11 Books About Political Dissent For Your Civil Disobedience Reading List
By now, you’ve heard the chants: “ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop,” and “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (“the people united will never be defeated,”) and still others. And while the streets of cities large and small, all over the United States and the world, have been a tad more filled than usual lately, the fact is that protesting is nothing new. Political dissent has a long and vibrant history in America — a history practically as old as the United States themselves. So old, in fact, that peaceful protest is a right protected by the Constitution itself (so don’t let anyone tell you differently!)
It’s clear that we’ve got a lot of protesting ahead of us now, but before you gear up for that next march, consider taking some time to learn from the dissenters, protesters, and political activists who were sitting at lunch counters, chaining themselves to redwood trees, and marching in the streets long before November 8, 2016. There are tons of great books about protesting, picketing, and raising your voice against injustices — and they’ll not only inspire you, they’ll help you put your own experience of protest into a larger historical context. Because although it might feel like it sometimes, we’re definitely not alone at this moment in history.
Here are 12 titles to add to your civil disobedience reading list.
1. ‘Dissent: The History of an American Idea’ by Ralph Young
A must-read for anyone interested in how dissent, protest, and other acts of civil disobedience have shaped the United States, Ralph Young’s Dissent: The History of an American Idea is a well-researched, 600-plus page tome that covers both the liberal and conservative movements that changed American history. From the 17th century through today, activist movements manned by ordinary U.S. citizens and residents have been an essential element of the American identity — and we definitely can’t stop marching now.
2. ‘If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance’ by Angela Y. Davis
Angela Y. Davis has dedicated much of her life of political activism to the cause of prisoner rights and fighting against the prison industrial complex. In the 1970s Davis was prosecuted for conspiracy involving the armed take-over of a California courtroom, though she was later acquitted in a federal trial — and her essay collection, If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, uses this event as a jumping off point for discussing the experience of the political prisoner, and how incarceration has historically been used as a tool of the state to marginalize and silence political dissenters.
3. ‘How Change Happens’ by Duncan Green
Duncan Green is an international development blogger and Senior Strategic Adviser to Oxfam Great Britain, and his book, How Change Happens, connects the theories and philosophies of social justice with actual activist practices in order to demonstrate how change is possible in the real world. Published this past December and pulling on first-hand examples from the global experiences of Oxfam, one of the world's largest social justice NGOs, this book acts like a practical guide for how to change the world.
4. ‘Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action’ edited by Anne Waldman and Lisa Birman
Filled with essays, lectures and teaching materials by political poets and scholars, Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action explores everything from the history of poetry and its craft, to the political function of poetry in the United States and around the world. Edited by Anne Waldman and Lisa Birman, this collection demonstrates how poetry and art are essential tools for engaging the larger society in all kinds of issues, from human rights to climate change, and more.
5. ‘Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing’ edited by Frances Payne Adler, Debra Busman, and Diana García
Another collection of beautiful, passionate, politically engaged writing, Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing features poetry, interviews, and essays designed to break silences, inspire resistance and resilience, and challenge the status quo. Bringing together the voices of writers and activists like Gloria Anzaldúa, June Jordan, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Arundhati Roy, Sonia Sanchez, Patti Smith, Alice Walker, and many more, this collection will leave you inspired and empowered.
6. ‘The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution’ by Micah White
From Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, the past decade has born witness to some serious protest movements — but you might be asking yourself (especially after the last U.S. presidential election) if such movements have really inspired change, and if so, with any kind of longevity? What constitutes a “successful” protest, and what does it really take to make major social and political change through civil disobedience and direct action? Micah White, co-creator of the original idea for the Occupy Wall Street protests, asks these questions and more in his 2016 book The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution — and it’s a playbook we should all be taking notes from right now.
7. ‘Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today’ by John Holloway
The history and evolution of political activism is as multi-layered as the history and evolution of politics themselves — and as John Holloway illuminates in his 2002 title Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, recent history has transformed social movements (at least in the West) from fights to claim state power into fights against state power, inherently changing the form and function of “revolution”. Offering readers a re-thinking of both the Marxist and Anarchist principles that have, in-part, informed social movements for generations, Holloway’s book is an essential read for understanding the philosophies that modern protest is built upon.
8. ‘Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian’ by Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn was once arrested during a protest for “failing to quit” — a charge that inspired the title of this essay collection and it’s writing. In Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian, Zinn stares down the failings and flaws of the United States, taking a hard look at actions, policies, and politics that would send most activists into hopelessness — and still he leaves you feeling inspired to take action. This book is a reminder to claim your power and to stand up for what is right, even when it means taking big risks.
9. ‘Steal This Book’ by Abbie Hoffman
For what it’s worth, I will say that I think a lot of Abbie Hoffman’s ideas were over-the-top insane — and I am definitely not the advocate for anarchy that he was. But, as a prominent figure in the American social and cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Hoffman’s sometimes-outrageous advice to activists is worth revisiting; especially in another era when extreme politics might call for extreme resistance. First published in 1971, Steal This Book is a cult classic of hippie literature.
10. ‘Civil Disobedience’ by Henry David Thoreau
You might have had your fill of Henry David Thoreau in 11th grade English class, but some of the world’s most successful and celebrated activists (think: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi) have turned to Civil Disobedience throughout history for inspiration and guidance. Originally published in 1849 as an act of public resistance against unjust laws and government authority, Thoreau advocates for breaking the law if the law is unjust — and I am just so down with that right now.
11. ‘Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities’ by Rebecca Solnit
Originally published in 2004, re-issued last year, and offered as a free download in the days after 45’s electoral upset (because we seriously needed it) Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories is a book that will dig all the way down beneath your fear, frustration, hopelessness, exhaustion, and despair in order to remind you that not only is overcoming injustices (albeit over and over again) possible, but also that sustained activism is not possible without hope. And with decades of experience as an activist herself, Solnit knows her stuff.
12. ‘Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement’ by Angela Y. Davis
A second title on this list by author and activist Angela Davis, the recently-published collection of Davis’s essays, interviews, and speeches takes readers from the Black Freedom Movement to the South African anti-Apartheid movement, from Ferguson to Palestine, demonstrating the connections shared by social justice movements and resistances against violently oppressive states throughout history. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement calls for continuing the work of liberation, reminding readers that freedom isn’t fought for just once, but over and over again.