Matthew Birkhold and Calvin Williams
September 24, 2008
Over the last few weeks I’ve returned to graduate school and campus organizing. While both classes and activist meetings last far too long for my tastes, at least classes have a somewhat organized feel. I recently sat down with Young People For’s (YP4) Calvin Williams to discuss the Republican National Conference (RNC) demonstrations. We agreed that activist disorganization and chaos in St. Paul illustrated how young progressives need clearer organizing strategies and better communication.
After months of mobilizing activities, activists gathered at the RNC to confront the party’s conservative agenda and stand up for civil liberties and human rights. Close friends and colleagues who I admire and respect were involved in these protests. Initial alternative media coverage focused on police surveillance tactics and the incarceration of demonstrators as well as journalists, leaving little time for critical analysis. Yet, given the negative press after the RNC, a thorough evaluation of progressive strategies is exactly what we need. Time to take the bandanas off and look in the mirror.
Vision, Strategy and Goals
To evaluate successful activist strategies, we need to define what success looks like. This requires having a more specific vision than simply “ending the war now.” If we don’t have a targeted outcome, activists are forced to react rather than focusing on creating a more just and equitable society. With clear outcomes we can determine what should be built in place of institutions we seek to change or eradicate and better understand what role we play in bringing about that transformation.
Success can then be measured by how closely the results of our organizing processes resemble our intended goals. Clearly articulating collective goals should have been one of the first steps in organizing for St. Paul. Instead, competing ideas and strategies led to disappointing results.
Bloc’d Out by Ineffective Activism
Aggressive police repression at the RNC was well documented by the independent press. What alternative media outlets didn’t report was how the actions of a small group of anarchist activists provided justification for excessive law enforcement tactics, including the use of concussion grenades, tear gas and mass arrests. A few stray activists damaging property and using violent direct action ultimately resulted in repression for other groups caught between the battle lines.
A loosely organized group of anarchists created an ad-hoc group called the RNC Welcoming Committee (RNCWC), inviting “folks with an alternative vision to come to the Twin Cities [and] turn their dreams into reality.” Their stated goals were to build the protest movement’s capacity and crash the convention.