Notes on Anti-Authoritarian Organizing
The following is a draft of an article I wrote for an AK Press book. Please post any thought, comments, or suggestions, or write me at: Diggers16@hotmail.com
Notes on Anti-Authoritarian Organizing
by Paul O'Bannion
"Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."
These are dark times for political organizing. The mass uprising of the so called Anti-Globalization Movement, which first came to North American attention with the dramatic shutdown of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seatte in 1999, has largely faded from public view. And despite the lies of the Bush Administration concerning Weapons of Mass Destruction and Iraqi ties to al Qaeda and involvement in the events of 9/11 - in addition to the larege-scale loss of life in Iraq - Bush was returned for another four years of rule.
Fifty-nine million Americans endorsed his program - you might even know some of them. The US went to war in Iraq despite the literally millions of people that marched in the streets worldwide in the days and months leading up to the assault. You, or someone you know, were probably there. Under these circumstances, what is an anti-authoritarian to do?
The first thing is to not give up. No one said it would be easy, and in fact, if history offers any lessons, it is that things will surely get harder before they get better. One can see this clearly by studying the Abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, and countless others.
Over the last twenty years or so, movements have come and gone. When I first became politically active the anti-nuclear movement was just getting going. That movement began against nuclear power and later grew into a movement for nuclear disarmament. Inspired by protests against the installation of a new generation of first-strike weapons in Europe, soon millions of people in the US were turning out for protests and educational events. Eventually that movement died, to be replaced by the solidarity movement against US intervention in Central America. Over time, that movement too withered away. We do not know where the next social protest upsurge will come from, now that the Anti-Globalization Movement is on the downturn. One thing is for certain though, there will be one.
The ascendance and complete dominance of the US Empire propels globalization, the process we are now experiencing in which Capital expands and consolidates its rule. The US is the world's sole Superpower, demonstrating its ability to wreak destruction, and reorder societies, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who knows where is next?
Much of the world opposes US rule but, as of yet, is powerless to stop it. The expansion and consolidation of Capital on the other hand, is facilitated and organized by capitalists around the globe.
Many today are involved in various anti-war activities. This, along with anti-racist organizing, is a good place to put one's energy. The saying, Our resistance is as global as their Capital, is true. The question for us is, How can we turn our resistance into the revolutionary reordering of global society? What are the primary methods and organizing models that should concern today's anarchists and other anti-authoritarians? What should be our means for establishing a free society?
A good place to start is by forming an affinity group. Being in an affinity group, you can act together at demonstrations, or do your own direct actions. You can write political leaflets and send delegates to planning meetings for political actions, or public forums. Affinity groups can also do 'night actions,' like billboard alterations, or surprise civil disobedience actions, like blocking the entrance to a Federal Building after the US bombs or invades another country. Affinity groups have an instrumental value, but are also places where social bonding, and emotional and intellectual support, can take place. Generally they function around action.
Affinity groups first emerged in Spain, with the FAI, or Iberian Anarchist Federation, during the Spanish Revolution. Translated from the Spanish grupo de afinidad, the affinity group is a small group of friends who come together to act politically.
In forming an affinity group, you should chose people you have known for several years and trust. They should be people that you have some fundamental political agreement with. With the passage of the PATRIOT Act, which allows a greater amount of government surveillance and infiltration of political groups, it is very important to know the people you include in your affinity group well.
Having an affinity group is important for demonstrations. During the planning of a demonstration, your affinity group can chose a delegate to represent your groups' views about the character, politics and plans of an action. After discussing these things in the group, the delegate is mandated to bring these views into the larger discussion, sometimes called a 'spokes-council,' a delegate body made up of people from many affinity groups. This model allows the largest participation, with the most input. With the rise of the Anti-Capitalist Globalization Movement, the spokes-council has become the dominant form for directly democratic decision-making leading up to demonstrations.
At a demonstration, being part of an affinity group offers you a certain amount of safety. While you look out for your friends, you also have several people looking out for you. This makes it harder for the police to grab people, and if they try, they go up against several people, all protecting each other, rather then just grabbing an individual. At a protest against the first Gulf War in 1991, a Black Bloc of 300 was organized by the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. During the march the Bloc 'broke away,' smashing bank windows and spray painting anarchist symbols on the World Bank building in downtown Washington, DC. At one point an affinity group, involved in extra-legal action, was attacked by police. The police grabbed one activist, but she was with others in an affinity group, who grabbed her back - 'unarresting' her - and returned to the safety of the Bloc. Not one anarchist was arrested that day.
A political collective is similar in many ways to an affinity group, but it exists beyond the confines of demonstrations and direct actions. While an affinity group does not require a high degree of political agreement - it is more a group of good friends - in a political collective you come together around common politics. Friendships may develop, but are not entirely necessary. Affinity groups can evolve into political collectives, and political collectives can form affinity groups, for demonstrations or direct actions.
A political collective is generally a longer-term commitment than an affinity group. In some cases, affinity groups form for a specific action, then dissolve. Political collectives are together more for the long haul.
In the early 1990s I was in a political collective called AWOL. We met every week for three years. We formed 'working groups' to write flyers for events, organize activities, or research issues. We also initiated study groups.
At our weekly meetings we would discuss politics, update each other on upcoming events, plan activities, share our individual work, and just check in about our lives. This was one of the most rewarding political experiences of my life.
We had a high level of common politics. Most of us went to college together, and had done politics together for years. We were all part of continental organizations, such as the Youth Greens and the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. The Youth Greens were a continental ecological anarchist organization, which existed for three years in the early 1990s. They had local chapters around the country, engaging in local struggles, putting on public forums, producing educational literature, and organizing demonstrations. In 1990, the group turned out 2,000 people for an Earth Day protest at Wall Street to draw connections between capitalism and ecological destruction. That action featured a Black Bloc of 50, who built barricades on Broadway in the early morning light.
Being in a political collective allowed us to have a certain amount of influence within the radical left scene in the Twin Cities. After we arrived on the scene the local Communists formed a study group on anarchism to learn how to deal with the "intellectual anarchists."
We both participated in planned coalition actions, and initiated our own actions. We sent speakers to local political forums and organized workshops for conferences. We also organized conferences, both for the continental organization we were part of, the Youth Greens, and a regional network called MEAN, the Midwest Ecological Anarchist Network.
For political actions we would almost always write a leaflet to hand out, so much so that one of the many meanings of our collectives' acronym was Anarchists With Oblong Leaflets (another was Anarchists WithOut Lawyers).
The process of writing a flyer, in which a couple of people would get together to work on it, was very good for democratizing theory in the group. The members developing our public politics would change from leaflet to leaflet, allowing every one a chance to develop political ideas and learn how to express them to the public. This helped prevent the emergence of intellectual hierarchies in the collective, and gave everyone involved a chance to develop our public politics.
Meeting weekly over the years, talking politics, participating in political actions and then discussing them, allowed a great deal of reflection. Through the years our group's politics developed. For instance, we started when radical ecology was an emerging movement. The Greens still considered themselves primarily a movement, with an emphasis on direct action, not a national political party. Earth First! was big, and Judi Barri was making headway connecting class issues to ecology in the Pacific Northwest. All this inspired us.
We qualified our anarchism as ecological, but after some time began to question this. Why emphasis ecology?, we asked, why not class, or gender, or race as other anarchists did? Eventually we moved away from a preoccupation with ecology, but the significant thing is that the ecological anarchist perspective brought us to anarchism. And anarchism is about opposition to all forms of hierarchy and domination. Eventually you realize that being an anarchist means being concerned with not just what brought you here - gender perhaps - but being involved in efforts against all forms of oppression.
Study groups are a great way to increase our understanding of the world. They also help democratize theory within a group, by sharing knowledge. One thing to consider in organizing a study group is that everyone's learning experience is different, and is influenced by their class, gender and ethnicity. People from working class and poor backgrounds have a different learning style than those from middle or upper class backgrounds. The same goes for Blacks and whites, and men and women. If your study group is heterogeneous, and hopefully it will be, everyone should bare these differences in mind.
Your study group can choose a book or article to read, a subject to study, or can plan out a whole syllabus covering a series of related subjects. For instance, a study group in Portland recently formed around reading W.E.B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction. The group spent a whole summer reading and discussing this critical work. An earlier study group formed to study fascism, with a whole list of articles and excerpts of books on the subject.
Study Groups can be formed within political collectives, or initiated by political collectives but open to others. The latter is a good way to infuse some new perspectives into your collective, and to share your groups' knowledge with others. Even if you are not in a political collective, you can get some friends together, or people who work together politically, to form a study group. Study groups are a good activity for affinity groups as well, especially during political downtimes, when there is not as much political activity going on. This allows your group to develop ideas, and may lead to further action. It can also provide insights and understandings about previous actions; why something was so effective, or why another action fell flat.
Working In Coalition
Affinity groups and political collectives can participate in coalitions, organizing demonstrations, public forums and conferences. This is a good way to exert influence over the local political scene, and learn from more experienced activists about how to organize. It can also magnify your group's influence on your community, by coming together with like-minded groups to change a policy or work on a particular issue.
Often one of the first subjects to come up at coalition meetings, is the method of decision-making. Anarchists and anti-authoritarians generally advocate direct-democracy. While a consensus-seeking decision-making model is ideal in small groups with a high degree of political agreement, in larger heterogeneous groups it is neither possible, nor desirable, to reach 100% consensus.
While it is possible to strive for consensus, a vote model should be employed to make decisions. In my experience, a 75% majority is good for policy issues, such as the common politics in opposition to a global trade summit, whereas more procedural issues can be decided using a simple-majority threshold of 50%. Built into the adopted decision-making process should be guarantees of the minority to descent, to caucus around their views, and to try to convince the majority of their position.
Another helpful model is caucuses. In larger coalitions women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, Blacks, Hispanics, etc, should be allowed to caucus. This is helpful in allowing those from similar communities to come together, share their experiences, and assert their views to the larger body. Those from more privileged groups, white men for instance, should come together and talk about race and gender dynamics and how they are playing out in the larger meetings while others are caucusing. Ideally this will allow for insights into how their behavior perpetuates domination, or facilitates the empowerment of disadvantaged groups. Having white men caucus at the same time also helps to prevent informal discussion and decision-making to continue while other less advantaged folks are meeting.
Since the 1980s race has entered into anarchist discourse in a new and invigorating fashion. This has largely been due, initially, to the work of people like Lorenzo Komoa Ervin, Noel Ignatiav, Kawasi Balagoon, and to groups like the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, among others.
Race is an issue that makes many white anarchists uncomfortable. Frankly, many of them seem to be living in the 1950s, a time when race was not acknowledged by whites, and when the early Civil Rights advocates were seen as 'trouble makers' and 'dividers.' Race does divide us, but to overcome this division, to achieve a society in which one race does not dominate another, we first have to admit that it defines much of who we are, and how society is organized.
Let me make an analogy to help explain this position. Substitute class for race. For its entire history, anarchism has taken up class as a defining issue. Now I am sure many liberals told anarchists over the years not to make so much of class, because doing so is 'divisive.' Why further separate people? Well the reality is we live in a class-based society, and to achieve a class-less society, we first have to acknowledge class exists, and defines us. There are at least two classes, and one, the ruling class, has to be abolished, in order to rid us of this social division.
The same holds for race. We have to acknowledge that race exists, and defines us. The White Race has to be abolished in order to achieve a society in which race does not play a factor in perpetuating domination.
Whiteness is a social construction, meant to get a segment of the population to identify with ruling class interests, rather than the interests of humanity. One can see how this plays out historically in how the Irish became 'White.' As a category of domination, "whiteness' must be abolished, but this will not happen through wishing it so, good intentions, or individualistic actions. It will only be abolished through social and political struggle, in part by incorporating anti-racism into the top of today's anarchist agenda and by supporting people of color in their organizing against racism.
This is precisely what Love and Rage attempted, and what groups like Anarchist People of Color, and the Bring the Ruckus folks are doing today. To accuse those of us championing race as a central issue for today's anarchists to tackle as being 'dividers,' smacks of unexamined racism.
Ruling Class people say when issues of class are brought up those doing so are engaging in 'class warfare' and are dividing people. When women say sexism exists they are called hysterical and diverting attention from 'more important' things. When gays and lesbians talk about heterosexism, they are accused of being confrontational and disruptive. And when people of color and anarchists talk about race, and its centrality to our movement for freedom, we are called dividers.
The initiation of this discussion makes many white anarchists uncomfortable. That is because an anarchist anti-racist agenda challenges white comfort and privilege. We can not be serious about establishing a free society unless we are willing to feel uncomfortable, and to look at how we, perhaps unknowingly, perpetuate hierarchy and domination in our unexamined beliefs. This goes especially for those who are white, male, and well-off financially.
I am in no way advocating a politics of guilt here, or suggesting previously dominant voices should shut up. But those who say that bringing up race is unnecessary, should look at your comfortable selves telling others seeking their freedom, not to be so "divisive." People of color will lead the struggle against racism, but whites need to strive to be good allies.
Educational Work/Alternative Media
Admittedly, society today is a long way from our ideal visions. A big part of our work is to convince people to reorganize things the way we envision and to engage in discussions with people about their ideals. This requires educational work and establishing democratic forums to develop common visions.
We can engage in this work by putting on public forums, setting up speakers, and hosting debates. We can advocate the establishment of neighborhood assemblies to democratically debate what the local community wants.
The experience of the Young Lords Party in New York is very instructive. The Young Lords were idealistic young Puerto Rican activists in the late 1960s. They started their work going to their community and asking what they wanted. They were told, Clean streets. Not exactly what they expected to hear, but they respected their community's opinion. So the Young Lords went down to the local sanitation department, confiscated a bunch of brooms, and started cleaning the streets. This lead to a huge movement protesting the lack of city services in poor, working-class communities, and swelled the ranks of the Young Lords Party.
Other educational work includes writing leaflets to be distributed at demonstrations and public events; producing newspapers and contributing to the existing large-scale indymedia internet network. The main thing is to get the word out, and try to counter the influence of the corporate media. We need to nurture a democratic culture from below. Their work at the local level is a large part of the reason the right-wing is so powerful today. Just going to the next global trade protest is not going to really change things at a deep level. That requires a lifetime commitment to local work.
Creating counter-institutions is important work. Counter-institutions create an alternative to the existing market place, even as they exist within it. Counter-institutions include, but are not limited to: info-shops; food cooperatives; worker-collectives such as bike shops, cafes, bookstores; etc. By creating counter-institutions we can bring the type of social and economic organization we advocate for in the future to the here-and-now.
Counter-institutions also allow us a place to practice directly democratic, non-authoritarian social relations, prefiguring a free society. They are an experimental arena in which we try and put our ideals into practice. They represent to society the type of social/economic organization we want, while allowing us to work out the problems of such theoretical models.
At some point in the future it will be necessary to form continental organizations. Continental organizations are important in coordinating action and keeping people around a large geographic area aware of what is going on elsewhere. It also allows a large number of people to develop ideas together and act in consort, enabling a greater impact.
In my experience with the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, I think continental organization should be put off until there is a great deal of activity on the local level and many local collectives. Ideally people will confederate at the regional level first. This is already happening with the development of the Northeast Anarchist Communist Federation and the Northwest Anarchist Federation. When there are a large number of local collectives and regional federations, those groups can choose to confederate into a continental organization.
Although Love and Rage had it's share of problems, it did succeed in bringing in hundreds of new people to the anarchist movement and it represented anarchism to thousands more through its newspaper. Through its existence, it created an anti-authoritarian pole within the larger Left. It linked comrades in Canada, the US and Mexico. It also influenced anarchist thinking on questions of race, gender, queer politics, and the importance of theory and organization.
Organizing Black Blocs for demonstrations is often a smart tactic. A Black Bloc is a tactic, not an organization. It involves everyone in the Bloc wearing black, masking up their faces, and usually having goggles or gas masks available. Several people in the Bloc should be trained as medics in the event the police get aggressive and people get hurt.
There are many advantages to forming a Bloc. It is a fairly effective way to avoid police surveillance. Often, the police will videotape and/or photograph a demonstration to keep track of who is there and what they are doing. Having everyone dressed the same, with their faces covered, ruins this for the police. It also allows more latitude for direct action in the streets. In the past, affinity groups have brocken away from the Bloc to spray-paint messages on walls or corporate targets, break corporate or bank windows, or pull dumpsters in the street to block police pursuit. If the police have seen this extra-legal activity, they could not inform other officers of the identity of who did it because everyone looks the same. The affinity group then would blend back into the larger Bloc.
Marching in a Black Bloc also sends a powerful message about the presence and organization of anarchists/anti-authoritarians. It is usually clear from our banners and black flags who we are; this lets the rest of the movement, the press, and the establishment know we are in the streets.
At the 1999 WTO Meeting in Seattle, the Black Bloc responded to the first police attack on non-violent demonstrators by breaking corporate windows and spray-painting messages. This action caught the eye of the world and afterwards references to anarchists, were everywhere in the media.
Insurrection and Direct Democracy
If we are serious about creating a free society, we have to be serious about revolution. Revolution is a process, not a singular event. Educational work at this stage, along with self-organization, is essential. Obviously there are a lot of minds that have to be changed in this world. We also need to come together as revolutionaries, to work towards the type of society we want. We can do this by forming affinity groups, political collectives, local and regional confederations and eventually, continental organizations.
By being organized, we can better influence the course of social and political events, playing a more effective role in historical unfolding.
We need a wide diversity of people to come together in opposition to the minority currently running the show: the capitalist bosses, the corporations and their press. We need to find common ground between people from differing ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. People need to turn out in the streets, take over their workplaces and communities. One of our central demands should be that the people who decisions effect should be the ones making those decisions. We can learn a great deal from the people of Argentina who, following an economic crisis in 2002, took over the factories they worked in, and began running them themselves, without bosses.
The ruling class historically, and no doubt in the future, will use everything to stop the loss of its power. This includes use of the military against its own people. One of our objectives should be to win over large sections of the military so that they will at least not fire on the people, and ideally will join the democratic revolution.
During the Vietnam War the anti-war movement set up coffee shops near military bases as a way to reach GIs. 'Fragging,' or the shooting of officers by enlisted men, was very high. Morale and anti-war sentiment was of grave concern to top military commanders. Much of this contributed to the eventual US withdrawal from Vietnam. Today there are organizations of families, and veterans of the war in Iraq, that are playing an important role in opposition to the continued US presence there. While no group with as much visibility as Vietnam Veterans Against the War has yet emerged, we should support what does exist.
In this increasingly globalized world our movement must be internationalist. We need to look beyond our own borders, and look at our relations with other countries. Solidarity with the people of the world, who are struggling against the US Empire and the vicissitudes of global capital, need our support. We should seek to build links to movements for social justice in other countries. A big part of this is developing a critical anti-imperialist politics. Not an anti-imperialism that says My Enemies' Enemy is My Friend. But instead one that looks to identify the libertarian elements in opposition to US Imperialism and extends support to those elements. One that also, no matter the nature of the opposition, opposes the US' unilateral use of military force to subjugate other peoples in the name of "freedom."
Our movement must be feminist, recognizing the continuation of sexism and (hetero)patriarchy. A large concern will likely become women's right to reproductive freedom, as Bush stacks the Supreme Court with Conservative, anti-choice judges, and the Roe vs. Wade decision becomes in jeopardy.
We must oppose sexism not only in the larger society, but in our own organizations and movements as well. Women should be empowered to speak and take leadership roles within our organizations.
Our movement should concern itself with theory, with understanding society today and how, historically, it came to be this way. We should seek to avoid a theory divorced from reality however, seeking a praxis, a theory informed by practical reality, in which there is a 'give-and-take,' a dialectical relation between our ideas and reality. We should also strive to democratize theory, to help develop everyone's ability to think theoretically and speak and write about their observations and thoughts.
We need to do the hard work of community organizing, working with everyday people to bring changes to their local communities. This is hard work, certainly more challenging than going off to the next global trade summit protest. It requires long-term commitment, the kind necessary to bring about the type of society we want to live in. These are good places to begin.
Liberation, Imagination, and The Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and their Legacy, Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, Eds. Routledge, New York, 2001
Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, South End Press, Boston, 1990
On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-Capitalist Movement, One Off Press, London, 2001
A New World in Our Hearts: Eight Years of Writings from the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, Roy San Filippo, Ed., AK Press, Oakland, 2003
The Black Bloc Papers, David and X of the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, Eds., Black Clover Press, Baltimore, 2002
Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s, Barbara Epstein, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Barbara Ransby, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2003
The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization, Eddie Yuen, George Katsiaficas, and Daniel Burton Rose, Ed., Soft Skull Press, New York 2002.
The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Michel Foucault, Vintage Books, New York, 1990
We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, Mumia Abu-Jamal, South End Press, Cambridge, 2004
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