Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, I attended a conference of organizers from across the nation where I hoped to find collective answers to the question:
“How did we get here and what do we do now?”
What I found instead, among thousands of the most supposedly committed people in our political process, was a civic engagement conference much like any other, a bland breakdown of polling by party, a discussion of new campaign technology and tired complaints about voter apathy. Later that night, I found myself shaking the shoulders of a friend, yelling into the din of the bar:
“Why isn’t anyone acting like this is a crisis?!?”
The United States had just elected a pathological liar to its highest office, and the most practiced organizers in the nation were carrying on, business as usual. I don’t know what exactly I had expected. Maybe some smokey revolutionary backrooms with people pouring over charts and writing manifestos? Frantic resource mapping and coordinated protest planning? This all would have been nice, but to be fair, it was only a few days out from the election, and most of these people were running on 6 months or more of no sleep. Still, it was clear that the political professionals on the left were at a loss. Not having a plan, or a boss telling them to make a plan, they just did what they always do, networked for their next job and complained about campaign burnout and voter apathy.
“How did we get here?” This is exactly how.
The art of political engagement, like most everything once pure to me, has been industrialized. Despite claiming to attempt exactly the opposite, political professionals have made politics, even transgressive politics, into something that others don’t get access to, something that we are uniquely trained to navigate, a language that we alone speak. And then we go home and complain on our social media accounts about the lazy public, all the people who didn’t show up or voted wrong. But we created this by owning the world of political strategy and treating everyone else like sheep. After all, it’s how we keep the political industrial complex alive and keep our jobs as professionals.
Being on campaigns too long will have you thinking of everyone in terms of their utilities as short term volunteers, voters or donors – not agents of earnest democratic participation. Around elections, organizers helicopter into communities for short term campaigns, failing to engage people in long term strategic conversations about taking back their own power. In turn, we don’t expect much from people: a dollar here, a vote or signature there. That’s as much as we typically ask, as long as we ask it en masse.
The primary lesson that I have taken away from most of my political mentors is that you have a tiny window in which to reach people — sometimes only a matter of seconds — and it’s your job to get a small commitment out of them in that window. While it may be true that attention spans are low in our media-saturated environments, this approach takes political engagement as inherently analogous to advertising and strips the agency of the very people we are trying to engage. It creates a paradigm wherein “we” (political organizers) are salesmen of our brand of politics and “they” (the public) exist on the other side of the glass, window-shopping customers. This paradigm assumes and assures a lack of commitment from the start. When the delineated path for engagement is short, people walk a short path.
This industrialization of our political process combined with a deep american individualist pressure to give in to the apathy of our “personal lives” (as if the personal is not political), has left us in a dire place. We are now in a position where we fear our neighbors will be carted off across a new border wall, where the former CEO of Exxon Mobil is now Secretary of State, and where the most fundamental social services are on the chopping block. It is clear that the professional political class is unequipped to bear the weight of these challenges facing us. The only conceivable way forward is to set people up with tools to wield their own power. This means we need to break from the political engagement framework that views the public as lazy consumers of a political brand. We need to build an engagement module that demands higher levels of strategic involvement from everyone.
“Ask more of people?” You say. “It’s hard enough to get most people to show up to a rally!”
My hypothesis is that many people actually want more asked of them than these often all-too-symbolic gestures. And there is a way to challenge people with the grace that allows them to feel OK when they can’t engage at the level we are asking, but we still have to be able to make the ask. It’s better that people know that there’s a community out there aimed at winning these fights, not simply “engaging” them just long enough to get some money or contact information. I believe that people who care about the injustices inherent in our current system need something to plug into that even begins to compete with the elaborate corporate entertainment traps that suck their money and leave them feeling empty.
From liquor to diet schemes, entire industries are built around people’s unhappiness and unexamined feelings of anomie with capitalist society. This is a symptom with a clear and direct cure: meaningful, long-term, and intellectually stimulating pathways of engagement.
After the election I heard over and over from my peers and less politically active family members: “What can we do?” We (organizers) couldn’t churn out petitions and phone scripts fast enough. People fell over themselves when the Indivisible Guide came out, which finally mapped out a clear directive for engaging with the government. People are still making calls everyday to their congresspeople as a result of this digital handbook, and I’m so glad. But if you really read it, the indivisible guide says little more than what could be inferred from a small amount of personal initiative and a cursory attempt at lobbying. It’s not the content itself that’s rocket science. The genius in this text is that it went ahead and made the hard ask for people to take daily, self-guided action. And folks have gone above and beyond to answer that call.
But when phone lines ring out, fax machines jam, and congresspeople start barricading their doors and hiding behind tinted glass, we’ll have to up our game.
We will have to diversify our tactics.
This is where direct action comes in.
From the teach-ins and highway blockades of Black Lives Matter to the tear-jerking, year-long camp at Standing Rock, a reinvigorated resistance movement is already making waves across our Nation. Direct Action connotes a set of physical tactics that immediately disrupt the known political cycle of “vote, eat, go back to sleep”.
These tactics, including sit-ins, strikes, walkouts, barricades, flash mobs, banner hangs, public performances, meeting disruptions, culture jams etc… inherently disregard the very terms of political participation that professionals are trained to funnel people towards and which ultimately serve to consolidate power in small circles at the top.
I should say now — in case any of the indivisible chapter members have bothered to keep reading — that I have no sweeping or sentimental objections to institutional politics. I actually love phone banking. I love talking to strangers on opposite sides of the country, fumbling with their names at first and saving the conversation with a moment of unexpected honesty. I like talking policy with elected officials, learning their positions and watching them move around a conversation like nimble ballerina’s avoiding PR grenades.
But in this moment in history, I’m willing to go several steps farther than the traditional forms of engagement. I’m not saying stop calling. I’m saying don’t undersell yourself to think that’s all you can do. We leave a lot of power on the table by sticking to the scripts, and if there were ever a time and try it all, it would be now. We can’t afford not to.
Luckily, there’s a vast, exciting terrain out there for people who want to engage a little more creatively. Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Gene Sharp is most often cited in this world for his list of 198 disruptive political tactics. There are many other well developed resources for learning about Direct Action. But even these encyclopedias of best practices must be seen as only potential tools to commit to an ever shifting set of political landscapes and fluid power structures. It’s truly up to us to go deeper to learn and teach each-other their strategic application in our current contexts.
What I propose is that everyone who gives a damn get together with their friends and neighbors and begin playing with some of these tactics. Go ahead and plan an action that creatively undermines the threats of the current regime. Many people (especially people of color, immigrant and indigenous communities) are already doing this work, inventing new tactics and leading incredible resistance efforts to engage the most disaffected by the political process. I’m seeing new organizers wake up every day and rise with them, people showing up to protests for the first time and pouring into meetings.
But I’ve begun to notice, among organizers that embrace the power of disruption, the same lingering trend towards the low bar engagement framework that we picked up from the professional political class. Usually, you’ll hear this sentiment wrapped up in a statement like: “We have to think about creating low barriers to participation so that we can ease as many people as possible into the movement.” Again with this idea that the numbers are everything, even if people aren’t doing very much. While I have often submitted to the apparent pragmatism of this argument, I see two major problems with it: (1) It perpetuates a consumerist view of people’s political conviction; and (2) as I have discovered in practice, it is less effective than setting the bar high and asking people to rise to the occasion. The obsession with giving people shallow opportunities for engagement is draining our movements of leadership potential. Still, we host direct action trainings in short sessions on the weekends, leaving people with some basic know-your-rights tips and a nagging sense that they are about to do something risky. But rarely do we give people the space or honest encouragement to plan and run their own campaigns for creative disruption. Like the major parties and NGOs, we grow lists of people to bother with hyperbolic fundraising emails and one time asks. Like always, we say tacitly with this approach: “Hang tight, the pros will handle it”. And this, we know, is a lie.
In almost every 101 direct action training someone will quote Gandhi or King but forget to mention that both of those leaders asked people to dedicate months and years of their lives to travel and strategize with them. These movements did not succeed because people just showed up once in awhile to other people’s events as symbolic gestures of support. For this reason, I am proposing a more involved engagement plan encouraging autonomous action, action that goes beyond checking participatory boxes.
Where to start? Start by sitting down with people who want to do something and actually map some targets, (entry points for strategic disruption). Start thinking about who or what has the power to shift an outcome and start making a timeline for a campaign. Take one of the hundreds of tactics that might apply, and select several to try at prime moments.
We need to create an indivisible guide of direct action tactics. Let’s call it indomitable. And instead of coming from a class of political professionals and focusing around one or two tactics, it needs to be written by regular people trying out many, many tactics from the ground up. It’s time for us to throw things against the wall, see what sticks and compare notes. It’s time for us to write our own story about how power relates to pressure. After all, there’s no reason that strategic thinking on how to intervene in axes of power should be left to government staffers, executive directors or campaign managers. If we want to take back (or take down) this inarguably corrupt administration, we have to be willing to put in the work ourselves, and again, I think folks are ready.
Finally — to all of my fellow political organizers out there — Remember all of those wild thoughts you’ve had during sleepless nights on campaigns? Remember that crazy idea about […]? Like, “what if we just tried this? Because door knocking for an out-of-touch party is clearly not going that well.” You’re not crazy. It’s time to pull those ideas out from under the bed. It’s time to host kitchen table skill shares and weeks long strategy camps for implementing them, time to write those utopian blueprints about what our communities could look like if we really fought for each-others’ needs.
It’s time to organize freely and wildly, like I know you know how and like you never have before.