'Steal This Country' By Alexandra Styron Is Both A Celebration Of Youth Activists & A Guide For Kids Who Don't Know Where To Start
The kids are fighting back. Maybe they've been inspired by years of watching and reading resistance, in the form of The Hunger Games or Harry Potter series. Or, more likely, they've just finally reached their limit with political incompetence. When teenagers and their allies descend upon Washington, D.C. and cities throughout the country this weekend for the March for Our Lives to protest the NRA and advocate for gun control, the message will be loud and clear: The kids are not messing around.
A new book, Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence and Fixing Almost Everything, is an activist guide for young people. Written by Alexandra Styron, it also features personal accounts from young activists like Tokata Iron Eyes, who has worked to protect her community from the Dakota Access Pipeline since childhood; immigration activist Lisette Diaz; as well as celebrities like Shailene Woodley, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and BD Wong, all of whom have been vocal and active about the political and social issues facing American today.
The book doesn't hit bookstores until Sept. 4, but below, you can read about the author's unusual inspiration: a 1960s guide to resistance written by the founder of the Youth International Party.
Introduction: On Making Good Trouble, Finding Joy, and Getting Down with the Underground Fungus
One day in 1970, a guy named Abbie Hoffman started writing a book. Hoffman was a true rebel. Smart, righteous, and big on theatrics, he made a name for himself as a kind of professional disrupter during the protest movements of the 1960s. In fact, at the moment he started writing, he was sitting in a jail cell, on trial for his role in the violence that shook Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
You’ve probably heard about the summer of '68. It was a pretty messed-up time. The United States was in the middle of a long, bloody, and unpopular war in Vietnam. The struggle for civil rights raged on. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. So had Senator Robert F. Kennedy. All over the country, college students and other protestors were marching against war and injustice, risking their safety, demanding to be heard. Hoffman, a cofounder of the Youth International Party, aka the Yippies, had urged his followers to come to Chicago for their own alternate “convention.” That August, thousands of passionate activists descended on the city, where they were confronted by a massive show of force from police and National Guardsmen. Peaceful protest turned quickly to heated violence. Hundreds of people on both sides were injured; hundreds were also arrested. Abbie Hoffman and six other organizers were charged with multiple offenses, including crossing state lines to incite a riot.
" All over the country, college students and other protestors were marching against war and injustice, risking their safety, demanding to be heard."
While the "Chicago Seven" awaited their verdict, Hoffman wrote the first pages of Steal This Book. It was a manifesto of sorts, aimed at young people, in which he suggested various ways to fight the Establishment. That included the government, big business, parents, basically everyone with power. Some of his advice was practical: what to wear to demonstrations, how to organize in your city. Some of it was provocative: how to Dumpster dive for free food, how to start an underground press. And some—how to shoplift, ways to make a homemade bomb — was totally bananas, and also illegal.
"While the "Chicago Seven" awaited their verdict, Hoffman wrote the first pages of Steal This Book. It was a manifesto of sorts, aimed at young people, in which he suggested various ways to fight the Establishment."
Hoffman had a very hard time getting his book published. And when he did, many bookstores didn’t want to carry it because people kept stealing the book. Somehow, though, Hoffman’s work became a best seller, which was ironic: mainstream success didn’t exactly fit his counterculture image.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the 1960s. Because once again, it’s getting real. The 2016 election was, we now know, compromised by interference by Russia. President Donald Trump won the electoral college by seventy-seven votes, but lost the popular vote by a margin of almost three million. Since taking control of the White House, the new administration has pushed legislation that discriminates against Muslims, threatens women’s health, diminishes LGBTQIA rights, marginalizes immigrants, defunds arts institutions, rolls back education standards, harms the environment, and takes meals from hungry children. President Trump has advocated for the repeal of a healthcare system that insures millions of hardworking citizens, and he’s moving us dangerously close to a nuclear standoff with North Korea.
Just as in the '60s, it feels like the people in control of things are operating outside our best interests. They don’t understand us and they don’t care about the things that matter to us.
Has all of this stuff made you angry? Good. It ought to.
But don’t let that anger make you feel helpless—because you’re not.
Yes, old people got the country into this mess. But you can help get us out. And though you may not be able to vote yet, your voice can still be heard. It should be heard!
"Just as in the '60s, it feels like the people in control of things are operating outside our best interests. They don’t understand us and they don’t care about the things that matter to us."
Let’s be clear: we’re not recommending you blow stuff up. In fact, we like this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon that cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
Still, we think Hoffman was onto something. Like all great rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries, he understood that morality is mightier than authority, and that there are times when you have to do a few things “wrong” in order to make a lot of things right. The great civil rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis calls it getting into “good trouble.” “Sometimes,” he says, “you have to get in the way.”
"Like all great rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries, he understood that morality is mightier than authority, and that there are times when you have to do a few things “wrong” in order to make a lot of things right."
In the pages ahead, you’ll hear about all kinds of people who have gotten themselves into good trouble. People who stood up, sat down, walked out. Who spoke up when silence was expected; who told the truth when it would have been much easier to lie. Some troublemakers have gone to prison. Some have risked their lives. Many of them are leaders who became famous for their efforts. Many more are foot soldiers in the struggle whose contributions are no less important. And they all share a few familiar characteristics:
They were teenagers once. Just like you.
They were curious. Just like you.
They were thoughtful. Just like you.
The people you’ll read about in Steal This Country also share another thing: they’ve all seen injustice in the world around them and instead of being paralyzed by despair, they became energized by hope. Positive change requires hope. It’s the spark that lights the flame. To make a difference, you have to believe that better things are possible, even if attaining them means long or hard work.
Which brings us to fungus. The writer and activist Rebecca Solnit uses an interesting metaphor to talk about the way social justice movements work. “After a rain,” she says, “mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown.” Great movements are similar. Everything seems quiet and orderly and then — boom! — four-million-plus people are demonstrating in Women’s Marches all over the globe. As Solnit points out, it appears “spontaneous” but in truth “less visible long-term organizing and groundwork—or underground work—often laid the foundation.”
"Great movements are similar. Everything seems quiet and orderly and then — boom! — four-million-plus people are demonstrating in Women’s Marches all over the globe."
A lot of this book is devoted to the fungus. We’ve explored dozens of ways to engage in social activism. Some of them are splashy and fast and will get lots of attention; other methods require organizing and planning and long-term commitments. We like to think you’ll be interested in both. Because mushrooms are awesome on the surface, but they can’t thrive without the fungus underneath.
That doesn’t mean activism is dark and dreary! On the contrary, all that good trouble and hard work and hope should also add up to joy. Joy in being part of a movement, joy in the sense of belonging to a community, joy in living your life with purpose, joy in the knowledge that the world will be better for your passion and your commitment.
Joy is not the same thing as fun. It’s deeper than fun. More exciting, too. And if that spark of hope catches, what’s to stop you from setting the world on fire?