I’ve known groups that limited themselves in the boldness of their actions, even though to reach their goals they had to step it up. School closings, prison construction, tuition hikes, fracking, drone mania — this is only a sample of the causes today that cry out for stronger resistance.
One reason that groups restrain themselves is because “bolder” means that they could get in over their heads without the resources they need when the pressure grows. In this column I’ll share some examples of how some movements in the past have handled this problem; one of the models might work for a group you know.
The International Workers of the World — the IWW, or the “Wobblies” — showed one way to expand its forces when it needed to. The IWW was a radical, mostly anarchist movement that flourished in the early 20th-century United States and Canada. While its strategic goal was to organize large industrial unions, it did a lot of the early agitation work in smaller groups. Because the 1 percent considered the Wobblies a menace, the police of the day often arrested them.
The Wobblies turned repression into an opportunity — the legendary “free speech fights.” A Wobbly agitator would come to town and find a street corner where workers passed by. Standing on a soap box, the organizer spoke until he was arrested.
An arrest would be the signal for other Wobblies in the region to catch a freight train and ride to town to replace that brother or sister on the corner. More Wobblies came, and the initial incident swelled into a campaign. By the time the police figured out what had happened, the jail was full, and the workers were roused enough to form a union!
I was a part of Movement for a New Society, a radical network of action groups and alternative institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, which adopted a variant of this mutual-aid approach. The network agreed that one of the responsibilities of each collective would be to respond to another collective that “called crunch” — that is, got into a situation over its head where aid was needed.
For example, in 1972 a Movement for a New Society group led a campaign in a North Jersey military port town, Leonardo. The goal was to build anti-war sentiment by trying to stop arms shipments to U.S. armed forces in Vietnam. The group began by trying to stop the trains that brought the weapons to the military depot by sitting on the tracks.
The drama of the action induced many to join, and the group escalated by adding a naval component: People were urged to bring canoes and other small craft and go into the sea to try stopping the munitions ships from leaving port.
U.S. Marines joined local police in attacking our blockade tactics, so reinforcements were needed. The Movement for a New Society group leading the campaign “called crunch.”
I was a member of the Movement’s outreach collective in Philly, and our group promptly met to decide how to respond to the crunch call. The group agreed that I should volunteer, and in two days I was in a carload of MNS-ers from various collectives on our way up the New Jersey Turnpike to Leonardo.
We were quickly put to work by the MNS-ers there who weren’t in jail, and I soon found myself in a canoe with a new friend paddling furiously toward a munitions ship.
We were stopped before we got there; a police boat pulled us out of the way. In the courtroom the arresting officer testified emotionally about risking his own life to save us from our likely deaths in a collision with a ship already picking up speed. Although my canoe partner and I were sentenced to jail time, others replaced us and the blockade campaign continued for months, contributing to the growth of the anti-war movement. Some U.S. military personnel were even inspired to refuse continued participation in the war.
That scenario went smoothly because we were part of a network and had some level of trust for each other. I’m not imagining that a “crunch” mechanism can be negotiated among people who don’t have some reason to trust each other and who don’t believe in mutual aid. Actually, trying to organize a network of many groups at the outset might be a mistake. The more organic way would be to join one existing group to another in an agreement for mutual aid, then add a third and then a fourth, and so on.
Mutual aid can work, as many of us have seen firsthand. But becoming more intentional about it can help us increase our forces and our boldness.
The power grid
A power grid assumes that the flow of electricity needs to grow and diminish over time in its various parts; when more is needed in one place, energy flows from other parts to the place that needs it. For instance, Denmark generates more wind power than it needs during some parts of the year, and the same is true of Norway’s hydroelectric power. The two countries are connected in a grid, so the abundance can flow across borders where it needs to go.
The civil-rights organization SCLC, or Southern Christian Leadership Conference, operated that way in the 1960s, and its grid model might work well in many contexts today.
The SCLC, based in Atlanta, was best known for its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I don’t think the model depends on a charismatic figure. A series of local action groups in the South became affiliates of SCLC, and they were expected to be developing campaigns that made sense in their local circumstances. If a local campaign escalated beyond the ability of people there to handle it — especially in terms of the level of violent repression — then national resources flowed to that campaign: mass media connections, relationships with institutional allies, the presence of Dr. King, money and organizers.
This model gave everyone a lot of strategic flexibility. It honored the local fights led by local people, and at the same time the model encouraged them to know they wouldn’t be alone if a fight got overwhelming. At the same time, the SCLC could pay attention to the national level of power — since power is organized nationally as well as locally — and partner with a local campaign strategically to bring a particular fight to national significance.
The classic (but not the only) example of this is told by Dr. King in his book Why We Can’t Wait, about the 1963 Birmingham campaign. King reportedly had talked with President John Kennedy about the necessity of White House action on behalf of civil rights, and Kennedy had turned him down for fear of harming his chances of becoming a two-term president.
A simplistic, mechanical strategy would mean that King might start a campaign in Washington to force the President’s hand, and indeed that is sometimes exactly the thing to do — as Alice Paul showed in the women’s suffrage campaign of 1917.
But the power-grid model offered another possibility. King went to the Birmingham affiliate of SCLC, led by the warrior-pastor Fred Shuttlesworth. SCLC resources flowed there, and Alabama became the site for the struggle that tipped the country. With the industrial city of Birmingham dislocated by nonviolent struggle, President Kennedy was forced to back legislation that became a landmark in the fight against segregation.
The route to contradicting despair
All over the country, officials are now following the U.S. 1 percent’s instructions to flush public education down the toilet. The resistance by Chicago teachers last fall sparked interest many states away and could have been used as this kind of opportunity; for a brief moment, the fog of despair lifted.
Significantly for us today, the SCLC’s power-grid model was not only a back-up plan for affiliates. It was a strike against despair, which is just what students and parents and teachers need now — and people in debt, and climate justice activists.
Local action groups are critical for many reasons, but they are not enough on their own to fight powerful, highly-organized opponents. The power of the 1 percent is being wielded more effectively on a national level than ever before, and increasingly on an international level, too. Networks and other large movement structures need to understand the synergies of multi-level organizing and get their groove on. Small action groups, meanwhile, need to find ever more creative ways to band together and support each other in the fights to come.
Without the friendships he forged in the antiwar movement, Daniel Ellsberg might not have found the courage and support he needed to help end the Vietnam War.
A new campaign for land rights is working to end the decades-old practice in El Salvador that has denied more than 350,000 families title to their property.
By threatening to strike and engaging in a bold civil disobedience campaign, Connecticut health care workers with SEIU District 1199 won their demands for safety and a living wage.