Anti-authoritarian Organizing in Practice
DIRECT ACTION TO STOP THE WAR
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This article intends to provide a memory of the successes and mistakes made in anti-authoritarian organizational practices implemented by a reborn Direct Action to Stop the War to coordinate actions in conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.
On March 20, 2003, San Francisco, Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) united a very diverse San Francisco Bay Area anti-war movement to shut down the city’s financial district. As SFPD officer Drew Cohen put it, “They succeeded this morning-they shut the city down. They’re highly organized but they are totally spontaneous. The protesters are always one step ahead of us.” This action was one of the largest and most successful direct actions in recent history. However, this action, along with the millions who protested in cities across the globe, did not stop the invasion from continuing as planned, and the anti-war movement declined sharply soon after.
For five years there were highs and lows in the anti-war movement, but there was and continues to be a feeling of powerlessness to make a true difference in ending this war. This hopelessness has arisen in part from the inability or unwillingness of the ‘democratic’ government of the United States to act in accordance with the will of its people. Congress, controlled by the Democratic Party, has betrayed its promises of ending the war. None of the current presidential candidates seems likely to end the war. By ignoring and marginalizing both creative and massive protests, this government has revealed that its interests and priorities are not those of the people.
And so, by the fifth year of this senseless war many of us had had enough: we decided to take action that would skirt the political system all together. With no West Coast actions planned for the fifth anniversary of the war, a few affinity groups got together and discussed taking mass direct action in the San Francisco Bay Area. An anti-authoritarian call out for action on the fifth anniversary was created in pamphlet form. We quickly distributed these to every affinity group, anti-war group, and anti-authoritarian co-op, bookstore or working space we knew of. But mostly, we ran pamphlets to every work cooperative, living cooperative, bookstore, coffee shop, artist space and bike shop around, then put it in email form and repeated. Thus, we called the first spokescouncil meeting in December.
So that’s how the rebirth of DASW began. Its not glorious or dramatic, its just how it was done. That’s all it takes though. You don’t have to have been shot with a rubber bullet or been organizing since the 80’s to call a mass action. Just find some fiercely dedicated friends and go for it. Those of us who rekindled this whole thing had incredibly little time and resources, and some had never done anything like this before. But once the fire was started, it quickly grew out of anyone’s control (exactly what we had wanted), and the rest is history.
Below we outline and critique the organizational practices we used to take action. Forgive us, but we want to make no assumptions about what readers know about anti-authoritarian organizing, and so explain the structure in full detail below. We don’t do this to bore you, but to empower anyone anywhere to take these principles and begin organizing today, because they work!
ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE OF DIRECT ACTION TO STOP THE WAR
Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) is a decentralized, anti-authoritarian network of affinity groups and individuals from the San Francisco Bay Area. Our network uses a spokescouncil organizing structure to coordinate mass action. Briefly, an affinity group is a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together autonomously on their chosen projects. Each affinity group empowers a spoke (representative) to attend spokescouncil meetings to decide on important issues for the action. This horizontal framework not only facilitates good security culture, but it also protects against infiltration and co-opting.
There are several practices DASW uses in order to keep spokescouncil meetings as short and efficient as possible. First, create a list serve for all members to sign on to receive important announcements only. We had difficulty with clutter on our list (some people even stopped opening emails), so think about creating a discussion list for those interested. Next, we create working groups to hammer out details of certain projects as needed. Members are encouraged to freely associate with groups working on details and logistics of specific actions or days of action. Other working groups such as outreach, financing, medical support, legal support, media and communications also work independently and report back to the spokescouncil. Keeping well-monitored group emails helps communication between working groups, which was a weakness in our experience. Only very important discussions that absolutely require the input of all affinity groups are conducted at spokescouncil meetings. Finally, it is important to recognize that with so many anti-authoritarians working together there is bound to be a large spectrum of opinions. We all know that we are against the war, and large theoretical debates are avoided unless absolutely necessary (they’re better one on one anyways). This helps unite people with different political perspectives.
Although some people may lead by example or temporarily lead groups in action, there are no established leadership roles in DASW. Meeting facilitators are changed for each spokescouncil meeting. Each individual or affinity group gets involved at whatever level they are comfortable with and no one is told what to do. This means that it is extremely important to be inclusive to all members and encourage a ‘step up’ work ethic within the network. Any suggestions for what an individual feels needs to be done or would like to be done are at least initially led by that person. These methods allow members to feel comfortable in their involvement and empower people to work on projects that are most important to them.
We decided to use consensus minus one decision making for major group decisions. Briefly this means that proposals are brought before the group and everyone must agree, with the exception of maybe one objector, before decisions are made. Before this, we usually do polls on what ideas most people thought were the best, to narrow down to the best proposal. This decision-making technique takes a great deal of group unity, tolerance, and patience and may not be best suited for every group or situation. Use sparingly!
The organizational strategies mentioned above worked very well for DASW considering the diversity of perspectives at each meeting. Now that we’re moving forward, there are improvements to be made. First, it is important not to assume everyone attending these meetings understands the spokescouncil, affinity group, and working group structures. Briefly explaining what an affinity group is and the meeting structure at the beginning of each meeting could help. Also, it is important to use language that isn’t so wordy that it alienates new people. Next, encourage the formation of affinity groups at meetings for those that would like to get more involved. More experienced activists can explain the basics and let the groups go as independent organizing bodies. Once formed, these affinity groups can decide their own level of action. Finally, be more inclusive. It is easy to forget how intimidating walking into a bustling room of activists can be. We don’t have to be best friends forever, but show new people around and explain to them how things work while they settle into the group.
We hope these lessons will help you to get to the fun part of your organizing more smoothly: the action itself.
The strategic use of immediately effective acts to achieve a social or political end and challenge an unjust power dynamic.
DASW uses direct action tactics to actively confront the economic and political interests behind war. The use of direct action circumvents our flawed electoral political system to directly affect the business of those responsible for the continuation of the war.
MARCH 15, 2008
On March 15, 2008, DASW took direct action against the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. This facility refines over 1 million barrels of Iraqi oil every month and serves as a busy central refueling station for tanker trucks of all types (Shell, Exxon Mobil, etc.) for a large portion of the Bay Area. DASW coordinated a rally with community and environmental organizations and marched to the refinery to take direct action. Several affinity groups locked together across the entrance of the truck refueling station and the street was reclaimed in festival spirit with bands, dance, and street theatre. Once it was clear that the police were blocking the Chevron refinery entrances for us, people calmly unlocked and simultaneously stormed the police barricades protecting the facility. 25 people were arrested. The direct action was a success; it brought media coverage linking Chevron to the war and shut down Chevron’s truck refueling station for most of the day.
Although specifics about the organizing around the direct action can’t be discussed because of pending charges for those arrested, we can touch on some aspects of organizing around the rally and march. The March 15 working group organized several bike brigades and arranged for a shuttle bus from the subway to the rally site. A solar powered sound system and stage were set up for speakers and performers. Food and water were provided for free, restrooms were brought in and all the trash was collected. Bicycles were used to block traffic for the non-permitted march. All roles were voluntarily filled based on a step-up mentality. In combining the rally with an effective direct action, we were able to involve the community and expose them to more radical forms of protest. By supporting the community since then, we have maintained relationships and helped to build the movement. All of this was accomplished by a non-hierarchical working group, which demonstrates how effective anti-authoritarian organizing can be.
MARCH 19, 2008
On March 19th (M19), DASW called for direct actions against the economic and politiclal interests behind the war in the Financial Disctrict of downtown San Francisco. A variety of tactics were employed including a snake march, bike bloc, paint-bombings, poetry reading, use of U-locks on building entrances, and most notably sit-ins, lock-downs, and die-ins. Legal, medical, media, and communications teams coordinated to support the day of action.
The main short-term goals of the day’s actions were to bring attention to the fifth anniversary of the war and to disrupt the normal operations of war profiteers and government facilities in San Francisco. Organizationally, the day went off with varied success.
The media working group had spent considerable time doing interviews before M19, calling national media outlets alerting them about M19, making press kits for the day of M19, and engaging the media on M19. These efforts succeeded in making local, national, and international media in all forms. However, much of the coverage had a condescending and paternal tone, patting us on the back for not causing too much trouble or making note of our low turnout. Due to the structure of the corporate media it was only possible to have minor influence in the tone of the coverage. This leaves the question of whether there is any value in using the energy and resources of the network to develop a strategy of engagement with the corporate media. It is difficult to tell.
The legal team, in conjunction with the National Lawyer’s Guild, provided a great deal of support for those risking arrest, and thus aided in the goal of business disruption. An arrestee hotline was set to track those arrested into jail and through the process until release. Legal observers were stationed at meeting points and public direct action points. For secret arrestable actions, legal observers were contacted a half-hour before the action to dispatch to the secret location. DASW highly recommends contacting a legal collective or the National Lawyer’s Guild for support before any possibly arrestable actions.
The medical working group was not utilized in this day of action because the police did not engage in large-scale brutality (though there were incidents police aggression). Regardless, the medical team was very important for the perception of safety among our people and those trained carry their knowledge into the future.
The communications team (comms) was very successful in many aspects, but did have some troubles. Each affinity group had a designated comms person to contact a central comms team to disburse information. A text mob was set up so that anyone who signed up would get immediate notifications of where events were occurring in the city. Because of the relatively low number of subscribers (hundreds not thousands) and the purposeful limitation on the number of messages, the text mob worked without much time lag. A pirate radio station also broadcast updates in downtown. Minute-by-minute updates were posted online at indymedia.org. One incident with comms however, illuminated a larger problem with DASW’s planning. At one point an affinity group called in a paint-bombing action to comms and the dispatcher refused to relay the action over the text loop because they did not recognize this as an action and did not want to encourage this type of behavior. The problem illuminated of course, is the spectrum of what constitutes non-violence. Without getting into a theoretical tirade, the lesson learned here is that the violence/non-violence discussion must be had among the group, regardless of its difficulty. If prior to the actions there been even general agreement to respect a diversity of tactics, even those some people might not wish to engage in, this incident could have been avoided.
Did DASW succeed in disrupting the normal operations of war profiteers and government facilities in San Francisco? We did have some limited success, but the final answer must be no. There are two main reasons for this: 1) too much secrecy and lack of communication about targets between affinity groups, and 2) lack of affinity group formation to plug new people into actions. We have discussed these two mistakes, and will take them into account for any future mass actions.
One last note on the use of direct action: it’s exhausting! It takes an enormous amount of work to do direct actions properly, all of which leads to one (or several) emotional day(s) of confrontation that tend to wipe people out. It is normal for people to burn out and take a little break after an action. For a month DASW did evaluation meetings leading to eventual discussions of what our next actions will be. This process is important so that people can decide how to improve tactics and techniques, get through court dates, and soak in the impact of the actions. Continuous direct actions can lead to fatal burn out which can lead to group dissolution, so use the tactic wisely.
THE FUTURE OF DIRECT ACTION TO STOP THE WAR
Since March 19th DASW has mostly focused on evaluation and long-term strategy discussions. However, DASW took action at the Oakland docks in solidarity with the ILWU shutdown of west coast ports and led a march to the US Military Recruiting Center and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement buildings in San Francisco on May 1st. Those actions are outside of the scope of this article.
DASW remains committed and enthusiastic about continuing into the future with clear long-term goals. DASW will continue to use direct action targeting the “pillars” that hold this war up (corporate profiteers, military recruitment, corporate media, etc.). DASW will rotate which pillar is targeted every few months and work with community and issue-specific organizations to connect social issues and broaden the base of the anti-war movement. Working with other groups is extremely important in illuminating the reality that the wars waged against people abroad, the racist war against poorer communities at home, and global climate change all stem from the same cause: capitalist globalization.
This account of DASW’s practices in anti-authoritarian organization is intended to serve as a memory of what we are trying in San Francisco in 2008. Remember to be inclusive, be positive, communicate, work with community groups and organizations, and always respect the diversity of tactics employed by your fellow anti-authoritarians. It is not our intention to seem incredibly together or organized, or that we have all the answers, because we certainly don’t. But, whether organizing against the war, wars, globalization, or capitalism in general, we hope you find this article useful in your organizing by learning from our successes and mistakes. Our structures are not rigid, so take what you want and leave the rest.
Direct Action to Stop the War has not ended the war in Iraq, but we hope its reemergence signifies and inspires a larger revitalization of the anti-war movement. If the war is going to end, it’s up to the people to end it. So get away from your computer and start taking action!
– May 15, 2008 – by: @nonymous
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Note: the word “war” in this article is used to encompass the word “occupation” as well, which was omitted to save space.