Activism in the U.S.

Based on our conversation about European activism from a historical perspective, what can you say about US activism? How is it defined by specific (historical, cultural, etc.) features? Feel free to use visual aids (photos, drawings, graphs etc.) to reinforce your point.

Analyzing the different perceptions of activism for both regions has to go back to the foundational level of each region. America is a settler-colonial nation and racism has been an integral part of it since its inception. The capitalistic model established within the country depends on the extraction of labor and even after slavery was abolished, the country’s form of discrimination was not disassembled. It was simply rebranded. The same violence has been perpetuated by our current institutions. By establishing the police in order to ‘protect’ white people’s property from newly freed enslaved black people, segregationist policies, the prison industry complex and more, systemic racism in America cannot be solved by simply acknowledging the violence perpetrated against black people. Activists in the U.S. have formed a movement that is pushing for radical change, not just reform. The system was never intended to be equal and people are beginning to realize it. The current movement has highlighted this point through popular sayings like ‘defund the police’. The reason I believe this strongly differs from activism in France and Italy is because activism in these countries have focused on economic systems like neoliberalism. While it’s not an easy task, the problems stemming from neoliberal policies take much less time to address because they are as deeply ingrained as the racist institutions in America. This is not to say that France and Italy do not have systemic racism, just that America’s has been exceptionally cruel. For example, American racism was the blueprint for Hitler’s model. A quote on a poster says it best: “Racism Is So American That When You Protest It, People Think You Are Protesting America”.

U.S. Activism

Comparing activism in the United States versus activism in Europe is interesting because the cultural and historical differences become much more apparent. I admit that I may be missing some nuance from both sides of the conversation, it seems that activism in the United States is defined by demographic difference, while activism in Europe is defined by socio-economic class solidarity. By demographic difference, I am mainly referring to racial and gender & sexuality differences. The United States has a deeply racist history, from slavery to Jim Crow and the current police brutality epidemic. Moreover, the powers that be in the United States have spent decades pretending that the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s ended racism in the country.

This dynamic creates a very interesting environment for the types of protests, rallies and riots that are seen in the United States. An important point is that with racial equality and LGBTQ+ activism, the participants are protesting against fellow citizens as much as they are protesting the government and corporations. The fight against Separate but Equal is an example of this, where the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that racial segregation did not ensure equality for black students and students of color. This led to pushback from white community, and was therefore a factor in the civil rights movement of the 60s. Moreover, the Stonewall Inn riots from around the same time showcase the importance of identity politics within American activist movements as the LGTBQ+ rioters protested against the unfair treatment of queer people in New York. This highlights another factor in American activism, which is the relatively violent force used by American police against protestors.  The United States is very proud of its military force, which trickles down to the local city police forces as demonstrated by the gear worn by police during Black Lives Matter protests.

Activism in the US: Protests and Social Media

When I think of US activism my mind fills with images of Americans demanding social, economic, environmental, and political changes throughout history. I believe protests are one of the largest elements of activism in the United States, beginning with the Revolutionary war. In 1773  colonists protested “taxation without representation” with the Boston Tea Party. Since then protests have continued to be a huge element of American activism. Since the 18th-century significant protests have included those by the suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement, Stonewall the Women’s March, the Climate Strike, and the ongoing George Floyd protests. In a capitalist country that focuses on productivity, disrupting the norm is a powerful way to draw attention to pressing issues.

The rise of social media has also shaped activism in the US, particularly expanding the awareness and reach of protests. While social media certainly isn’t unique to the US, it has played a huge role in shaping activism in the 21 century. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been utilized to rapidly spread information and resources across the country.  The Women’s March in 2017, was shared through a Facebook event and infographics on Instagram. Similarly, social media has played a critical role in coordinating efforts across all 50 states for the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Activism has taken the shape of sharing information on what is going on, why it matters, what can be done, historical context, and countless other resources.

American culture focuses on individualism, and social media provides a place where people can share their own opinions and take individual action- such as sharing activism centered posts to their page. One danger of this, however, is an increase in performance activism. As the usage of social media increases, I believe it will continue to become an important part of activism in the US.

US activism, the Revolutionary War and the 60’s

In the US, activism is defined by with two time periods: the Revolutionary War period and the 60’s. In the build up to the Revolutionary War, colonists illustrated activism by protesting against the actions of their mother country. This was done using propaganda, boycotts and specific demonstrative events such as the Boston Tea Party. In comparison, in the 60’s there were a multitude of different protest movements including but not limited to, the protests against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Protests which included protests against injustice based on race, gender and disability.

Activism in these two time periods are particularly notable because of their impact on the US. Following the Revolutionary War and the acts of activism that took place during the war, the Constitution was written with the First Amendment specifically being written to protest citizen’s right to protest and voice their displeasure with the government. This Amendment has been evoked multiple times in US history and is what allowed the activism in the 1960’s to take place. The activism that took place in this time period is particularly notable due to the role of media. As discussed in class, photographs and TV allowed others to see what the protests were like, including how they sometimes descended into violence. Furthermore, the activism in the 60’s were impactful because the methods used to protest set a precedent for today. People often protested by participating in sit ins and marches, gathering to support and listen to notable speakers. These shows of activism occurred across the country, allowing the activism in the time period to exist on a large scale. As illustrated by the current acts of activism, these large scale demonstrations occurring across the country still happens today.

Overall, the while the Revolutionary War period made activism legal and began to normalize it, it was the 60’s that finished normalizing activism and provided precedents for acts of activism. In this way, these two time periods defined activism in the US.

Activism in Europe vs the USA

When I think of activism in Europe and activism in the United States, for some reason activism in Europe seems more violent overtly, whereas activism in the USA definitely seems violent, but seems to contain more covert state sanctioned violence. When I google ‘mai 68 Paris’ for the student protests in France, some of the first pictures that show up include violent confrontations between students and the police.

Similarly, in the case of activism in Italy, I think about ‘gli anni di piombo’, or the years of lead. A tumultuous period in Italian history, that saw many violent attacks, including the bomb explosion in the National Bank in Milano in 1969 and the attack on the train station in Bologna on August 2nd 1980.

To me it seems that in both France and Italy, activism and protests took place with overt use of violence.

Alternatively, when I think about activism in the United States of America, it seems more peaceful from the side of the protestors, while the police backed by the state has been inherently violent, specifically towards Black people. Consider for example the Black Panthers. Their activism did not at all start out violently, yet they were crushed by covert state sanctioned violence. Going back to the year 1968, the treasurer of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Hutton, died at the hands of police violence in Oakland, California, while Hutton was in the process of surrendering. Additionally, the FBI infiltrated the Black Panther Party with the aim to ‘neutralize’ the Black nationalist movement. However, ‘neutralizing’ in this case referred to actively jailing and assassinating many Black Panthers. It therefore seems to me that the US government crushed the movement by means of covert violence, assassinating even some members while they were sleeping – which unfortunately resembles the recent assassination of Breonna Taylor.

“the fascist [government] have already decided in advance to murder Chairman Bobby Seale in the electric chair.” Emory Douglas, March 15, 1970, in Sam Durant, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, (New York: Rizzoli, 2014), 47.


Though freedom of speech and assembly are in theory legal in both France / Italy and the United States, the violent response of the US government shows that this right of activism through protesting is not always respected.

Copenhagen & Nairobi

The main similarity that I can see is the role of the community at large and how they facilitated these positive policies. In Copenhagen, through bike-friendly changes in the city’s infrastructure and other sustainable investments, citizens are now empowered and feel its their duty to contribute to the city’s sustainable changes. I sensed this was similar to the water development project in Nairobi because while it received subsidies from the World Bank, it needed a local bank to take the risk and front the 6 million USD. It can be assumed that an investment of 6 million USD is not something banks take lightly. The fact that it was purposefully invested in the community shows a transition in the behavioral decisions of private businesses that are essential for the development of these cities. Its almost as if its…. all interdependent?

I believe that while Copenhagen definitely has a head start because of it’s developed infrastructure, Nairobi has immense opportunities to implement policies and create a general culture that influences the behavioral decisions of its communities to create positive change within their communities. These projects not only add additional money into the pockets of regular citizens, they enable the development of larger, more complex projects that will be necessary if cities are to be truly climate-resilient. It also creates opportunities for innovation because the city’s infrastructure and systems can think outside of having to be dependent on fossil fuels for their end goals.

Sustainable Development Never Ends

A comparison of the videos about Copenhagen and Nairobi highlights two facts about sustainability: that sustainability does not refer solely to environmental health and that sustainability is dynamic. The FreeThink video shows the process behind Copenhagen’s impressive act of reducing carbon emissions while growing in population size. It portrays how the collaborative efforts between private sector companies, local government and citizens can have amazing results regarding the sustainable development goals. It also proves that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Similarly, the World Bank video tells the story of the Nairobi Sanitation Project, detailing how connections between international organizations, local financial institutions and community leaders led to accessible clean water and sanitation in the settlement. The parallels between the two projects are obvious, as each showcase that interdependence is a necessary component in effective and sustainable change. While the statistics regarding Copenhagen’s carbon footprint are impressive, it is important to keep in mind Danish people’s positionality, as they are privileged with the ability to invest time, money and resources to tackle climate issues. Therefore socio-economic disparities between the two cities cannot be ignored.

Despite the success of the Nairobi Sanitation Project, the hurdles the community had to jump to reach that success are indicative of the hegemonic global norms that keep people in poverty worldwide. The World Bank video was made to show the great work that the organization does in order to fight poverty. However, I found the “output based aid” subsidy problematic. If the bank had decided not to provide the $6M loan, then that community would still be facing health and water access problems. I understand that this is a way to combat possible corruption, however, asking a community where $12 a day is the normal pay for skilled labor to raise $6M dollars is strange. Also important to keep in mind is that while clean sanitation and water access is only a part of what is needed to end poverty in this community,  that relatively small change made a very significant difference in the livelihoods of the community.

Sustainable Development: Copenhagen and Nairobi

Copenhagen and Nairobi are two very different cities, one lies in Denmark, Northern Europe, and the other in Kenya, East Africa. These cities differ in their geography, climate, national wealth, and culture. These differences shape the behavioral choices that their citizens make in regards to sustainability.

Copenhagen is striving to become the most sustainable city, with a net carbon emission of zero. Both Copenhagen and the environmental organization’s resources are going towards addressing environmental issues by developing sustainable solutions. Many of the issues Copenhagen faces are not unique to Denmark, so the technologies they create can be used by other cities. For example, an air quality meter developed in Copenhagen is being shipped across the globe for use in the U.S., Mexico and Greece among many others. Denmark is able to find solutions to environmental issues mostly due to the wealth of the country. Copenhagen is improving its sustainability, while also working toward global sustainability.

Nairobi, however, is working to ensure that citizens have access to clean water and sanitation throughout the city. Kenya has significantly less wealth than Denmark, and a repeated history of exploitation due to European colonization. Nairob’s sustainability efforts are greatly different from those in Denmark due to the difference in wealth. Although these efforts are being handled with vastly different economies, both cities are taking major strides in improving their sustainability and quality of life.

Copenhagen and Nairobi demonstrate different ways interdependence can take shape globally. Copenhagen is working to develop technologies to advance sustainability. However, they would not be able to do so without the support of its citizens, and the technologies and resources around the world. Nairobi depends on loans from both local banks and the World Bank in order to finance its water and sanitation infrastructure. The residents of Nairobi benefit from these advancements which will lay the framework to continue taking steps forward in sustainability.

analysis of videos

Although the sustainability initiatives shown in these videos differ as the initiative in Copenhagen focuses on UN sustainability goal 11 and the initiative in Nairobi focuses on UN sustainability goal 6, they are similar in the ways they impact the economy, the society, those who live in it and their health. Both sustainability initiatives bolster the economy by creating more jobs while also impacting the society by changing the infrastructure and social norms. The initiatives in Copenhagen create more jobs as they require people to research and figure out how to implement them while also making it easier and normative to use renewable resources and energy efficient transportation. In comparison, the clean water initiative in Nairobi creates manual labor jobs while also making it normal to have access to clean water and sanitation systems. Both the initiatives in Copenhagen and Nairobi elevate the cities they take place in while also promoting social change through the way they change the infrastructure and social practices in the two cities.

These initiatives also impact those who live in the communities by impacting the way they think of themselves. In the video, it was stated that the sustainability initiatives in Copenhagen would not be possible if the citizens did not do their part. By doing their part and because they are surrounded by sustainability, Copenhagen’s citizens are likely to incorporate sustainability into their self-concept. In comparison, Nairobi’s citizens are more likely to feel as though they have more dignity as a result of the sustainability initiatives that took place in their city (this was communicated in the interviews). Though the way that the sustainability initiatives impact people’s self-concept, they are impacting the city’s citizen’s personal identities. Finally, because these initiatives impact the air quality and cleanliness of Copenhagen and Nairobi’s citizens respectively, they are positively impacting the health of the city’s citizens.

Positionality and Behavioral Choices

These two videos clearly show the importance of having resources available to invest in sustainability. I believe that it is a privilege to be able to actively consider living sustainably, when at the same time people globally continue to live below the poverty line. In the video on Copenhagen as the sustainable city of the future the mayor explained that the residents of Copenhagen were actively involved in transforming the city into a carbon neutral city. However, Denmark has the resources to be able to invest in initiatives to help this green transformation. I think the situation in many cities in the Global South is very different. Whereas in the Global North people might move to cities because of employment opportunities, in the Global South it seems that people often move due to rural poverty and desperation. As a result, this leads to ‘pseudo-urbanisation’ (a term coined by Bhaswati Ray in an article on the “quality of life in selected slums in Kolkata”, 2017). Pseudo-urbanization means that a city might be expanding, but there is no expansion in infrastructure to support this greater urbanization. As a result, informal settlements might be enlarging, but this is not coupled with an increase in facilities and employment options, leading to a degradation in the quality of urban life. In the case of pseudo-urbanization, behavioral choices are severely limited by a lack of a supporting infrastructure, as in Nairobi. Copenhagen, in contrast, as a city has the resources to set up sustainable infrastructures, and its residents have the resources to invest in behavioral choices. Our behavioral choices are influenced by the way various states interact with each other and are dependent upon each other. One’s positionality within this web of interdependence thus influences one’s behavior.

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