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.

The group, employing a staple anarchist “black bloc” tactic of bringing together affinity groups for protest actions, cited four strategic goals: “Start strong; [plan for] transportation troubles; respect, defend, and be prepared for autonomous self-sustaining alternatives; and, be inclusive of local communities and respect alliances.” But the RNCWC didn’t provide participants with information about how their goals could be realized. How did they expect people to crash the convention?

Ultimately, some RNCWC anarchists chose intense, disruptive and often forceful tactics–including destroying property. Police responded by clamping down on protest activities en masse. Down the line, such tactics may be used to justify investigations of local organizers and their communities. In particular, non-white communities and activists of color will likely bear the brunt of police and state repression at levels greater than before the convention.

By failing to define their strategy and tactics, RNCWC anarchists played into the state’s hands. Although it probably wasn’t their intention, it’s important that all activists reflect on the RNC campaign and learn from the outcome. In the future, how can anarchist groups, the broader left and community activists work together to strategize, communicate and create unified goals to confront unjust systems?

Strategic Roots

It’s time to create more effective protest movement strategies that include a broader understanding of the social, political and physical landscape we work within and the clear articulation of achievable goals. Activists and organizers often confuse successful tactics with a successful strategy. A bundle of tactics by themselves is not a strategy and direct action tactics are only as strong as the overall strategy.

In 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC) developed a plan for legal racial integration in Birmingham, Alabama. Because their vision was integration under the law, the strategy required a plan that would spur governmental action.

As a tactic, the SCLC planned demonstrations protesting discrimination. Because protests were illegal in Birmingham, demonstrators would be arrested. These arrests were intended to evoke sympathy from local blacks and thereby increase the number of participants in the demonstration. Their thinking was that the increased participation would force the media to cover future protests and raise national awareness about the struggle in Birmingham. The SCLC would then gain the nation’s sympathies and force politicians to act. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work. After folks got arrested, no one else got involved.

After reflecting on the situation, the SCLC decided to use high school students in demonstrations. Police treated youth the same way they treated adults, and when the press reported that Birmingham police attacked children with dogs while spraying them with fire hoses, people around the world were outraged. The damage done to America’s global image led the government to act. When the initial SCLC tactic failed to achieve the goal of state intervention, they changed tactics to youth protest. Having a broad yet concrete goal allowed them to effectively adapt and achieve their goal.

Future Plans

If we plan appropriately, we will be able to assess whether our tactics are enabling us to realize our goals. Such work can provide the foundation for long-standing coalitions and long-term political development.

In conclusion, we’d like to propose three concrete ideas for better protest organizing and outcomes:

1. Institutionalized reflection

Hold “accountability sessions” with real talk and assessment among members and participants to address whether the group’s tactics are bringing about the desired outcomes. The evaluation should consider an event or demonstration’s impact and critique the process by which decisions were made or tactics were implemented. Does the vision need to be revisited? Is there a coherent, effective strategy? Are our values being reflected in the process of decision-making and action? Alternative strategies should be explored where necessary.

2. Tactical improvement

Tactical escalation will more effectively challenge decision makers and institutions while creating new opportunities for moving power and support in our favor. As referenced earlier, the SCLC employed tactic escalation strategies to create the conditions necessary for state intervention. SCLC members were successful in escalation because of their ongoing collective reflection on their campaign’s failings and assessment of which tactics would achieve political intervention.

3. Study groups

Study groups and educational collectives have had a deep impact on improving social movements. Some examples include the Highlander Folk School and the Mississippi Freedom Schools. Studying historical victories such as the 1980s anti-apartheid divestment campaign provide excellent blueprints and strategies for activists. Examining a successful movement’s models and methodologies provides perspective and analysis for sustaining our own campaign actions. Sharing this knowledge through study groups builds historical memory and fosters community.

Calvin Williams is Fellowship Coordinator at Young People For. Matt Birkhold is a New York-based writer, educator and editor of Elements: The Monthly Publication of the National Hip Hop Political Convention.