What not to do: 100 things to avoid when trying to build a movement for radical change

DO NOT:

  1. forget to say please and thank you
  2. neglect to welcome newcomers
  3. be overly protective about ideas you hope to spread
  4. pretend you can make big changes without building broad alliances
  5. give the finger to your allies
  6. heckle Civil Rights leaders
  7. tell a black person that voting doesn’t matter
  8. tell anyone that voting doesn’t matter
  9. insist on a “diversity of tactics” at the expense of a diversity of participants
  10. ignore patriarchy
  11. assume you are the most radical person in the room
  12. assume that people who look more normal than you are less radical than you
  13. confuse poor personal hygiene with radicalism
  14. confuse the political philosophy of anarchism with weird haircuts and monochromatic wardrobes
  15. forget that most of your revolutionary heroes often wore suits
  16. look like a protester
  17. make a religion out of your decision-making process
  18. meet more than you work
  19. over-saturate working group email lists
  20. mic-check in a space where talking would suffice
  21. get too attached to your tactics
  22. assume that something that worked once will work again
  23. be disinterested in the details of your particular context
  24. fetishize occupying outdoor space
  25. dismiss the value of occupying outdoor space
  26. forget to eat
  27. forget to sleep
  28. act like a jerk because you forgot to eat and sleep
  29. reckon you don’t need to prep before a press interview
  30. fail to get a second opinion
  31. stop using a phrase because it becomes popular
  32. need to be the most radical kid on the block
  33. mistake utopianism for social change strategy
  34. say that “things will have to get worse before they get better”
  35. abhor reforms that would meaningfully improve real people’s lives
  36. fetishize revolutionary violence
  37. confuse a revolutionary moment with an actual revolution
  38. believe a mass movement will ignite spontaneously
  39. fail to map the terrain
  40. gravitate uncritically toward the most hardcore idea
  41. fancy that “autonomy” means you can do whatever the hell you want without consideration for how it might impact others
  42. drink the subcultural Kool-Aid
  43. fall into groupthink
  44. spout jargon that doesn’t mean anything to most people
  45. be fooled into thinking the word “neoliberal” is somehow precise
  46. disdain experience and expertise
  47. have more answers than questions
  48. believe we don’t have leaders
  49. believe that we don’t need leaders
  50. believe that we don’t need organization
  51. be self-righteous about your lack of organization
  52. start a totally redundant working group
  53. make a habit of knocking down people who step up
  54. act like every problem is a crisis
  55. mock people whose political analyses are less developed than yours
  56. fail to consider how outsiders might perceive you
  57. mistake 400 strangers mic-checking in a park for functional decision-making
  58. conclude that hyper-transparency inherently means inclusiveness
  59. over-generalize
  60. lump all your enemies together
  61. choose esoteric targets
  62. mistake the phrase “fuck the corporate media” for a communications strategy
  63. assume bad intentions
  64. assume something is getting done just because it was said in a meeting
  65. lump all your allies together
  66. yell at Kanye when he shows up at the park
  67. slam Miley Cyrus on Twitter for her music video that supports you
  68. think you have to agree with everything an organization has ever done in order to align with them on some things
  69. impose a purity test
  70. set a high bar for entry
  71. neglect to build on-ramps
  72. use “security culture” as cover for your clique
  73. become a “cool kid”
  74. suppose you can build a mass movement from scratch
  75. undervalue resources
  76. flake on important things people are counting on you for
  77. taunt cops
  78. be sectarian
  79. be a narcissist
  80. bang on drums at 2AM
  81. dismiss the complaints of supportive neighbors
  82. burn bridges faster than you can build them
  83. steal things from churches
  84. steal sacred items from churches
  85. piss where you sleep
  86. piss where other people sleep
  87. piss where other people hang out
  88. piss (or shit) on neighbors’ doorsteps
  89. accommodate destructive people
  90. let “damage control” take up most of your time and energy
  91. be an asshole
  92. yell at your comrades
  93. forget to tell your friends that you appreciate them
  94. fail to be cordial toward people who aren’t your friends
  95. be petty
  96. neglect to make good and legible signs
  97. forget to drink water
  98. forget to exercise
  99. forget to brush your teeth
  100. introduce yourself as a condiment

Radicals, Liberals & #OccupyWallStreet: This is What a Populist Alignment Looks Like

Glenn Greenwald asked yesterday whether Occupy Wall Street “can be turned into a Democratic Party movement?”. He discusses how the tone of establishment Democrats has quickly shifted and how many in the Party&#151including the White House&#151are now clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave.

Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress even told the New York Times that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”

After detailing the hypocrisy of a Party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street, Greenwald concludes:

So best of luck to CAP and the DCCC in their efforts to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA. I think they’re going to need it.

Greenwald is right, I think. Very few of the committed folks who are sacrificing time, safety and comfort to make these occupations happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

However, the fact that establishment Dems are clamoring to figure out how to co-opt this energy is a serious victory for genuine progressives and Left radicals. This is what political leverage looks like. Radicals haven’t had it in this country for a very long time, and now we’re getting a taste of it.  

Having leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!

Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull forces to the left. How often are genuine progressives and radicals in a position where the major political parties are reacting to them? I think I can count the number in my lifetime on one hand.

Now, here’s what not to do. Don’t make these occupations a “radicals only” space for fear of co-optation. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That’s the nature of a broad populist alignment. Will some parties to this fragile populist alliance try to stab radicals in the back, throw us under the bus, and claim all the credit first chance they get? Likely so. The thing to do about that is to organize better, to make it so you can’t easily be disposed of &#151 because you are too connected to too many people who will throw down for you. That’s good organizing and that’s real politics.

This is why I find Steve Horn’s piece at Truthout yesterday so unhelpful. His article titled MoveOn.Org and Friends Attempt to Co-Opt Occupy Wall Street Movement argues that “the liberal class is working overtime to co-opt a burgeoning social justice movement.” First, I think the piece is unfair. I think that MoveOn and Van Jones are legitimately interested in doing whatever they can to support this movement, and I appreciate the capacity that they add. But even if you concede his main point&#151that liberals want to co-opt a more radical agenda&#151so what? Sure, let’s not have any illusions here, but does Horn seriously not want to involve liberals in this effort? Do any progressives and radicals seriously think we will be able to achieve the kind of change we imagine without engaging large member organizations that aren’t as radical as us?

This isn’t a moment to draw rigid lines. It’s a moment to beat the crap out of Wall Street, and to encourage as many people as possible&#151including people we may not particularly like&#151to do the same.

Occupy Wall Street: Small Convergence of a Radical Fringe

Why haven’t the protests on Wall Street sparked a prairie fire of populist rebellion across the country? Why, when Adbusters called for “reinforcements” did these not magically arrive? Why, if the protesters represent the feelings of “99% of Americans” have so very, very few of those represented bothered to support the initiative in any way at all?

Isn’t just about everyone furious with Wall Street right now?

Yes, but turning latent sentiment into coordinated collective action is never as simple as a mere call to action.

But it’s easy to see how a contingent of radicals could come to believe the delusion that the right call to action at the right moment is how mass rebellions are ignited. This formula for instantaneous revolution ignores quite a few essentials, including context, organizing, and leadership.

Context matters. Wall Street is not Tahrir Square. The United States is not Egypt. We have very different cultures, economic conditions, and political structures. Just because something on the other side of the globe seems awesome and inspiring to you, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to replicate it here. And trying to do so shouldn’t be your starting place.

Organizing matters. A notable “Tahrir Square” moment in the United States was November 30, 1999, when over a hundred thousand people effectively shut down the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. It was quite inspiring. Unfortunately, just like now, a lot of young radicals wanted to magically and formulaically replicate that everywhere, and attempted to do so at similar summits for the next two years, with diminishing returns. Seattle was only possible because of the grassroots organizing that had been steadily building in much less flashy, less glorious campaigns for the previous decade (e.g. anti-NAFTA organizing).

If your big introduction to collective action is a moment like November 30 in Seattle, it’s quite understandable, however mistaken, to try exclusively to replicate such magic. It’s like arriving at a farm during the harvest. Wow, all this delicious food is everywhere, and all you have to do is pluck it from the vine! You just want to keep harvesting and harvesting &#151 why would anyone try anything else?! That the harvest was only possible through planting, watering, and diligent tending (including weeding!) escapes your notice. And this isn’t entirely your fault; if the farm had more resources, your elders would be taking the time to give you a better orientation.

Leadership matters. In a call to action, it matters who is making the call. Their legitimacy among already constituted social identities matters. It will make a difference, for example, if the call to action is being made by the head of the AFL-CIO, by prominent religious leaders, or, say, by Adbusters. You’ve got to start with a realization that there are plenty of reasons why people would not want to go to Wall Street to take action. They have other commitments in their lives, including jobs and families. And they might get arrested or hurt. However, in moments of real social upheaval a surprising number of people often prove willing to make significant sacrifices… if they think their sacrifice might actually make a difference. People are more likely to believe their efforts will make a difference when they are being asked by leadership that has already earned their faith and trust. (This leadership can be institutions and organizations, not just charismatic individuals.)

These mistakes are not entirely the fault of the brave young radicals who are taking the streets. The smallness and fringe-ness of the Occupy Wall Street protests is symptomatic of a much broader cultural pattern. This is part of a world in which politics is more about individual self-expression than about strategic engagement. This helps explain why the freak flag flies so freely at the protests, and why protest “organizers” probably didn’t approach the leadership of the AFL-CIO or the NAACP to try to build buy-in from social bases that are bigger and broader than their own small self-selecting circles. Radicals, like a lot of other people, are caught up in their own self-selecting, self-reinforcing information universes. A few nodes in their network put out a call to occupy Wall Street, all their “friends” repost and retweet, and suddenly it seems that the whole country may just be on the brink of revolution.