This review is part of a series reviewing books on activism and art/creativity. See the first post here.
It’s ambitious to try and turn the messy, irreverent accumulation of activists and organizers into a useful reference book, but I think Andrew Boyd has successfully assembled a “toolbox for revolution” which is…actually pretty useful.
Organized into Tactics, Principles, Theories, Case Studies and Practitioners, Beautiful Trouble ties concrete strategies and tactics to on-the-ground examples, while the Principles and Theories sections provide a conceptual framework. Readers who want more intellectual challenge may find the latter section sparse, but any more content would become divisive.
And striking this balance is what makes the book effective at pointing readers toward more radical action without alienating them from the start. This approach almost inevitably results in watered-down content, but Beautiful Trouble seems to have escaped that fate. In any given article, a sidebar with summaries, practitioners, epigraphs and further insight points to longer, more in-depth texts on the same subject. Or just new things to Google.
Beautiful Trouble claims solidarity with both mainstream-ish organizers and radicals/extremists, but is definitely directed towards the former. If the latter group had assembled this book, it wouldn’t be so readable or pragmatic. If the former had, it would be less cool. And thus the book’s wide range of liberal-to-radical content is impressive: from basics like Creative Petition Delivery and Blockade to creative actions like Public Filibuster and Electoral Guerrilla Theater, the collection pushes traditional notions of activism without awkwardly bumping up against “diversity of tactics.” A typical liberal may recognize contributor names on the cover like the Yes Men and Billionaires for Bush, but the guts of the book also nod to IWW, Earth First! and Otpor.
The real strength of Beautiful Trouble is its fastidious cross-referencing and organization—it’s as though a branch of inter-linked Wikipedia articles was cleaned up and printed. Even for someone flailing around in the world of guerrilla tactics and dancing on the line between art and direct action (i.e. me), the neatly interconnected content was both useful and grounding.
I have to admit that in one sense, the book’s overall cohesion—radical, nonviolent, creative, practical—doesn’t always jive with me. Feels restrained, maybe. In other words, I didn’t finish reading with an adrenaline rush, like I have in the past. But in some greater context where this book is just picked up by a stranger, left on the shelf at libraries and coffeeshops, it’s probably more important that the book bring people in than piss people off; that it include all relevant material than have a tightly directed experience.
But hands down, the best part of the book is the fact that its process was deeply intertwined with (and interrupted by) Occupy last summer; for all parties involved, action takes priority. After police dismantled Occupy (or did they?), the resulting book is a damn good gateway drug for liberals.
P.S. Much of the content in the book is available for free online—because why would you keep liberated knowledge locked up?
Bottom line: Place Beautiful Trouble in the context of books about activism and action; and in that place it’s a gem.