An Interview with Unconventional Action
by Team Colors
(get the PDF)
Team Colors: To start, can you give me a rundown of what the organizing you’ve been doing has been composed of, what the activities have been, and perhaps an organizational timeline?
Unconventional Action: We started doing a little bit of organizing around the conventions locally—just in the town where we live, and I started to get involved in conversations with folks up and down the east coast. It became really clear that the networks of communication that used to exist between different radical communities in the early 2000s weren’t nearly as strong as they used to be. People were seeing each other a lot less and feeling a lack in terms of an ability to communicate and plan for the conventions. Folks started talking a little bit about the CLAC model, the collective of folks in Montreal that did a lot of organizing for the FTAA protests in Quebec city in 2001, and we took a lot of inspiration from that—what an amazing amount of work can be done, even with people from far away…
Can you discuss that model a bit?
I don’t know super lots about it, but the general inspiration was that the folks involved with CLAC were able to do both logistical organizing and tactical organizing, explicitly as anti-capitalists, from outside of the host city. The general feeling in terms of the convention protests, was that as anarchists, we’re a little out of practice at mass mobilizations, and to make it really great, it would require extensive organizing efforts. We drew from CLAC as a way to be involved and build momentum as collectives of people outside of Denver or the Twin Cities. Thus, Unconventional Action came to be—a network of collectives doing various organizing including communicating about national strategic frameworks, putting together local and regional trainings, and creating actions and propaganda to contribute to an intentional buildup. The Welcoming Committee talks a lot in terms of building our capacity, and I see the Unconventional Action network as a good way to increase our local skill-bases while rebuilding our national communication networks—something that will serve us well for the convention protests and beyond.
What do you attribute the downturn or die-off of communication networks to?
Largely people not getting together as often for mobilizations as they did in the late 90s and early 2000s. Especially on the east coast, people were in the same spaces more regularly so it was possible to talk and make plans for the future and see each other often enough to follow through on those kind of plans. Lately people just aren’t seeing each other as often, and generally we’ve been in a really quiet place for the last couple of years. People are really focused on local projects, on this kind of…counter-infrastructural work—less traveling, less big mobilizations.
Can you discuss some of that work you’ve done locally?
The Unconventional Action collective that I’m involved with has spent a lot of time “building the hype.” Locally, we had a networking and strategizing consulta fully a year and a half in advance of the conventions. And we’ve put a lot of energy into creating beautiful, insightful resources and generally propagandizing. I feel like that stuff is really important because people need to believe that others are invested in something to feel like it can be good. And with us seeing each other less, having less consistent communication, we need other indicators that folks are taking this seriously.
In our organizing efforts directed locally, we’ve been focusing on skill-building. For the past eight or so months, we’ve been hosting a series of monthly workshops that recently culminated in a weekend long direct action training camp. We’ve been trying to focus our skill-sharing capacity regionally, because having solid ties with anarchists that are geographically close just makes sense.
How have you approached those projects? How do you outreach, how do you bring people in, how do you expand?
Mostly through food (laughs). We have this prison books program here, and there was sort of a core group of five or six folks that were really committed, showing up for workdays once a week and putting a lot of energy in to work out the kinks. At some point somebody decided that we should advertise having a free vegan breakfast before the workday and now every week the space is overflowing with collective members.
Locally, that’s sort of our approach to all outreach: just advertise that there will be food, and good folks are sure to turn up!
In terms of our structure, our collective is just a group of friends that gets together informally to figure out what we want to be doing together—but a lot of what we want to be organizing locally is large, public events.
What’s the use of these national mobilizations? What kind of power do you envision being exerted there?
For the people that come and participate it can be a wonderfully empowering experience. If you’re a person who’s spent most of their time doing anarchist organizing in one town or one city, surrounded at most by a couple of dozen anarchists—or a couple of anarchists if you’re from a small town—just the sheer number of people that get together at a mass mobilization can make you feel like all of the big things we need to do might actually be possible. If you’re a person who feels the daily frustration and pain that living in this culture provokes, but feels isolated holding a sign at a demonstration, even surrounded by thousands, being a part of large-scale participatory direct action to achieve something can make all those hours of campaigning or voter registration feel silly.
Mass collectivity and mass action can be awe-inspiring when it works.
What’s your interaction with people in Denver and Minnesota been like?
I haven’t myself been to Denver or the Twin Cities, but I’ve had a lot of contact with folks in those areas doing organizing with the Welcoming Committee and Unconventional Denver. As someone who is not in Denver or the Twin Cities, I want to be getting lots of input from locals. It just seems logical, since they have much better perspective on what’s going on there and are in many ways much more affected by the organizing that goes into the conventions. It seems like everyone has been making some efforts to coordinate with each other—to make sure that the work we’re all doing is complimentary. It’s challenging however, to stay abreast of all of the work going on in so many places across the country. I guess good intentions and good faith have to take over where direct communication leaves off. For me, it’s less than ideal to have so much communication happening over the internet or telephone. It feels so impersonal, and it’s so much easier to have miscommunications, hurt feelings. But it’s really the only option when you’re halfway across the country!
Ideally one of the functions of the Unconventional Action network would be to serve as a physical communications structure for folks that are organizing in the twin cities and in Denver. Since there are UA collectives scattered throughout the country, if they can all be communicating with locals, then making an effort to disseminate that info in their regions, then Welcoming Committee and UA Denver folks don’t have to do that work. And I think to some extent that’s certainly been happening.
So the goal is to funnel people on the national level into the actions going down in the twin cities and in Denver? The goal of Unconventional … is this a process of organization building nationally? Is UA going to be the next DAN? What’s the next step?
Originally there were a couple of Unconventional Action collectives around the country, and at this point there are dozens of them. Having some kind of moniker to associate one another with, it’s been easier to find other people organizing for the conventions and to have a clear way to direct others that are interested. Most of the communicating within the UA network has been happening through the listserve and website or through regional consultas and gatherings that people have hosted under the Unconventional Action name. The collectives are completely autonomous from each other; although there has been good communication among some of the groups, there is no central coordination or single direction.
How is this different than the organizing that took place around the WTO to the 2000 RNC? Seems like that’s the point at which there was a serious downturn in the amount of energy being invested in these large national mobilizations. Particularly the efforts to shut down summits and conventions through direct action?
The 2000 RNC in Philly was certainly demoralizing for many participants, but I would say it was because the strategy wasn’t thoroughly thought through. I don’t think that marked a downturn in mass mobilization organizing though; it was followed by even bigger and fiercer mobilizations in Prague, Quebec (which was attended by thousands from the US, and accompanied by solidarity actions from Buffalo to San Diego to Sao Paulo), Gothenburg, and Genoa. There was a great deal of energy going into organizing for the IMF/World Bank protests in late September when the towers fell on 9/11—and the remainder of that energy ended up becoming the first antiwar mobilization, long before ANSWER and UFPJ.
It would be difficult to compare the 2008 anti-RNC organizing to the buildup to the WTO protests. I think it’s fair to say that the latter involved more groups with a general orientation towards social justice, but that perhaps there is a more explicitly anarchist slant to this organizing. The best point of reference again is probably CLAC, the explicitly anti-authoritarian group that did long months of preparation (including tours such as the RNC Welcoming Committee has done). Other protests of the post-Seattle era—including the 2000 RNC—were more hastily organized. Everyone was so inspired by Seattle that they wanted to make the “next Seattle” happen as soon as possible, so many mobilizations happened without a lot of time to prepare them. When they succeeded, it was because people felt so much urgency, not necessarily because they had been organized carefully and over a long period of time.
At least some anarchists have been preparing for the RNC in St. Paul for over a year now. That’s a lot of buildup. We’ll see how it plays out—the context is very different now, with much more government repression and many of the older folks who participated in the spike in mobilizations almost a decade ago now being burnt out. On the other hand, all the defeats since 9/11—Miami, when the cops brutalized everyone, and the 2004 RNC, when anarchist participants lacked a concrete goal—have lowered the bar to such an extent that a defeat by the standards we had in 2000 will be a victory in today’s context.
From reviewing the website, you refer to this as a possible flashpoint for further activity. Could you elaborate on that? What do you hope to happen after this, both on the local and national level and what do you see unconventional contributing to further organizing in the future?
Often, part of the problem with summit organizing is the shortsightedness of it. At the forefront of the idea for Unconventional Action is the desire to look beyond just the conventions and beyond just the next mobilization after that. The Welcoming Committee describes it as building our capacity—increasing our skill-base and our relationships locally, building up networks regionally, developing our power as a movement nationally. Frankly, I don’t know whether or not Unconventional Action will be useful after this mobilization. People always say that all of the good stuff happens after the workshop or meeting—that is, it’s the informal communication, the relationships that are important—to that extent, maybe it’s not the Unconventional Action network that is useful in the long run, but what comes out of it.
And what is that purpose beyond the one mobilization? For these actions, we generate listserves and we get to know each other and that builds the infrastructure for another mobilization. The criticism is that these summits aren’t where capitalism happens, and are rather a dog and pony show where we show up and shut it down, that it’s really just spectacle versus spectacle.
I definitely don’t think that the battles are necessarily fought at places like the republican or democratic conventions, but these are the places where people learn tactics and build skills, where people get inspired—or learn important, tragic lessons. Places where so many people come together are one of the ideal sites for future collaborate and to exchange all kinds of ideas. The important thing is maintaining continuity and connectedness between communities in resistance and to bring those struggles home. Where the sites of ‘real’ capital exchange happen—if you can call anything about capitalism real.
What’s the theory of change that you’re working with? What creates change and what does substantive change look like? How do we actually make a concrete difference in the way that daily life functions?
Obviously that’s a huge question and one that I think about a lot. So a brief story to illustrate a point: I was recently on the streets of Philadelphia in front of my friend’s house painting a banner. The banner read, “Death to hangmen, kings and traitors.” People were walking by, and it was really interesting to see people’s reactions. Elderly ladies, people walking by pushing babies. There was one man in particular who was maybe in his 50s and looked like he was from Algeria. He read it very carefully and sort of shrugged his shoulders as if to say yeah, of course. Looking at me, realizing I wasn’t sure what he thought, he just smiled really wide and gave me a big thumbs-up. But then, it’s simply not been that controversial in poor neighborhoods of color I’ve come from to say fuck the police and all politicians.
I think about that because I have to say that the change that is substantive comes from people as they change the way that they relate to the world around them, to the people around them, to the earth we live on. The complicated thing is not in changing people’s attitudes or convincing people of something; it is in creating spaces for people to do things differently. In a lot of ways we win to the extent that we can create spaces for people to act the way they actually want to act. Whether that means creating spaces where people can actually throw the brick through the Starbucks window or create the space for people to meet each other across class and race lines and feel comfortable—or to quit their job even though they have kids. That’s a huge challenge and for me involves both the construction of local infrastructure and simultaneously making conflict with the people who want to make that impossible.
Your position that changing attitudes and “consciousness raising” is a secondary question if it’s a question at all, you address the fact that creating spaces is important. But there are huge coercive mechanisms at play that try to limit those spaces. There’s necessarily a question of power in that. What does building our sort of power vis a vis the other sort of power look like and how is that accomplished?
A simple answer to a question isn’t really going to get at that. At the heart of it we’re powerful to the extent that we have real relationships with other people that we engage in struggle with. Having those kinds of really connected and healthy relationships is hard because we all come to this stuff with a whole lot of cultural baggage and bullshit, and it’s also really time consuming. I just moved into a new neighborhood a few months ago, and it’s a really amazing neighborhood. I like a lot of the people that are on my street, and I’ve tried to spend time getting to know people. But I have realized that it is a full-time job just keeping up with what’s going on with everybody on my street! We do this grocery distribution in our neighborhood; it is one of the ways I keep up with people because it means I’m seeing them at least once a week. We get donations from grocery stores, we dumpster and get food from various friends, and then we bike it around our neighborhood to share it with our neighborhoods. Food is one of the simplest ways to connect with somebody you don’t know very well. So through this grocery distribution I’m getting to know the people not just on my street but in my whole neighborhood because if I’m dropping off groceries at their house I’m checking in with them once a week. At the same time that I’m doing this, at the top of my street some developers are putting in giant, oh-so-green and fancy condominiums that are going to wreck our neighborhood. They’ve just been digging the foundation; they haven’t really started building. People in the area have been working to stop this development, but it’s been a slow and difficult campaign. Maybe three weeks ago I found out that one of my favorite houses of folks that I often drop off groceries to had just been evicted. I didn’t know about it because they live a couple of streets away and word hadn’t gotten to me. We found out that they got evicted because the landlord was getting pressure from the police to evict the black people living there and rent to the white college students—preparing the neighborhood from the coming onslaught of gentrification. The point of this is, for me, that building connections is really important, but at the same time we also have to be devoting time and energy to fighting the motherfuckers that would make it more and more difficult to keep up with the people that we want to keep up with.
Having said that developing relationships that have some kind of grounding in what’s going on for people is how we build power, what’s the site of struggle?
In just about any town or city, you can close your eyes and spin around, then open your eyes and you’ll be looking at one. In this culture, the question is not where are the sites of struggle, but with our limited time, how do we choose? One site is certainly these counter-infrastructural programs that develop locally. If they really are counter-infrastructural and not just alternative whatevers that can exist happily alongside the capitalist system while everyone feels good inside about their generosity, they are bound themselves to become sites of struggle, in conflict with the capitalist power system that doesn’t like to compete. I don’t know any better than anyone else about strategically what is the site that is mostly likely to make it all crumble.
How do we do that kind of work without recreating a non-profit model or a social services model?
One key thing for me is not becoming dependent on anything within the capitalist system. When we started this grocery program, for instance, we started it because a friend of ours got to know one of the people that worked in the grocery department at some health food store. He started giving us food, simply calling us to pick up boxes whenever they were going to throw away food. Then he was calling us multiple times a week, giving us dozens of boxes of food. It was way more food than we could possibly deal with, and we decided to figure out how to share with more of our neighbors. It grew to be a fairly large grocery distribution program, but eventually the manager of the store found out and told them they had to stop giving us food. We were like, fuck, what are we going to do? This person called us back and told us he could only give us food when the manager wasn’t in. Then we were getting more food than ever before because other employees were helping out and pulling food for us. And just when it was becoming really reliable again, the store closed. Then we had to scramble to get enough food because all these people are depending on us for food. At this point, the grocery distribution program has been going on for two years or more, and we’ve gone through so many different connections that have appeared and been wonderful and then totally crumbled.
How is this different from any other charity?
Defining charity isn’t simply about figuring out who delivers the food and who receives it. It’s about the relationships, the flow of power between the people on either “side”—it’s about whether or not there are sides. With this specific project, the people that work on it recognize that we have the time and resources to gather food and distribute it, and the people we share with have other resources they share with us. They mow our yard because they have a lawn mower and we don’t. They invite us over for dinner to share the food we’ve brought them. They bring us blankets because the heat in our house breaks. They invite us into their lives, into their families, because we live together in the same place. We watch their kids or help them in their gardens, they share with us the exquisite stories of this neighborhood, of their lives. We all share so much—everyone giving, everyone taking. For me, mutual aid isn’t necessarily a direct trade: I bike the cart around this week if you do it next week. My life is big and broad enough and full of enough abundance to feel safe sharing openly with people, as long as I remember how to open myself to the wonderful people around me.
No one project on its own is an anarchist project. It’s only when the amazing things we do together are interconnected that we can present a coherent picture of anarchist options.
On the national level, what does an organization or movement look like that has an ability to function effectively on that spatial scale? We’re certainly not the CNT… how do you see this mobilization feeding into a process of movement building?
I personally sometimes get very frustrated and feel that this country is too big, even for myself conceptualizing what it looks like, an anarchist movement in the united states. I’m pretty excited about the fact that the last couple of years folks have been focusing more locally and regionally. It seems like ideally the next phase of anarchist activity in this country would be to balance getting together regularly on a national level—having the inspiration that one gets from being surrounded by thousands of other anarchists and radicals—and still maintaining the kind of long-term counter-infrastructural programs that have been possible because people have been staying put more for the last couple of years. It seems like there could be a lot of excitement coming out of the conventions and going into the inauguration, other mass mobilizations, and ongoing campaigns, but also a lot of that energy will get funneled back into the local and regional levels—where much of the crucial engagement happens, just because of the spatial challenges of a country this size. Even thinking just in terms of this country seems inconsequential when capital is so much more globalized than ever before. I was recently talking to a bunch of people from Canada that were saying they were really excited about the convention protests. One of them wrote an email to Unconventional Action saying, “We know we’re probably really low on your priority list, but what happens in the States effects what happens here, so we’re coming to the convention protests and we want to know more about what’s going on.” People really do travel to come to mass mobilizations. In a world where capitalism is such a globalized power, it seems like people need to be in communication with folks from other parts of the country and other parts of the world. It is perhaps more of an emotional need than a strategic one, simply to be able to come home and tell all your friends, “You won’t believe it but people in this corner of the world are doing a project just like ours.” Getting that kind of feedback can be a real morale boost—and a welcome change from the isolation we so often feel from each other. There is a lot of value in the exchange of ideas, tactics, skills, resources and materials at national and international mobilizations like the conventions. Hopefully people will go to the conventions and take a lot home with them.
This isn’t making any kind of new statement and critique, but there’s a degree of privilege inherent in having that kind of mobility. With that being the major outlet for demonstrating and for networking it excludes a lot of people. What’s the answer to that?
As with anything, people rely on support from their communities to go out into the world with the expectation that they’ll bring back as much as they can. Some people are connected to communities with significantly more (race, class, gender…) privilege, and also as with anything, it is the responsibility of those with privilege to do the work to connect and share with all of us with less.
Recently in the town where I live at some public forums about the conventions, people talked about all of the feelings and ideas they had about them. A friend of mine who was really active in the mass mobilizations at the turn of the century now has a twelve month old child. She said she wished she could go to the convention protests, but that she’s really interested in organizing something where we live so that people here can feel connected to what’s going on there. We plan on having a debrief altogether so that people can talk about what happened here and what happened there—so that everyone can hear both sides. That kind of organizing that works in parallel is an amazing way to spread the connection that people feel at a mass mobilization and to make it something bigger than what happens in just those cities.