Microactivism

I have developed some habits of action that I try to follow when I am out in the world — small gestures or practices that I hope make our society a somewhat better place. But after reflecting on them, I’ve realized that some don’t do much good unless shared. So I pass these along to you, in hopes that you may find them useful.

I doubt I invented the term “microactivism,” which I derive from the term “Microaggressions,” referring to the small assaults on human dignity that women, LGBTQ people, ethnic minorities, and (occasionally) straight white men run into on a daily basis in this society.

My “microactivism” may in fact be too small to have any effect, but I still do these things anyway. Better to light a single candle, etc.

Unlike my other posts, I may update this one from time to time as more ideas come to me — and if any of you out in the audience have ideas or practices of your own, put them down in the comments! I’d love to get some talking going. 

1. Benches

This is one of my oldest. Since I began relying on the bus as my sole means of transportation, I’ve always noticed the benches in the bus tunnel in downtown Seattle. The benches are big enough for two people, but always have some hump or ridge separating the two seats. This is specifically so that homeless people do not lie down on them.

I never sit down on such benches. If I sit down in the bus tunnel, I sit on the ground. This may technically be illegal — due to a city ordinance again aimed at the homeless — but I don’t care, nor has anyone ever bothered me. I doubt that I fit the target demographic for that law’s enforcement.

2. Rape Comments

Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” once said that he felt rape was a “natural instinct” for men. As a result I have given up my prior daily practice of reading Dilbert. This probably has no effect on Adams in the slightest, meaning it hurts me more than it helps women, but I’m still standing by it. Unless he has retracted the statement, of course; I’ll confess I have not been following the issue.

On a related note, I once followed a website called “Five-Second Films,” which made funny, often absurdist movies that were literally five seconds long. A surprising amount of humor could be packed into that amount of time, if you were able to connect the dots. But one day they made a prison rape joke, and I have never gone back to the site since.

3. “Street Therapy”

As part of my mostly-Christian belief, I do try to give money to people on the street. But as I wrote elsewhere, giving money is, in a way, the least I can do. So for some I try to stop and talk. About two years ago, I gave five dollars to a group of men and asked their names; one, Dewayne, I still see pretty regularly from time to time. I’ve written about my friend Ron, too. I’ve gotten to know a few “Real Change” vendors, and whenever I pass someone selling the paper and can’t buy a copy, or already have mine, I still nod and say hello.

Simply acknowledging their existence, I hear, is a big help. Remembering them might be still more. Asking how things are going, and listening to the answers, is what I call “street therapy.” They need a chance to get things off their chests, too — especially on bad days, when no one’s giving anything away, and they’re facing a cold and hungry night ahead. I’m no therapist, but at least I’m a human being who’s actually paying attention.

Moreover, sometimes simply seeing another person is a huge blessing. In Madison Valley, a rather upscale neighborhood, I once encountered a black woman who had run out of gas and left her wallet at home. She had probably had a rough life — her teeth, for instance, were a little battered — but she was well-dressed, well-spoken, and clearly absolutely honest, offering both corroboration for her story and collateral for a loan. Yet because she was black in an upscale and white part of town, no one was talking to her. “I was starting to wonder, ‘Am I even visible?'” she told me. I gave her some cash to get her on her way.

4. A Little Respect

Related to that last story, I like to say, “Thank you, sir,” or “thank you, ma’am,” to black bus drivers when I get off. Saying “sir” cannot wipe out years of “coon” and “boy,” but maybe it can help a little.

5. A Little Respect, Pt. 2

I try not to talk down to children, of any age. Sometimes this gets me into trouble; the other day, because I hadn’t heard what he was saying, I asked a toddler to repeat himself in the same way I would have if he were my own age…

6. Ways of Paying

When I go to local stores, or to the farmer’s markets, I try to bring cash, so that they don’t have to pay the credit card fee.

On the flip side, when paying at a larger chain that I am less happy with, I sometimes go out of my way to pay with a card.

7. Talking to a Brick Wall

Seattle is a fairly flyer-intensive city, including a lot of activist postings. One was interesting but written rather opaquely. I took a pen from my pocket and wrote a note on the flyer saying as much. Another time, a flyer intended to make people think pointed out that black women had a lower income, or something related to that. Someone had come by and written his own comment saying, in essence, that black women deserved it. I again pulled out my pen and wrote, underneath the comment, “Why?”

My Bic is limited in what it can write on, however, so I am thinking of carrying a Sharpie with me in the future. Or bringing sticky notes. There are some instances of profane graffiti where I’d like to again ask “Why?” or simply say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

In this case, the microactivism is less aimed at the originator of the comment or flyer, but at other people who might see it — a way of reminding people that dialogue is possible, perhaps, or reminding us that we need not simply sit there inert, passively accepting and not interacting with all the messages that bombard us.

Once I actually removed a comment entirely: it was a sticker on a bus stop sign that spoke in extremely racist terms about Latin Americans. I took my keys and scraped it off. This does have the effect of silencing dialogue, rather than creating it, but I am not certain that dialogue would have been possible with such a mind anyway. Moreover I was helping clean up public property.

8. Occupy the Mail

Not an original idea to me by any means, but I’m getting to do this for the first time today, so I’m excited about it. When banks or credit card companies send me unwanted offers, I don’t trash them; I put a wooden shim in the “business reply envelope” and mail it back to the bank. The wood increases the weight and makes the mail impossible to bend, both of which raise the price. Since the banks pay the Post Office for business reply mail, this means that the banks have to give the Post Office more money, which I feel is all to the good. I write “Occupy the Mail” on the shims, and include a quick note which tells the person opening the mail that I’m not mad at them personally, just at their bosses, the bank CEOs. I also tell them to watch out for splinters.

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One thought on “Microactivism

  1. These are more social than political, but:

    If I see someone — friend or stranger — wearing something I like, I compliment it. It puts a smile on their face, and it’s free for me to do.

    I always try to chat with taxi drivers. They’re almost always overworked immigrants, and they have some pretty amazing stories sometimes.

    Less now because I’m quitting, but I always gave smokes to anyone who asked for one. Oftentimes this would lead to conversations with homeless people, too; smoking with someone is an extremely opening and communal activity.

    I do buy Real Change, when I can. I am wary of giving cash to people on the street (I don’t want to support bad habits), but of they’re selling Real Change, then I figure they are hooked up to a support network that is at least trying to take care of them.

    I’ve also paid peoples’ bus fare, let them use my phone, and given people food when asked, for the same reason… You can see where it is going, and you know it’s something that’s good for them or that they need.

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