The activist spirit flourishes in times of large-scale turmoil, and, not surprisingly, one of the ways this spirit manifests is in activist groups—bands of like-minded individuals who team up for a common cause. Finding ourselves in such a moment—arguably the first in at least a generation—we thought it wise to acquaint ourselves with those who came before. Armed with #squadgoals and a quiver of clever tactics, these groups were able to leave a greater mark together than any one individual.
Beginning around 1900, these Germans youths were the proto-hippies. Formed as a reaction to the militarization and industrialization of Germany, the idea was to shake off the restrictions of society and retreat to nature. Not surprisingly, their ethos was absorbed into the American countercultural movement.
Wacky, absurd, illogical, and confounding, the Dada cultural movement emerged around the turn of the 20th century. Primarily involved in the visual and written arts, the aesthetic goal was to revolt and offend. As Hugo Ball wrote in his Dada Manifesto, “How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada.” Confused? Good.
Marxism for the computer age, the Situationists held that “advanced capitalism” was just as soul-crushing as the old-fashioned, work-in-a-factory capitalism. They argue that apparent advancements—such as iPhones, beach houses, and Lasik—will never outweigh the social dysfunction and degradation of everyday life that comes with them. True, true. They shunned mass media, dubbed “The Spectacle,” in favor of authentic experience, leaving behind an eternal vision of hope for a happier life.
Founded by Harry Hay and a group of his male friends in Los Angeles, the Mattachine Society was one of the first, if not the first, gay rights organizations in the United States. Senator McCarthy’s wet dream, the group was equal parts communist and gay. Indeed, because of the intense anticommunist sentiment sweeping the nation, they adapted to become strictly a civil rights organization.
As black male artists started to finally get their due, they conveniently forgot something: their female counterparts. This led a group of black women artists—largely neglected by the Black Arts Movement, Women’s Liberation, and the feminist art movement—to form Where We At. The group used art as a tool to empower the black community and bring awareness to their experiences.
An interdisciplinary group of artists, composers, designers, poets, and all-around misfits, they liked their art weird and far afield of traditional contexts. Theaters and galleries were “mummifying.” The original crew lived in a warehouse on Greene Street in New York with a membership that included Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Nam June Paik, La Monte Young, and Yoko Ono. When you see a pile of sand in the corner of a gallery, you can thank Fluxus.
Yippies (who later came up with the official party name “Youth International Party” so mainstream media would take them seriously) were headquartered in New York City.Famous for their street theater and pranks, they were nicknamed the Groucho Marxists and, in one famous stunt, ran a pig named Pigasus the Immortal in the 1968 presidential election. Their pranksters-with-a-point ethos can be seen all over popular culture to this day. The Baltimore chapter featured none other than a young John Waters.
Never underestimate a high school student. Mexican-American teens in the Los Angeles area came together to form the Young Chicanos for Community Action, which soon lead to national chapters in several cities. They took a nod from the Black Panther Party and donned military attire and brown berets, the latter of which becoming their moniker. They focus their efforts on farm workers’ rights, education reform, and community service, and stage badass protests to fight police brutality.
The Radical Faeries are a beautiful mélange of hippie and gay culture, Marxism, new age spirituality, paganism, and plain old forest orgies, thank you very much. Faerie was chosen in reference to both the immortal animistic spirits of European folklore as well as a reappropriation of the gay slur. The movement is a reaction against the conformist heterosexual parody that characterizes mainstream gay culture.
Nuns still got it. Plowshares is a Christian pacifist group that breaks into nuclear facilities and wreaks (nonviolent) havoc, like pouring blood on files and defacing missiles. In 2012, an 82-year-old nun and two others breached security at a U.S. Department of Energy security complex. They were unarmed. The government had to temporarily shut the place down and think about maybe beefing up security.
Guerrilla Girls is an anonymous group of female artists (their identities hidden by gorilla masks) devoted to fighting sexism and racism in the art world. Through posters, billboards, and public appearances, they reveal the exclusionary nature of an art establishment that purports to be liberal-minded but abounds in misogyny and racism all the same. Anonymity is used to make sure that the message remains more important than the messengers.
This group of “community anarchists” in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was composed of improvisational actors and hippies who sought to create a little world free of money. They threw free parties, staged wild happenings, opened free medical clinics and stores (yes, free stores), and gave food to the homeless.
Never underestimate the power of a single profound act of protest. The Americans with Disabilities Act, a bill that outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities, languished in Congress for years…that is, until March 12, 1990 when hundreds of people with disabilities pulled themselves up the Capitol Building’s steps in an act of protest, ultimately pushing lawmakers to pass the bill and President George H.W. Bush to sign it into law.