The Jobs Behind Successful Political Actions
Part Two of a two-part series examining how professional leftist activists train and prepare for protests and other political action.
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.
Last time, in Part One of this two-part series, we talked about the Lefty group Never Again Action (NAA), an anti-ICE protest organization that’s heavily community-specific: It’s all about onramps to recruit and radicalize progressive American Jews. Because it’s oriented toward newbies, they’ve been pretty open with their toolkits and about how their protests work.
To recap: An NAA action is designed and carried out by (volunteer) members of a local chapter of NAA, under the guidance of a (paid) professional organizer who works for the national organization. NAA calls its professional organizers “coaches.” Their action-planning divides into five stages: Preparation, Escalation, Execution and Amplification, Debrief, and Absorb—i.e., not just the action itself, but the stages before and after.
Last time, we covered the first stage, in which the local chapter chooses a coordinator and department leads: tactical, digital, and comms. The leads and the coach decide on their goal and work backwards from there to identify the path the action will take and what those steps require in terms of resources and personnel.
The second stage, Escalation, is where people really start getting staffed into the action structure’s departments: Comms/Digital, Tactical, Logistics, and People Support. (Remember, this structure is flexible, and people in it may have multiple roles).
In the lead-up to the action, Comms/Digital requires a lead, writers of press releases and scripts, someone to handle advance outreach to press, and a coach for the spokespeople, whose job will be to train spokespeople as they are brought on. On the day of, there’s a lot of emphasis on the infrastructure for getting the story out: lead comms, the spokesperson coach, people doing social media, someone to do the livestream (and someone to support the person doing the livestream), photographers, spokespeople, emcees for the event, speakers, a support person for the speakers, song leaders if the event has singing (NAA events frequently do)—that sort of thing.
Tactical roles are about what you’d expect. They’re in charge of the execution of the direct action, including any rowdiness. There’s a tactical lead and a second tactical lead. There are a couple of scouts. There’s a lead marshal and a marshal for every 20 people, based on an ahead-of-time estimate of the crowd size. The marshals’ job is to keep people from doing anything stupid like, for example, redirecting the march or escalating beyond what was agreed on. There are police liaisons and legal observers, the latter often free courtesy of the National Lawyers’ Guild.
Logistics is the department responsible for all the stuff necessary to make the rest happen. There’s a logistics head and a host of subsidiary roles: materials, driver coordination, support vehicle drivers, and jail support. The materials person is in charge of getting, well, materials—if you need supplies to build those giant puppets Lefties love, they’re the ones to buy them. Driver coordination is the head of transportation, supervising the necessary number of support vehicle drivers. There’s also jail support, with a lead and a number of jail support staff. The job of jail support is to help people who get arrested. Whether or not people will be arrested depends a lot on choices the police make, but some protestors (termed “red team”) may deliberately do things that increase or make certain the chances of arrest. (An action that carries a heightened level of conflict that may lead to arrests is termed a “red action.”)
Jail support is worth a digression, because it’s something that Righties completely lack familiarity with and it’s tremendously important to the Lefty protest scene. Most of it is just practical stuff: knowing where the various jails are located, what their routines are, and what the usual procedure is for getting people out of them. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a protestor with a phone number written on their arm in marker, that’s the support number they call in the event that they’ve been arrested.
Sometimes jail support has money to bail people out, or legal support to hook people up with. Sometimes all they can do is just let friends and family know someone has been arrested. But one small thing jail support does can be tremendously important: just being at the jail and providing a favorite snack or cold soft drink to people who’ve just been released. It sounds silly, but it shows meaningful support and helps with bonding—that’s why Hard Lefties do it.
And yes, they ask people for their favorite snack or drink in advance: Each person risking arrest fills out a jail support form ahead of time. These include personal identifying information necessary for finding someone in the system and getting them out, emergency contact information, and whether emergency contact should be notified immediately upon the arrest or not. The forms ask for any relevant health or legal information, where to transport the person to after release, and (if they’re from out of town), if they need to be out by a specific time to catch their transport home. They give you an overview of what to expect if you’re arrested, how to deal with police (i.e., “shut up”), and to not say anything sensitive in social media or on a jail phone call.
This is a lot of groundwork, but it can be tremendously helpful; even if the organizers aren’t in a position to get people out of jail, knowing what to expect from the experience and having some kind of support through it makes being arrested with friends less demoralizing than being arrested alone.
The last department is people support; this is accessibility stuff, medics (these are useful on scene if you’re getting pepper-sprayed, or if God forbid somebody gets really hurt), and people hosting and facilitating “healing space,” i.e., where people meet to discuss the action.
By the way, just a reminder: the action hasn’t started yet.
Everything discussed up till now has been preparation. Now the organizers have their plan, they have their structure staffed out (again, one person may have multiple roles, and this isn’t about hierarchy so much as just making sure stuff gets done). They know what they’re doing, and they conduct trainings to make sure everybody is on the same page and knows what to do. Now it’s time for stage three: Execution and Amplification. That is, do the action, and tell the story. If the story isn’t told, the action doesn’t matter; that’s why NAA puts so much focus on media outreach.
On the morning of the action, there’s a huddle for the key leads, including people risking arrest, a short walk away from the action. There’s no invocation, but there is a spiritual quality deliberately employed to ground it. People introduce themselves; the coordinator recaps their goals, what metrics they’re using to determine success, and reviews the agreed principles of the organization and the action. Following this, the coordinator reviews the schedule beat by beat, lays out potential scenarios that are planned for, and reviews the plans for exit and how the group will claim victory afterwards. Key leads of various departments introduce themselves. Everyone is put on the same page about who makes decisions in particular circumstances, and how communications will be handled. The meeting concludes with a song or a trust exercise, and then everybody walks to the action place, does the action, and tells the story of it.
After the action comes stage four, the Debrief, in which people learn and process their experience, particularly those who took escalated risk. NAA red teams (the people who do things more likely to result in arrest) actually have a quasi-religious ceremony for this. Finally, stage five: Absorb. In other words: take the lessons learned from the action and use them to inform your actions in the future. You know, that thing we Righties never, ever do, unless the lesson we decide to learn is “we should never do this stuff because it is scary and hard,” rather than things like: “Maybe I shouldn’t go to events organized by people who mysteriously consistently manage to avoid legal entanglements they really should have suffered—or, if I do, I should be very careful of the fast friends I make there.”
The Lefties absorb, then they take what they learned, design another action, and do it again.
Don’t take my word for it. Here are a couple hundred pages worth of NAA’s toolkits and references, including a couple of references from other organizations. Names, locations, and contact information are redacted, because this column isn’t about making news or singling out individuals but about helping readers understand the history, methods, and mechanics of organizing. Go page through NAA’s onboarding manuals, and appreciate the fact that this is what giving your people help looks like. Whatever your cause is, wouldn’t you like something this detailed and helpful on a meaningful action for the cause you care about?
Now take a moment to remember what the structure enabling all this looks like: paid organizers working for the national organization helping out volunteer-run local chapters.
Righties like to get hot under the collar about paid protestors, but that’s just not how it works. Paying protestors to turn out would get expensive. But organizing is more about skills than money. Setting up nonprofits that pay the people to create and run the events is actually pretty cost-effective. Even when there’s big money funding it, organizing is not usually lucrative. Lefty organizers can do all right running an organization, but most get paid at best a modest living.
Never Again Action actually tweeted out their budgets for the last three months of 2019 and all of 2020. According to these, they had 11 organizers and in the last three months of 2019 were paying them very modestly—only around $2,000 per month. They spent $54,000 on national and distributed actions, with about half of that being travel.
2020 saw some changes, due in large part to the pandemic:
Never Again Action upped everyone’s salaries to a total of $404,606.73 for 11 organizers—this is more than fair considering how poorly they were paid before—and cut the budget for actions for Covid reasons. They also put actions, leadership development, and planning retreats under the same line item, which is probably a lot more fun than if they’re separate line items. The last quarter of 2019 had a total budget of $140,793.00; if you quadruple that, you get an estimated annual budget of $642K for the level of activity they produced in the last three months of 2019. The total 2020 budget was $537,176.73.
These figures are a lot of money from the perspective of a normal working person. But just for comparison, a few years ago the budget of Turning Point USA was approximately $8.3 million. That’s mostly salaries, conferences, and speaking engagements, in contrast to NAA’s cheaper actions. Which organization made more news and directly impacted the narrative? Which one was more successful at steering their side of the aisle? You could triple Never Again Action’s budget for salaries and actions, create three additional organizations just like it, and you would still be coming in cheaper than one year of TPUSA.
Or, put another way: What could our well-funded conservative organizations and our deep-pocketed donors do to help people do in their own towns, if they put their minds to it?
If by any chance that’s you, consider helping out your local activists. It’s easy to write a check to somebody famous, or a politician with a slick ad in a hopeless district. But if you spend money on local grassroots work, you can get a lot more bang for your buck, impact the conversation, and just might help build a stronger community on your side of the aisle where you live.
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.