Feb/Mar 2017

Whose Streets?

The history and future of activism in America

Sarah Jaffe


Hegemony How-To:

A Roadmap for Radicals

by Jonathan Smucker

AK Press

$16.95 List Price

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Direct Action:

Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism

by L.A. Kauffman

Verso

$17.95 List Price

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WHEN THE RESISTANCE BEGAN at Standing Rock, in April 2016, few Americans could tear their eyes away from the unfolding drama of the presidential campaign. Faith Spotted Eagle remembers arriving to take part in the prayers on the day a camp was set up, in still-wintry weather. Opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), she told me in September, was the next step in a fight that had started more than two years earlier with the successful attempt to block Keystone XL. This time, though, the battle would be led not by big green groups in urban centers but by a few hundred Native people defending their land and their water. That few hundred had swelled to a few thousand by the end of the summer, and news of the camp, including videos and photos, was trickling across social media. Longtime activists from Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives (among other movements) went to join the camps, which by then numbered at least three. By the fall, the Obama administration had asked for a temporary halt to construction and, as the chant goes, the whole world was watching. Day by day, marches and direct actions were costing Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company building the pipeline, more and more money, and the NoDAPL movement was gathering strength, until at last, on December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers refused ETP permission to drill. Despite that victory, the struggle is ongoing: Given the fact that Donald Trump owned shares in ETP and his pick for energy secretary, Rick Perry, recently sat on the company's board of directors, the water protectors are understandably wary of what may happen after Trump takes office. But NoDAPL's tentative triumph offers an unusually pragmatic form of hope, a highly visible example of the kinds of tactics that may be effective under the new administration: direct actions that focus on specific material targets and exert economic as well as moral pressure, building a coalition between small, committed groups and people from around the country who come and donate and spread the word in support.

The success of NoDAPL may provide the beginnings of a road map for those of us who oppose Trump's agenda and have been asking ourselves, since the election, how best to stand and fight on shifting ground; how to prepare for what had previously seemed inconceivable. As Trump has assembled his advisers and cabinet—a climate-change skeptic in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, a white nationalist as chief strategist—it has been easy to feel overwhelmed by panic and dread. But while it may seem as though meaning itself has shifted, much of what the country is now up against is not dissimilar in kind to what has gone before. The appointment of billionaire plutocrats like foreclosure titan Steven Mnuchin, fast-food baron Andrew Puzder, and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to key positions makes a mockery of Trump's supposed populism, and the choice of religious-right ideologues like Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, and, of course, Vice President Mike Pence, who hand-wring about the need for fetus funerals but want to leave flesh-and-blood children without schools or health care, is reminiscent of the worst elements of the Bush years. Despite Trump's promises to "drain the swamp," the swamp creatures he's dredged up look eerily familiar: right-wing insiders and elites who desire nothing more than to turn the public sector over to the superrich.

The lessons learned from years of organizing are thus still relevant. Recent movements, like Occupy Wall Street, have never seen electoral politics as a solution to the most pressing social inequities, and they have continued to fight under governments enamored of austerity and helmed by mini-Trumps. As America is transformed into Trumplandia, L. A. Kauffman's Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism and Jonathan Matthew Smucker's Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals offer vital interventions, ready for a larger audience who, before November 9, might not have considered themselves radical but now see no alternative to joining the fight.

Kauffman's book is a chronicle of social-justice movements in dark times, which she dates from the end of the anti–Vietnam War protests to the beginning of the Movement for Black Lives. She traces the evolution of direct-action tactics, laying out an argument that "communities of resistance" have been with us all along, drawing on lessons from past groups and occasionally bubbling over into the broader public's consciousness. Kauffman credits "direct action," as a term and a strategy, to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The IWW believed that direct resistance, rather than negotiations with the boss, was the best way to improve labor conditions. The "Wobblies," as they were known, embraced strikes, sit-ins, and sabotage on the job to wrest concessions from employers.

Over the years Kauffman covers, particular tactics have been passed from movement to movement: from the antiwar activism of the 1960s and '70s through antinuclear and AIDS activism, solidarity movements against apartheid and against US interventions in Latin America, and responses to the 2008 financial crisis. Many of these tactics were born out of weakness and repression, out of the need for small numbers of activists to increase their leverage. The use of affinity groups—bands of people who work autonomously within a larger organization—evolved as a way to avoid state infiltration; "zaps," or quick, dramatic actions, like ACT UP's disruption of CBS Evening News to shout "Fight AIDS, not Arabs!" on air, allowed small groups to have an outsize effect. "Monkeywrenching," a form of environmental sabotage, involved trashing golf courses or spiking trees, as Earth First! did, to ruin the blades of machinery that tried to cut them down. Such methods aimed to confront a single, urgent problem—and that simplicity of purpose was a strength—but like the later attempts of Occupiers to prevent foreclosures one home at a time, they had far more impact when coupled with larger political movements.

Kauffman does not hesitate to address the flaws and weaknesses of some of the groups she studies. She points out that direct-action enthusiasts who advocate voluntary arrest will often alienate people of color and others who routinely face violence from the police. Alongside more confrontational strategies, she considers the limitations of "prefigurative politics"—modeling the world in which one wishes to live, creating a miniature society in hopes that it will spread—which has been popular since the 1970s. For instance, Occupy Wall Street's prefigurative attempt to govern its encampments by direct democracy via "consensus process"—i.e., by securing complete agreement among hundreds of people on every decision—proved famously unwieldy. Prefigurative movements can incubate useful ideas and methods that affect wider society, changing the frame of what's seen as possible, but at their worst, they become a way to retreat from the pursuit of concrete victories in the outside world. And like many critics of protest movements, Kauffman warns of how activism for activism's sake can take the place of a real strategy for gaining and wielding power. After the 1999 Battle in Seattle successfully shut down the World Trade Organization conference, she writes, "there was a mounting sense that, for some participants anyway, the point of the direct action had become pulling off an impressive direct action, with direct action becoming not just a method of protest but a political identity in itself, separate from any pragmatic or strategic considerations."

That political identity—"activist"—was born of a resignation to outsider status, a liminal identity for a liminal time. Activists continued to engage with the world, rather than retreat from it, but they did so despite the conviction that they could not actually win over a majority. Yet the most powerful movements discussed in the book are those that have managed to bridge the gap between activists and "ordinary people pushed beyond all endurance," like those who swelled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and brought the Movement for Black Lives into the mainstream. Facing unbearable violence, the people of Ferguson, followed by those of Baltimore, Charlotte, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere, shattered the nation's sense of complacency and drew tens of thousands more out in support from coast to coast. Kauffman aims to salvage something important from these dark years, and mostly succeeds. But at times she falls into a trap resembling that of the self-defeating outsider identity: a failure to focus on winning and how it's done. She dwells too much on simply establishing a lineage, on making the connections between different groups, at the expense of evaluating how successful certain movements really were—and why.

It's exactly this challenge that Jonathan Matthew Smucker takes up in his book, urging the Left to move beyond that familiar sense of resignation and powerlessness. Smucker's goal is to convince activists that they must win over "the unusual suspects." It has been too easy for activists to be comfortable with marginality as long as they have taken a symbolic stand—embracing a sense of continuous righteous disappointment perfectly encapsulated in a bumper sticker Smucker quotes: "I'M ALREADY AGAINST THE NEXT WAR."

Click to enlarge

Standing Rock, North Dakota, December 4, 2016. Joe Brusky/Flickr.

Speaking truth to power is no longer sufficient, he notes, because power, funnily enough, is not particularly concerned with the truth being spoken to it. "Power," he writes, "is concerned with power," and so activists must be as well. Like Kauffman, Smucker is a longtime participant in direct actions, protests, and social-justice organizing, and he uses his own story to draw the reader in and make her take his criticism to heart. It is self-criticism as much as anything. "How many times, I wondered, had I favored a particular action or tactic because I really thought it was likely to change a decision-maker's position or win over key allies, as opposed to gravitating toward an action because it expressed my activist identity and self-conception?" he asks. Kauffman argues that thinking of activism as an identity may have helped keep something of a Left alive during the Reagan years, but it also encouraged activists to close themselves off in their own clubhouse, only occasionally emerging to educate—or scold—the wider world.

This argument has special resonance now, as we stare down the barrel of Trump and Pence, but it was essential before the election, too. Far too many people were suffering the ravages of decades of job loss, stagnant wages, and mass incarceration before 2008 added a spiraling foreclosure crisis and a collapsing economy to the pile. Reaching out to those who are hurting and struggling is both a strategic and a moral necessity. Rather than persuade those people to become "activists," however, Smucker argues that the Left's goal should be to reintroduce politics into "everyday spaces," to make collective action part of "the fabric of society."

Occupy Wall Street is his major case study, though he draws on other movements as well. Smucker dispassionately examines Occupy's strengths—the "We are the 99 percent" theme in particular—as well as its weaknesses, to make an argument for bigger, more unifying, more outward-facing movements and to figure out what they might take to build. Occupy was most successful when thousands of people who would never sleep in a park or get arrested on the steps of a bank nonetheless began to identify with it. The "99 percent" framing encouraged Occupiers to think of themselves as a majority rather than a subculture. Smucker argues that the reverse tendency, an attachment to what he calls a "story of the righteous few," ultimately led the movement, like so many others before it, to become insular, sapping its strength and relevance. Insular movements tend to repeat tactics, whether or not they've been successful, as a way of affirming their identity; they worry more about the possibility of co-optation than they do about how to win.

In order to move beyond this tendency, to reach people "where they are," Smucker argues, real organizing will be needed. "Organizing is not a call to action for the already radicalized usual suspects," he writes. "Organizing entails starting with what already is and engaging with people as they are." He details his time with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, organizing against the Iraq war and using everything from graphic design to old-fashioned town hall meetings to get the message out. Though the war wasn't stopped, Smucker argues that their organizing succeeded in bringing out people who would never have been "activists" across political lines in a conservative part of a swing state.

Smucker himself demonstrates how hard it can be for activists to meet people where they are: His writing occasionally lapses into the jargon that is so often an unfortunate part of an "activist" identity. But his call to arms—"Serious radicals must aim to succeed"—resonates. For all the fear engendered by a Trump win, the events of the past year have at least made it clear that the idea that "there is no alternative" to the present system is dead.

So what can we learn from Smucker and Kauffman that will help us prepare for a Trump era?

In many cases, the lessons seem to contradict one another. Kauffman writes about "a proliferation of movements, causes, and political identities," while Smucker wants us to create a "unification." Smucker demands a mass movement; Kauffman notes that "numbers alone [don't] necessarily mean anything," pointing to the size of the global demonstrations against the Iraq war. President Trump is unlikely to change his opinion that "professional protesters" are unfairly out to get him, and he will have the full powers of a bloated surveillance and security state to wield against his enemies.

Persuasion, under Trump, is out of the question. There is no asking nicely now, but then again, if these stories of past efforts can teach us one thing, it's that asking nicely never really was an option. Power, as Smucker suggests, will have to be the name of the game. Figuring out what that power is, where we already have it, and how to use it effectively is necessary; a strategy for acquiring more of it is absolutely essential. That power often lies in numbers, though not always, as Kauffman points out—the lesson from ACT UP, to take one example, is that a small but intensely motivated group can cause enough trouble to make even the most oblivious and hostile administration change its policies. Through attention-grabbing actions—including disrupting mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral and tossing ashes over the fence at the White House—and a very pointed refusal to be shamed for being gay or having AIDS, the group not only forced pharmaceutical companies and the Reagan administration to listen, but also transformed the way Americans saw queer people. While many movements of the dark years accepted their own marginality, ACT UP, with its members staring death in the face, refused to do so, and thus succeeded in changing the world. The moral strength and solidarity of movements made up of people directly fighting for their own lives can be a force that changes minds and draws outside support, as it did in Standing Rock. One problem with "activist" as an identity is that those who embrace it are often fighting for justice for people far away—geographically, socioeconomically, or both. Whether they are HIV-positive AIDS activists, veterans opposing US militarism, or undocumented immigrants battling deportation, those with skin in the game are the strongest advocates for their own struggles. The members of ACT UP succeeded not by asking for pity but by becoming the best experts on HIV out there, making themselves indispensable to researchers and even becoming researchers themselves. They did not wait for anyone to hand them a solution from above.

The seemingly ever-present debate about "identity politics" getting yet another post-election airing tends to miss this point, preferring to skip over the actual demands of already-existing movements, like those laid out in the Vision for Black Lives platform, and finger-wag from a secure place atop a pundit's high horse. The forms of oppression that will hurt us (violent policing, low wages, a profit-based health-care system) are all felt first by already-marginalized people. As Kauffman reminds us, many of the effective tactics that continue to shape movements, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, were handed down to us by queer radicals, feminists, and people of color. Facing Trump's nativist, racist appeal and Pence's antifeminism and homophobia, we need to learn from groups like the black-queer-feminist Combahee River Collective, which argued for a united struggle against "racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression," developing an analysis that understood those oppressions as interlocking. They mobilized around violence against black women, noting that understanding such violence as just racist or sexist missed an important part of the story. They worked within a socialist tradition, but wrote, "We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation."

We do not need to make these arguments from principle alone. If the phenomenon of activist-as-identity sprang from a time of relative wealth for Americans, as Smucker argues, that period is rapidly slipping away. The collapse of middle-class jobs means that, as the low-wage workers' movement Fight for $15 has highlighted, some 42 percent of the country makes less than $15 an hour. More and more people have something real at stake in the fight for a more equitable distribution of wealth. It is less and less possible to rest comfortably on one's own righteousness; the battlehas come to us, whether we are ready or not. A Trump administration is likely to rely on a strategy of divide and conquer, splitting immigrants from native-born workers and promoting fossil-fuel jobs to isolate environmentalists. Marshaling power under Trump will mean coming together alongside those first under attack—and since the entire 99 percent, in one way or another, is in the crosshairs, it may become easier to realize the truth of the old Wobbly slogan: "An injury to one is an injury to all."

There is no better place to observe that truth than in North Dakota right now, where a few thousand Native people have scored incredible victories against a corporation hell-bent on drilling an oil pipeline beneath their water source. The struggle at Standing Rock drew allies from around the world—including, most dramatically, a group of military veterans willing to face down rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and water cannons fired in frigid weather alongside the Native people demanding sovereignty over their land. Perhaps the best lesson that we can take from these two books, then, is that resistance not only is necessary but has already begun. Instead of giving in to despair, the reader should, as Smucker argues, "study the apocalypse, map its terrain, and plan your intervention."

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016).

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