From Demonstration to Organization

A word of warning: The Battle of Seattle was a shining hour where grassroots activists were able to simultaneously deal a serious blow to global capitalism, and excite, mobilize and organize a lot of people. But now, after a year of national mega-gatherings organized in imitation of Seattle that haven\’t had the same huge payoff, we\’re in danger of losing momentum, if we haven\’t already. Mega-gatherings like Seattle are great and can end up organizing thousands of people, but such a result is far from guaranteed.

It Is certain, however, that over the last year, many of our best organizers have abandoned anything you could call \”local\” organizing, in favor of traveling to a new city every few months hoping for another Seattle. Hopefully I\’m wrong, but it appears to me that over the last year, the level of awareness, activity and organization has been stagnant, or even declined, which is in sharp contract to what a lot of people expected after the boost we got from Seattle.

Somehow, the Seattle moment isn\’t translating into a more balanced, organic, local resurgence in radical political activity. No matter how exciting and great mega-gatherings are, changing society requires a lot more than periodic uprisings. Contrary to our hopes, the gatherings haven\’t gotten bigger and bigger since Seattle, and perhaps that is a symptom of our failure to do more broad-based organizing.

Instead, it seems like these post-Seattle protests have followed a formula around organizing, reaching out to the young and the white, but leaving behind a lot of other people. Organizing for a mega protest necessarily excludes a lot of regular folks with jobs and kids and lives who can\’t pick up for a week, go to a strange city, sleep on the floor, etc. etc. This is a big mistake. While its great when a mega-protest organizes folks \”by remote control\” through the media, what if the cops, the media, whatever, don\’t cooperate? Broad-based organizing is very slow, difficult, not always exciting, but will always be required to expand the social influence of anarchist/radical tendencies. We need to be about organizing on a mass scale, reaching out to unlikely allies, not just organizing those who already are organized. An anarchist scene with 5,000 members nationwide is a playpen, not a movement.

What would broad-based organizing look like? I don\’t think any of us really know completely, or else it would be happening more. Here are a few ideas designed to encourage discussion, debate and reflection. I\’m not against continuing the focus on big international meetings (go to Quebec City in April, y\’all) but we need to do a lot more than just that.

Randomized Outreach

This is basically about being available to talk to \”regular folks\”-whoever they are. At a meeting to organize a Reclaim the Streets demo in Berkeley in solidarity with the Prague protests, we were discussing where to flyer. The protest against the National Association of Broadcasters. Check. Critical Mass. Check.

But wait a minute, this is like preaching to the choir! I was at the NAB protest and everyone there was already involved in activist work. It was fun flyering my friends (or people I wish I could get to know) but this isn\’t really \”organizing\” or \”outreach\”, which in my mind is about more than just getting people who are already committed to put another event on their calendar.

Someone mentioned flyering at UC Berkeley, but no one wanted to do it and it didn\’t get done. Flyering UC Berkeley wouldn\’t be reaching out to \”regular\” folks as much as standing in downtown Oakland would be, but it would have been a start. No one even mentioned the idea of flyering random folks in Oakland. I\’m not saying such an idea would work or would be a good use of resources, but there are opportunities to meet and politicize non-involved people that aren\’t considered often enough. We did hand out 1,000 flyers at a Berkeley city parade, and as far as I could tell, all of those flyers went to people completely outside our scene. We need to be careful not to assume that \”normal\” people aren\’t interested in changing the world or getting involved, and based on that assumption, not even try.

The whole world is an opportunity for random outreach. Even more than stapling flyers to telephone poles (most people don\’t walk anymore) we ought to be picking places where people are, and become a presence. Sports games? Flea markets? Saying a few words at churches? Outside the grocery store?

Random outreach is the most difficult, most threatening type of outreach, and because of that, we usually don\’t even try. If we\’re willing to get pepper sprayed and tear gassed, we ought to be willing to risk talking to those dreaded \”regular folks.\” It may not always be as effective as we would like, but it could reach people we would otherwise never meet.

Recruiting through Struggle

As mentioned above, the excitement of realizing that someone is protesting business as usual does organize folks. A lot of people hate the way things are-they hate their mindless jobs, they hate their loneliness and lack of community, they hate the ugliness and pollution around them-but they have no feeling of empowerment to change any of this. They feel totally defeated and powerless. (They hate their feeling of powerlessness, too.) Seeing or being part of struggle is a powerful antidote to this feeling of apathy. There ought to be more constant and visible images of protest, not just \”far away\” in Seattle, DC, Prague where those protesting are \”the other,\” but right in every community up close. The S26 protest in Berkeley injected new life and excitement into everyone who was part of it or who saw it. Certainly a valid method of outreach and organizing is organizing protests and action events.

Working within Existing Movements /Organizations

There are numerous opportunities to work with existing single issue organizations or campaigns and bring a non-hierarchical, anarchist perspective. A lot of people already do this kind of work (Mumia organizing is always in coalitions, etc.) and the question is how to promote anarchist values and not end up being silenced in the coalition.

Issue Oriented Organizing

Another possibility is to work harder starting our own community organizing projects around generally relevant issues, but injecting anarchist analysis and organizing tactics into the mix. For some reason, a lot more anarchists tend to work with groups controlled by others (liberals in reformist campaigns or Marxist groups on political prisoners, etc.) than just organize our own groups. Housing seems like an especially fertile ground for starting organizing campaigns, but police accountability, poverty, etc. etc. are all available. Again the problem is how not to get so caught up in the single issue that any of the larger issues are forgotten.

A lot of organizing opportunities are available around work places and campuses. These social subgroups lend coherence and make it easier to reach out, because there is some basis of similarity to get conversations started.


Since 1993, a few dozen Infoshops (reading rooms usually providing access to alternative information and resources) have come and gone around North America. Many activists have abandoned Infoshops because they didn\’t fulfill their purpose-that of community outreach. But rather than abandoning a form of outreach that has a lot of potential, future Infoshop projects (and existing ones) should learn from the mistakes of the last 7 years. Crucial to making Infoshops successful as community outreach is working much harder on outreach about the Infoshop. This sounds like circular logic, but it really isn\’t, since outreach about the existence of a place is a lot easier and less threatening than outreach about an alternative analysis of the world. Most Infoshops fall into the trap mentioned above by only reaching out to people already
in the political scene and failing to provide anything to the much larger group of people in any community who may be vaguely dissatisfied with the state of urban industrial capitalism, but can\’t put their finger on why. Infoshops, if revitalized and made relevant and more open, are an excellent opportunity to outreach and spread anarchist ideas. Again, they can permit us to talk on a regular basis to \”regular folks.\”

The Alternative Media

Finally, we shouldn\’t forget the importance of growing our own media. Publishing and more importantly widely distributing alternative media can be an effective form of activism, because a lot of people can pick up and read new ideas even if you never meet or talk to a that person. A lot of media projects fall into the same traps listed above-just preaching to the converted by only distributing to people already involved. There need to be \”internal\” publications, radio shows, TV shows, internet site, etc., that we just distribute to ourselves, but we also need to emphasize producing \”external\” media which is written and designed to speak to people who aren\’t already totally absorbed with movement work. \”External\” publications or media put more emphasis on explaining ideas, rather than assuming a lot of pre-learned knowledge. For instance, don\’t assume everyone know s who Mumia is and what his case is about. Don\’t assume everyone knows what anarchism is about. Such publications or projects need to look attractive and relevant enough to get read, and then put out places where folks can find \’em.

After Seattle, everyone in America knew one thing about the WTO: it was bad. Most people weren\’t even aware of the protests in LA and Philly. The police, expecting militant protest, were present in massive numbers and erected barriers (both physical and legal) to prevent protesters from threatening the conduct of the conventions themselves. The injustice and oppression of the mini-police states created to protect the conventions is legendary within the activist community, and unknown outside of it. Self-appointed \”organizers\” appeared afraid of militancy and didn\’t work to create situations where it could emerge. These gatherings, which required huge resources to organize and consumed thousands of people\’s vacation time, really pointed out the weakness of the last year\’s strategy of focusing energy on centralized, mega confrontations, in imitation of Seattle.

The question is, if imitating Seattle is no longer working so well, what next?

Orphans of the Living

Every year, 200,000 teens in foster care \”age out.\” When they reach the age of eighteen, they lose assistance, and may be turned out onto the street with $50 and a couple of blankets.

Many former foster children, often homeless as children, experience homelessness as adults. As a quasi-survivor of this naive social machinery, I found myself on the street from time to time during the last thirty years. No one could help me put the pieces back together. Most therapists have no idea how to help those who have lost their families of origin or grown up in the homes of strangers, whose main concern was the housing of the body.

A network of former foster children is now being organized at the Berkeley Free Clinic by Michael Diehl and myself. The goals of the network are to help survivors of fosterage integrate the disconnected stages of development, better relate to our families of origin, and raise public awareness of the consequences of the foster system.

The Berkeley Free Clinic will provide a free drop-in peer-support conversation on the second Thursday of each month, 7 to 9 pm, beginning November 9, 2000. The clinic is located at 2339 Durant St., Berkeley.