Doing the Work
Part One of a two part look at how professional leftist activists train and prepare for protest actions.
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
It’s no secret that Righties kind of suck at protests.
Like anybody else who sucks at something, we have excuses. “We all have jobs!” Well, no slight to P.J. O’Rourke, but I have Lefty friends who protest stuff, and they all have jobs. “It just comes naturally to leftists!” This is false, and leftist organizers like it because it means their carefully orchestrated newsmaking seems very organic and spontaneous to their enemies. “They aren’t repressed like WE are!” Except leftists developed organizing skills under and because of considerable repression. Back in the day, a mining company could crush a strike by deputizing a couple thousand men to purge a town of Wobblies and their sympathizers at gunpoint (the Bisbee Deportation; look it up).
The ironic part: The reason Lefties are so good at protests is that they give themselves jobs.
They do this in two senses. The first is that they’ve professionalized organizing leadership. The second and more important reason is that they train their people, professionals and volunteers alike, to design, plan, execute, and learn from actions—they teach them how. When it comes to protest design and execution, that how involves identifying and delegating roles and responsibilities within a structure that can ensure all the necessary jobs get done, before, during, and after the event (you don’t plan for your action, you plan through your action).
Being a Righty, you’ll want to think of this structure in rigid, top-down, hierarchical terms. Don’t. Lefty organizing structure is flexible, because they don’t like hierarchies and lefty groups are quite variable. When it comes to planning and executing actions, one person might wear multiple different hats.
Let’s take a look at how one particular Lefty group, Never Again Action (NAA) plans and executes protests. As you’ve probably guessed from the name, they’re a Jewish-oriented group; the name, which refers to the Holocaust, is an effort to claim unearned moral authority for a crusade to shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement and legalize illegal immigration by appropriating and redirecting society’s outrage about an actual genocide. It’s geared to be especially manipulative toward progressive and liberal Jews, whom NAA is targeting for recruitment and radicalization. (“You’d act to prevent another Holocaust, wouldn’t you? Well…”)
NAA wants its events to include everyone from longtime radicals to enraged normies. This requires walking a bit of a tightrope: they’re strident on morals, calm but firm on tactics and strategy, and use lots of olive branches and careful stepping. Radicals get an acknowledgment that direct action includes armed resistance, but the normies get normie-friendly boundaries: NAA is not going to use violence against people, or damage property, or carry weapons, or disobey the decision-making process used by the action. Normies agree not to peace police radicals, and radicals agree not to shame or egg on normies. NAA don’t carry flags; they don’t go into detail why, but if you know the communities it’s obvious: American flags would upset the radicals, other flags might upset the normies.
Remember, the purpose of an action is not just “to feel good” or “to make a stand,” but to advance strategic goals. The strategic goal of NAA actions is to materially impede ICE from operating by identifying and blocking chokepoints, places where the system is vulnerable to the tactics NAA is capable of employing. That action is amplified by sharing the story of it, so even a single, uncaptioned picture needs to leave no question what side NAA is on and what they’re about.
Here’s where the jobs part comes in. NAA action-planning divides into five stages: Preparation, Escalation, Execution and Amplification, Debrief, and Absorb (remember: plan through your action). The first of these, Preparation, is initial staffing and planning. For NAA, the staffing core of an action is the local chapter. These people are unpaid volunteers. They connect with a professional organizer working for NAA nationally, who is (badly) paid. This professional is referred to as the coach.
The key departments in an NAA action are Comms/Digital (telling the story of your event to people who aren’t there, as well as internal communications like speakers and song leaders), Tactical (the direct action part, including any rowdy stuff), Logistics (supplies, people-moving, and getting people out of jail), and People Support (accessibility, medics, meeting spaces). Staffing these departments starts small, with the local chapter filling out a few key roles: coordinator, tactical lead, digital lead, comms lead. The leads get in touch with the coach and with local organizers from allied organizations (the key to turnout is getting people in sympathetic organizations to turn out for your event, and turning out for their events in return).
The key roles and the coach identify what other roles the action needs to have staffed, and fill them as needed. Sometimes this results in a large staff; sometimes people wear multiple hats. To design the action, the key staff identifies a specific material goal. Then they work backwards from the endpoint to identify the key stages along the way, all the way back to the starting point.
Designing an action involves asking yourselves a lot of questions. What do you want your action to do? What do you need to make that happen? How much time, what capacity, what resources do you need to pull this off? What problems do you anticipate? Which of these can you prevent, and what do you need to do that?
For example: what are the risks to your people? These can be physical, legal, financial, social, or emotional. You need to prepare your people for these risks as individuals, and, if you can, mitigate them as an organization. Physical risk includes being punched and pepper-sprayed, but also medical issues, including being separated from necessary medication if arrested. Legal risk includes being arrested or sued. Financial risk means having to pay bail, pay lawyers, or lose salary if you’re in jail and can’t work. Social risk means being dogpiled by strangers on Twitter or by your family at dinner, even being fired. Emotional risk involves everything from disillusionment to PTSD. It can be devastating for a movement when people discover they are facing a level of risk for which they have not prepared. They need to know what risks they’re taking and how those risks can be mitigated.
To give you an idea of how far these preparations go, let’s drill down a bit on NAA’s recommendations on legal preparation. Some of their questions might occur to you if you take some time to think about it. What kind of charges can you expect for the kind of thing you’re planning to do, what are the usual penalties incurred, and what’s the worst case scenario? What kind of legal help are you in a position to give: advice, legal support, or none of the above? Will you help or disavow somebody who does something bad, dumb, and counter to the action agreements?
Some of the answers require digging deeper: for example, are the authorities in the jurisdiction your action takes place in likely to be lenient or harsh? The answer may depend on specific individuals in those jobs, your organization’s relationships, or where you happen to be standing. NAA tells its people to look up parcel ownership of the land they’re protesting on and all nearby plots so they know exactly which authorities they’ll be dealing with, and who will be arresting and charging their people if it comes to that.
As the local group moves into stage two, Escalation, they continue preparation, staffing, and sourcing. If they need equipment—giant puppets, stuff for locking themselves to things, what have you—now is the time they buy or make it. They identify the staff they need and start building out in order of priority. They outline the rules for the action, continue staffing, and train their people for the action: what to do, how to behave, what contingency plans to have.
And now they really start giving people jobs.
Next time, we’ll talk about what those jobs are, and how they come together to perform a successful action.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.