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Mar 14, 17

Teaching Revolution: What Role for “Direct Action Training”?

The variations are infinite, but certain elements are almost inevitable. Most of us have been exposed to some version of it. A two to eight hour process where we hear about the power of direct action, role play getting yelled at by imaginary adversaries, and finally reach the day’s paramount of group cohesion and risk by pretending to sit down in an office or intersection.

This, we are told, is a direct action training. It leaves most of us wondering what exactly participants are prepared to do that they weren’t before. The answer is rarely developing a strategy or creating some form of political conflict on their own. One might object that a single day, or a few hours, is inadequate to develop these capacities. Since that’s the duration of these trainings, however, it’s equivalent to saying they’re designed to be inadequate.

At least for those purposes. What is really achieved is that people develop a sense of group cohesion and the notion that the group behaves according to shared protocols. And the shared protocols have an uncanny tendency to be focused almost solely on deescalation (indeed, some DA trainings, rather than subject people to the imaginary horrors of being yelled at by imaginary police, require participants to role play calming down other protesters who are getting too angry).

When we think about taking action, we can ask an infinite number of questions: “Will this be useful or meaningful?” “Are we achieving power shifts that are immediately significant and build toward our long-term vision?” But it seems clear the prevailing format of direct action trainings are conceived around the question:“What if it gets out of control?” Moreover, these trainings assume people are coming to an action for the proverbial weekend—they are given enough orientation to participate in someone else’s action, rather than conceive of their own moment of social conflict.

This is not to say that all direct action trainings are in the low barrier to entry, low conflict format. Lisa Fithian, for instance, does direct action trainings with an emphasis on the ways power shifts from physical interventions and occupations. Action camps do still exist, although less than in the past, and these require at least intense time commitments. And of course, some action trainings present frameworks more fundamentally challenging to the dominant power structure than others. But the point is that throughout most of the United States, at most times, people seeking entry into social conflict through some form of explicit pedagogy will find only Direct Action 101 with a tendency towards dogmatic nonviolencea vague and often underdeveloped “principle.”

People with more radically egalitarian views tend to seek higher levels of social conflict, but people with more radically egalitarian views also have less interest in explicit instruction/indoctrination in social conflict. Anarchists emphasize the inherently narrow parameters placed on action if it is action that can be taught a priori, instead of conceived by emergent groups in dynamic moments. We seek uprisings.

Uprisings, however—defined for our purposes here as sustained mass resistance with tactics/strategy evolving in real time—do not necessarily preclude instruction. For one thing, there is the question of getting to the point where political conflict has become so potent, and we have become so immersed in it, that we commit to the full uprising state and all its open possibilities. For most in the US, we have yet to arrive at this stage. If people seeking to confront power consistently find that the only available pedagogic environment is designed for weekend involvement and engagement/skill levels that preclude any hope of tactical evolution or deviation from a script provided by an existing group, won’t we wait longer for uprisings?

And when uprisings do come, it often seems that something very much like “direct action training” would be pretty useful. A number of critiques have been written over the years of movement managers stepping in to guide (and thus limit) the rage and spontaneous initiative of popular resistance, all perfectly valid. But when large groups are suddenly mobilized, we often find ourselves in conflicts we have no particular shared tools or strategic framework to work with. Because these moments of conflict shift quickly and possibilities necessarily close, we often lose opportunities.

Participants in large mobilizations, whether lasting hours or months, tend to comprise three basic political identities. There is the large grassroots, which may (at least at the outset) possess few tools explicitly developed for social conflict, but is therefore open to possibilities political specialists may not see. There are the movement professionals and other leaders who very often seek levels of conflict less intense than the grassroots is prepared for, and who expect the grassroots folks to be less invested and capable than they are or could be. And there are the radicals, who want grassroots folks to join them in seeking heightened social conflict and to develop strategic agency and deep commitment—but who feel some level of discomfort/disdain for explicitly presenting a framework to an emergent movement that is discovering its own identity. We don’t want to suppress an inherent trajectory, don’t want to emulate the movement managers, don’t want to act like political specialists even though we very clearly are.

In so doing, however, we emulate the empty moralism of nonviolence that insists on adhering to an admittedly nice principle even when doing so results in havoc and tragedy. We insist on letting movements evolve organically and according to their own dynamics, when what is true is that others with less egalitarian perspectives simply step in time and again to fill what they perceive as a power vacuum. We cling to a principle even when it has no strategic utility in the actual world.

Let us take Standing Rock as an example. The vast majority of bodies on the ground there did not come with experience of sustained conflict, political strategy, or group decisions. A direct action clique in the form of Red Warrior Camp formed quickly, but was a closed camp with its own security and no explicit mechanism for public engagement (e.g. trainings or presentations of any sort), giving it an aura of inaccessibility. The tribal government and other folks more allied with institutional power had predictable issues with direct action, and so controversies around masking up, getting arrested, and being respectable—essentially identical to controversies one would find in a non-indigenous political setting—raged through the camps.

This created a situation wherein thousands of people had traveled thousands of miles to resist a pipeline, only to find that the most visible figures didn’t want anyone to do any active resisting if it could be viewed as illegal. Meanwhile, those seeking heightened conflict had a security perimeter and weren’t inviting anyone over for dinner (for a huge variety of reasons: let’s acknowledge that the incredible workload and exhaustion were also chief among them). The result was that trainings—the only mechanism by which people could engage in the physical elements of the struggle—were relegated to the Indigenous Peoples Power Project, a Greenpeace spinoff that simply didn’t have the capacity to generate tactically relevant actions and presented “no masking up” as a core principle. Red Warrior could only present its political perspective in ad hoc, often defensive conversations, rather than coherently and on its own terms.

The result was that trainings…were relegated to…a Greenpeace spinoff that simply didn’t have the capacity to generate tactically relevant actions and presented “no masking up” as a core principle. Red Warrior could only present its political perspective in ad hoc, often defensive conversations, rather than coherently and on its own terms.

Standing Rock produced countless moments which validate the notion that useful/meaningful action spontaneously develops in settings where people share the experience of being together and fighting without a script. Driving away Dakota Access workers on horseback, fighting security guards and dogs with dirt clods and survey stakes, small numbers establishing a long-term blockade of the pipeline route at Highway 1806 after the dogs attacked in August, the mass occupation of the same location months later after a significant escalation in police tactics in November—these are things people did with essentially no planning, more brave and more complex than the actions people plan for months. That is the emergent nature of legitimate social conflict.

But we also lost incredible opportunities. The late August to mid-October phase of disrupting pipeline work away from camp—the phase that started straight out of the Earth First! playbook and very quickly progressed into another vision entirely—was significantly hampered by the lack of engagement mechanisms. The bizarre reality was that police/DAPL intrusion into camp would have incited a holy war thousands strong, but pipeline construction ten miles away was difficult to get a couple dozen people to. Collective capacity for disruption did develop, but slowly. As construction neared camp and became sufficiently militarized to preclude tactically meaningful engagements, the strategically relevant horizon might have been to take on actions further and further away, to spread police resources thin. But we did not have sufficient numbers sufficiently organized for such a complex undertaking.

When the wild tumult of any given uprising is over, we return to whatever life we have left, tend to our wounds, and strategize the next rupture. As we do so, we imagine lots of new people showing up and being frustrating—lacking a requisite sense of self-initiative and skill to critically evaluate options and take independent action, weeping for broken windows or the mere possibility of them. But is this at all surprising if the only people who make any conspicuous effort to engage new people in resistance are NGOs and their ilk? Have we actually done our due diligence and made an explicit case for other forms of struggle, in a format where people have the opportunity to assimilate it?

It is hard to imagine a revolutionary process worth the name that doesn’t very heavily emphasize pedagogy. “Direct action training” is terminology with fairly narrow associations, but what it generally refers to is broad and pregnant with possibility. People are showing up with a rage and desperation in their hearts that NVDA in its quintessential forms is doing little to speak to. If people who desire legitimate, strategic conflict position themselves to engage this energy, we might significantly shift the scope of possible movement work. The following themes seem worth considering in developing processes of skill building and engagement.

Commitment and proximity: People’s scattered urban residences and people’s busy urban schedules are anathema to action. Camps, blockades, intensive planning processes, anything that gets people together and functioning for the same reason in the same place, no matter what structure is intentionally given to it, produce far more meaningful action than time spent at two hour meetings after work.

Groups can form in the city and meet forever without doing anything, can contemplate action forever without really taking it, precisely because their lives preclude the level of experiential investment in conflict necessary to commit to it. Without the blockade or the occupation or the camp, we do not have the level of proximity to one another, for enough hours of the day, to do the sheer level of planning and work necessary to meaningfully engage conflict. When everyday life prevails we see “groups” which consist of a tiny number of people working themselves to death to drive movement work forward and a larger number who show up at meetings but are mostly occupied with other things. And when we do work together in between our jobs and television, it is painful, it feels like a superhuman effort to meet and to try to drive anything forward on our crazy schedules and with so many distractions. But when we are all living in tents together it feels natural and inevitable and sometimes even fun because one can only sit around eating free lentils and bagels for so many hours of the day.

People decompartmentalize spontaneously sometimes, but when they don’t, intensive trainings are one of the only ways to get them beyond the format of occasional revolutionary interactions shoved haphazardly into the empty spaces “real life” affords. We need fewer weekend mobilizations, fewer efforts that purport to “meet people where they’re at,” and more attempts to engage people like the planet is screaming its death cries, inequalities are growing, our delusional white supremacist power structure just got lots more delusional and white supremacist, food and water are running out, catastrophic war looms everywhere, and a fascist reality television star wants to destroy us all and negate the stars. We need more Occupy and more Standing Rock, more attempts to shift the terrain of political possibility rather than maneuver it.

DA training is set up for people who want to participate on the weekends, and movement work in general is often structured around the notion that one can meaningfully do it and lead a normal life. But time and again we see that the most useful work movements do—whether occupying a public square or resisting a pipeline—implies people giving up an existing structure and committing to the struggle fundamentally and existentially, identifying with it. Burnout is real, but to a large extent the process of actually committing to social struggle is self-catalyzing: commitment leads to greater conflict which leads to greater commitment. It is worth asking if we can bias training processes to emphasize greater levels of involvement at the outset, by presenting series, camps, and intensives.

Technical expertise…: The simple reality is that actions, campaigns, and movements need specialized skills. Monitoring police responses to marches means knowing how to use a scanner. Blockading trains means knowing when they’re coming. Writing a press release means knowing what a press release is and having a coherent understanding of why a group would or wouldn’t issue one. People learning unique skill sets can seem idiosyncratic and obsessive, but time and again actual movement work suffers or simply doesn’t happen because knowledge does not exist within a given group.

…but with tactical fluidity: The teaching environments that do emphasize technical skills mostly do so in a political framework of orderly campaigns oriented toward shifting the behavior of power holders through relatively sanctioned forms of conflict. Entities like Greenpeace and The Ruckus Society will teach people all the climbing, lock box construction, and banner hanging one could possibly hope for, but these tend to be repetitive tactics (which have arguably lost much of their 1990s grandeur) with variation mostly in messaging/presentation. The degree of social conflict is inherently circumscribed by the tactical focus: the barriers are never greater than getting someone down from something or out of something.

This isn’t to say locking down and the like is always useless. It may be a weary routine in general, and in particular deliberate surrender to police may be morally exhausting, but it does legitimately allow people to hold space and shift power when no other options are clearly available. Locking down and the like is useless when it is guaranteed to end there, when it is the final and not the initial moment of struggle. Few training curricula integrate lessons on the how and when of choosing a tactic in the strategic narrative and escalation timeline of a campaign. Few explore the important balance in the need to be fluid with the need to learn non-trivial skills. Few training curricula teach people how to understand train signals, or know when a pipeline is too highly pressurized to be shut down, or how to plan good contingencies for shutting things down and leaving without arrest.

What will the fight against Keystone XL look like? What about the fight against the border wall? They’re probably going to suffer if no one can read a map or use a radio. Why can’t we actually shut cities down most of the time? Perhaps because groups within a given city don’t usually have the specialized functional knowledge to take bridges and rail lines on their own and help divert police from the mass getting where it needs to go. We must learn skills without getting lost in repetitive deployment of these skills for its own sake. The police watch and catch up on our behavior every time and our lack of skill and fluidity lead to more anti-climatic ineffectual actions.

Integrating heightened conflict seeking with explicit strategic frameworks: Seeing the institutions of power as illegitimate tends to correlate with not being particularly interested in the details of their behavior or the ostensible mechanisms they provide for changing that behavior. Richly structured accounts of how and why institutions of power work, and might respond to direct action, tend to be produced by people who see these institutions as capable of redemption.

But for the most part, we do not find ourselves engaging movement contexts where complete dismantling of the power structure and its entire apparatus seems particularly clearly, imminently on the table. We do not find ourselves in struggles where the next step is to shut down all the fossil fuel infrastructure, completely dismantle the police forces, redistribute all the wealth, and undo all the borders. For the most part, we need to work on immediate achievements of a lesser scale that are strategically conceived to develop larger shifts. This doesn’t mean we have to try to reform the system, it doesn’t mean we demand hopeless change or structure our actions within the limited terms of the system.

But it does mean that the work we do on any given day is likely to land us squarely in the terrain where its significance is determined, at least in part, by the response of power holders. We can blockade airports and the travel ban either is or is not lifted. We can create tumult in the streets and the power holders either do or do not care enough to stop bombing people or selling the world’s last drops of blood to corporations. The anarchist distrust of describing how power operates for fear of validating it is wholly misplaced: a detailed account of its operations is as scathing an indictment as one could dream of.

When we start to map institutional power and its likely responses to our actions more carefully, we give people already possessing an anti-authoritarian outlook more sophisticated tools to do their work. We help action to be conceived which both achieves the most with the existing power structure in existence and does the most to wither that structure away. Moreover, we no longer cede ground in talking about a central element of direct action—how the banks and politicians and corporations will respond to us—to people who want to talk solely about “strategic campaigning” in the sense of asking the institutions to do the right thing.

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, developing sophisticated shared terminology with which anti-authoritarians can talk about the range of responses available to, and likely from, official power holders would probably do much to diminish common strategic debates in direct action organizing. We’ve already acknowledged that the people who show up in social conflicts weeping for windows arguably never were exposed to a clear platform that focuses on more salient points. They also present their concern for windows as a moral focus in itself rather than acknowledging the debate is ultimately about power and how it will be shifted.

For such people, action is moral dialogue, and the dialogue is conceived as being held with those in power. For the rest of us, action may or may not be moral dialogue, but it is also physical intervention, predicated on the assumption that some level of disruption greater than that necessary to reveal injustice must be affected to stop injustice. These are usually values and identity conflicts masquerading as real conversations, because one’s sense of how redeemable power is speaks to one’s own place in it.

But these conflicts ultimately present different strategic frameworks which can be evaluated according to the unique vicissitudes of a given situation. A moment might come when legitimate pluralism emerges, and the conflicts that tear mobilizations apart fade, when people can talk about their values-based frameworks and acknowledge that their assumptions might be more or less true depending on what’s actually happening in external reality.

We are so traumatized by people’s obsessive need to discuss violence and nonviolence, to ignore some forms of violence and pathologically fear others (rather than simply thinking in terms of the meaning and effectiveness of action), that it might seem ludicrous to suggest wading into this discussion in an intentional and programmatic way. But being too smart and cool and politically informed for the nonviolence debate doesn’t mean it’s going to stop being the thing that movements collapse over time and again. When we begin to speak about the ways emotional attachments to strategic frameworks preclude actual strategy, in clear and deliberate ways on our own terms in our own spaces, we may even begin to move this seemingly intractable barrier to useful mass movement work.

We live in a time when the empirical foundation for the claim that centralized institutional authority will destroy us has never been clearer. No one plausibly speculates Trump’s cabal will acquiesce to a moral truth being articulated by protesters. Everyone knows we must resist. We will maximize the effectiveness of our work, and the numbers who seek legitimate channels of resistance, if we develop the shared analytical tools to talk about policy from an anti-authoritarian perspective and address people’s thoughts and concerns about power clearly.

“Trainings” give us a chance to develop these skills ourselves, as well as the clearest format for introducing others to our analysis.

The perils are many and the work great, but these are a few of the arguments for seriously considering placing greater emphasis on explicit forms of political action education.


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