it
be a passing fad (pet rocks) or an ongo-
ing cultural ritual (shaking hands)?
Over time most memes tend to morph,
disappear, or even dramatically change
in meaning, but some prove to be resilient and shape the evolution
of cultures.

e concept of the meme as an analytical tool and metaphor
is useful for understanding the contemporary context of narra-
tive power: information saturation, 24-hour news cycles, non-
stop marketing, and sophisticated government and corporate
misinformation campaigns. However, that does NOT mean that
a “magic meme” will ever replace real world struggle.

A well-tested sound byte or powerful image alone will not win
campaigns or invoke systemic change. But the right meme CAN
help our organizing become exponentially more effective. e
story-basedstrategy approach is not intended to be a replacement
for traditional organizing and movement building, but rather a set
of complementary tools made all the more relevant by the con-
temporary cultural context.

2.8 Control Memes
If you believe certain words, you believe their hidden arguments.
~ The Open-Ended Proof from The Panoplia Prophetica

e concept of a meme can make our own storytelling more pow-
erful and viral. It can also help us analyze the stories we are work-
ing to change in the dominant culture.

Advertising is full of powerful designer memes—catchy lit-
tle phrases that get endlessly repeated like Nike’s swoosh and
catch phrase “Just Do It!” Likewise, unscrupulous power-holders

A well-tested sound byte or
powerful image alone will not
win campaigns or invoke
systemic change, but the
right meme CAN help our
organizing become
exponentially more effective.

36 Re:Imagining Change

have shown considerable skill at designing memes that carry their
stories through the culture: “family values,” “weapons of mass de-
struction,” “the war on terror,” “the liberal media,” and “tax re-
lief ” have become part of the public discussion, carrying with
them the worldview and assumptions of their creators.

When a designer meme acts as a container for control myths,
or replicates oppressive stories and spreads them throughout the
popular culture, smartMeme calls it a control meme. A control
meme is created (or sometimes just exploited) to insert a status

A designer control meme:
Republicans put purple ink on their fingers for Bush’s 2005 State of
the Union Address. The purple dye invoked the ink that was applied to
Iraqi citizens’ fingers at the polls after they cast their vote in the first
election since the U.S. invasion. For Republicans, it served as a visual
cue for the Bush administration’s new
“Freedom is on the March” story of
U.S. foreign policy. This control meme
was created in an attempt to re-justify
a military invasion that had been
exposed as an illegal operation based
on lies—when the U.S. failed to
discover weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq.

Some of our favorite examples:
Manifest destiny
Separate but equal
The war on… (communism, drugs,
Free trade
Death tax
Clean coal
No Child Left Behind
Target of opportunity

Surgical strike
The liberal media
The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act
Family values
Jobs versus the environment
Too big to fail

2. Narrative Power Analysis 37

quo bias (or power-holders’ perspective) into popular perceptions
and shared cultural narratives. A control meme spreads a specific
framing of an idea or situation that reinforces the status quo
and/or relationships of power-over.

Some control memes are contemporary designer memes
crafted by political spin advisors and PR flacks, such as “e Bush
administration’s War on Terror.” Other control memes are the
sound bites or buzzwords that mask histories of violence and op-
pression. For instance, “Columbus discovered America” is a neat
control meme package for the story of the European colonization
of the Americas. If the meme package for this story was “Columbus
invaded America,” then the story would be perceived differently.

Control meme is a name for a specific application of narra-
tive power that succinctly marginalizes, co-opts, and limits the
appeal of social change ideas. Many control memes are found in

AFP/Getty Images/Chris Graythen)
Tue Aug 30, 3:47 AM ET
“Two residents wade through
chest-deep water after finding
bread and soda from a local
grocery store after Hurricane
Katrina came through the area in
New Orleans, Louisiana.”

Associated Press
Tue Aug 30,11:31 AM ET
“A young man walks through
chest deep floodwater after
looting a grocery store in New Or-
leans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005.”

38 Re:Imagining Change

the intergenerational cultural patterns of internalized racial su-
periority and inferiority26 and in the rationalizations created by
the dominant culture to justify patterns of oppression.

In the example (previous page) of media coverage of Hurri-
cane Katrina, white people “find” resources at a local grocery
store, while a black youth is described as “looting.” is is a racist
control mythology in operation, neatly packaging an entire his-
tory of the criminalization and dehumanization of African Amer-
icans in the meme “loot.” is particular example became an
internet meme of its own when media justice activists highlighted
it as an example of racist media coverage.

2.9 Applying Narrative Power Analysis:
Elements of Story

Truth and Power belong to those who tell a better story.
~ Stephen Duncombe

Telling a compelling social change story has many dimensions.27 In
order to apply a narrativepoweranalysis and create effective story-
based strategies, it is helpful to understand the key narrative ele-
ments that allow stories to operate. SmartMeme’s model is to
examine five elementsofstory that we have found are particularly
relevant for both analyzing and effectively communicating stories:
Conflict, Characters, Imagery, Foreshadowing, and Assumptions.
Identifying these elements helps us deconstruct the stories we want
to challenge and to construct the stories we want to tell.

Conflict is the backbone of narrative. is is what defines the drama
and point of view of the story and makes it interesting. e conflict
frames the narrative. No conflict, no plot, no story. What does the
story present as the problem? How does the framing create conflict?
Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? What is at stake?

Good stories have characters to which people can relate. is helps
people see themselves reflected in the story and choose sides.
Sometimes these characters are the subjects of the story and some-
times they are the protagonists, or even narrators, and act as

2. Narrative Power Analysis 39

messengers that deliver the story. Messengers are just as impor-
tant (if not more important) as the message itself, because they
embody the message. Messengers put human faces on the conflict,
and put the story in context. e institutional biases of the media
often present politically marginalized people as being at fault for
their own problems or as helpless victims, or do not let them speak
at all. e dynamics of who gets to speak, how the “sympathetic”
roles are cast, and who is represented as the heroes, victims, and vil-
lains, are key to the battleofthestory, and the struggle for self-de-
termination and media justice.

Imagery (Show Don’t Tell)
A picture is worth a thousand words. Today’s mass media culture
is image driven and many stories are illustrated with carefully pro-
duced visuals. Effective stories use
words to create powerful imagery that
captures the imagination with
metaphor, anecdote, and descriptions
that speak to our senses. “Show don’t
tell,” means that the story’s meaning
or moral is shown to us rather than
told to us. Effective stories communicate by connecting to what
people already know and hold dear—our values. When a story is
showing, instead of telling, it offers the audience the opportunity
to use their own values to draw conclusions.

Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end—the resolution
of the conflict. e literary term “foreshadowing” refers to the
ways that a story provides hints to its outcome. ink of the
movie that slowly pans across the gun on the wall in an early
scene. We are trained by narrative conventions to perceive that
image as relevant information and we know it means the gun is
going to return to the plot. Real-world narratives that shape cul-
ture and politics also foreshadow. When analyzing a narrative,
look at how the story suggests a specific future or makes promises
(explicit or otherwise) about the resolution of the conflict.

Assumptions make up the glue that holds the story together; they
are the unstated parts of the story that you have to accept in order

Identifying and challenging
underlying assumptions is
probably the most important
element to changing a story.

40 Re:Imagining Change

to believe the narrative is true. Assumptions can take the form of
shared values (a belief in democracy) or distorted information
(Saddam Hussein is connected to 9/11). Often times control
myths shape stories at the level of their unstated assumptions.
Identifying and challenging underlying assumptions is probably
the most important element to changing a story. Likewise, when
we unearth the underlying assumptions of an activist campaign
narrative, we can benefit from a shared understanding of the glue
that holds the group together: our worldview and values.


Share a Story
Find a person willing to listen and recount a story about an
embarrassing moment, a hectic morning, or a journey you’ve taken. You
can also choose to share the origins of a personal object you have with
you (like your shoes, keys, or jewelry).

Now, ask your listener to help you practice identifying the elements of
story. What is the conflict? Who are the characters? What imagery was
used and how was the ending foreshadowed? Are there underlying as-
sumptions that make the story believable?

Moving Stories
Think of a story that you found moving (could be something you heard
secondhand, a movie, a poem, a family story, from a book, etc.) and retell
it.Why is it powerful for you? How does it use the elements of story? What
are some of the underlying assumptions that resonate with you?


The problem is not changing people’s consciousness but the
political, economic, institutional regime of the production of

~ Michel Foucault

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 43

3.1 The Story of the Battle

Action is the antidote to despair.
~ Joan Baez

Any communications or organizing strategy must begin with a
shared understanding of goals and audience. e first step is set-
ting goals: What do we really want? What are the incremental
steps to get us there? Next, we need to understand our target(s)
and audience(s) by asking ourselves: Who are we talking to? And,
what do we want them to do?

e answers to these questions distinguish between two dif-
ferent types of social change narra-
tives. In order to succeed in a social
change effort it is essential to under-
stand which type of story you are try-
ing to tell. e story of the battle is
about mobilization; the battle of the
story is about persuasion.

In general, a large part of effective
organizing is successfully mobilizing
people who already agree with your
cause. is involves reaching out to the
audiences who already share much of
your worldview and core values—they may be your base of sup-
port, allies, or a constituency with a shared experience of the social

3. Winning the Battle of
the Story

In order to succeed in a
social change effort it is
essential to understand
which type of story you are
trying to tell. The story of the
battle is about mobilization;
the battle of the story is
about persuasion.

problem you are confronting. is means
you can tell a story that operates on some
shared assumptions (corporations aren’t
trustworthy, human rights must be pro-
tected, the mayor is corrupt, etc).

SmartMeme calls this type of narra-
tive the story of the battle. It can be a
more literal, partisan, or tactical story
about what is happening and what needs
to happen. It is intentionally designed for
reaching people who already share some
key assumptions and worldviews but need
to be activated for a specific purpose. It
works most effectively with an audience
who is open to seeing their own action as

part of the unfolding story. Action alerts, funding appeals, pro-
gressive independent media, and stump speeches are often a rally-
ing cry that tells the story of the battle.

e advertisement (following page) was created in the lead
up to the invasion of Iraq to promote the newly launched United
for Peace & Justice, a national clearinghouse of resources and or-
ganizing against the war. is is the story of the battle in action!

If you see it out of context, you may dismiss the message as
self-marginalizing, but this advertisement was not designed for
a mass audience. It ran exclusively in progressive and radical pub-
lications to target people whose views were marginalized amidst
the mainstream media’s pro-war hype. Everything about the ad
appeals to an activist audience: the values-based message that
war itself is wrong, the confrontational tone, and the declaration
that the present political moment is “a time of madness.” e
ad’s message isn’t designed to persuade, but rather to mobilize

44 Re:Imagining Change

This postcard uses the story
of the battle to promote a
mobilization against
biotechnology at a global
agriculture Ministerial
conference. The image re-
purposes the Cold War era
“domino theory” meme for
activists and implies that this
mobilization will help topple
the other dominoes. By
contextualizing the action in
the broader political
struggles against free trade,
this effort succeeded in
bringing activists from the
anti-war and anti-
globalization movements to
create the largest protest
against genetic engineering
in U.S. history.

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 45

the existing base of anti-war
people to take action.

The story of the battle
can deepen the analysis and
commitment of existing
supporters and engage
them in our activities.
However, it often has lim-
ited appeal beyond the con-
verted. In this example, the
ad doesn’t challenge the
pro-war narrative. To use
the old metaphor, the story
of the battle is effective for
mobilizing the choir, but it
doesn’t necessarily organize
the congregation. at’s not
the goal. While it is important to galvanize our movements, the
story of the battle, is not intended to persuade the uninitiated or
the broader public.

3.2 The Battle of the Story
The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are
lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.
~ Harold Goddard

In order to reach a larger audience, we need narratives that are rooted
in persuasion. is doesn’t mean telling our truth louder or more
stridently; it means changing hearts and minds. Crafting a success-
ful story-based strategy requires analyzing and understanding the
power of storytelling to structure information in a way that con-
vinces people who are not already actively supporting the cause.

It is important to note here that sophisticated public relations
and propaganda operations often use narratives that play to
stereotypes, and use iconic imagery to tell a story that makes it
seem like power-holders speak on behalf of a story’s
sympathetic characters. is “power-over” model of public rela-
tions usually relies on outside experts to craft a story about the
issue without accountability to the affected communities.1

We believe that an effective story-based strategy must be

Created by John Beske ( in 2003.

developed through a “power-with” partnership model that em-
phasizes both process and content. Story-based strategy am-
plifies the voices of impacted people telling their own story. is
means the strategy is developed collectively with constituent
leadership—and carried out through ongoing accountable rela-
tionships with the people and communities who are impacted
and involved.

A narrative power analysis is designed to expose potential
obstacles for a social change message connecting with an audi-
ence. Since an audience’s existing stories will filter new facts or
information, change agents need to offer a new story. Every so-
cial change effort is inherently a conflict between the status quo
and the change agents to control the framing of an issue. Smart-
Meme calls this contest the battle of the story.2

In the macro sense, the battleofthestory is the larger struggle
to determine whose stories are told, how they are framed, how widely
these stories are heard, and how deeply they impact the dominant
discourse. e battle of the story is the effort to communicate the
why—the interpretation and relevance of actions and issues—that
helps a social change message reach a broader section of the public.
To succeed in changing the dominant culture’s framing of an issue,
our movements must win the battle of the story.

e battle of the story utilizes the same five elements of
story—Conflict, Characters, Imagery, Foreshadowing, and As-
sumptions—to deconstruct a narrative (as explored in Section 2.9)
and to construct a narrative (as we will explore here).

46 Re:Imagining Change


Movement Stories
� Share a story about a social change leader, event, victory, or defeat.
Passing on these stories keeps our movements reflective and
connected to our histories.

Mobilizing Stories
� What are some of the stories you tell to get people excited, fired up,
and ready to take action?

� Could you hone this story using the 5 elements of story?
� Practice your stump speech with a friend!

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 47


How is the conflict being
framed? Who is the ccoonnflfliicctt
between? (X vs. Y)

Who are the victims? Villains?
Heroes? Who are the messen-
gers that tell the story?

How does the story show us
(rather than tell us) what’s im-
portant? How does the story
engage our values and encour-
age us to choose sides?

How does each story show us
the future? What is the vision
that the story offers for resolv-
ing the conflict?

What are the underlying as-
sumptions? What does some-
one have to believe to accept
the story as true?


What are the other story’s vul-
nerabilities? Limits? Contradic-
tions? Lies? How can
underlying assumptions or val-
ues be exposed? (See Point of
Intervention Worksheet, p.79)




48 Re:Imagining Change

SmartMeme has created a tool—the battle of the story
worksheet—to facilitate this process. e tool, available at smart-, asks social change groups to examine the multiple
sides (at least two) of the story they are trying to change using
the five elements of story.

When deconstructing the power-holder or status quo story,
the purpose of the exercise is not to explain what is true, but to
tell the story as it is told. Oftentimes, this may involve a distorted
perspective or even lies, but the goal is to understand how the
story operates in order to change it. (Sometimes it helps to role-
play a specific person such as the targeted power-holder or a com-
pany’s public relations person.)

When constructing the change agent narrative in the battle of
the story process, the purpose is to identify elements you are cur-
rently using, and brainstorm some new ways to tell the story. e
process should be energizing for a group as new ideas come up in the
exercise. Often a group will uncover new ways to frame their issue,
surface the need to reach out to new groups who should be charac-
ters, explore new imagery, or gather insights on how to intervene in
the dominant story. (Section IV explores interventions in depth.)

3.3 Framing the Conflict
In politics, whoever frames the debate tends to win the debate.
~ George Lakoff

Framing is a progressive buzzword, thanks in large part to the recent
popularity of cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s important work.3

The roots of the modern framing discourse are in the work of Erv-
ing Goffman and his 1974 book, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the
Organization of Experience. Goffman used the idea of frames to label
“schemata of interpretation.”4 In other words, the frame is the larger
story that shapes the understanding of information, experiences,
and messages.

Framing helps define a story by setting the terms for how to un-
derstand it. Like a frame around a piece of art or the edges of the tel-
evision screen, the frame focuses and organizes our perception,
drawing attention to what’s within it. The frame defines what is part
of the story and (often more importantly) what is not, both visually
and cognitively. We make meaning from what is inside the frame and
we ignore what is outside of it.

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 49

Story-based strategy is a method for framing issues and designing
campaigns. The five elements of story provide the scaffolding to con-
struct a frame by offering a framework for what goes inside the frame.

For smartMeme, framing is more than coming up with a catchy
slogan. Framing is the task of designing a narrative complete with
characters, conflicts, images, and foreshadowing that reinforces a good
story and creates meaning for an audience.

We believe framing is an important concept because it is funda-
mentally about the issue of power in the story. Story-based strategy
explores who does and does not have power in the story, with the aim
of shifting power in the story. This interplay of power and represen-
tation is the essence of framing and reframing.

When U.S. troops arrived in central Baghdad, people in the United
States saw the footage of throngs of Iraqis cheering as the statue of Sad-
dam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad’s central plaza. This image spread
throughout the mainstream U.S. media as a symbol of the quick and
decisive success of the U.S.-led invasion. The story was about libera-
tion—a grateful civilian population rising up to overthrow a symbol of
the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The image gives us the impres-
sion of widespread support for the U.S. invasion. It also invokes the

“If you don’t have goose bumps now, you will never have them in your
life,’’ gushed Fox News anchor David Asman as he described the toppling
of the Saddam statue.5 However, the coverage from the international
media presented a very different picture. British journalist and Middle
East correspondent Robert Fisk, reporting for the U.K. Independent news-
paper, described the toppled statue as “the most staged photo-opportu-
nity since Iwo Jima.”6 The reality soon became clear that the toppling of
the Saddam statue was a successful U.S. information warfare operation
that was intended to reinforce the Bush administration’s story that the in-
vasion would be quick and easy and that U.S. troops would be greeted as
liberators. In subsequent years a fuller picture of the military’s use of in-
formation warfare to shape U.S. public opinion of the invasion of Iraq has
emerged. These operations have included the deliberate bombing of Ara-
bic language satellite news stations Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the tar-
geting of unembedded media and a Pentagon-coordinated program to
shape the message provided by retired military personnel serving as an-
alysts for U.S. media outlets.7 The chilling implication is that U.S. public
opinion has become a priority military target.8

50 Re:Imagining Change

iconic images from the end of the Cold War, as Soviet-era statues were
pulled down across Russia and Eastern Europe.

Q: So who has the power in this story?
A: The Iraqi people, of course!

The second image is a picture of the same event, taken at almost
the same time—shortly before the statue is toppled. We can see the
small group gathered near the statue and 13 U.S. tanks surrounding
the plaza. So, who has the power in this story?

Expanding the frame of the picture reframes the entire story and
changes our understanding of who has the power.

While this is an extreme example, these two images provide a
simple and effective visual definition of framing—you see what is in-
side the frame and you don’t see what’s outside it. When we reframe,
we get a different interpretation of events. In order to change the story
and change our understanding of the story’s power dynamics, we
often have to expand the frame or reframe.

Coverage of the arrival of
U.S. troops in Baghdad’s
Firdos Square on April 9,
2003, taken from the
vantage point of the
Palestine Hotel. Picture
from the Reuters
International News Wire.

Screen shot of CNN
covering the arrival of U.S.
troops in Baghdad’s
Firdos Square on April 9,

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 51

3.4 Creating Narrative Frames

Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and
dreaming meet.
~ Victor Hugo

So, how do movements create frames
to shift the popular understanding of
important stories and issues? Social
change efforts can help shape the in-
terpretation of important events not
by manipulating the physical frame on
information (as the U.S. military has in
Iraq), but rather by creating a narrative
frame for our audiences to see an issue.
One example is a framing action: an
action designed to influence the audi-
ence’s understanding of an unfolding

For example, the “WTO vs. Democ-
racy” banner was an intervention on the
day before massive protests shut down
the World Trade Organization meeting
in 1999. e action was intended to
shape media coverage in the lead-up to
the mass actions. e larger frame of
democracy connected the issues of labor
standards, environmental protection,
and human rights. By providing an over-
arching message that the WTO is fundamentally undemocratic, the
action offered the U.S. public a frame to understand why people
were protesting and how the issue
could affect them. Part of why this ac-
tion was so effective as a narrative
framing device was that the WTO was
largely unknown to the U.S. public, so
activists could define many people’s
first impressions without having to
overcome preconceptions about the

Banner hung on Nov. 29,
1999, by the Ruckus
Society and Rainforest
Action Network in
Seattle, the day before
the mass protests shut
down the World Trade
Organization meeting.

Social change campaigns
aren’t usually framing new
issues, but rather working to
reframe existing ones. This
means taking on the existing
stories and control myths by
challenging assumptions and
shifting popular perception.

52 Re:Imagining Change

3.5 Reframing

The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.
~ Cesar Chavez

Social change campaigns aren’t usually framing new issues, but
rather working to reframe existing problems. is means taking on

the existing stories and control myths by challenging
assumptions and shifting popular perception.

Symbols, by their nature, are powerful memes
loaded with meaning, and can be very e�ective cap-
sules for a story. Like all memes, the meaning of a
symbol can change over time as it is reinterpreted, and
the meaning of the symbol is contested. e yellow rib-
bon is a rich example of both a control meme and of
reframing e�orts in the U.S. anti-war movement.

e yellow ribbon dates back to the U.S. Civil War
as a symbol of hope that loved ones would return un-
harmed. During the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-81,
the yellow ribbon was popularized and used as a sym-
bol of hope for the hostages’ safe return. In the first
Gulf War, the meaning of the yellow ribbon began to
shift to an association with the phrase “support our
troops.” is phrase’s meaning went beyond just con-
cern for the troops’ safety to include the idea that, if

you support the troops, you can’t criticize the war. is is a power-
ful control meme that was used to attack the peace movement (both
in 1990 and again in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion) by creating
an artificial dichotomy that frames opponents to the invasion of
Iraq as unpatriotic and unsupportive of the troops.

e yellow ribbon control meme frustrated many anti-war
activists with its ubiquity and untouchableness. Many tried to
challenge the symbol, but just writing “peace” on the same yellow
loop-shaped magnet doesn’t reframe its meaning. e yellow rib-
bon’s interpretation as support for the war remains the overar-
ching story.

Long-time creative activist and meme-maker Andrew Boyd
helped launch an alternative narrative by merging the yellow rib-
bon with the peace symbol. Combining what had previously been
opposing symbols—the anti-war peace symbol and the pro-war
yellow ribbon—the conflict has been reframed to show that being

A symbol created
by meme campaigner
Andrew Boyd and
eventually adopted
by Military Families
Speak Out as their

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 53

anti-war is also being pro-troops. is reframing challenges the
control meme by exposing the unstated assumption that support
for the troops means you can’t oppose the war. e new meme
finishes the sentiment “support the troops” with “bring them
home now.”

3.6 Characters
If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand
that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with
bodies and heartbeats.
~ Richard Bach

In the battle of the story, the issue of who tells the story is often
as important as the story itself. In the case of the peace ribbon
meme, who uses it, has been key to its success. It was adopted as
the logo of Military Families Speak Out,9 an organization of peo-
ple with family in the armed services who question the war.

Every social change story has lots of characters; deciding
which characters should be the focus is a significant organizing
and strategy question. For example, should narratives about
global warming emphasize polar bears, residents of South Pacific
island nations, urban youth of color who could get green energy
jobs, or all of the above?

Ask: Who is impacted? Who are the victims? Villains? Heroes?
Audiences naturally look for characters we can identify with.

Which characters do we sympathize with or relate to? ese char-
acters have the power to personalize the story and deepen the au-
dience’s connection.

e battle of the story is often the battle over who gets to
speak for the sympathetic characters. Do impacted people get to
speak for themselves? Power-holders sometimes frame their story
by casting the very people who are negatively impacted by their
plans as the characters in their story. Attacks on welfare are pre-
sented as benefiting working mothers. e timber industry uses
fears about forest fires as an excuse to “protect” public forest lands
by clear-cutting them. We are told corporate tax cuts are under-
taken on behalf of the unemployed. After the World Trade Organ-
ization talks collapsed in Seattle, the Economist magazine didn’t put
a sulking millionaire on the cover—they featured a starving child
and claimed the protests hurt the world’s poor. Time and time

54 Re:Imagining Change

again, unscrupulous power-hold-
ers employ Orwellian logic to hide
their agenda behind the stories of
real people who are more sympa-
thetic characters.

Farmers have been used as
symbols of wholesome Americana
for generations. When it comes to
food and agriculture they are
deeply trusted spokespeople.
SmartMeme has supported fam-
ily farmers challenging corporate
control of agriculture and unreg-
ulated genetic engineering of
food crops. But, as with many is-
sues, the battle of the story over
“who are the real farmers?” takes
center stage.

e biotech industry is con-
stantly trying to associate itself
with family farmers, despite the
fact that every major family farm-
ing organization in the world has
come out against the industry. Ad-
vertisements produced by the
biotechnology industry often fea-
ture a “farmer,” but he’s not a real
farmer—he’s an actor dressed up to
look like a farmer. e real farmers
are protesting with homemade

banners, as in the picture to the left of family farmers leading a
march with the organization Rural Vermont. But, to the average per-
son disconnected from farming communities, which image looks
more like a farmer, the iconic image from the ad, or the real farmers
attending a protest?

Herein lies one of the conundrums of waging the battle of the
story against media-savvy power-holders and their slick PR ma-
chines. When the impacted people are cast as characters in the power-
holder story, the fight often becomes a contest to assert who the real
impacted people are, and which side they are on. Grassroots organiz-
ing can win the battle of the story against multimillion-dollar

This advertisement for a pro-
biotech industry group uses
a “farmer” as a sympathetic

Real Vermont family farmers
marching against agricultural

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 55

propaganda efforts. But it requires an effective story-based strategy
to anchor the campaign and communicate the reality of the issue.

During their so-called War on Terror, the Bush administra-
tion constantly claimed to be speaking on behalf of “the troops”
and associated itself with the sympathetic character of the young
patriotic soldier serving in Iraq. Iraq Veterans Against the War
(IVAW)10 offers a powerful example of the battle of the story
amplifying the voices of those most impacted.

IVAW is led by veterans and is organizing military service
members and veterans to end the occupation of Iraq, win repara-
tions for the Iraqi people, and gain full medical benefits for all vet-
erans. In March 2008, IVAW organized Winter Soldier—Iraq &
Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations, four days of
eyewitness testimony from veterans, aid workers, civilians, and
journalists who have been in the midst of the occupations of Iraq
and Afghanistan. e hearings, which were webcast and widely
covered by international media, earned coverage in military pub-
lications such as Stars & Stripes and Army Times. By promoting
their own boots-on-the-ground expertise about the occupations,
IVAW has been a key force in changing the story about the war
and mobilizing resistance by GI’s and veterans.

Organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War in March 2008,
Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the
Occupations was four days of testimony by veterans, active-duty
military service members, and civilians with firsthand knowledge
of the U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

56 Re:Imagining Change

rough their organizing efforts and the Winter Solider
process, IVAW is emerging as a new protagonist in the anti-war
story. e hearings resulted in an exponential rise in both IVAW’s
notoriety and membership. eir ongoing efforts are building a
base in the military community, a key constituency to ending the
current occupations, and hopefully preventing future wars.

3.7 Imagery: Show Don’t Tell
If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story.
~ Barbara Green

Anyone who has dabbled in creative writing has probably heard
the expression “show don’t tell.” is adage encourages us to use
images, metaphor, visualization, and the five senses to illustrate
what is important in the story as if we were painting a picture with

our words. Unfortunately, the facts
often do not speak for themselves.
While the veracity of your claims is es-
sential, facts only serve as the support-
ing details for the story, not the hook
that makes the story compelling.

Another important aspect of “show
don’t tell” is to present your story in such
a way as to allow the audience to reach
their own conclusion rather than “telling”
your audience what to believe.

For example, there are over 10,000
different chemicals in cosmetics and per-
sonal care products; fewer than 11% of
them have ever been tested for effects on
human health and the environment.11
ere is mounting evidence that many of
these chemicals could be linked to birth
defects, miscarriages, and even cancer.
e Campaign for Safe Cosmetics12 is a
coalition of women’s, environmental jus-
tice, and health organizations working to
remove known toxins from everyday per-
sonal-care products and to create a can-
cer-free economy.

SmartMeme designed this
advertisement for the Safe
Cosmetics Coalition.

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 57

The information about cancer-causing cosmetics could be
presented with long lists of chemical formulas and graphs of
data from toxicity studies, but the Safe Cosmetics Campaign
knew that would not communicate the message. A simple val-
ues-based narrative and image shows what’s at stake and
proved much more effective at putting pressure on the cos-
metics executives.

e ad smartMeme created uses the sympathetic character of
a child, and the metaphor of “playing with matches,” to invoke the
frame and values of parental responsibility as a challenge to irre-
sponsible corporate behavior.

e ad appeared in USA Today when 20,000 chemical and cos-
metics industry leaders were gathered in New York City for a con-
ference. SmartMeme chose USA Today because the paper is delivered
free to every hotel room throughout the conference area. e same
day the ad ran, activists from the campaign infiltrated the confer-
ence and left copies lying around everywhere. Soon the campaign
was the talk of the conference, particularly since the ad named three
specific companies and demanded that they reformulate their prod-
ucts to remove toxic chemicals. e ad was targeted to a specific au-
dience of industry leaders, and within several weeks of the
conference all three of the companies had started to respond to the
campaign’s demands.

3.8 Foreshadowing
You throw an anchor into the future you want to build, and you pull
yourself along by the chain.
~ John O’Neal

An underlying premise of modern advertising is that people can
only go somewhere that they have already been in their minds.
is rings true for social change messages too! Our stories must
offer a compelling vision of the changes we want.

Foreshadowing is a literary device used by an author to
drop subtle hints about plot developments to come later in the
story. Incorporating foreshadowing into social change narra-
tives means offering vision, posing a solution to the problem,
and constantly referencing the future. How will the conf lict
come to resolution? What is our vision for a solution to this
problem? What does a better world look, feel, and taste like?

58 Re:Imagining Change


A brand is an ongoing and evolving relationship
that is shaped by the perceptions of its audience.
A brand is not what a company says it is—it’s
what everyone but the company says it is. So just
because a corporation owns a brand, they do not
have the power to dictate their brand. e brand
—and its vulnerability to attack in the media—
can be an Achilles heel for corporations that rely
on their public image to sell products. is is
what makes brand busting—efforts to associate
the brand of a specific company with the truth of
the injustices they are perpetrating—an effective
way to target corporations on social issues.

For example, when the omnipresent McDon-
ald’s golden arches were combined with the slogan
“McSlavery” by the farmworkers of the Coalition
of Immokalee Workers, or Chevron’s slogan “Peo-
ple Do” was rewritten to say “Do people kill for

oil?” the power of the cor-
porate images were turned
against themselves. Ad-
busters magazine founder
Kalle Lasn has dubbed this
practice of juxtaposing im-
ages or co-opting slogans as
“culture jamming” or “subvertising”13

In recent years, brand busting tactics have
been artfully used by corporate accountability
campaigns in many sectors. Targeting a brand
can be a powerful form of narrative aikido since
it uses a corporation’s own advertising budget
against it by hijacking the imagery already fa-
miliar to their customers to present a social
change message. Since the long-term effect of
attacks on the brand can’t be easily measured
(and therefore can’t be easily dismissed), brand
busting can help a campaign get the attention
of top corporate decision makers.

This smartMeme de-
signed “Mac & Genes
box” targeted the Kraft
Corporation’s flagship
brand as part of a na-
tional campaign pres-
suring Kraft to stop
using genetically engi-
neered ingredients in
their products.

Activists from
Chicago’s Genewise
used Halloween as an
opportunity to go
Trick-or-Treating in the
gated community
where Kraft Foods CEO
Betsey Holden lived.

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 59

When we forecast the future we desire, we invite people to
imagine and embrace a visionary solution.

Foreshadowing is essential for taking on one of the most com-
mon control mythologies: T.I.N.A., or ere-is-No-Alternative. Al-
though this meme was coined by Margaret atcher—the leader of
Britain’s Conservative Party throughout the 1980s—it is un-
doubtedly an ancient strategy of manipulation. e T.I.N.A. nar-
rative acknowledges that the controversial proposal in question is
not ideal, but it is the only realistic option, and so it must move
forward. is makes it vulnerable to a foreshadowing strategy
that offers viable suggestions for other ways of doing things.

With smartMeme’s support, a coalition of tribes, environmen-
talists, and commercial fisherman in northern California’s Klamath
River basin used the battle of the story to create a common story
that foreshadowed a restored river. e groups had united to de-
mand the removal of outdated dams that had severely impacted both
the local indigenous cultures and the commercial fishing industry
by limiting salmon habitat. Many of the dams had been in place for
over 50 years, and were so accepted as an enduring reality that many
residents couldn’t imagine that they would ever be removed.

A direct-mail piece made by smartMeme for several Native
American tribes and their allies in northern California. It was
mailed to all tribal members as part of the campaign to “Bring
the Salmon Home” by removing dams on the Klamath River.

60 Re:Imagining Change

e campaign’s meme “Bring the Salmon Home” encapsulated the
coalition’s vision of restoring the salmon’s full traditional habitat,
and communicated the interdependence between the cultures in the
basin (both native and non-native) and a healthy salmon run.

e campaign mail piece is an example of foreshadowing, and
effectively frames the conflict by showing-not-telling. e mailer
doesn’t say, “Dams are bad.” Rather it explains the impact of the dams
on the salmon, and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

e native peoples of the Klamath basin continue to work in
alliance with commercial fishermen, environmentalists, and,
increasingly, the farming community. eir campaign has shifted
the story beyond a debate about whether or not to remove the
dams, and into a conversation about how many dams to remove,
and how to pay for it.

3.9 Designing a Framing Narrative
Beneath words and logic are emotional connections that largely
direct how we use our words and logic.
~ Jane Roberts

Once your group has identified the elements of your story (conflict,
characters, images, foreshadowing) the next step is to identify your
own underlying assumptions. ese assumptions are the shared val-
ues (e.g. “equity”) and core beliefs (e.g. “All people deserve equal ac-
cess to opportunity”) of your organization, coalition, or alliance.

With your core values clarified and the elements of your story
in place, your next step is to synthesize these elements into a fram-
ing narrative. is overarching narrative should be both com-
pelling to your target audience(s), and challenge the key underlying
assumptions that are preventing the dominant narrative from
changing. is framing narrative is an internal, working document
that can help your group develop messaging strategy and tactics as
you conduct the campaign. e framing narrative provides the fod-
der for talking points, slogans, posters, or other materials.

e process of developing the framing narrative (and boiling it
down) often requires considerable creativity, experimentation, and
collective commitment. e most important thing to remember is
that all the elements of the story should reinforce each other to
connect seamlessly into a coherent story. As you brainstorm im-
ages, develop slogans, and hone your messaging, you must adhere

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 61

to a common narrative logic: a coher-
ent, cumulative narrative arc that pro-
duces cognitive consonance (as
opposed to cognitive dissonance) in
the minds of your audience. In other
words, the story has got to make sense!
e message should be self-evident.

Maintaining a common narrative
logic takes discipline, especially when
you have a diverse group with many cre-
ative ideas. You must be vigilant about matching (not mixing)
metaphors, choosing the right meta-verb(s) (See Section 3.10) to
communicate the direction of motion in the story, and developing
the appropriate spokespeople as leading characters in the narrative.

Designing your framing narrative is ultimately a political
process: What is inside the frame? Who is not? What must be em-
phasized to offer a new angle on our issue? What can’t be left out
or compromised as your community wages it’s struggle?

is is the hard work of story-based strategy. rough this
process, your group may choose to cut your issue differently, de-
pending on whom you are trying to influence. ese decisions can
ripple out through every aspect of the organization. For many
grassroots groups with limited resources, this process leads to
hard decisions about what to prioritize.

As story-based strategists, we aren’t just telling stories—we
are changing stories. More often than not, this means challeng-
ing stereotypes and dominant cultural assumptions. ere are
strategic considerations and values-based choices about how to
meet short-term campaign objectives, while also achieving
longer-term, transformational goals of shifting the dominant cul-
ture. ese are political calculations you must make within your
own circumstance and principles.

is is why smartMeme emphasizes that “messaging” is not
an afterthought; story-based strategy is at the very heart of the
work, and the framing narrative you develop will have effects on
many areas: campaigning, organizing and alliance building,
fundraising, morale, group cohesion, etc.

e battle of the story tool is not a one-time worksheet–it is
a guide for ongoing strategy development as you create your cam-
paign’s messages, undertake interventions, and encapsulate and
spread your story with effective memes.

Designing your framing
narrative is ultimately a
political process: What is
inside the frame? Who is not?
What must be emphasized
and what can’t be left out or

62 Re:Imagining Change

3.10 Action Logic & Meta-Verbs

Change will come. As always, it is just a matter of who determines
what that change will be.
~ Winona LaDuke

e concepts of action logic and meta-verbs are critical to de-
signing your framing narrative. Action logic means that the ac-
tions you take have an overarching, self-evident narrative logic
that speaks for itself and tells a story. e action logic is how an
action makes sense politically to an outside observer. Having clear
action logic means that people who witness the action will be able
to understand the significance of what is happening, even if they
don’t have any background information. Good action logic can
help your message become more memetic and creates the type of
powerful stories that move hearts and change minds.

Action logic is frequently summarized through the shorthand
of a single action-oriented meta-verb that is part of how the action
or campaign is publicized. e meta-verb you choose —Protest!
Rally against! Shut down! Mobilize! Stop! Transform!—will likely
become the benchmark of the action’s success, not only to the par-
ticipants, but also to media observers and the general public. Chose
your meta-verb(s) wisely! Your meta-verbs should communicate a
clear action logic that anchors your action in a broader narrative
about your intentions, demands, and world-view.

ere are many famous examples of action logic with clear
meta-verbs: e Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 (“Boycott!”),
e WTO Protests in 1999 (“Shut down the WTO!”), and “Levitate
the Pentagon” of 1967. (Well, sometimes the action logic takes
some imagination!)

Another example of effective action logic was the “Capitol
Climate Action” in March 2009. A coalition of groups fighting
global climate change converged on the Capitol Coal Plant in
Washington, D.C. The organizers had put out a public call for
mass civil disobedience to nonviolently shut down the plant by
blocking the gates. This target provided built-in symbolism and
implicit story-based strategy: The coal plant provides the Capi-
tol building’s electricity and therefore is a potent metaphor for
the coal industry’s influence on lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The
action was designed to draw attention to the fact that our re-
liance on coal is fueling climate destabilization, and causing

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 63

massive destruction and human
rights abuses: From mountain
top removal mining, to water
polluting slurry, to poisoning
the air for the low income
African Americans who live
near the plant. Symbolically the
plant provided a perfect stage
for the action’s unfolding nar-
rative by offering photogenic
images of mass protest shutting
down a coal plant, framed be-
tween the smokestack and the
Capitol dome.

However, while the action
logic was poetic, the tactic of civil
disobedience was distilled to a meta-verb of “get arrested,” and this
logic unraveled when the police declined to arrest anyone. While the
action still met its political goals of raising the issue in the national
media and building a stronger grassroots movement, for many of
the first-time protestors, there was an anti-climactic effect to the
lack of arrest.14 It’s important to remember that framing isn’t just
for the media—it’s for the base too. Making the frames consistent
and resonant—in the narrative and on the ground—is essential for
successful, strong, and ongoing mobilization.

3.11 Going Viral: Meme Campaigns
In every ear it spread, on every tongue it grew.
~ Alexander Pope

Once you have used the battle of the story tool to deconstruct
the story you want to change and design the framing narrative
you want to tell, the next step is to figure out how to spread your
message. Part of this process is to encapsulate your story in pow-
erful memes. Most successful campaigns rely on a few “sticky”
memes to spread their story and build support amongst a wider

A social change effort focused on spreading a new idea or chang-
ing the terms of a debate is essentially a meme campaign.15 Some re-
cent examples of meme campaigns include: fair trade, conflict

Action logic in practice: National
Mobilization for Climate Justice at
the Capitol coal-fired power plant in
Washington, D.C. (March 2009).

diamonds, sweatshop-free, liv-
ing wage, and Live Strong
(which popularized the meme
of colored bracelets).

inking of campaigns in
terms of memes opens up new
possibilities and opportunities
for organizing. Organizing is
about creating a structure to
plug people into, and the right
meme can act as a viral organiz-
ing structure. e center of a
meme campaign is not the
headquarters or campaign lead-

ership, and the goal is not building organizational membership in
the traditional sense. Instead, the center of the meme campaign is
the narrative and the contagious self-replicating meme capsules that
spread the story.

e meme, by its very nature, mutates over time and
expresses itself in myriad formations as it moves through existing
networks and creates new ones. A good meme campaign is designed
so that people can take the meme and “run with it” at the grassroots
level without the meme (and message) losing its intent and integrity.

At its core, an effective meme campaign requires strong grass-
roots organizing and a flexible, network-based structure in order
to flourish. e primary role of the network’s main nodes (which
are likely organizers, but may be unexpected people, media
sources, or events) is to encourage the replication of the meme.
Organizers act as weavers of the decentralized network web,
spreading information, connecting people, gathering feedback,
and offering support.

A great example of a meme campaign was created in the lead-up
to the 2000 elections, when economic justice activists set out to
show the need for campaign finance reform by exposing the undue
influence of big money contributors on both parties. ey created
Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), a faux movement of billionaires. ey
took on billionaire personas like Phil T. Rich and Hallie Burton who
would protest at protests and get major media attention with mes-
sages like “Widen the income gap” and “Tax the poor, not us!”

Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) was essentially a street theater
concept to transmit a meme suggesting that Big Money owned

64 Re:Imagining Change

The Billionaires meme campaign in its
2009 iteration in the healthcare debate.

3. Winning the Battle of the Story 65

both candidates. e organ-
izers provided some basic
resources—core messages,
costuming tips, and adapt-
able guerilla theater scenar-
ios that would allow the
meme to spread virally
without losing its core
meaning. e oxymoron of
billionaires protesting, as
well as the “Bush OR Gore”
tagline, was so at odds with
the conventional framing
of the election that it cap-
tured the attention of peo-
ple and the media. e
campaign itself was particu-
larly effective because it was
accessible: anyone could be-
come a Billionaire. Activists
around the country tailored
the tactic to their own needs
throughout the election,
and spread the meme with
in-character radio spots,
protests, and stunts at can-
didate events—delivering a
hard-hitting political mes-
sage with humor.17

In 2004 they were back
as Billionaires for Bush, with
slogans like “Four More
Wars” and “Leave No Bil-
lionaire Behind.” e cam-
paign mobilized thousands
of people and attracted mas-
sive media attention using humor and storytelling. e Billionaires
meme continues to be a useful platform for creative organizing and
has morphed into other campaigns like Billionaires for Big Oil, Bil-
lionaires for Bailouts, and Billionaires for Wealthcare (Not Healthcare).

Critical Mass bike rides are a meme
campaign that has spread around the
globe over the past decade. The simple
idea of the meme is to create a ritual
where bike riders gather at a specific
time and place (often the last Friday of
the month) to cycle en masse through
rush-hour traffic. It was originally
intended to build visibility for the bike
community and demand changes in
transit policy to make cities less car-
dependent and more bike-friendly.
Military analysts speculating on the
potential battlefield applications of
decentralized decision-making have cited
Critical Mass.16 This shows that
leaderless movements built around a
meme that is flexible and adaptive to
local conditions can attract attention
from some powerful quarters.

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agita-
tion, are people who want crops without ploughing the
ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they
want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The
struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it
may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes noth-
ing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

~ Frederick Douglass

4. Points of Intervention 67

4.1 Social Change as Intervention

Imagination is intervention, an act of defiance. It alters belief.
~ David Mura

So you want to take action to change a story that is hurting your
community…but how? Whether you’re targeting a specific brand
narrative put forward by a powerful corporation or resisting
racist policies rooted in generations of oppressive assumptions,
it can be a daunting task to take your story off the flipchart and
into the streets.

You have used the battle of the story tool to deconstruct the
story you want to change and to synthesize your framing
narrative into some potent memes you want to spread. e next
dimension of the story-based strategy model is taking action at
points of intervention (POI).

SmartMeme defines intervention as: an action meant to change
the course of events. Intervention is
deliberate interference or interaction
with a previously existing narrative,
audience, social structure, system,
venue, or space.

Points of intervention are
specific places in a system where an
action can effectively interrupt and
influence the narrative of that system
and build momentum for change.

Social movements traditionally

4. Points of Intervention

When a direct action
intervention is effective, it
shifts power relationships in
the moment it is happening
and also builds lasting
movement by leaving an
imprint in our imaginations of
new possibilities.

intervene at physical points in the systems that shape our lives,
otherwise known as “direct action.” e locations of these types
of interventions have included: the point of production where
goods are produced (such as a factory or laboratory), the point of
destruction where resources are extracted or pollution is dumped
(such as a logging road or toxic waste site), the point of
consumption where products are purchased (such as a chain store
or a lunch counter) and the point of decision where the power-
holders are located (such as a corporate headquarters or a
congressional office).

Direct action is an age-old method of taking action to make pos-
itive changes in the world, from a community putting up their own
radio transmitter to give voice to local residents, to mass civil dis-
obedience to shut down a corporate war profiteer. Direct action is a
general term for any action where people step out of their tradi-
tional, scripted roles (be it as passive consumers, marginalized no-
bodies, or apathetic spectators) and challenge the dominant

68 Re:Imagining Change

points of assumption








Points of Intervention are the places in a system where taking
action can make change. Social movements have a long history
of taking action where production, consumption, destruction, or
decision-making is happening. Story-based strategy helps us
expand these efforts to envision interventions into the narratives
that shape popular understanding by taking action at the point
of assumption.

4. Points of Intervention 69

expectation of obedience. When a di-
rect action intervention is effective, it
shifts power relationships in the mo-
ment it is happening and also builds
lasting movement by leaving an im-
print in our imaginations of new pos-
sibilities. Direct action is often a tactic
within a broader strategy, but it also
represents a political ethic of creating
fundamental change at the deepest lev-
els of power relations.

Social change forces don’t have equal access to the privately
owned infrastructure of mass media and communication, so we
need to tell our story creatively through our actions. Narrative
power analysis reminds us that interventions at physical points
can go beyond disrupting a system to pose a deeper challenge to
its underlying assumptions and legitimacy. is holds true for a
physical system such as sweatshop manufacturing or an ideolog-
ical system like racism, sexism, or homophobia.

rough the lens of story-based strategy, we can see points
of intervention that operate not only in physical space, but also in
narrative space. Story-based strategy is based in the notion that
narratives operate on underlying assumptions, and so in order to
change stories, we need to shift assumptions. Actions at a point of
assumption are actions with the explicit goal of changing the
story. ese types of actions can often be combined with an ac-
tion at a physical point to make the intervention more effective.

The 1937 Flint sit-down strike
is one of the great moments in
U.S. labor history. By
occupying and stopping
production at three General
Motors factories for over six
weeks, workers won
recognition of their union, the
United Auto Workers.

Narrative Power Analysis
reminds us that interventions
at physical points can go
beyond disrupting a system
to pose a deeper challenge to
its underlying assumptions
and legitimacy.

4.2 Point of Production

If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill;
Fleets and armies of the nation, will at their command stand still.
~ Joe Hill, labor organizer executed by the state of Utah in 1915

Action at the point of production is the foundational insight of
the labor movement. Workers organize to target the economic
system where it directly affects them, and where that system is
most vulnerable—at the site of production. Strikes, picket lines,
work slowdowns, and factory take-overs are all point of produc-
tion actions. Other points of production are factory farms or fa-
cilities where new products or technologies are created.

4.3 Point of Destruction
So bleak is the picture… that the bulldozer
and not the atomic bomb may turn out to be
the most destructive invention of the 20th
~ Philip Shabecoff

e point of destruction is where harm
or an injustice is actually occurring in its
most blatant form. Intervention at this
point can halt the practice in the mo-
ment, as well as dramatize the larger
battle of the story around the issue. It
could be the place where the raw materi-
als to fuel manufacturing come from,
such as mining, fossil-fuel drilling, or
logging. e point of destruction can
also be the place where the waste from
the point of production is dumped—an
effluent pipe in a river, diesel emissions
along a trucking route, or a leaky toxic
waste dump. From remote rural and

wilderness areas, to polluted inner cities, impacted communities
frequently mobilize to take action at the point of destruction.

70 Re:Imagining Change

Members of the Penan
indigenous community in the
Malaysian state of Sarawak
blockade an illegal logging
road built in their traditional
homelands. The Penan’s
movement to protect the
rainforests helped inspire
North American direct action
techniques of tree sitting and
road blockades to stop
industrial logging.

4. Points of Intervention 71

It is critical to bring public attention to the point of
destruction because it is almost always (by design) out of the
public eye. In many cases, the point of destruction is made
invisible by distance, oppressive assumptions, or ignorance.
Impacted communities generally have less political power, so
point of destruction actions are most effective when they
capture public attention or are supported with solidarity actions
at other points of intervention.

4.4 Point of Consumption
Consumerism turns us all into junk-ies.
~ Earon Davis

e point of consumption is the location
of everyday interaction with a product or
service. It becomes particularly relevant
when the product in question is linked to
injustice. Point of consumption actions
are the traditional arena of consumer
boycotts and storefront demonstrations.
Examples include: sit-ins at the
Woolworth’s lunch counters to protest
legalized racial segregation, efforts to
spread memes like “sweat-shop free,”
“dolphin-safe tuna,” and “fair trade” in
the marketplace, or protesting oil wars at
gas stations. e point of consumption
is often the most visible point of
intervention in our consumerist society.
Point of consumption actions can also
be a good way to get the attention of
corporate power-holders when
lawmakers aren’t listening.

Over the past two decades, “market
campaigns” have emerged as a model
that aims to shift the dynamics of an
industry by shutting down the market
for destructive products.1 is strategy
goes beyond brand busting and operates
with a comprehensive analysis of the

Human rights and economic
justice activists protest
sweatshops at Gap stores. The
globalized economy relocates
the vast majority of
manufacturing to the Global
South—meaning poor wages
and abusive working
conditions are far from the
public eye in the U.S. Actions
at the point of consumption
can illuminate injustices at
other points in the system.

marketplace and its key institutional players. Campaigners have
effectively pressured retailers, investors, shareholders, wholesale
suppliers, subcontractors, and other links in the chain of
production, destruction, and consumption, to meet their demands.
Human rights activists have confronted retailers selling sweatshop
products. Forest defenders have pressured companies to stop
purchasing wood and paper from old growth forests. Public health
crusaders have targeted cosmetics and chemical companies with
actions aimed at impacting brand profiles and eroding market
share. Intervention at the point of consumption is often a key
element of a market campaign.

4.5 Point of Decision
Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the
frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement
or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.
~ Saul Alinsky

e point of decision is the location of the power-holders who can
meet the campaign’s demand. Whether taking over a slumlord’s
office, bursting into a corporate boardroom, or protesting at the state
capital, many successful campaigns have used some form of action at
the point of decision to put pressure on the key decision makers.

Sometimes a point of decision action can reframe an issue
by unmasking hidden interests and challenging assumptions
about who is to blame for a problem. Some successful examples
include: protesting global poverty at World Bank meetings,
calling for an end to agricultural sweatshops at the fast food
chain Burger King headquarters, and targeting executives at an

72 Re:Imagining Change

Over 50,000 people protested at the Seattle
meetings of the World Trade Organization in
November 1999 because they understood
that the unelected and unaccountable WTO
was going to be making decisions that
affected their lives. These protests
illuminated a new point of decision in the
global economy.

4. Points of Intervention 73

auto show for their failure to address global warming emissions.
In these cases, intervention at the point of decision also aims
at the point of assumption.

4.6 Point of Assumption
People do not change with the times, they change the times.
~ PK Shaw

e traditional four points of intervention are interventions in
physical space. ese points focus on the tangible gears of the ma-
chinery that drives injustice, oppression, and destruction. His-
torically, social movements have succeeded in winning changes
when these physical actions have also changed the story around
the issue. is means reframing the
problem, building a base of commit-
ted people, and winning a critical
mass of support for solutions. e end
result is a re-patterning of popular
consciousness to embrace a new story.

Shifting the debate, moving the
center of gravity, and changing the
story are all metaphors that describe a
cultural shift that creates the space for
political changes to emerge. Story-
based strategy is an exploration of how social movements can
operate in the realm of narrative to create a shared story for in-
terpreting political issues that inform the understanding of a crit-
ical mass of society.2

Applying a narrative power analysis helps us scout for
the specific points of intervention in the narratives that we
want to change; this is fundamentally about identifying and
targeting underlying assumptions that sustain the status quo.
These interventions aim to pass through the filters of their

Shifting the debate, moving
the center of gravity, and
changing the story are all
metaphors to describe a
cultural shift that creates the
space for political changes to

� Offer new futures
� Reframe debates
� Subvert spectacles
� Repurpose existing narratives
� Make the invisible visible

audience and change their stor y. We call this action at the
point of assumption.

Assumptions are the unstated parts of the story that you have
to believe in order to believe the story is true. ey are the glue
that holds the narrative together, and when they are
exposed and found in contradiction to the lived experience or val-
ues of the audience, they are vulnerable. Action to expose and tar-
get these assumptions can change the story. Point of
assumption actions can take many forms: exposing hypocrisy
or lies, reframing the issue, amplifying the voices of previously si-
lenced characters in the story, or offering an alternative vision.

4.7 Offering New Futures
A pile of rocks ceases to be a pile of rocks when somebody
contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.
~ Antoine de St. Exupéry

One place to find points of assumption is at the point in the
story where the endings become contestable—where effective
action can forecast a different future. Such vision-driven actions
are not new, and arguably have always been a staple of successful
social change. However, by understanding them as interventions
at a point of assumption we can focus on what has made them
successful and work to replicate those aspects.

One of the most common assumptions in power-holders’
stories is some version of the “ere Is No Alternative” (TINA)3
control myth (See Section 3.8). In these instances, the effective
articulation of a plausible story about a different future can be a
powerful challenge to the status quo narrative. Actions that
contest a seemingly pre-determined future are one type of action
at the point of assumption.

A few examples of this type of intervention include:

� Activists confront biotechnology and the corporate takeover
of the food system by transforming an empty lot into a gar-
den where neighbors can grow healthy, organic food.

� Homes Not Jails activists challenge city officials to provide
more housing for low income families by occupying an
abandoned building to create a place for people to live.

74 Re:Imagining Change

4. Points of Intervention 75

� Public housing residents pushing for a better childcare
space take action at the local government office, and
instead of just doing a sit-in, they transform the office into
the day-care center the community needs.

e fundamental question for these types of actions is: “What
if…?” Even if the action is a symbolic foreshadowing (rather than
a concrete plan), it can still challenge the status quo
narrative by offering glimpses of alternatives. is type of
intervention can open up the political imagination to the
possibility of a real solution. Intervention at the point of
assumption can reclaim public space for the discussion of a prob-
lem untethered from the confines of the power-holder’s fram-
ing—introducing new ideas, new possibilities, new solutions,
even new identities and ways of being.

4.8 Reframing Debates
Change looks impossible when you start, and looks inevitable after
you’ve finished.
~ Bob Hunter

In 1981, environmentalists in the western United States were
fighting to defend wilderness areas from the intrusions of
industrial mega-projects like giant dams. e newly formed radi-
cal ecology network Earth First! was thinking bigger than the usual
protest at the point of destruction. ey wanted to challenge the
deep-seated narrative of technological
progress “conquering” nature. ey knew
that they had to confront the assumption
that industrial mega-projects like giant dams
were permanent immovable structures, and
foreshadow a future of undoing damage to
the planet. ey chose intervention at the

In 1981, environmental visionaries “cracked”
the Glen Canyon Dam to challenge the
assumption that mega-development projects
had to be permanent. This intervention
helped reframe the debate around
wilderness preservation.

Glen Canyon Dam, the second highest concrete arch dam in the
United States that dams the Colorado River in Arizona.

On the anniversary of the Glen Canyon Dam’s opening, they
unfurled a huge black plastic banner down the face of the dam,
visually creating a giant crack, and foreshadowing a day when
dams would be removed and rivers restored.4

Until their iconic action, the industrial paradigm of domi-
nating nature had rendered the question of removing a mega-dam
unthinkable in the public debate. e “cracking” action
challenged that assumption and created a new political space.
Twenty-five years later, struggles against dams continue, but
today, dam removal is increasingly embraced as a solution to re-
store damaged fishing stocks and watersheds.

4.9 Subverting Spectacles
Disneyland is presented as imaginary in
order to make us believe that the rest is real.
~ Jean Baudrillard

In the wake of the 2004 U.S. election,
some creative organizers saw the oppor-
tunity to mobilize the disillusioned into
the longer-term progressive movement.
Turn Your Back on Bush was born: a point
of assumption action organized by Ac-
tion Mill (, with sup-
port from smartMeme.5

It was clear that the Bush administra-
tion’s draconian security measures would
limit protest along the 2005 Bush Inau-
gural parade route, and that it would be
difficult for traditional protest tactics to
break out of the media’s existing frame.

So their action mobilized over 5,000 people to covertly enter the
security zone, line the parade route, and then turn their backs on
the Presidential motorcade as it passed. is form of symbolic
protest may seem trivial (given the scale of Bush’s crimes against
humanity), but it was an action that was targeting a specific point
of assumption: the Bush narrative that the election had provided
a “mandate.”

76 Re:Imagining Change

Iraq Veterans were among
the over 5,000 people who
participated in the Turn
Your Back on Bush
mobilization at the 2005

4. Points of Intervention 77

e action logic of turning your back was clear. It was carried
out by thousands of people representing constituencies that Bush
was claiming to speak for: veterans, military families, farmers,
fire fighters, and people of faith. e action communicated a mass
symbolic withdrawal of consent for Bush’s presidency.

e action effectively subverted
the spectacle of Bush’s grand triumph
and launched a counter story about
the broad base of resistance to his
policies. e action received major
media coverage around the world, and
even entered popular culture con-
sciousness as the subject of a skit on
the popular television program Satur-
day Night Live.


In 2004 activists at the World Bank Bonds
Boycott teamed up with smartMeme to expose
the World Bank’s role in perpetuating poverty
and injustice. Protest outside the Bank’s annual
meetings had peaked several years earlier so it
was time for a new way to hijack the spectacle
of media attention around the Bank’s annual fall
meeting. So smartMeme posted the World Bank
for sale on the online auction website eBay. The
action logic of “Selling The World Bank on eBay”
was a humorous way to point out that, contrary
to its stated mission of ending poverty, the Bank
is actually for sale to the highest bidder. The

posting on eBay described the World Bank as “Antiquated: does not work” and
generated headlines like: “World Bank for sale on eBay – Activists say the bank ‘will do
a lot less harm to the world gathering dust in your attic” (CNN) and ‘World Bank’
Bidding Starts at 30 Cents on eBay (Reuters). The media stunt used carefully crafted
language on the eBay post to embed the substance of the issues into the action. For
instance, the asking price was $0.30, the average hourly wage of a sweatshop worker
in Haiti. This action used a humorous and very clear action logic to engage a serious
topic and garner high profile global press coverage for the campaign.

The action mobilized over
5,000 people to covertly
enter the security zone, line
the parade route and then
turn their backs on the
presidential motorcade as it

Turn Your Back on Bush’s simple and unique action logic al-
lowed the protest to go viral as a meme, and reports of people
greeting Bush with the turned backs of protest emerged from
around the country and the world.

4.10 Repurposing Pop(ular) Culture Narratives
If there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting
Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.
~ Phil Ochs

In a critique of the media-saturation of U.S. culture, it is easy to
forget that pop culture means popular. It is marketed en masse,

creating familiarity with the characters,
images and plots of contemporary pop
culture products such as movies, television
programs, commercials, internet sites,
popular music, and viral videos. Popular
culture can provide unique opportunities
for social change messages to “hitch a ride”
on specific memes, metaphors, and
cultural narratives.

Popular culture narratives are like
rivers running through mainstream culture. If a campaign can craft
a message that floats on the river—without the message being

78 Re:Imagining Change

Popular culture can
provide unique
opportunities for social
change messages to
“hitch a ride” on specific
memes, metaphors, and
cultural narratives.

U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos
captured global attention by making a Black
Power raised-fist salute on the medal stand
at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. This
famous action subverted the spectacle of the
medal ceremony to make a statement
rejecting racism and oppression. Both of
them were stripped of their medals, although
years later they were reinstated. Spectacles
are everywhere in the popular culture, and
can provide opportunities for point of
assumption interventions.

4. Points of Intervention 79

trivialized or submerged—then the campaign
can repurpose that existing narrative.

e imagery, characters, and narratives of
popular Hollywood movies like e Matrix, e Lord of the Rings,
and Harry Potter have all been borrowed and repurposed for social
change ends.

Activists used this strategy in a banner-hang action to protest
the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Frodo has failed—Bush has the
ring!” was the slogan seen by thousands on their morning
commutes on Interstate 40 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

e banner message played on the pre-release marketing hype
of the second installment in the blockbuster
Lord of the Rings trilogy. e pun was funny,
and so the action was a topic on morning
radio call-in shows and news programs.

e action caused such a stir that the
company whose ad appeared on the
billboard—the restaurant chain Hooters—
attempted to cash in on the publicity by
allowing the banner to stay up. ey played
on the story by placing ads on their local
restaurant kiosks saying, “Frodo has Failed.
Hooters has the WING!” in order to advertise
their chicken wings.

is was ironic (since part of the reason
the activists chose that particular billboard

In 2003 activists from Katuah Earth First! in Knoxville, TN won popular
support and massive media coverage for their anti-war action by tapping
into the popular narrative of the Lord of the Rings movies.

This repurposing of the omnipresent Got Milk?
ads became a meme that spread from anti-war
demonstrations to media and global popular
culture. The image was created by StreetRec
(, a
Chicago-based creative resistance collective.
The Bush administration denounced the image
as “hate speech.”

was to protest Hooters’ infamous sexism), but it spurred another
round of media conversation and water cooler jokes about the
action. e activists (one of whom was a smartMeme training
alumna!) were not arrested, and the banner stayed up for a
number of days and was seen by thousands of commuters.

To someone unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s books or the
Hollywood movies based on them, the banner message is
meaningless. But if you know the code you can easily decipher
that the banner means, “Bush is the ultimate evil and is a threat
to the entire world.” (Imagine the response if the activists had
chosen to write that message!) is example demonstrates how
pop culture can offer us detailed cultural codes that can help
popularize messages that otherwise would not get by the filters of
a mass audience (See Section 2.5 for more on narrative filters).

e danger in appropriating popular culture narratives is
that the references are ever changing and ephemeral. Some iconic
images and narratives become cultural touchstones that can stand
the test of time, while others are fleeting and are quickly replaced
by a flurry of media promoting the next Hollywood blockbuster or
consumer product. Pop culture may create a common meme for
millions of people, but it will soon be yesterday’s joke if you don’t
move fast. In this age of niche marketing and narrowcasting, it’s
important to understand who knows the specific pop culture
code you’re using and who doesn’t.

4.11 Making the Invisible visible
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look
at change.
~ Max Planck

After a story-based strategy session in 2007, Iraq Veterans
Against the War (IVAW) decided to take direct action at the
point of assumption and experiment with an intervention in
American iconography. Their goal was to change the story
from “we are at WAR in Iraq,” and therefore must stay until we
“win,” to “this is an OCCUPATION of Iraq,” and the presence of
U.S. troops is making the situation worse. They wanted the U.S.
public to understand that occupations inevitably create
violence and can never be “won.” The group decided to show
not tell what occupation really is. They called their series of

80 Re:Imagining Change

4. Points of Intervention 81

actions Operation First Casualty, after the notion that the first
casualty of war is truth.

IVAW intervened with reality street theater: veterans in
uniform went on patrol in U.S. cities as if they were in Iraq,
including simulating crowd control actions and civilian arrest
operations. e actions were an effort to show the U.S. public

Iraq Veterans Against the War
make the invisible impacts of the
U.S. occupation visible to
passersby, using the iconic
backdrops of Washington and New
York. Operation First Casualty was
their intervention to re-pattern
assumptions about what the U.S.
occupation of Iraq really looks like.


Surfacing Assumptions:
What are some assumptions in the dominant culture you think need to
be changed? Make a list. You can carry this assumption list with you and
keep a running tab of times when they show up, or when you surface
new ones.

Choose one assumption to work with for the moment. Where does this
assumption “show up” for you? When and where have you encountered
it? Are there institutions where it lives? Are there ways it is felt in popu-
lar culture?

Now think about actions you could take to challenge that assumption and
change the story. Are there physical points of intervention that could
expose this assumption? Are there spectacles where it could be sub-
verted? Are there new futures that could be foreshadowed? What is invis-
ible that must be made visible? Let your imagination help you think big…

what occupation looks like and feels like, and to create cognitive
dissonance by using the setting of iconic places like Times Square
in New York City and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

IVAW knew that simply telling people that the occupation is
undemocratic and oppressive wasn’t enough. ey wanted to give
the public an experience of occupation by creating memorable
images of what it would look like in the U.S. ese interventions
powerfully demonstrated the principle of making the invisible
visible. While the action took an emotional toll for some of the
vets who participated, it was a radical act of real world culture
jamming. Operation First Casualty dramatically contrasted IVAW’s
first-hand experiences of Iraq with the Bush administration’s

82 Re:Imagining Change

2. Narrative Power Analysis 83


The realm of strikes, picket
lines. Factory occupations, crop
lands, and agricultural
actions, etc.

Resource extraction such as
logging, mines, etc. Point of
toxic discharge, etc.

The realm of consumer boy-
cotts and markets campaigns.
Places were customers can be
reached. Chain stores, super-
markets, etc.

Location of targeted decision
maker. Corporate H.Q.,
slumlord’s office, etc.

Challenging underlying as-
sumptions & control mytholo-
gies, subverting spectacles,
contesting futures, intervening
in popular culture…


Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay
siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it.
With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our
joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness—and our ability to
tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones
we’re being brainwashed to believe.

~ Arundhati Roy at the 2003 World Social Forum

5. Changing the Story 85

Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
~ Sun Tzu

5.1 Strategic Improvisation
us far, this manual has explored and enunciated various aspects
of a story-based strategy approach. e foundational framework
is a narrative power analysis: viewing social change efforts and
power relationships through the lens of story. e elements of
story are a tool to deconstruct the narratives we want to change,
and construct the story of our own vision. We have also examined
memes, and looked at how they can carry control mythologies as
well as encapsulate and spread social change messages.

In Section III, we distinguished between mobilizing and
persuasion narratives and offered techniques for waging the battle
of the story. Section IV examined the
points of intervention and presented
ideas for action at the point of
assumption to reframe narratives and
shift popular understanding of an issue.

is manual is only an intro-
duction to these ideas, and there is
certainly a need for deeper thinking
and many more applications and
experiments to try out in the field. e
methodologies in this manual are
most effective when used together,

5. Changing the Story

Strategy is not a rigid set of
instructions. Effective
strategic practice requires
reflective, thoughtful
leadership, and making
choices when faced with
developing situations. In
other words, there is always
an improvisational element.

but different campaigns and situations will require different

We believe that social change innovation is emergent and
thus requires the practice of improvisation. Effective change
agents bring a background of skills and experience, a strategic
framework, and an awareness of the present conditions to inform
how they act within a range of options that best fit the situation.
To be successful at improvisation (be it in cooking, hip-hop, or ac-
tivism) requires resourcefulness, creativity, and a stash of good
ideas. Improvisational forays are often the edges of yet unseen

SmartMeme’s approach recognizes that a successful strategy
is not only a premeditated plan that emerges from analysis—it
also must evolve in a real-world context of changing conditions.
Strategy is not a rigid set of instructions. Effective strategic
practice requires reflective, thoughtful leadership, and making
choices when faced with developing situations. In other words,
there is always an improvisational element.

In this spirit, we want to point out that there is no one sure-
fire prescription to design and implement a story-based strategy.
ere is no one magic meme or universal blueprint for success.
e term story-based strategy may be new, but the techniques of
storytelling are ancient, and the body of work on social movement
strategy is vast.

In this section, we present four case studies that exemplify
some of the methods of story-based strategy we’ve been
discussing. First, a widely known historic example: the
Greenpeace “Save the Whales” campaign. Two other case studies
come from the smartMeme collective’s own work applying story-
based strategy on the ground with the grassroots organizing
campaigns of Rural Vermont and Protect Our Waters. Both offer
rich examples of the battle of the story in action. e final case
study is a campaign that smartMeme has not been intimately
involved in shaping, but we have been honored to support. We
have learned a great deal from the Coalition of Immokalee
Workers and their successful efforts to win better wages and
working conditions for farmworkers in southwest Florida. Each of
these examples offers lessons and inspiration about how to apply
story-based strategy ideas in real world struggles. We hope these
stories inspire you to experiment with narrative in your own
efforts to change the world.

86 Re:Imagining Change

Greenpeace: Save the Whales

Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” campaign is a great example of
changing the story, and is credited with shifting public perceptions
of whales.1 When Greenpeace began the campaign in the mid-
1970s, industrial whaling was driving many species of whale to the
point of extinction, and there was little
public awareness about the issue.
Greenpeace was a new organization,
and they had already successfully
mixed media-savvy, nonviolent direct
action, and the Quaker tradition of
“bearing witness” into a grassroots
campaign against nuclear testing.
When they set out to challenge the
whaling industry, they knew they
would need to push their new tactics
even further. Greenpeace knew they
could never intervene at every point of destruction and save every
whale, so they set out to change the way the dominant culture
thought of whaling—to change the story of whaling.

Greenpeace campaigners asked themselves, what is the
popular understanding of whaling, and where did it come from?
ey realized that people knew relatively little about whales, and
that much of what they thought they knew came from a book that
was commonly read in high schools: Herman Melville’s 19th-
century novel Moby Dick. e vision of whaling presented in Moby
Dick depicts heroic whalers taking to the sea in
tiny boats and risking their lives to battle
giant, evil whales.

But by the late 20th century, whaling
was an industrial enterprise. Giant
factory whaling ships dwarfed the
endangered mammals, slaughtering

Greenpeace knew they could
never intervene at every
point of destruction and save
every whale. So they set out
to change the way the
dominant culture thought of
whaling—to change the
story of whaling.

Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales”
campaign is a great example of
changing the story, and is credited with
shifting public perceptions of whales.

5. Changing the Story 87

them en masse in a manner that was neither
heroic nor risky. Greenpeace knew they had
to expose the invisible reality of industrial

whaling. Greenpeace set out to create a
series of “image events”—spectacles
that told a dramatic story—which
could replace the popular culture’s
concept of whaling.

e iconic images they created
were of Greenpeace activists in small
Zodiac boats placing themselves

directly between the giant factory
whaling ships and the whales. It
was dangerous and activists did
get hurt. Greenpeace used the
first generation of handheld
video cameras to record their
attempts to get between the
harpoons and the whales, and
succeeded in getting the images
broadcast around the world.2

is intervention at the point
of destruction created an
effective direct action at the point
of assumption. e actions

88 Re:Imagining Change

In this new narrative, whales
were not big and evil; rather
it was the giant whaling ships
that were the dangerous

Images such as these reflected popular
perceptions of whales and whaling before
the campaign.

Greenpeace activists confront a
factory whaling ship.

5. Changing the Story 89

showed it was the activists, not
the whalers, who were the
courageous people on small boats
risking their lives—not to kill
whales, but to save them. In this
new narrative, whales were not
big and evil; rather it was the
giant whaling ships that were the
dangerous monsters. e whales
were the helpless victims and
became sympathetic and worthy
of protection. e Greenpeace
activists (and the burgeoning
environmental movement they
represented) became the heroes.
e story changed and the roles of
hero, victim, and villain shifted.

e campaign won the
battle of the story of whaling, and
ultimately succeeded in securing
international treaties to protect
endangered whales. Unfortunately,
in recent years, whaling interests
have exploited loopholes in these
treaties. Activists are once again
campaigning to protect whales.
However, because of this successful
story-based strategy, these new
campaigns have the power of
public support on their side.

Greenpeace activists are shot
with water cannons as they fight
to save a captured whale.
Images such as these helped
replace the Moby Dick mythology
and shift the hero/victim/villain
triangle of the story.

Greenpeace activists in Zodiac boats
place themselves between the
whaling ships and the whales.

Rural Vermont: One
Contaminated Farm Is One
Too Many
Starting in 2004, smartMeme
partnered with the grassroots
economic justice organization Rural
Vermont, a membership organization
led by family farmers. Rural Vermont
was campaigning against genetically
engineered (GE) agriculture. is
rapidly spreading and untested
technology poses threats to family
farmers, human health, and
the environment.3 SmartMeme
supported Rural Vermont as a key
constituent-led, membership organ-
ization that was tackling this global
issue at the local level.

In 2004, Rural Vermont won
successful passage of the Farmers’
Right to Know GE Seed Labeling
and Registration Act. This law puts
the USDA organic standards’
definition of “genetically modified”
into Vermont statute, and requires
that GE seeds be clearly labeled as
such. This was a tremendous
victory. With GE defined on the
books, they had the ability to move
the issue further.

There was a serious danger
that pollen from genetically engineered (GE) crops planted on
one farm could drift and contaminate neighboring farms that
had not chosen to plant GE crops. The giant biotech companies
like Monsanto, who own the patents to the GE seeds, were
covering up the contamination issue. Their tactic was to sue
farmers whose crops had been contaminated for “patent
infringement” and “unauthorized pirating” of their copyrighted

90 Re:Imagining Change

Elmer the scarecrow driving
corporate lawyers off the family
farm. The face of the middle
lawyer has an uncanny similarity
to Monsanto’s chief lobbyist in the
state. (Just a coincidence, of

5. Changing the Story 91

e farmers of Vermont decided to
stand up to this corporate bullying and
demand that the state legislature pass a
law to hold the manufacturers of
genetically engineered seeds accountable
for “drift” and contamination. is would
mean that if a farmer’s field was
contaminated, instead of suing his
neighbor he could hold the real culprit
accountable—the patent-holding
corporations like Monsanto.

When GE crop contamination was
uncovered on an organic farm in the state
the campaign rallied around the slogan:
“One contaminated farm is one too
many.” Rural Vermont organized farmers
and local-food advocates to pressure state
lawmakers to adopt policies to protect
farmers’ interests. ey called their
proposed legislation the Farmer
Protection Act, a framing that stuck
throughout the campaign and connected
corporate liability with protecting

Rural Vermont’s
story-based strategy used
many tactics: letter
writing, rallies, media,
print advertisements, and
nonviolent direct actions.
e campaign narrative
kept the focus on the
farmers—the impacted
sympathetic characters—
and was based in
Vermont’s rural culture of
family farming. An

As the meme spread,
farmers and their allies
gathered across the state to
display support for the
Farmer Protection Act by
making scarecrows.

Inexpensive ads ran in local papers to coincide
with appearances by Elmer and his growing
scarecrow army at the statehouse.

aggressive media strategy and emphasis
on popular education made “genetic
engineering” a household term across
the state.

Together, Rural Vermont and
smartMeme developed a meme cam-
paign that anchored the narrative by
promoting the scarecrow as an icon of
the campaign. e scarecrow was a
powerful symbol because it embodied
the idea of protecting the farmers and
the crops from predators. It told the
story that Rural Vermont was protect-
ing the seeds against the latest threat
from Monsanto.

e meme was launched with a
series of inexpensive advertisements
featuring “Elmer” the scarecrow.
Elmer was depicted confronting
corporate lawyers, and these images
framed the conflict as local farmers vs.
out-of-state corporate interests.

e farmers were explicit that
they did not want to be cast as the
victims, and so the campaign images
depicted the scarecrow as powerful.
e images show the scarecrow

chasing corporate lawyers out of the pasture, using a light-saber-
like flashlight to catch them in the hen house, and standing proud
against the backdrop of an iconic Vermont landscape. In this way,
the story-based strategy was reframing who had the power in
the story, and foreshadowing victory.

As the campaign gained ground,
Elmer the scarecrow mascot showed
up in real life at the statehouse, along
roads across the countryside, and at
Rural Vermont rallies. The meme
spread, carrying Rural Vermont’s
story of protecting local agriculture
and the rural way of life. Farmers and
their allies gathered across the state

92 Re:Imagining Change

Elmer, the scarecrow featured
in the ads, began to show up in
real life at the statehouse.

The campaign narrative kept
the focus on the farmers—
the impacted sympathetic
characters—and was based
on Vermont’s rural culture of
family farming.

5. Changing the Story 93

to make and display scarecrows as a show of public support for
the campaign.

All of Rural Vermont’s hard work and organizing paid off and
the Vermont state legislature passed the Farmer Protection Act in
2005. It was a major victory for the coalition of concerned
Vermonters who rallied behind the scarecrow. Unfortunately,
despite thousands of calls to the Republican governor’s office in
support of the bill, he vetoed it in 2006.

is campaign provides the movement against genetically
engineered agriculture an inspiring model, linking innovative
policy work with grassroots organizing. Rural Vermont continues
their work for “living soils, thriving farms, and healthy

Protect Our Waters: Our Most Precious Resource
Around the world, transnational companies are moving to
aggressively privatize water and turn what has historically been
a shared life-sustaining common resource into a lucrative
commodity. Bottled water is big business, with global sales
revenues approaching $100 billion dollars and continuing to
grow.4 Ironically, most of this market is in affluent countries like
the U.S. that generally have safe tap water available for free.

In 2007, community residents of the Mt. Shasta area of
Northern California invited smartMeme to support their efforts
to prevent the construction of the nation’s largest water bottling
plant. Nestlé Corporation—the world’s largest water company,
based in Switzerland—was going to build the plant in the small
town of McCloud. e company had been preparing the plans for
several years and had convinced the five-person local Community
Services District to sign a 100-year contract before there was any
public debate. In response, local residents formed the Protect Our
Waters Coalition (POW) to protect the ecological, cultural, and
economic integrity of Mt. Shasta’s unique headwater areas for
future generations. e coalition brought together the McCloud
Watershed Council and two locally active sporting and
conservation organizations—California Trout and Trout

SmartMeme worked with the residents and their allies to pro-
vide training, facilitate group strategy sessions, and apply a nar-

rative power analysis to the
campaign. It was clear that
Nestlé had targeted McCloud
because of its history as a for-
mer company town. It was once
home to “Mother McCloud,” a
timber company whose mill
was the heart of the town until
it closed some 25 years ago.
POW realized that Nestlé was
tapping into a nostalgic narra-
tive of the “good old days.” e
company presented themselves

as Father Nestlé who would save the town
by providing jobs and tax revenue. One
local resident described how Nestlé’s rep-
resentative even tried to build rapport with
locals by mimicking McCloud fashion, ex-
changing his business suits for jeans and
cowboy boots.

As the campaign heated up, Nestlé
used many of the common divide-and-
conquer tactics that big corporations often
use to derail local opposition. ey worked
to frame the issue around the control
meme of jobs versus the environment. ey
cast opponents of the plant as “out-of-
towners” and “second-home owners” who
were obstructing the “economic progress
and development” the town desperately
needed. ey dismissed local concerns
about large-scale water extraction as
coming from “unreasonable environ-
mentalists” who were more concerned
about fish than jobs.

Nestlé had a signed contract with the
town and seemingly immovable support
from the pro-development County Board
of Supervisors, but the concerned local
residents did not give up. e coalition
continued organizing and building

94 Re:Imagining Change

Siskiyou County residents mobilize to
protect their water and way of life.

This image created by
smartMeme shows that
clean, cold water is a
precious resource and a
symbol of the region’s
cherished rural way of life
and independence.

5. Changing the Story 95

alliances, and with help from smartMeme,
effectively won the battle of the story. ey
framed their campaign around water as a
precious resource, both economically and as a
symbol of the local way of life. ey challenged
Nestlé’s ere-Is-No-Alternative-Framing (see
Section 3.8) by releasing their own economic
report, which revealed that the plant would offer
only low-wage jobs while dramatically increasing
local truck traffic on the area’s only two-lane
highway. ey showed how Nestlé’s contract was
a bad deal for the town. ey foreshadowed a
more hopeful vision of the town uniting around
a fair development project that would protect the
local ecosystem.

A key strategy was to expand the frame
beyond the impacted people of McCloud to tell a
story about the region-wide threats of unchecked
water development. In particular, Protect Our
Waters knew they had to reach the ranching
community who were among the most influential
groups in the county.

Nestlé’s jobs versus the environment framing
was designed to tap into the ranchers’ history of
contentious battles with environmentalists. It
successfully kept the issue off the ranching
communities’ radar, but the threat to ranchers
was real. Nestlé’s proposed bottling plant was so
large that it was clearly intended to be a first step toward further
extraction of the county’s ground water in additional locations.

In supporting the campaign, smartMeme worked to find a
meme that could communicate the potential threat that Nestlé’s
bottling plant represented to the
ranchers and the entire county. We
experimented with brand busting
and combined a humorous
appropriation of Nestlé’s signature
striped straw from their flagship
Nestlé Quik chocolate drink, with a
threat that was already familiar to the
ranchers: “the spurge.” e spurge is

This is a victory not just for
the people of McCloud and
their local ecosystem but for
people everywhere who are
standing up to corporate
water privatizers.

This ad created by
launched the Nestlé
spurge meme and
helped alert the
broader community
to the potential threat
of Nestlé’s proposed

an invasive plant species that degrades ranch land by absorbing
too much water.

A double entendre was born—the Nestlé Spurge—a new type
of invasive plant that also degrades the land by sucking up too
much water. e campaign printed up materials modeled on pre-
existing invasive plant alerts (playing with the cultural
expressions of signage in the area). POW launched the meme at
the biggest community event of the year: the County Fair.

Nestlé had also set up an informational table at the event. By
all accounts, Nestlé’s representatives heard from numerous
county residents who were starting to see Nestlé as a bad
neighbor and the proposed plant as the first step in a full-scale
water grab. e spurge meme experiment had proved successful!

e tireless activists of the Protect Our Waters coalition
continued their efforts. In August of 2008 they won a major
victory when Nestlé agreed to renegotiate the contract it had
signed with the town. For the next year the community explored
options that would minimize environmental damage and insure
real economic benefits to the town. In September of 2009, nearly
6 years after Nestlé’s intentions became public, the company
announced that it was abandoning its plans and leaving McCloud
for good. is is a victory not just for the people of McCloud and
their local ecosystem but for people everywhere who are standing
up to corporate water privatizers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers:
Consciousness + Commitment = Change
One of the most inspiring contemporary U.S. organizing efforts is
the work of e Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to build
power and improve conditions for tomato pickers in southwestern
Florida.5 Immokalee is the state’s largest farmworker community
and is composed mostly of immigrants from Mexico (50%),
Guatemala (30%), and Haiti (10%) as well as African Americans.6
Poverty wages, abuse of workers, and even literal enslavement are
common. CIW “strives to build strength as a community on a basis
of reflection and analysis, constant attention to coalition building
across ethnic divisions, and an ongoing investment in leadership
development to help our members continually develop their skills
in community education and organization.”7

96 Re:Imagining Change

5. Changing the Story 97

CIW began organizing in 1993 as
a small group of workers meeting in
an Immokalee church. In the 1990s,
they took action at the point of
production, including three general
strikes, and built public pressure on
tomato growers with marches, hunger
strikes, and other tactics. From 1997
to 2001, CIW helped expose three
modern-day slavery operations and
freed 500 workers from indentured
servitude. ese efforts won better
conditions in the tomato industry,
and built more power for CIW.

But with their power analysis,
they knew that in order to change the
tomato industry, they had to go
further up the food chain. So, they set
their sights on changing the
purchasing practices of the fast-food
companies that buy the tomatoes

In 2001, CIW launched the
national boycott of Taco Bell—calling
on the fast-food giant to take
responsibility for human rights abuses
in the fields. ey demanded that Taco
Bell pay one penny more per pound of
tomatoes in order to give farmworkers
a fairer wage for their labor. CIW also
proposed an enforceable human rights
code of conduct that includes
farmworkers in monitoring working

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers have brought the struggle of tomato
pickers—some of the poorest and most marginalized workers in the
country—to the point of consumption in the fast-food industry. Their
inspiring campaigns have won wage increases for farmworkers and
enforceable human rights agreements with tomato purchasers like Taco
Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Whole Foods.

conditions and holding companies accountable for sourcing
tomatoes from sweatshop operations.

e Taco Bell boycott gained broad student, religious, labor,
and community support in the nearly four years of its campaign.

Boycott committees operated in
nearly all 50 states. One of the most
vibrant aspects of the campaign was
the Student/ Farmworker Alliance
(SFA) who led a fast-growing
movement to “Boot the Bell” from
college and high school campuses
across the country.8

SFA operates as an ally to CIW,
organizing students and youth across
the country. Since Taco Bell’s
marketing targeted young people, this
was a key constituency on the
campaign power map. Working with

CIW, SFA creatively engaged in brand busting tactics like
appropriating Taco Bell’s chihuahua dog mascot and slogan to say
“Yo No Quiero Taco Bell,” and subverting the company’s
omnipresent “ink Outside the Bun” tagline to become “ink
Outside the Bell!” ey supported the boycott with actions at the
point of consumption, at chain stores on and off campuses.

Large-scale national actions at the point of decision included
a 10-day hunger strike outside of Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine,
CA. is was one of the largest hunger strikes in U.S. labor
history, with over 75 farmworkers and students fasting during
the 10-day period in 2003. In 2004 and 2005, the Taco Bell Truth
Tours went cross-country featuring marches and actions at the
corporate headquarters of Yum! Brands (Taco Bell’s parent
company) in Louisville, Kentucky.

All the while the CIW was telling their story with dramatic
imagery: pyramids of the tomato picking buckets representing
the amount of tomatoes in a day’s work, photo galleries of
workers’ calloused hands, colorful giant puppets of tomatoes and
the Taco Bell chihuahua. e campaign amplified the voices of
workers telling their stories about life in Immokalee. e core
meme of their demand was: “One more penny per pound!” e
framing of the boycott around slavery targeted assumptions
about working conditions and made the invisible visible. e CIW

98 Re:Imagining Change

The campaign amplified the
voices of workers telling their
stories about life in
Immokalee. The core meme
of their demand was: “One
more penny per pound!” The
framing of the boycott around
slavery targeted assumptions
about working conditions and
made the invisible visible.

5. Changing the Story 99

exposed human trafficking and bondage in the United States, a
practice most people thought was long gone.

In March of 2005, on the eve of a major national convergence
at their headquarters, Taco Bell’s
parent company Yum! Brands signed
an agreement to meet the CIW’s
demands. Since that time, the
Coalition of Immokalee Workers has
successfully targeted McDonald’s and
Burger King with the model of the
Taco Bell campaign, and has won!
ey are also advancing on the grocery
industry and have pressured Whole
Foods to adopt a similar purchasing
and human rights policy.

e CIW’s successful alliance
building within Immokalee, and with student and faith
communities nationally, has built a powerful movement for
justice. In 2006, they launched the Alliance for Fair Food network
to build power for human rights throughout the U.S. food
system.9 eir local efforts in Immokalee include a radio station,
community center, ongoing popular education, and exposing
slavery and human rights violations. ey also support cultural
work in the community, and help build cooperatives of growers
who pay fair wages.

e CIW’s core philosophy is “consciousness + commitment =
change” and they prove it to be true! e Coalition is truly an
inspirational challenge to corporate power, and an instructive
model for the kind of work our world so urgently needs.10

The Student/Farmworker
Alliance creatively engaged
in brand busting tactics like
appropriating Taco Bell’s
Chihuahua dog mascot and
subverting the company’s
omnipresent “Think Outside
the Bun” tagline to become
“Think Outside the Bell!”

It’s about a fight for the planet’s resources, but the fight is
taking place through a capture of the mind. We can only liber-
ate our rivers and our seeds and our food, and our educational
systems, and redefine and deepen

democracy, by first liberating

our minds and decolonizing our minds.
~ Vandana Shiva1

(source: )

6. Facing the Ecological Crisis: A Call to Innovation 101

6.1 Beyond Talking Points

Frames emerge from history, and they are connected with institu-
tions. To win, we must take on all of it—the frames, the history,
and the institutions. We must have the courage to name what is
right and plot a course that connects to everyday lives and trans-
forms them. If we do this, we can re-frame our movements in
ways that astonish, delight, and liberate.
~ From The Soul of Environmentalism, a response to The Death of

Environmentalism by environmental justice leaders2

Tune in to any serious scientific or long-term policy discussion
and you can’t avoid the symptoms—mass extinction, global
warming destabilizing the climate, skyrocketing disease rates
linked to pollution, and the depletion of key resources such as
topsoil, fresh water, biodiversity, and cheap oil.

ese converging trends suggest a troubling forecast for our
future. e ecological crisis is already feeding the historic dynam-
ics of militarism, entrenched corporate power, and the systems of
racism and oppression that have haunted the human family for
generations. It is tragically predictable that the impacts of envi-
ronmental collapse—like all structural problems— will follow the
well-worn tracks of privilege that divide haves from have-nots.

e worst scenarios are rarely discussed but increasingly fore-
shadowed: private mercenary armies on the flooded streets of
post-Katrina New Orleans. e militarized water grabs in the
West Bank. Financial meltdown and global recession. Food riots.

6. Facing the Ecological
Crisis: A Call to Innovation

102 Re:Imagining Change

More wars over the planet’s remaining oil supplies…is version
of our future is already all too familiar.

It is inaccurate to compartmentalize these overlapping crises
as an “environmental issue,” or an “energy issue,” or any type of
“single issue.” Rather they are warning signs that our global sys-
tem—which is based on centuries of unchecked industrial ex-
pansion, colonial conquest, and exploitation—has brought our
planet’s ecological life-support systems perilously close to col-

lapse. e crisis is the (often
unacknowledged) white
noise behind all discussions
about the future—the fu-
ture for our children, for
our communities, for the
economy, for the role of
government, and for global
society as a whole.

SmartMeme’s roots are
in the earth-centered poli-
tics of ecological resistance
movements. We founded
the organization and wrote
Re:Imagining Change be-
cause we believe that our
lifetimes come at a decisive
moment in the history of
our planet—a moment that

requires creative, bold, and strategic action.
Our times call out for more powerful and effective social

movements. We need not only bigger movements but also bet-
ter strategies to confront the crises head on. We need to un-

earth the deep roots of our social and
ecological problems in the worldview
of the dominant culture. Social
change, at the sweeping scale we
need, will require systematic inter-
vention into the pathological as-
sumptions and control mythologies
that maintain the status quo and
limit the collective imagination of al-
ternatives. Our movements need to

Hurricane Ike hits Galveston, Texas, in
September 2008. The hurricane killed 114
people in Haiti, Cuba, and the U.S. and is
estimated to have caused over $10 billion
worth of damage.

It is tragically predictable
that the impacts of
environmental collapse—like
all structural problems— will
follow the well-worn tracks
of privilege that divide haves
from have-nots.

6. Facing the Ecological Crisis: A Call to Innovation 103

go beyond talking points and isolated policy proposals to actu-
ally shift the narratives that shape popular understanding of
our economy, our political system, and our entire relationship
with the natural world.

6.2 The Slow-Motion Apocalypse
We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s
arguing over where they’re going to sit.
~ David Suzuki

Our lifetimes are witness to a slow-motion
apocalypse—the gradual unraveling of
the routines, expectations and institu-
tions that comfort the privileged, and de-
fine the status quo.

But the word apocalypse does not
mean the end of the world. e Greek
word apokalypsis combines the verb “ka-
lypto,” meaning “to cover or to hide,”
with the prefix “apo,” meaning “away.”
Apocalypse literally means to “take the
cover away,” or to “lift the veil” and reveal
something that has not been seen.3

And thus these are indeed
apocalyptic times. A 2008 poll re-
veals that 62% of Americans al-
ready agree with the statement
“e earth is headed for an envi-
ronmental catastrophe unless we
change.”4 As the veil lifts, the as-
sumptions and narratives that ra-
tionalize the status quo are
shifting. What has been made in-
visible (by propaganda and privi-
lege alike) has become a glaring
truth: global corporate capitalism
is on a collision course with the
planet’s ecological limits.

As activists, we often dare
not speak this whole truth for

The militarized streets of
New Orleans in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina
(September 2005)

Indigenous women march in Mexico
City at the Fourth World Water Forum
to demand that water be recognized
as a human right (March 2006).
Photo by Orin Langelle.

104 Re:Imagining Change

fear of self-marginalizing, terrifying people, or worse—dousing
the essential fires of hope with a paralyzing despair.

Indeed, to face the scale and implications of the ecological cri-
sis requires a degree of psychological courage. e lifting of the
veil can release an emotional rollercoaster of anxiety, anger, grief,
and despair. When we take it all in—all of the suffering, all of the
destruction, all that is at risk—added onto our ongoing daily
struggles, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed. Denial is a com-
mon response and an effective poultice, however temporary.

A narrative power analysis helps us understand denial as a
dynamic that shapes the terms of the
debate around the ecological crisis.
e assumption that the United
States can “go green” on its current
path, rather than fundamentally
change our systems to operate within
ecological limits, is one such manifes-
tation. Denial is one of the key psy-
chological undercurrents in the

dominant culture that is preventing widespread acknowledge-
ment of the scope of the ecological crisis, and keeping the apoca-
lypse suspended in surreal slow motion. Denial is a more
comfortable alternative to despair, but its impact on the collec-
tive political imagination is equally corrosive.

We also see this dynamic inside of progressive movements.
Among many dedicated activist groups, there is an unstated cul-
ture of self-preserving denial. We see it expressed in various ways:
rigid boundaries around an issue or constituency, an exclusive
focus on short-term “wins,” and a suspension of disbelief about
the limits of current strategies to face the crisis. e underlying
assumption is that if we just keep doing what we’ve been doing, and
just work harder at it, it will be enough.

Stagnation is the prevailing creative tendency in too many
of our organizations. While some tactics are improved, innova-
tion of strategies is perennially postponed. The undertow of de-
nial can keep our movements trapped in a crisis of imagination.
The consequences are a policy paradigm incapable of dealing
with the scope of the overlapping crises. The sector plods on
while an increasingly unnerved public is left vulnerable to fear-
mongering, corporate greenwashing, and phony quick-fix
techno solutions.

We believe that our lifetimes
come at a decisive moment
in the history of our planet—
a moment that requires
creative, bold, and strategic

6. Facing the Ecological Crisis: A Call to Innovation 105

6.3 Psychic Breaks

Sometimes a breakdown can be the beginning of a kind of break-
through, a way of living in advance through a trauma that prepares
you for a future of radical transformation.
~ Cherríe Moraga

But what happens when denial is shattered by unfolding events?
Dramatic crisis situations can challenge underlying assumptions
and redefine the conventional wisdom.

ese cultural and political moments
freeze-frame and expose the limitations
of current understandings: 9/11, the U.S.
invasion of Iraq, the flooding of New Or-
leans, and the 2008 Wall Street melt-
down are all recent examples.

ese sorts of seismic events in-
evitably disrupt the dominant culture’s
mental maps and can trigger mass psy-
chic breaks: moments when status quo
stories no longer hold true, and a critical
mass of people can’t deny that what is
happening in the world is out of align-
ment with their values. People are left
searching for new explanations, and are
potentially open to new perspectives and
willing to take new risks. As a result, the
narrative landscape can shift rapidly and
unexpectedly as the terms of debate are

open new political
space and can provide powerful opportu-
nities for new stories to take root in popular consciousness. We’ve
seen it in the upwelling of community building since 9/11, the
outrage and mass civil disobedience during the U.S. military in-
vasion of Iraq, the outpouring of mutual aid during hurricane Ka-
trina, and the fallout from the Wall Street financial meltdown and
the contested story of free-market ideology.

Unfortunately, though, these moments are often hijacked by
power-holders who use fear to manipulate trauma and re-en-
trench old power dynamics. e post-9/11 psychic break quickly

Psychic breaks can occur
when the conventional
wisdom is shattered by
unfolding events. The 2008
financial meltdown on Wall
Street led many people to
question the system, and
changed the conversation
about regulation and the
free-market ideology.

106 Re:Imagining Change

turned to warmongering, hate crimes against Muslim Americans,
and the swift passage of the PATRIOT Act. e Iraq invasion was
accompanied with feverish, bloodthirsty rhetoric couched as pa-
triotism. e historic election of Barack Obama also sparked a
right-wing backlash that has used thinly veiled racism to attack
his agenda and slow reforms. In the absence of effective progres-
sive framing, the 2008-09 financial crisis was packaged with fear-
mongering memes like “Too Big to Fail,” “Meltdown,” and “Great
Depression” to pass a multi-trillion dollar bailout that mainly ben-

efited the largest companies and
super-rich investors.

As we see more eco-spasms, re-
source grabs, economic disruptions
and mass displacement, the myths
that glue the system together will
strain under pressure and more peo-
ple will experience psychic breaks.
While right wing mouthpieces like Fox
News fan the flames of discontent
with the racism of the “Tea Party” nar-
rative, our movements are failing to
offer accessible narratives and frame

popular understanding of the complicated crises that define our
times. As the crisis compounds, these events have a momentum
of their own—with or without us.

As the slow-motion apocalypse accelerates, will the fallout
trigger more reactionary backlash or true progressive change?
Will the mass psychic breaks of the future unleash popular mo-
mentum for social transformation? Or will they serve as an ex-
cuse for mass manipulation by desperate elites struggling to
maintain the status quo?

e answers depend on how effectively change agents can
harness awakenings from denial to build movements that can
fundamentally shift the course of events. As the control
mythologies unravel, our movements can offer new narratives
and foreshadow new, more just futures…but to do so means we
must be ready to wage the battle of story in the midst of up-
heaval, fracture, and rapid change. In this day and age, where cas-
cading events unfold in the 24-hour media environment, when
the old story is eroding rapidly, we have to be ready to intervene
in the spectacle, reframe, and launch new stories.

Seismic events can trigger
mass psychic breaks:
moments when status quo
stories no longer hold true,
and a critical mass of people
can’t deny that what is
happening in the world is out
of alignment with their

6. Facing the Ecological Crisis: A Call to Innovation 107

6.4 Toward Ecological Justice

There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.
~ Marshall McLuhan

e history of grassroots social change
teaches, “the whole is greater than the
sum of its parts.” is equation reflects
the power of narrative to multiply a so-
cial movement’s power when a com-
mon story unites and mobilizes popular
energy toward shared goals.

At smartMeme, we believe that
our times demand that we build more
holistic movements with the capacity to tell stories that bring to-
gether a commitment to social justice with the vision of an eco-
logically sane future. We believe
that to address the global chal-
lenges of our lifetimes, our move-
ments must cultivate a broader
understanding of narrative
power and develop more sophis-
ticated story-based strategies.
Our movements need to nurture
a culture of strategic innovation.
Organizations need Research and
Development budgets, street level
laboratories, and a swarm of cre-
ative strategists. We need to shift
the activist culture to see innova-
tion not as a luxury at the edge of
“the work,” but rather as a neces-
sity at the heart of “the work.” We
must be willing to take risks and
re-imagine not only a vision for
our communities, but also a vision
of what social change process and
practice can look like.

And make no mistake, bold in-
novations are afoot: From the
community supported agriculture

Representatives from the
Indigenous Peoples Caucus lead a
march of over 100,000 people
outside the United Nations COP-15
climate summit in Copenhagen. The
mobilization brought together an
alliance of global movements taking
action both inside and outside the
conference to demand “system
change not climate change.”
(December 2009) Photo by Orin

We must be willing to take
risks and re-imagine not only
a vision for our communities,
but also a vision of what
social change process and
practice can look like.

108 Re:Imagining Change

(CSA) program of the Milwaukee
racial justice organization Grow-
ing Power, to the cross-cutting
work at the Center for Media Jus-
tice in Oakland, to the commu-
nity-based corporate campaigning
of the Coalition of Immokalee
Workers (CIW) in Florida. ere
are countless examples of cross-
sector work bubbling up in com-
munities across the country.
Innovative organizations are step-
ping beyond single-issue politics
to open new political spaces, test
new models and embrace new or-
ganizational forms. Leaders are
forging new alliances that build
unity amongst different issues,
constituencies, and movements
without creating structures that

deny our differences or compromise our diversity. e victory of
the Obama campaign showed the power of hopeful stories to
unite people, and the mobilizing potential of the Millennial gen-
eration, who mashed up Twittering and good old-fashioned door-
knocking to get out the vote in record numbers.

Now the Obama presidency (and
resulting backlash) has complicated
how social movements engage around
numerous issues and underscored the
need for flexibility and innovation.

In the midst of this historic mo-
ment, one of the exciting trends is the
growing momentum linking ecological
politics with social justice organizing.
Around the world, the call for “climate
justice” is galvanizing social move-

ments to address the root causes of the climate crisis. In the U.S.,
trailblazing groups like the Movement Generation Justice & Ecol-
ogy Project are designing political education curricula and facili-
tating strategic planning for action around the ecological crisis for
economic and racial justice organizers working in urban communi-

The transformational stories
of 21st-century change will
celebrate the heroes at the
margins, inspire us to face
the true scale of our
problems, and herald visions
of a world remade.

Innovators at the Movement
Generation Justice & Ecology
Project are redefining the potential
of earth-centered politics by
“cultivating an urban justice based
approach to ecology.”

6. Facing the Ecological Crisis: A Call to Innovation 109

ties of color.
New ways of telling

our stories that combine
ecological analysis with

the historic demands for equity and justice are emerging. Memes
like “just transition” and “ecological justice” are spreading and
challenging status quo assumptions. Visions are taking shape,
foreshadowing the multi-racial alliances, networks and grassroots
movements that will undertake the grand project of redesigning
our society to be both sustainable and inclusive. Collectively the
work to craft a politics that is commensurate with the scale of the
crisis is evolving.

Story-based strategy has an important role to play in sup-
porting these types of innovations. When we come together
across social divides to share our histories and our dreams, new
understandings of interconnection can emerge. Storytelling can
help us build relationship across divides of race, class, gender, and
culture. Story-based strategy can help us articulate shared values
and more effectively communicate the connections between all
the “issues.”

e name smartMeme is inspired by a vision of grassroots
change agents collaboratively creating and unleashing memes de-
signed to challenge assumptions and change destructive stories.
e smart implies both effective and networked: memes that are
born from and spread through people-powered collaboration. Our
movements desperately need smarter memes that encapsulate and
popularize stories with the creative power to point us toward a
more democratic, just, peaceful, and ecologically sane future.

SmartMeme’s years of experimentation lead us to believe that
there is vast transformative potential in narrative social change
strategies. e story-based strategy model that we’ve outlined
in the preceding pages is a rudimentary sketch of the possibili-
ties. ere are more ideas to explore, more stories to tell, and
more interventions to imagine. We offer Re:Imagining Change as

Re:Imagining Change is a call to
innovation and a call to action.
Join with smartMeme to change
the story for a better future.

110 Re:Imagining Change

an invitation to change agents from all walks of life to embrace
a vision of ecological justice, and step into your power as strate-
gists and storytellers.

To succeed we must resist the despair and overcome the de-
nial that have shaped our responses to the crisis for too long. Our
generations have the opportunity to lead a path toward ecologi-
cal reconstruction, mass reconciliation, a more free, just society,
and ultimately a better world for all.

But to succeed our movements must become the culture’s sto-
rytellers. e transformational stories of 21st-century change will
applaud the heroes at the margins, inspire us to face the true scale
of our problems, and herald visions of a world remade. ey will ac-
commodate complexity, celebrate diversity, and foreshadow the
challenges and triumphs we all will face. But these stories will not
be handed down from the meme-makers on high. ey will emerge
as collaborative strategies from communities and grassroots move-
ments. ey will emerge from struggle and celebration.

Our movements can transform fear and denial into hope and
action, if we have the courage to experiment, innovate, struggle,
and win. In the new stories emerging from grassroots movements
around the planet lie the creative sparks to reimagine change and
remake our world.


I. Introduction: e Power of Stories
1. A very useful exploration of these issues and a call for progressives
to create “ethical spectacles” can be found in Stephen Duncombe’s
book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy (e
New Press, 2007).

2. Please see smartMeme’s Anti-Oppression Principles at

3. See tools and training at: and

4. See tools and training at:

5. Check out the National Organizers Alliance: http://www.noacen-

6. Check out the Catalyst Project’s great summary of antiracism train-
ing resources:

II. Narrative Power Analysis
1. From “e Secrets of Storytelling: Why we love a good yarn,” Scientific
American, September 18, 2008. We got this link from our friends at the
Pop-Anthropology blog (

2. Ibid.

3. From e pejorative usage of a
“myth-as-lie” often dismisses the deeper relevance of “myth-as-mean-

4. We were introduced to this exercise by Sha’an Mouliert in her anti-
oppression training at the 2005 smartMeme national gathering in-

5. Narrative has always been a human obsession and there are many
different theories and approaches to exploring the issue. Each of these
terms brings its own discourse and analytical tools to the discussion.
For some very useful insights into cosmology—literally the story of
the universe–and thinking on how to change these stories, check out
the work of omas Berry. Likewise, Joseph Campbell’s very accessible
work is a good starting point on myth. e term metanarrative was
originally coined in the 1970’s by French philosopher and critic Jean-
François Lyotard (who declared its death) and has become a staple of
post-modern thought.

112 Re:Imagining Change

6. e essence of Sharp’s theory of power is quite simple: people in soci-
ety may be divided into rulers and subjects; the power of rulers derives
from consent by the subjects; systematic nonviolent action is a process
of withdrawing consent and thus is a way to challenge the key modern
problems of dictatorship, genocide, war, and systems of oppression.
Gene Sharp’s book, e Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973), is widely re-
garded as a classic. Other important works by Sharp are two collections
of essays, Social Power and Political Freedom (1980) and Gandhi as a Politi-
cal Strategist (1979). ere are numerous critiques of Sharp’s work, and
of his Albert Einstein Institution’s consulting practice, particularly in
Venezuela. However, it is widely understood that Sharp’s work is a
major contribution to 20th-century social movement theory. Smart-
Meme owes great intellectual debt to Jethro Heiko and Nick Jehlen of
the Action Mill for their efforts to integrate the applications of this the-
ory drawn from the Serbian student movement Otpor and their “upside-
down triangle” curriculum into a U.S. context. SmartMeme has
supported Action Mill in applying this framework with Iraq Veterans
Against the War, who use the consent theory as the core of their anti-
war strategy ( ).

7 Check out wikipedia for some useful notes on Gramsci: e original writings
are compiled in his Prison Notebooks.

8. For another side of the story of anksgiving see the Bureau of
White Affairs and United
American Indians of New England:

9. e phrase was first coined by 19th-century German philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche and expanded upon by Walter Benjamin, now it is
a meme with a life of its own and has largely been accepted as conven-
tional wisdom.

10. For information on ongoing organizing and protest see United
American Indians of New England:

11. Drew Weston’s Political Brain (Public Affairs, 2007) examines the
biological roots of partisanship and provides superb examples of the
power of messaging.

12. is stat is a hybrid estimate from several sources including projec-
tions by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Plunkett Research and Advertising
Age magazine.


Endnotes 113

14. From the Federal Trade Commission (2007) .

15. Paul M. Fischer et al, “Brand logo recognition by children aged 3 to
6 years: Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel,” Journal of the Ameri-
can Medical Association 266 (11 Dec. 1991): 3145-48.

16. From the National Institute on Media & e Family based on
George Comstock’s Television and the American Child (Academic Press
Inc. 1991) & James McNeal’s Kids as Customers (Lexington Books,
1992) Compiled stats available at

17. Check out any of Sut Jhally’s prolific and influential writing and
multimedia output. A particular favorite is his essay and video lecture
Advertising and the End of the World. e work of Jhally and many
other important cultural critics can be found at the Media Education

18. See Dumcombe’s book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in
an Age of Fantasy (e New Press, 2007).

19. Allen, Frederick: Secret Formula: How Brilliant Marketing and Re-
lentless Salesmanship Made Coca-Cola the Best Known Product in the
World. (Harper Collins, 1995) p. 207

20. Silverstein, Barry, “A Few Brand Campaigns Are Forever (Well, Al-
most),” Published on on January 17, 2006

21. e origins of branding were drawn to our attention by our col-
league Sean A. Witters who explores the issue in his forthcoming
book, Literary Authenticity: Authorship and the Logic of the Brand in the
Modern American Novel

22. e corporate alphabet was created by Heidi Cody
( and used by Carrie McLaren and Stay
Free Magazine in their High School Media Literacy Curriculum

23. “Memes: Introduction,” by Glenn Grant, Memeticist http://pe-

24. Ibid.

25. See the insightful commentary regarding memes in the 2008 elec-
tion cycle, “I’m Rubber, You’re Glue,” by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek
September 1, 2008

114 Re:Imagining Change

26. e terms Internalized Racial Superiority and Internalized Racial
Inferiority come from the antiracism principles of the Peoples Insti-
tute for Survival and Beyond:

27. Polleta, Francesca It was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Poli-
tics (University of Chicago Press, 2006) an excellent resource for ex-
amining the complexity of social movement applications of

III. Winning the Battle of the Story
1. For a chilling look at the PR industry’s practices see the classic Toxic
Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry.
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (Common Courage Press, 1995).

2. We first encountered the term Battle of the Story in the work of the
RAND Corporation, a wide-ranging private think tank specializing in
military and corporate research. e term was used by RAND analysts
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt who co-wrote Networks and Net-
wars: e Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (RAND, 2001).

3. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist, professor at UC Berkeley and co-
founder of the now shuttered Rockridge Institute (www.rockridgein- He is the author of numerous books, including Don’t
ink of an Elephant (Chelsea Green, 2004) and Whose Freedom? (Far-
rar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). On framing, see also: “e Framing
Wars” from 2005 New York Times Magazine:

4. Goffman, Erving Frame Analysis: An essay on the organization of expe-
rience. Pg 21 (Harvard University Press, 1974).

5. Quote reported in “Snap Judgments: Did Iconic Images from Bagh-
dad Reveal More About the Media than Iraq?” by Matthew Gilbert and
Suzanne Ryan April 10, 2003 Boston Globe Pg D1. Available at:

6. “Baghdad: the Day After” by Robert Fisk U.K. Independent April 11,
2003 available at:

7. is aspect of the ongoing story of the Pentagon’s efforts to manip-
ulate U.S. media coverage of the war was broken in a major multi-page

Endnotes 115

exposé by the New York Times “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hid-
den Hand” by David Barstow April 20, 2008.

8. For a deeper exploration of information warfare and the dynamics
of its use against nonviolent protest movements check out smart-
Meme’s analysis of protests at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Ameri-
cas Summit in Miami. e article “Information Warfare in Miami” can
be found at



11. Stacey Malkan’s Not Just a Pretty Face: e Ugly Side of the Beauty
Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007) is an excellent book from a
frontline environmental health activist and researcher. Also see the
Environmental Working Group’s 2005 Report Skin Deep and their up-
dated product safety database at


13. Lasn, Kalle Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer
Binge—and Why We Must (HarperCollins, 1999). Also check out Ad-
buster magazine at

14. For more analysis on the Capitol Climate Action, see http://smart-

15. e term “meme campaigning,” as far as we know, was coined by
long time creative activist and agitator Andrew Boyd. Andrew, charm-
ing and humble man that he is, put it this way: “You can call me a co-
coiner of the phrase along with a host of others in the secret people’s
history of viral organizing.” We love that guy. Check out his latest
projects at and .

16. See e Rand Corporation’s whitepaper What Next for Networks
and Netwars?
MR1382/MR1382.ch10 .

17. For a excellent description and analysis of the campaign, read Bil-
lionaires co-founder Andrew Boyd’s essay “Truth is a Virus: Meme
Warfare and the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” published in the Cul-
tural Resistance Reader edited by Stephen Duncombe (Verso, 2002).

116 Re:Imagining Change

IV. Points of Intervention
1. To see the “market campaign” model in action, check out the work
of the Rainforest Action Network ( or
ForestEthics ( For a good inventory of
the model being used in different sectors see http://www.busines-, and check out Insurrection: e Citizen Challenge to
Corporate Power by Kevin Danaher and Jason Mark (Routledge, 2003).

2. is process of a collective acceptance of a common narrative is
sometimes called “frame alignment”. For useful concepts for frame
analysis see:
analysis/framing_concepts.html—this is a summary of the discourse
including the foundational work of Snow & Benford. “Ideology, Frame
Resonance and Participant Mobilization,” International Social Move-
ment Research 1:197-219. (1988).

3. TINA—there is no alternative—is a phrase coined by British Prime
Minister Margaret atcher in the early 1980s as part of her austerity
campaign of shredding the British welfare system, instituting mass
privatization, and challenging organized labor. Her economic policies
become a model for much of the neoliberal reforms that have now be-
came tragically common around the world.

4. is action is well documented in a number of histories of the U.S.
radical ecology movement and described in Martha F. Lee’s Earth First!
Environmental Apocalypse (Syracuse University Press, 1995).


V. Changing the Story
1. See Rex Weyler’s Greenpeace: e Inside Story (Rodale, 2005).

2. For a video clip of the save the whales campaign, see: 5005/life_society/greenpeace/clip3.

3. See the campaign archive at:

4. For more information about the destructive nature of the bottled
water industry see

5. See: .


7. Ibid.

8. SFA was smartMeme’s first partner in our STORY youth program.

Endnotes 117

SmartMeme regards SFA as an exemplary model of an effective net-
work of youth leaders working in accountable relationship with a di-
rectly impacted community in a worker-led alliance. e SFA operates
in a youth-led model of mobilizing students through a corporate cam-
paign, which is led by people who are most directly affected in the cor-
porate race-to-the-bottom. SmartMeme has supported SFA in
developing their message and media capacity, as well as their overall
story and visual brand. SmartMeme also supported leadership devel-
opment work by facilitating strategy sessions and offering story-based
strategy trainings at the (now annual) “Youth Encuentro in
Immokalee.” Visit them @


10. See David Solnit’s 2005 Left Turn article “Taco Bell Boycott Vic-
tory—A Model of Strategic Organizing: An interview with the Coali-
tion of Immokalee Workers”:

VI. Afterword
1. From “e River vs. Water, Inc: An interview with Vandana Shiva”
by Antonia Juhasz for LiP Magazine (October 28, 2005)

2. From “e Soul of Environmentalism: Rediscovering transforma-
tional politics in the 21st century” By Michel Gelobter, Michael
Dorsey, Leslie Fields, Tom Goldtooth, Anuja Mendiratta, Richard
Moore, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Peggy M. Shepard & Gerald Torres
(May 27, 2005) .

3. Edinger, Edward F. Archetype of the Apocalypse: Divine Vengeance,
Terrorism, and the End of the World 1999 Open Court: Chicago. Until
his death in 1999 Edinger was one of the leading Jungian analysts in
the U.S.

4. A New Values Survey, on e Emerging Wisdom Culture and New Politi-
cal Compass by Paul H. Ray (Unpublished, 2008).

118 Re:Imagining Change


action logic – the explicit or implicit narrative that is illustrated by a
specific action; how an action makes sense politically to an outside ob-
server (see meta-verb).
advertising – the manipulation of collective desire for commer-
cial/political interests (see also branding).
apocalypse – the Greek word apokalypsis combines the verb “kalypto”
meaning to “cover or to hide,” with the prefix “apo” meaning “away.”
Apocalypse literally means to “take the cover away,” or to “lift the veil”
and reveal something that has not been seen.
assumption – something that is accepted as true without proof; hy-
pothesis that is taken for granted.
battle of the story – 1. the political contest of defining meaning and
framing a situation (or issue) for a popular audience 2. a social change nar-
rative with the goal of persuading people who aren’t necessarily already in
agreement with the social change effort. (See also story of the battle.)
branding – the processes and demarcations to endow an object (prod-
uct), idea, or person with specific narrative and emotional qualities. A
common expression of narrative power and a cornerstone concept for
the age of hyperconsumerism and corporatized culture.
brand busting – a tactic to pressure corporate decision makers by link-
ing the company’s public image or brand with the injustices they are per-
change agent – a person who embraces her or his own power as a cat-
alyst; a term for anyone who is engaged in some form of social change
changing the story – a catch phrase to describe the complex process of
shifting the dominant public understanding of an issue or situation.
confirmation bias – the concept emerging from psychological and cog-
nitive studies on framing showing that people are more likely to believe
new information if it resonates with their existing values or confirms
things they already believe.
control meme – a meme that acts as a container for control myths or
spreads oppressive stories. Commonly, a meme that marginalizes, co-
opts, or limits the scale of social change ideas by institutionalizing a sta-
tus quo bias into popular perception of events or ideas (e.g.,
separate-but-equal … death tax, or surgical strike). (See also meme.)
control mythology – the web of stories, symbols, and ideas that define
the dominant culture. Includes stories that assume the system is un-
changeable or limit our imagination of social change.
culture – (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to

120 Re:Imagining Change

Glossary 121

cultivate”) refers to patterns of human activity including ways of living,
arts, beliefs, and institutions that are passed down through the gener-
ations. A matrix of shared mental maps that define collective meanings.
(See also narrative space.)
culture jamming – a technique to subvert dominant culture narratives
such as corporate advertising or control mythologies by co-opting slo-
gans and images and re-contextualizing them to create (usually subver-
sive) new meanings.
designer meme – a meme created for a specific purpose (See smart
meme and control meme.)
dominant culture – the constellation of specific cultural beliefs, norms,
and practices shaped by powerful interests that have been normalized
(often as “mainstream”) by marginalizing, invisiblizing, silencing, crim-
inalizing, annihilating, or assimilating other cultural beliefs and prac-
tices through historical processes of domination and control. Sometimes
also described as hegemony.
direct action at the point of assumption – action with the goal of in-
tervention in narrative space in order to reframe social issues by tar-
geting underlying assumptions and changing the story.
earth-centered – (1) a political perspective to situate your life and
your efforts as a change agent in the context of the planet’s ecological
operating systems, cultural diversity, biodiversity, and efforts to re-cen-
ter human society within the Earth’s natural limits & cycles. (2) a politi-
cized acceptance of the sacredness of living systems.
ecological justice – an emerging frame to describe holistic, commu-
nity led responses to the ecological crisis that combine a vision of re-
spect and restoration of natural systems with advocacy for justice in all
its forms. (See earth-centered)
elements of story – the five components of a narrative that smart-
Meme uses to apply a narrative power analysis: conflict, characters, im-
ages, foreshadowing, and underlying assumptions.
frame – the larger story that shapes understanding of information, ex-
periences, and messages; the structure and boundaries of a narrative
that defines point of view and power. Frames operate as pre-existing
narrative lenses in our minds.
hegemony – a concept developed in the 1930s by the imprisoned Ital-
ian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci, describes how powerful inter-
ests and institutions don’t just rule society with coercion and violence,
but also define society’s norms through a dominant culture. is multi-
faceted, intergenerational cultural process limits the terms of the de-
bate to make ideas that challenge the status quo almost unthinkable.

information warfare – as defined by the U.S. military in the 1996
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction Number 3210.01: “Ac-
tions taken to achieve information superiority by affecting adversary
information, information based processes, and information systems.”
It includes the realm of psychological operations and the manipulation
of narrative and public opinion for military purposes.
intervention – an action meant to change the course of events; inter-
ference or interaction with a previously existing narrative, audience, so-
cial structure, system, venue or space.
meme – (rhymes with dream) a unit of self-replicating cultural infor-
mation (e.g., idea, slogan, melody, ritual, symbol) that spreads virally
from imagination to imagination and generation to generation. Coined
by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 as analogous to
“gene,” from a Greek root meaning “to imitate.” Glenn Grant defines it
as “A contagious information pattern.” A meme operates as a container,
capsule, or carrier for a story.
meta-verb – the overarching verb that embodies the narrative of a so-
cial action or intervention (e.g., resist, disrupt, counter, or expose). (See
action logic.)
movement – a critical mass of people who share ideas and values, or-
ganize in large informal groupings and networks of individuals and/or
organizations, take collective social action, and build alternative insti-
tutions to create social change.
narrative – (from the Proto-Indo-European root gnō-, “to know”) a story or
account of events, sequenced over time and space; a fundamental cog-
nitive structuring process for the human mind to make meaning and re-
late with the world.
narrative filters – the existing stories and assumptions people have
about the world that screen out new information that doesn’t fit with
their existing mental frame works (See confirmation bias.)
narrative logic – a coherent narrative structure that effectively com-
municates the desired message; all the elements of the story make sense
together and reinforce the intended meaning. (See action logic)
narrative power – a multi-faceted and fluid form of power expressed
through stories, particularly through the processes that socially con-
struct specific stories as “the truth.” (See power and narrative power
narrative power analysis – an analytical framework for assessing the
interactions between narrative and relationships of power. e approach
is grounded in the recognition that since the human brain uses stories
to understand the world, all power relations have a narrative dimension.

122 Re:Imagining Change

Glossary 123

It can be used deconstructively to examine existing stories, as well as
constructively to create new stories.
narrative space – the ethereal realm of common stories, ideas, and im-
ages that connect people in shared cultural and ideological frameworks.
narrowcasting – targeting information to a specific audience rather
than the general public; the term emerged as a contrast to traditional
people-power – the term originates from the 1986 mass uprising when
the people of the Philippines nonviolently overthrew their authoritar-
ian government. It has come to mean any movement or social change
strategy that recognizes that dominant institutions rely on the consent
of the masses and that the removal of popular consent can lead to dra-
matic social changes.
point of intervention – a place in a system, be it a physical system or
a conceptual system (ideology, cultural assumption, etc.) where action
can be taken to e�ectively interfere with the system in order to change
it. Examples include point of production (factory), point of destruction
(logging road), point of consumption (retail store), point of decision
(corporate headquarters), and point of assumption (intervening in an
existing narrative, making alternatives visible).
popular culture – patterns of human activity and symbolic structures
that are popular, often defined or determined by the mass media and ex-
pressed in vernacular language. e roots of the term relate to the cul-
ture of “the common people” in contrast with the “high culture” of elites.
power – a complex area of social change theory that we at smartMeme
generally define as a dynamic set of relationships between people, in-
stitutions and ideas characterized by the (often unequal) distribution
of controlling influence. We also use the “three-fold model” of power
from strategic nonviolence—power over, power-with, and power
within—as a way to name the types of power we are working with in so-
cial change endeavors. (See narrative power.)

psychic break – the process or moment of realization whereby a deeply
held dominant culture narrative comes into question, oftentimes stem-
ming from a revelation that a system, event, or course of events is out
of alignment with core values.
racism – we find the definition provided by the People’s Institute for
Survival and Beyond to be particularly useful: “Racism is race prejudice
plus power. Historically in the U.S. it has been the single most critical

power-holder – an individual who possesses influence within a specific
power structure. is person is sometimes known as a “decision maker,”
and is often the target of a campaign.

barrier to building effective coalitions for social change. Racism has been
consciously and systematically erected, and it can be undone only if peo-
ple understand what it is, where it comes from, how it functions, and
why it is perpetuated.”
radical – a problem-solving approach that focuses attention on ad-
dressing the root cause of problems rather than the symptoms. Also: a
change agent who adopts this approach.
reframing – the process of shifting popular understanding of an issue,
event or situation by changing the terms for how it is understood. (see
changing the story and frame)
smart meme – a designer meme that aims to change the story by in-
jecting ideas into popular culture, contesting established meaning
(and/or control memes), and facilitating popular re-thinking of as-
sumptions. Smart memes act as containers for collaborative power, re-
veal creative possibilities, and grow out of the networked possibility of
grassroots social movements (compare with control meme).
social change – the holistic process of collectively changing social
power relationships (and aspects therein) including processes, material
conditions, institutional power and economic distribution—as well as
narrative frameworks and culture.
spectacle – a concept coming from the work of the radical French artist-
philosopher-revolutionary Guy Debord to describe “a social relation be-
tween people that is mediated by images.”
story – a catch-all descriptor of all types of narratives, from mundane
anecdotes to deep-seated cultural frameworks (See also narrative and
elements of story.)
story-based strategy – a framework that links movement building
with an analysis of narrative power and places storytelling at the center
of social change strategy. e framework provides tools to craft more
effective social change stories, challenge assumptions, intervene in pre-
vailing cultural narratives, and change the story around an issue.
story of the battle – a social change narrative that intends to mobilize
an audience of people who already share political assumptions with the
strategy – a premeditated and systematic plan of action to achieve a
particular goal. Strategy is inseparable from analysis and requires re-
flection and flexibility to adapt to emergent situations.

124 Re:Imagining Change


Further Reading

Adams, Maurianne, Pat Griffin, and Lee A. Bell, eds. Teaching for Diver-
sity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook for Teachers and Trainers. New
York: Routledge, 1997.

Adamson, Joni, Mei M. Evans, and Rachel Stein, eds. The Environmen-
tal Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy. Tucson, AZ: Uni-
versity of Arizona Press, 2002.

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About Center for Story-based Strategy
(formerly smartMeme)

136 Re:Imagining Change

In 2012, as part of celebrating our 10th anniversary, the
smartMeme Strategy & Training Project evolved into the Center
for Story-based Strategy (CSS).

CSS is a national strategy center dedicated to harnessing the
power of narrative for movement building. We use story-based
approaches to amplify the impact of grassroots organizing,
communicate transformative possibilities, and reimagine social
change strategy.

�e organization has trained thousands of organizers and
partnered with hundreds of high-impact organizations to build
shared narratives, frame issues, strengthen alliances, and win
campaigns. CSS has found that story is a powerful tool to reach
across issues, connect generations, and bridge the fault lines of
race, gender, and class. Our impact includes behind-the-scenes
support on scores of campaigns, demonstrations and mass
direct actions, from supporting innovative worker organizing,
to amplifying the voices of indigenous leaders in the United
Nations climate talks to training the Occupy Wall Street media

CSS believes that fundamental social change is not only possible
but urgently needed, and that people-powered grassroots social
movements, led by communities who are most directly a�ected,
are the engines of true social progress. �e organization is

cultivating a thriving community of
innovative practitioners who are changing
the story and changing the world.
Visit us online and get involved at

About the Authors
Doyle Canning is a strategist, trainer, and organizer with a deep
commitment to building 21st century social movements for eco-
logical justice. She came to the smartMeme collective in 2003
after studying critical pedagogy, working as a grassroots organ-
izer, and being banned from Australia for her rab-
ble rousing. As co-director at smartMeme,
Doyle serves social movements a facilitator,
message maker, campaign consultant, and
coach. She is a contributor to Letters from
Young Activists (Nation Books, 2005), and
has served on the advisory funding panel
of the Haymarket People’s Fund, an an-
tiracist social change foundation. Doyle
practices yoga, sings from the heart,
reveres nature, and celebrates life. She lives
in Boston, Massachusetts.

Patrick Reinsborough has been involved in cam-
paigns for peace, the environment, democracy, indigenous
rights and economic justice for over twenty years. He previously
served as the Organizing Director of the Rainforest Action Net-
work where he helped organize mass nonviolent direct actions to
shut down the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization
and the April 2000 meetings of the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund. In 2002 he co-founded the smartMeme strategy
& training project as a vehicle to explore the intersections of social
change strategy, imagination and narrative. Several of his earlier
strategy essays are published in Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot
the System and Build a Better World (City Lights Press 2004) Patrick
spends his time parenting, playing music for his friends, and wan-
dering through the urban wilds of San Francisco.

About SmartMeme 137

PM Press was founded at the end of 2007 by a small collection of folks with
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Contact us for direct ordering and questions about all PM Press releases, as
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In and Out of Crisis
The Global Financial Meltdown and
Left Alternatives
Greg Albo, Sam Gindin, Leo Panitch
$13.95 • 978-1-60486-212-6
160 pages

While many around the globe are increasingly
wondering if another world is indeed possible,
few are mapping out potential avenues—and
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ist future. In this groundbreaking analysis of the

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They deftly illuminate how the era of neoliberal free markets has been, in
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In and Out of Crisis stands to be the enduring critique of the crisis and an
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stead demand public control of the banks and the financial sector,
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the left.”

—Barbara Epstein, author of The Minsk Ghetto 1941–
1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism

Capital and Its Discontents
Conversations with Radical Thinkers
in a Time of Tumult
Sasha Lilley
$20.00 • 978-1-60486-334-5
320 pages

Capitalism is stumbling, empire is faltering, and
the planet is thawing. Yet many people are still
grasping to understand these multiple crises and
to find a way forward to a just future. Into the
breach come the essential insights of Capital
and Its Discontents, which cut through the gris-

tle to get to the heart of the matter about the nature of capitalism and its
inner workings. Through a series of incisive conversations with some of
the most eminent thinkers and political economists on the Left—including
David Harvey, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Mike Davis, Leo Panitch, Tariq Ali, and
Noam Chomsky—Capital and Its Discontents illuminates the dynamic con-
tradictions undergirding capitalism and the potential for its dethroning. At
a moment when capitalism as a system is more reviled than ever, here is an
indispensable toolbox of ideas for action by some of the most brilliant think-
ers of our times.

“These conversations illuminate the current world situation in ways
that are very useful for those hoping to orient themselves and find
a way forward to effective individual and collective action. Highly

—Kim Stanley Robinson, New York Times bestselling author
of the Mars Trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt

“This is an extremely important book. It is the most detailed, com-
prehensive, and best study yet published on the most recent capi-
talist crisis and its discontents. Sasha Lilley sets each interview in
its context, writing with style, scholarship and wit about ideas and

—Andrej Grubacic, radical sociologist and social
critic, co-author of Wobblies and Zapatistas

Global Slump
The Economics and Politics of Crisis
and Resistance
David McNally
$15.95 • 978-1-60486-332-1
176 pages

Global Slump analyzes the world financial melt-
down as the first systemic crisis of the neoliber-
al stage of capitalism. It argues that—far from
having ended—the crisis has ushered in a whole
period of worldwide economic and political tur-
bulence. In developing an account of the crisis as

rooted in fundamental features of capitalism, Global Slump challenges the
view that its source lies in financial deregulation. It offers an original account
of the “financialization” of the world economy and explores the connections
between international financial markets and new forms of debt and dispos-
session, particularly in the Global South. The book shows that, while avert-
ing a complete meltdown, the massive intervention by central banks laid the
basis for recurring crises for poor and working class people. It traces new
patterns of social resistance for building an anti-capitalist opposition to the
damage that neoliberal capitalism is inflicting on the lives of millions.

“In this book, McNally confirms—once again—his standing as one
of the world’s leading Marxist scholars of capitalism. For a scholarly,
in depth analysis of our current crisis that never loses sight of its
political implications (for them and for us), expressed in a language
that leaves no reader behind, there is simply no better place to go.”

—Bertell Ollman, Professor, Department of Politics, NYU, and
author of Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method

“David McNally’s tremendously timely book is packed with signifi-
cant theoretical and practical insights, and offers actually-existing
examples of what is to be done. Global Slump urgently details how
changes in the capitalist space-economy over the past 25 years, es-
pecially in the forms that money takes, have expanded wide-scale
vulnerabilities for all kinds of people, and how people fight back. In
a word, the problem isn’t neo-liberalism—it’s capitalism.”

—Ruth Wilson Gilmore, University of Southern
California and author, Golden Gulag

The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse
and Rebirth
Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie
Yuen, and James Davis
Foreword by Doug Henwood
$16.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60486-589-9
192 Pages

We live in catastrophic times. The world is reeling
from the deepest economic crisis since the Great
Depression, with the threat of further meltdowns

ever-looming. Global warming and myriad dire ecological disasters wors-
en—with little if any action to halt them—their effects rippling across the
planet in the shape of almost biblical floods, fires, droughts, and hurricanes.
Governments warn that there is no alternative to the bitter medicine they
prescribe—or risk devastating financial or social collapse. The right, whether
religious or secular, views the present as catastrophic and wants to turn the
clock back. The left fears for the worst, but hopes some good will emerge
from the rubble. Visions of the apocalypse and predictions of impending
doom abound. Across the political spectrum, a culture of fear reigns.

Catastrophism explores the politics of apocalypse—on the left and right, in
the environmental movement—and examines why the lens of catastrophe
can distort our understanding of the dynamics at the heart of these numer-
ous disasters—and fatally impede our ability to transform the world. Lilley,
McNally, Yuen, and Davis probe the reasons why catastrophic thinking is so
prevalent, and challenge the belief that it is only out of the ashes that a better
society may be born. The authors argue that those who care about social
justice and the environment should jettison doomsaying—even as it relates
to indisputably apocalyptic climate change. Far from calling people to arms,
they suggest, catastrophic fear often results in passivity and paralysis—and,
at worst, reactionary politics.

“In an age when even Mayan prophecies of the end of the long cycle
are turned into prophecies of doom and destruction, this book offers a
reasoned and lucid alternative understanding. Definitive and momen-
tous, this book should be mandatory reading for everyone who wishes
to comprehend the world we live in and change it for the better.”

—George Katsiaficas, author of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings

Organizing Cools the Planet
Tools and Reflections to Navigate
the Climate Crisis
Joshua Kahn Russell and
Hilary Moore
$6.95 • ISBN: 978-1-60486-443-4
64 Pages

Organizing Cools the Planet offers a challenge
to all concerned about the ecological crisis: find
your frontline. This booklet weaves together sto-
ries, analysis, organizing tools, and provocative

questions, to offer a snapshot of the North American Climate Justice move-
ment and provide pathways for readers to participate in it. Authors share
hard lessons learned, reflect on strategy, and grapple with the challenges of
their roles as organizers who do not come from “frontline communities” but
work to build a movement big enough for everyone and led by the priori-
ties and solutions of low-income people, communities of color, Indigenous,
youth, and other constituencies most directly impacted by the crisis. Rooted
in the authors’ experiences organizing in local, national, and international
arenas, they challenge readers to look at the scale of ecological collapse with
open eyes, without falling prey to disempowering doomsday narratives. This
booklet is for anyone who wants to build a movement with the resiliency to
navigate one of the most rapid transitions in human history.

“There is no task more urgent than to organize a mass popular
movement to deal effectively with the looming environmental cri-
sis. The barriers are high, the forces opposed powerful. All the more
reason to dedicate ourselves to the kinds of efforts outlined Joshua
Kahn Russell and Hilary Moore’s booklet.”

—Noam Chomsky

“In an atmosphere heavy with doomsday predictions and fear, this
pamphlet is a breath of fresh air. Joshua Kahn Russell and Hilary
Moore weave together stories and organizing tools to create a vision
for practical transition amid the climate crisis. Organizing Cools the
Planet confronts pressing questions of our time.”

—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Founding Director,
Indigenous World Association

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