About ten years ago, when I was fresh and young and newly 30, I was working for the first time as a full-time organizer on a campaign against the expansion of a South Texas nuclear power plant. When COP 15 hit in December 2009, I got it in my head somehow that the best way to connect the dots between international climate negotiations in Copenhagen and our local fight against nuclear power—positioned by the powers-that-be as a carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels—was to sing about it.
So I convened a lyric-writing session attended by just one other person and, it being the holidays, together we converted familiar carols into nuke- and climate-themed jams (“The Twelve Days of Copenhagen”). Climate caroling, we called it. And then, on the final day of COP 15, I gathered up whoever was around and willing to stand down at a busy bus stop across the street from our public utility and sang.
It was a blustery bright blue Friday afternoon in mid-December, and in between performances we handed out infosheets on the nuke fight and the climate negotiations to passersby as they got on and off their buses. As for our sanging—we didn’t practice beforehand, but with lyric sheets in hand, familiar melodies, and just one basic electronic keyboard as accompaniment, it wasn’t really necessary. In that respect, it truly was a flash mob in every sense.
We swarmed that corner and surprised everyone, including ourselves.
A decade later, I remember that slap dash action with fondness, both for the humor motivating it and the joy and camaraderie it created among those participating. It was silly and fun and funny—and so it was effective, more effective, I think, than it would have been if we had marched and chanted and yelled. Marching a few years later in the annual International Women’s Day march, I don’t remember the chants, but I remember the delight I felt at the sound of San Antonio’s Tallercito de Son breaking into song behind me, providing a jangling rhythm to animate and underscore our collective presence in the streets—to fill us with optimism and determination.
The unifying and uplifting power of singing has a long tradition in liberation struggles, from the IWW’s Little Red Songbook to “We Shall Not Be Moved”—and yet it’s become somewhat of an overlooked tactic in a political moment too often dominated by what carla bergman and Nick Montgomery call “rigid radicalism,” in which “fear, anxiety, suspicion, self-righteousness, and competition … pos[e] as the ‘correct’ way of being radical.” Placing a premium on being hardcore, correct or pure, rigid radicalism is closed to experimentation, curiosity and gentleness. By contrast, bergman and Montgomery call for “joyful militancy,” asking in their intro to a book by the same title:
What makes radical spaces and movements feel transformative and creative, rather than dogmatic, rule-bound, or stifling? What sustains struggles, spaces, and forms of life where we become capable of living and fighting in new ways? What supports people’s capacities to challenge each other and undo deeply ingrained habits, rather than just saying the “right” thing or avoiding the “wrong” thing? How are people carving out relationships based in trust, love, and responsibility amid the violence that permeates daily life? What sustains these worlds—what makes them thrive?
In the context of rigid radicalism, song is doubly striking where it appears in official spaces, like a flowering plant pushing its way through cracks in concrete: first because we no longer expect it, giving it the power to surprise us out of habitual ways of thinking and acting. And secondly because song is capable of countering not only the crushing institutional inertia of official responses to things like climate change, but also the deadening despair, fear, and rage that such inertia engenders in us.
Song unsettles powerful interests, but its ability to inspire joy, play, and tenderness also unsettles the rigid radicalism that forms in our response to power.
Meredith Miller, director of San Antonio’s Eco Centro, suggests as much in her comments on the rationale behind the Climate Flash Choir that this week serenaded San Antonio’s City Council, an effort to persuade them to vote in favor of the City’s draft Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (PDF).
To affirm the power of gentleness and affinity is not to knock other tactics or to deny either the political reality of violence or the strategic necessity of conflict and confrontation. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries lately chronicling the history of AIDS activism, and seeing ACT UP storm the doors of the FDA, literally smashing them in—knowing that these tactics were ultimately successful in forcing government and industry to develop the drug cocktails which made HIV a manageable chronic illness rather than a death sentence—fills me with equal delight as the sight of elderly UU churchgoers crooning to City Council.
Where struggle is a matter of life and death, there is a time and place for rage. But there’s a time for song too, a time for the pleasure and playfulness that give us the ganas to continue, and without which a collective will to sustain struggle long-term just does not seem possible.
Watch the Climate Choir below as they reprise “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s always tear-jerking hymn to the proximities of love and grief, as a plea for climate action. Whatever the outcome of the vote, whatever the outcome of a changing climate for human and more-than-human life, what is most important is that this way of being together—gentle and fierce, heartbroken and joyful—continues to survive and thrive.