On Mass Mobilizations, “Community”, and Making Change

The following is a rough exposition of my ideas on direct action, organizing, community building, and how we can begin rethinking tearing down the nuclear industrial complex. Let me restate that it is ROUGH. I will continue working on this and restructuring the argument, adding in additional references and theorists. It currently consists mostly of reflections I have of my own personal experiences, as well as ideas taken from discussions with my brilliant and supportive friends. Special thanks to Nick Robinson for long and constructive conversations following TOTB this year, some of these thoughts may indeed be his, so I hope he will not pursue intellectual property damages against me. Just kidding.


The first section is my reflections on mass mobilizations, protests, street marches, etc, and their effectiveness at making change. The second section is where I begin positing alternatives to the idea of “direct action” tactics as we commonly conceive of them, a mostly symbolic spectacle. This includes a critical look at the idea of “community” and “community organizing.” The third section is a sketch of the possible architecture of change, the trebuchet to smash the monster so to speak.



On large scale mass mobilizations, protests, and convention associated mock-war street riots in the United States:


From the first moment a mass mobilization is brought into being, an organizer (master)/mass (slave) binary is put in place. Those who attend an organized event or action, to a large degree, have little or no agency in deciding the messaging or overall goals of the action. They are largely excluded from the decision-making process, and they are disempowered via their lack of agency. Those who attend large/mass actions with their own plans or affinity actions in mind are often viewed by the organizers or media as being disruptive to the stated aims of the protest, bringing unwanted police attention to the action, being intentionally divisive with their ideology and messaging, etc. Large scale and mass actions do not leave room for affinity actions or differences of opinion because they are aimed at getting one specific, simple message into the eyes and ears of the media. Entire actions are planned on how the media will later portray them. Because of this, certain actions and ideologies that may be more “radical” cannot be included because the largely conservative mainstream media will not portray them in a favorable light.


This has molded the characteristic of mass actions in America to nothing more than banal displays of democracy which only serve to strengthen the political discourse in this country that the public opinion matters, when in any real or visceral sense, it doesn’t. Large Anti War protests, or other such single-message protests which get a large number of people into the streets, while supposedly functioning as a way for the masses to voice dissent, are viewed as a positive cathartic exhaust in a diluted version of democracy by both the governing powers and the protest organizers. The governing powers continue to allow such events because (1) mass protests do not pose any actual threat to power structures and (2) they justify the increased militarization of the police force.


Since Seattle in 1999, large scale protests have been rapidly militarized in the form of heavily armed (albeit with “non-lethal” weaponry) police presence. From surveillance and infiltration of organizing groups to the increased number of police that are deployed at protests, the presence of police in organizing and public protesting space cannot be ignored. Often times this increased police presence is accompanied by an increase in the types of “soft weaponry” that they carry. Rubber bullets, stun guns and tasers, batons, riot shields and helmets, tear gas and pepper spray, horses, and more specialized directed-sound weapons are now deployed regularly at protests in the United States. Anti-globalization and big convergences, such as the RNC or DNC, probably see the most severe forms of militarization of public space, but even May Day and Anti War protests in large or medium sized cities will be host to riot-ready police forces.


Riot or mock-street warfare scenarios are now often regarded as an initiation process into radicalism. Ironically, a sub-culture within mainstream political protesting culture has emerged that, despite their disdain for war and violence, recreates war-like scenarios at the fringes of mass actions. Anarcho-punk youth from around the United States and Europe will travel thousands of miles to attend such an action, rather than spending their time and resources building relationships and material or social wealth in their own communities. I could go into my opinions on this issue but that would be a cynical distraction, and I’d rather talk about the militarization of public protest space.


The violent engagement of police forces with protesters, whether due to protester or police instigation, justifies the use of such force in the eyes of the state. The violent outburst is a manifestation of the tension from (a) the ideological threat of public dissent present in a mass action, and (b) the physical counter-threat of police violence present in massive and heavily armed police presence. It acts as a catharsis for both sides. And regardless of how many windows get smashed during such a riot or mock-street warfare scenario, little or nothing is changed as an outcome of such an outburst other than the weakening of communities of resistance by police infiltration, jail time from protester arrests, and the material resources necessitated for legal support. Long-term physical and psychological wounds are also incurred, mostly on the side of the protesters due to the disproportionate use of force on the side of the police.


Male roles and actions are favored in mass action, especially in scenarios of police/protester violence. Physical strength, daring and heroism are qualities upheld in a riot scenario. As protest spaces are increasingly militarized with police presence and police/protester violent engagement, they are increasingly unwelcoming to groups of people on the lower rungs of the white supremacist, patriarchal value system.


The riot police, who may, in this scenario, represent the militarized ideal, are the most masculine of the actors. (This masculinity subverts the police officers’ assigned or chosen sex and/or gender, as their occupation requires them to play out masculine roles in this context. Of course, female officers face extreme patriarchal pressures in their line of work, and are objectified and oppressed as well.) The police hold the monopoly on weaponry, and in that sense a literal monopoly on physical violence. They also hold the power of the “legal system” on their side, with the ability to trump or fabricate charges at will, such as “resisting arrest” or “assaulting an officer” (which can include verbal assault or struggling while face down in cuffs), and in this sense hold the monopoly on judicial violence.


Due to this monopoly on judicial violence, and their power to define the terms of “justice” in a riot scenario, the police force a passive role on the protester counter-force. Passive in the literal sense that (if caught, tried, and convicted) physical violence against police, regardless of the physical injury sustained, is a felony (not sure if this is true but I think it is). Therefore, the protester’s agency to inflict violence is severely restricted by the legal repercussions of such violence.


The American legal system is systematically engrained with racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise bigoted tendencies. This means that if “violence”[1] occurs from protester to police, and is done by a person of color, female person, queer person, a person who doesn’t easily fit into the male-female gender binary, or a person with precarious legal status, such as prior convictions or lack of “legal” immigration documentation, this person will often times face harsher physical and legal repercussions due to the action. Hence, the idea that a protester can “punch a cop in the face and get away with it”[2] is an idea that really only applies due to the privilege bestowed upon cis-gendered[3], straight, white males. Behavior like this also instigates a violent backlash by the police force (envision a shark feeding frenzy) that then puts all bystanders at risk, regardless of their involvement in such an action.


That said, when the entire action is done, people go home, tie up legal loose ends, what has come of this giant spectacle? The media may buzz for a day or two, but after that they will be onto the next story, celebrity gossip, shopping holidays, etc. The mainstream media will not muse over the cultural or political relevance of the protests outside the RNC, they will go on to cover the election, and they will only validate the voices of the two party system. Videos will be posted to the internet, and spread through listservs and the blogosphere, those who missed the action will be amazed and appalled by the riot-porn. Those who were there will relive their mock-war battles and start to heal the psychological wounds caused by the trauma of conflict. The glass will get swept up and the stores will reopen. Or, absolutely nothing at all will have changed for the local businesses. And it is most certain that absolutely nothing will have changed in the minds of the men and women in power.


What about the relationships formed among the participants? Folks on the street likely made friends and new connections, and felt an overwhelming sense of solidarity. However, such an event encourages a lack of long term or working relationship building and maintenance outside of the organizing clique. As the agency for decision-making was restricted to the organizing vanguard, again relegating the mass participants to a passive role, most of the people who attend a protest on a large scale will not take much social networking home. Furthermore, the social networks established for publicizing and getting a large turn out to such events are not necessarily meant to be maintained over the long term. They are used mostly for the event, and possibly for similar events in the future. These networks do not extend beyond event-specific organizing in meaningful ways.


Ideological differences among participants are not discussed with regards to messaging and the least common denominator messaging is emphasized in the media and in pre-event literature. There is no open public forum for mediating ideological differences. Likewise, generational, racial, cultural, gender & sexual and political differences not discussed or moderated. Marginalized views remain marginalized.


As far as material resource allocation and accountability is concerned, money raised is generally focused on publicity and media, while the undiscussed needs of the attending population are largely ignored. The validity of such an action depends on support from certain groups (labor, people of color, indigenous populations, etc) without any attempt to materially support these people in the action or outside of it. Legal support is generally left in the hands of the individuals who need to use it or the groups they were originally associated with.


Even a cursory reading of the above should show that the tactical significance or importance of mass protests or large scale actions, regardless of how violent they get or how much property damage occurs, is little to none. Any messaging is filtered through mainstream conservatism, any subversive ideology or messaging outside of the central message is ignored, marginalized, and silenced, and these spaces are increasingly militarized, with the violence only acting in one direction due to disproportionality and the state’s monopoly on physical and judicial violence.




Alternative visions: Community building and organizing


Community building begins with defining community. There are many diverse “community organizations” that serve different elements of a population. Community organizations in one neighborhood can all serve divergent groups and interests.


When defining the people we can work with, we need to match that group of people to the goals we wish to achieve and the resources we have. We need to work in a community that can support our goals materially as well. Material support comes in many forms: time, money, work, food, shelter, legal, spiritual and mental support, guidance and direction, etc.


Community building requires long-term commitment at a level that is sustainable. It requires being invested in a location. It requires building long lasting working relationships with the people that live near you. It necessitates a diffuse leadership structure that allows any one person to take breaks and shift focus without weakening the community itself or the direction of the project. Community building requires transparent and accountable communication and behaviors. It requires support systems for victims of abuse within the community, conflict mediation, and alternatives to the penal system. Community building should be based on trust, investment, and a set of principles for societal change that are widely acknowledged, accepted, and practiced within the community.


The type of work that needs to be done in order to subvert the nuclear industrial complex also involves looking beyond prominent conceptions of community. I will forward some of this discussion to an article, “City Life and Difference” by Iris Marion Young,[4] who claims that the term “community,” like its opposite the “individual,” necessarily denies the differences that occur in large groups of people. These differences encompass political ideals, racial, ethnic and gender identities, among others. The idea of “building community” is premised upon a shared understanding and knowing of those in the community, and in this way is a completely impossible and utopian ideal.


When we begin to look at how community building pans out in the real world, no matter what the stated intentions of planned communities may be, we see many of the problems of mainstream society replicated in them. This is to say that rather than knowing each other on intimate levels, we are still in some ways indefinable and alienated from each other. This extends to our ability to know ourselves, and as such we can never really hope to know others as the self remains, at times, quite ambiguous. Also, in defining our community based on likeness and shared ideals, we must necessarily exclude difference. Often times in planned community spaces, such as anarchist spaces (or “infoshops”) or feminist groups in the United States, there is a lack of racial or ethnic diversity. While these groups may in their values list a respect and appreciation for diversity, or even the necessity of it, it remains a trend that likeness prevails. This is perhaps due to identities that cross social groups. For example, anarchist feminist spaces in the United States may lack the presence of black women, even though the group is largely defined as a female group, but because anarchists tend generally to be white, to know white people and have white friends and relationships. Thus those that identify as female and black, or even female, black and radical, may not identify with the white anarchists, and therefore are excluded or exclude themselves from that “community.”


As Young puts it, “The most serious political consequence of the desire for community, or for copresence and mutual identification with others [Young’s definition of community] is that it often operates to exclude or oppress those experienced as different. Commitment to an ideal of community tends to value and enforce homogeneity…Too often people in groups working for social change take mutual friendship to be a goal of the group, and thus judge themselves wanting as a group when they do not achieve such commonality. Such a desire for community often channels energy away from the political goals of the group, and also produces a clique atmosphere which keeps groups small and turns potential members away.”[5] 


In a real way, we cannot think of community as some ideal of togetherness. When we use the term “community” we must carefully qualify which community, and we must be critical of utopian visioning. Rather than focusing solely on “community” for the groups and spaces that we can envision ourselves organizing in, we can use Young’s alternative of the city as a model for social change networking. Young favors the city model to that of the community model because the city provides a commonality in proximity while allowing for differences in identification. There can be many self defined communities within a city that overlap and exist on top of each other. The city provides a loose framework for association without forcing relationships of inclusion or exclusion.


I would like to expand this idea of the city onto our conception of networking and movement building. Rather than trying to build a very large, specific and closely related “community based” movement, I propose thinking of our movement for nuclear abolition as a city. Instead of being loosely associated by proximity, we will be loosely associated in our aim to abolish the nuclear industrial complex. Thus, we will allow agency and autonomy for self-defined communities, groups, and individual actors that exist within the “city.” Our space, rather than being a physical space, is an ideological space, or a communication space.


On colonizing and patriarchal organizing, or cross-cultural organizing:


Let’s say the goal we have is nuclear abolition. Let’s say that we determine that the groups of people we want to work with in order to shut down nuclear fuel production and processing facilities are working class people, people of color, and indigenous communities who live near uranium strip mining operations. Let’s say that we are composed of mostly young white people from upper middle class backgrounds, with college educations, and only a few of us live near the facilities in question. Let’s acknowledge that the colonizing and racist history of this country has put us in a place of privilege over those that are most suited to directly shut down the nuclear industrial complex. Due to our backgrounds and upbringings, we do not live near or work at uranium mines or processing facilities. How do we begin to bridge the cultural, racial, colonial, class, and many other differences in order to join together to fight? How do we establish trust with peoples who have been lied to and deceived for centuries by peoples like us?


This is not a question of how to save people. I want to make this clear. This is a question of how to materially support people so they can better organize and empower themselves. We are not in the position to organize anyone other than ourselves. We are not in a position to convert people to a specific ideology, religion or lifestyle. To do so would be to once again colonize a movement, to deny agency to oppressed people, to become the masters of a movement of slaves. This would only serve to create another system of oppression, and to reproduce prevailing societal norms and hierarchies within our own movement.


Much like the above scenario of the event based mass protest or march, we want to avoid vanguardist organizing where a small organizing group (us) defines the goals and messaging of an action or, in this case, a long-term movement within a specific community.


What this process entails is to be an ally.[6] It entails taking the supporting role rather than the leadership role. It means establishing connections and working relationships with people and allowing them to define our roles as far as what they need in order to better organize. This requires cultural sensitivity and an understanding of ideological differences between cultures.


This role also requires a clear understanding of one’s privilege in order to best serve the needs of those to which one is allied. Knowing one’s strengths and abilities, as well as knowing what spaces one can more easily trespass due to one’s privilege is key. But above all, this process necessitates and requires asking for direction and listening to the needs and interests of others. 


One of the great things about TOTB is the network that it is building. There are a lot of groups from all over the country who send representatives to TOTB conferences to share their stories and experiences of struggle. I think that we need to see more representation from groups that are situated closely to the production and processing of nuclear fuel: (1) indigenous communities near uranium mines and mills who are working to assert their treaty rights to retain ownership of the land and stop uranium extraction and refinement; (2) the people working at the processing facilities, whether current or past, who are working to expose the health risks of such an occupation, (and who can possibly be linked with people working on building “green” jobs or alternative energy sources to nuclear power); and (3) United States citizens who live in communities adjacent to mining, milling, and fuel processing facilities who know the longevity of the health affects and are not willing to allow such disasters in their localities.


Upon contacting these folks, we need to figure out with them what resources we have that can assist them in meeting their goals. There are many groups that already are part of the TOTB network with many skills and resources that could benefit and empower such communities. As aforementioned, this will mean letting these groups define their aims and goals for nuclear abolition and taking an allied role to materially support them in the ways that they define. Through the network that we build and maintain, and by allowing others access to building and maintenance of this network as well, we will start to form the city-like structure mentioned above. Material support and exchange of information will continue to build and swell into a movement of autonomous communities, groups, and individuals working toward the aim of nuclear abolition.


[1] Again, this terminology will be defined by the police, and doesn’t actually have to constitute a physical assault, or even really happen. There are many cases of people being locked up for years or life who never committed the violence against police that they are serving time for. Leonard Peltier is a good example, as he is in jail for life after being framed for the murder of an FBI agent.

[2] A quote liked with the group CrimetInc, who publishes lifestyle-anarchist propaganda that looks eerily similar to the advertising aesthetic used by the mainstream media/youth culture, such as Mtv.

[3] Cis-gendered: a person whose gender identity visibly matches their sex and assigned gender.

[4] I found this article in a book entitled METROPOLIS: Center and Symbol of Our Times, edited by Philip Kasinitz, on New York University Press: 1995. It is a collection of essays that reflect on how capital effects our conceptions of urban space from a very critical standpoint. Features writing by Mike Davis and Loic J D Wacquant, among others.

[5] Young, Iris Mario, “City Life and Difference.” Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times, ed. Kasinitz. New York University Press: 1995. Page 260-261.

[6] “An ally is a member of a dominant group who rejects the dominant ideology and takes action against oppression out of a belief that eliminating oppression benefits everyone.” From a handout, What is an Ally?, adapted from “Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice” edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin (Routledge Press, 1997)


~ by scamuic on November 7, 2009.

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