Winning Phone Zap Campaigns: An Interview with Oakland IWOC

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Call-in campaigns, also known as “phone zaps,” have become an often used tool in a growing number of people’s tool boxes. Whether calling into prisons to get someone out of solitary or to restore access to the outside world, against slumlords in tenant battles, to get workers rehired, or attempts to get fascists fired, more and more groups are using the tactics in broader struggles.

Wanting to know more about how people can better organize their call-in campaigns, as well as some success stories, we reached out to someone at Oakland Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) about the tactic to get some tips.

IGD: Just what are phone blast actions or “phone zaps”? 

“It’s not like writing a letter to your congressperson – no one is making an appeal to established power. We aren’t engaging in dialogue but inducing a bit of crisis to shift power to ourselves.”

Oakland IWOC: So “phone blasts” are pressure actions using phone calls and emails that target public or private figures or institutions in power. It’s a tactic that’s been used by all sorts of movements and campaigns from housing fights, to anti-policing campaigns to prisoner support, but right now I’ll speak most on prisoner support actions because that is what I’m primarily involved in and also an arena where phone pressure is especially effective.

The general idea: landlords, city council members, corporations and yes, prison officials operate out of offices that still depend on phone access for doing business. Their business routinely if not implicitly involves fucking people over and flooding offices with phone calls effectively blocks a portion of their ability to operate plus it often punctuates its message by driving an office to pure bedlam. It’s not like writing a letter to your congressperson – no one is making an appeal to established power. We aren’t engaging in dialogue but inducing a bit of crisis to shift power to ourselves. Think of it as a DDOS attack but an old thyme one that uses phone calls instead of server hits to bring down a target.

This bit of operational crisis helps extract concessions or push back on repression or any other bullshit that doesn’t stand up well in the light of day. We’ll talk a bit more about how some of this plays out specifically later.

IGD: What are some of the big mistakes you are seeing people make in terms of how they are organizing call-in campaigns. Or in other words, how could they be more effective?

Oakland IWOC: We’ll instead of getting all negative and ripping on some examples of how this tactic has been poorly deployed, we can instead talk about the foundation of a successful action over just highlighting a slice of the possible mistakes. 

The Phonezap Basics!

  • A clear, concise call to action: You are speaking most likely to supporters or allies who don’t need your polemic or additional convincing. If there is a lot of additional background to convey, you can link or reference another article or post for those who need it. A giant rambling wall of text turns off motivation and engages next to no one.
  • A sample script: Plenty of people are self-conscious and a bit reluctant to call authority figures at some hostile institution and throwing out an example of a possible brief message not only helps convey what the talking points are that need to be delivered but reassures possible participants and gives them something to follow or expand on.
  • Multiple numbers to call: After all sorts of these phone actions, we’ve found that once we have someone’s attention and commitment to participate, that once they take the time to call one number they will also call three numbers while they are at it. We rank them in order of importance and most importantly, we test them. When doing research finding targets and numbers to call within an institution, call them and make sure the numbers are still active and correct. Nothing worse than trying to build a campaign, sending out a thousand emails with wrong or dead numbers on them. Also, when all sorts of people are calling and taking over these offices with calls, it is often hard to get through. Give people a selection of numbers to call and they will keep trying, jumping from one number to the next – more calls land, more voicemail boxes get filled, and more pressure is applied.
  • ADVANCE NOTICE!: Sometimes a quick response feels like a must, but what is better – calling for something overnight and getting a dozen calls? or taking 3 days to research, muster support and promote a blast that nets a 100 calls? People have lives and politically active people get sent a additional requests for their time or money everyday. Advance notice and dogged promotion help make an easily lost request into an event that looks worthwhile and actually is strategic, thoughtful and supported. Like with any online outreach or social media campaign, consider when people are logged on or how they stay in touch. Use multiple channels – social media, email listservs, text messages, face to face meetings, etc. Get the call out in front of them multiple times. It’s a hectic world overloaded with media – you gotta cut through all that.
  • Set a target time window: Set a day to shut that office down. Calls trickling in over a week don’t really make an impression at all or shut anything down. And make that request for a supporters time as concrete as possible so as to hook their participation and also involve them in an event. During the blast there will be periodic updates to get people feedback on just what their calls are achieving. Make it into A Thing.
  • Good targeting: You want to pick targets that will feel the pressure and are in some way vulnerable. Phone zaps for prisoners involves dealing with state bureaucracies and prison administrations. Withing these institutions they got people who are basically paid to lie and take abuse. Fuck bothering to talk with public relation officers. A waste of time. At prisons for example, wardens are essentially middle management who fear for their jobs. That is a vulnerability. There might be some theoretical linkage to some department head on some issue but oftentimes state directors in capitals are political animals who have well versed consultants and are could be pretty well shielded. The point is to have an organizational and political analysis of the institution you are messing with. Pick targets that get results or are vulnerable over anything else.
  • Familiarity: So how does a crew or group develop that targeting analysis? Long term work provides familiarity, experience and thus effective organizing. Stick with it and you get more dangerous to the system. 
  • Update and followup: These actions involve a lot of people spread out all over the place by themselves making calls and making them to asshole functionaries of giant, opaque institutions that never admit anything in the moment or admit these actions effected them at all let alone that they did anything fucked up to begin with. Not a whole lot of gratification or incentive for someone to participate which is why organizers gotta update people on exactly what effect they are having. We’re familiar with these institutions and are monitoring all the signs for effect. Let people know via all those above-mentioned comms channels what effect they are having as it happens – Facebook and Twitter are great for real time encouragement and updates. When an action is over, FOLLOWUP immediately to let people know just how it all went, and followup down the road to let people know what effect they had. Retain that commitment and energy. So much political work is like yelling into a black hole with little feedback or measurable success and is ultimately very draining and unsustainable. Phone actions actually yield immediate results.
  • You are building capacity, not just a single action: Think of each action not as an isolated event but as another opportunity to increase capacity and involvement. Your crew’s organizing demands actions again and again. Prison retaliations and abuses happen again and again. Evictions happen again and again. Develop that circle of supporters that can be relied on for calls and treat them as an extension of your immediate crew and as individuals to retain and count on. (See above point on following up and updates.) It’s much more effective to value and retain people who have participated before and know they are valued and part of something effective.
  • Last but not least – Get direct commitments. Build phone trees: Reach out directly to other groups or crews for hard commitments to make calls. At Oakland IWOC we’ve managed to build a network of about 100 callers in a dozen crews that operate as affinity groups with us at the center as dispatchers and admins. We send affinity group liaisons the callouts and ask for hard commitments for how many callers they can muster for phone zap. They in turn report directly back to us on how the calls went. We monitor the phone blast, issue updates, send encouragement and sometimes issue new numbers to call if the initial targets shut down. In addition to our own membership, they form the backbone of our phone actions. Anyone who has managed group social media accounts or mass mailing accounts knows how tenuous social media engagement is and how little emails actually get opened. DON’T RELY ON SOCIAL MEDIA. IT’S FICKLE, ALIENATING, AND A REALLY POOR WAY TO BUILD RELIABLE CAPACITY.
    It’s always a crap shoot mobilizing numbers and we’re dealing with a lot of variables generally in addition to dealing with a shifting, deceptive enemy- direct commitments and report backs not only serve as a reliable backbone to an action, a good way to build long term capacity but also serve to remove a few variables and uncertainties which helps a lot with evaluating an action.
  • Evaluation: Collect those report backs, followup with participants, and then huddle up to critique how the action went down. We’re engaged in shifting power and building our own capabilities and reach. We’re not just doing shit to feel good or look good. Right? 

IGD: Can you give us some examples in your experience of the successes from these campaigns?

Oakland IWOC: Recently the two sons of a prominent abolitionist, Kim Wilson, who are both in Delaware prisons were singled out for retaliations; repeated shakedowns, fabricated write ups for violations, and confiscated personal property. A national call for phone pressure went out and within a day or two the write up was thrown out and property was beginning to be given back.

Last summer, Oakland IWOC was fielding reports from contacts inside Corcoran of extreme duress, even heart failure due to a heatwave. Guards were keeping prisoners locked down while they chilled in the control pods with AC or in the day rooms with the fans. A phone campaign was mounted that also happened to make its way into prisoner family groups on Facebook. We refused to give locations or names of contacts and forced wellness checks throughout the whole facility, got prisoners out of their cells, and got them medical attention for the different symptoms of extreme heat stress.

Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a well known prisoner and political leader was thrown into a freezing “camera cell” (a further isolated and harsh solitary cell with no belongings allowed plus additional surveillance deployed) with a broken window in the middle of winter in Florida to retaliate against him from writing in support of “Operation PUSH,” a call for a statewide strike to kick off on MLK day 2018. He could barely write due to his hand shaking with the cold. A thousand calls land, lawyers visit, and he is returned to his regular cell.

Sometimes the effect is diffuse and can only be seen to register over time… still very real and known to prisoners and experienced supporters … but sometimes like the instances above, the effect is immediate and undeniable. And anyone who has done time can tell you how guards and administration are essentially bullies that single people out for retaliation. Perhaps you are a resister or political or perhaps you don’t have anyone on the outside looking after you. Guards will do whatever they can get away with. But they too are part of a bureaucracy and prisons need to maintain a veneer of reason and accountability in order to obscure all their intrinsic violence and bullshit. Bad publicity (like phone blasts which are linked directly to inmate testimony and conditions) threaten that cloak not to mention undermines a warden/bureaucrat’s position in the hierarchy.

Phone zaps get results!


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