After the Protest - L.A. Kauffman and Jesse Myerson Excerpt

No nukes, Act Up, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock. What lessons from the history of Direct Action are relevant to the times of Trump? And what do we know about the role of protest in shifting power, or moving policy? Can street heat translate into organized movement over time? It certainly happened on the Right. The first months of the Trump Administration have seen major opposition mobilizations that continue, but after all the disruption, what comes next? We're joined by two guests today who are grappling with this very question. L.A. Kauffmann is a journalist, long time activist and author of the brilliantly timed, recently released book " Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism". Jesse Myerson is an organizer and writer, currently working with the New York Nurses Association. His writings have appeared in the Washington Post, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The Nation and right here. 

 

L.A. Kauffmann:Pleasure to be here!

Laura Flanders:So let's start with the ingeniously brilliantly timed release of your book, " Direct Action", what does the term actually mean for people that don't know?

L.A. Kauffmann:Well, I define it very broadly. Like any term like this, it's debated extensively within movements and there are some people who want a very narrow definition where it's just stopping an injustice in its tracks, like using your body to block a bulldozer, but I define it as any of the pressure tactics that are outside the established channels of political participation and influence. So everything ranging from fairly mild tactics like rallies, to stronger things like sit-ins and blockades.

Laura Flanders:Now, your book catalogs dozens, decades of direct actions. I was part of a shockingly large number of them. But is this the exclusive purview of the Left?

L.A. Kauffmann:It's not. There are certainly examples of direct action movements on the Right. The most notorious would probably be Operation Rescue, which used direct action blockades to prevent women from accessing reproductive health services. But it's been a lot rarer, I think part of that is because there's a small d, democratic ethos that's kinda baked into the way that people do direct action and that's almost a prerequisite for people to take the level of personal risk that entails. You occasionally see movements that use these tactics on the Right, but it doesn't work very well in top-down organizing context which is more characteristic of Right.

Laura Flanders:You draw a line between the kind of extra, sort of democratic process actions of progressive organizations like the ones you catalog, like the Klan or militia movements of the Right.

L.A. Kauffmann:Yes. I mean, I think those, those movements have by-and-large been operating in kind of a cell fashion, and have not been looking to mobilize extensive grassroots support or have been failing spectacularly when they do.

Laura Flanders:Alright, so now we've got our terms clear, I'd love the both of you to weigh in a little bit on what you see as the relationship between this kind of direct action that you're talking about, and the kind of movement building that you've more often report on. Jesse, I mean you're a direct action fan, but you really write about movement organizing more than just mobilizing people into the streets, and I shouldn't use that word "just", we'll get to that.

Jesse Myerson:I think they're vital for reinforcing one another, that through direct action strikes, rallies, these sorts of things open political space and claim new political terrain, open up new ideas for consideration. But that in order to consecrate them and in order to advance them in a political sense, we need a sort of ongoing organizing effort that get people not just mobilized, but also ideologically coherent and ready to take action at a moments notice, and in relationship with one another. And with these two things balancing one another, each can increase the other and eventually lead to the realization of an actual program.

Laura Flanders:And so what do you see happening Right now in this sort of arena, L.A.?

L.A. Kauffmann:Well, I mean, there's obviously been an extraordinary flourishing of street protests since the day of the inauguration. What we've seen I think, has been the flourishing of a movement of movements, that we're not seeing a single organization, or a single issue in the forefront. Instead, what we're seeing is this vast, decentralized landscape of lots and lots of people and organizations in motion. It's pretty early now to say what organizational containers are going to be the most effective in channeling that energy going forward, but there are groups small and large, both popping up all over and existing groups that are dramatically increasing their numbers.

 

Laura Flanders:Are you excited?

L.A. Kauffmann:I mean, it's a funny time. Because I've had this conversation with a lot of other organizers where, on the one hand, it's we all have nightmares about the incredible damage that's unfolding in front of us. This feels like a uniquely perilous time in American politics, so it's a very scary time. Yet, it's also a moment where both the scale and the character of the resistance that have emerged, are more promising than anything I've seen in decades of organizing. So, it feels strange to be upbeat and optimistic when things are so dire, and when we know that the power of the resistance will be not be adequate to stop the damage. Yet, after years and years of seeing small scale efforts have large results, it's hard not to feel encouraged by this large scale flourishing right now.

Laura Flanders:Well, another thing I'd love to get both of you to weight in on is, to what extent is what we're seeing new, triggered by Trump at all, and what is the new continuation of organizing that we've seen around the Fight for 15 movement and Occupy, going back through the last eight years of the Obama Administration?

Jesse Myerson:I mean, I definitely think that the protest movements of the Obama Administration, each led to the next one and created new movement infrastructure that the next movement moment could draw on, and use to increase its numbers and stuff. So I think, over the course of that period we established a pretty firm foundation for things like, the Women's March that drew on the leadership for previous iterations of these kinds of movements. The tools that were developed, the communications tools for decentralized, seemingly spontaneous, not spontaneous but viral actions, which were really honed during the Obama Era put to good use in the airport protests, and things like that. I think there is an extent to which it's continuous. I think that the new development is that Liberalism joined the Left in these things, which has led to greatly increased numbers. Partly that's because of Donald Trump as a unique figure who smashes norms and destroys what people expect politics to look like. I think perhaps if it had been a more conventional Republican President, we might not be seeing liberals join such great movements.

Laura Flanders:What's your thought on that L.A.?

L.A. Kauffmann:I think that the one real contrast between this movement and when Ronald Reagan took office, which was another moment of dramatic right-wing shift in the country, is that we do have this foundation as `Jesse described, of a lot of really powerful organizing work that had been unfolding since at least Occupy in 2011 and putting in place a lot of good movement infrastructure. I think the question of the newly activated liberals is in a lot of ways, the most interesting political question right now. Where is that energy gonna go, and what are folks willing to do? Certainly, the numbers at the Women's March and the energy for some of the things that are coming up this spring are bringing in huge numbers of people who maybe voted, maybe gave to a candidate, but who would not see themselves as activists and then certainly not see themselves as outsiders to the system in this new way.

I think the question of whether that whole upsurge of energy can be used not just to swell the numbers in street protest, but to actually engage with the Democratic Party in a new and dramatically different way, is the big question of our time.

Laura Flanders:Well, so how will it be resolved? Before it gets to the question of the relationship with the administration, what about within the movements that are immobilizing. I mean, what you've got it seems to me is not unlike some of the protests you documented around the IMF and the World Trade Organization, where you have a lot of people who are members of trade unions and organized groups, who wanna participate in a legal demonstration of protest. Then some people who were, really wanna do the direct action that shuts down a door, or shuts down a police precinct. What's your experience, maybe your tips for organizers, about how do you allow those two, really radical folks and the just getting involved folks, to both participate in a way that conflict between them doesn't become the story?

L.A. Kauffmann:I mean, I think that's actually one area where our movements have really learned from experience. There's this notion of what people often call solidarity principles. Before big mobilizations, there are quiet meetings that take place behind the scenes often that include everybody from labor folks to maybe folks who identify as black bloc, and everything in between to figure out, how do we start from the assumption that we all share the same broad goals and we are going to approach them differently, we're not going to talk each other out of our distinctive approaches, but maybe we can coordinate so that maybe we're not stepping on each others toes and causing problems for each other. I mean, I don't think you know, since-

Laura Flanders:I mean, you have some great stories of exactly that in the book.

L.A. Kauffmann:Yeah, I mean people have gotten, you know, there are the kind of terrible examples of the way in which you had people just denouncing each other, or wildly after Seattle the non-violent protesters denouncing the black bloc and vice versa. You don't see that as much. I think people are doing a better job finding ways to have the disagreements take place in another arena, and on the days of action we figure out how to give each other proper space.

Jesse Myerson:This sort of ultimate realization of that unification that you're noticing, I think came when members of the liberal media and even liberal members of congress, were celebrating Richard Spencer having being punched a person wearing all black.

Laura Flanders:Yeah, the white supremacist.

Jesse Myerson:It was a moment where this thing which would previously have gotten liberals fingers out and wagging, actually provoked quite a favorable response on a large scale.

Laura Flanders:Let's get to a couple of more tricky questions to me anyway. One is, we had the Boots Rally not long ago, and he was talking about how we've gotten very good in the U.S. about demonstrating. But what exactly are we demonstrating, what's the power at the root of our demonstration? What he wanted to see is the demonstration of power to shut things down, to really force change to take place. That's one question. Then the other one is, we've got some history now of demonstrations that don't have a very clear demands, if any demands. The Women's March being a case in point. What's the point? Did you have thought's about that? Then, what about that question of what are we demonstrating other than the fact that we can get a lot of people in the street?

L.A. Kauffmann:It can be very hard to distinguish between different kinds of protests and the different jobs that they do. In particular, I think that there is a real tendency, to think of mass mobilizations and large-scale protests as principally, as pressure tactics. They usually don't work very well as pressure tactics, they're not very effective. You can come up with counter examples, and the big one would be the March on Washington in '63, everyone kind of thinks of that model. People marched on Washington, and then somehow that helped create the upsurge of popular support that leads to Civil Rights legislation. It rarely works that way. It's not always as dispiriting as when we mobilize millions in the streets to stand against the Iraq War, and it did absolutely nothing to stop the U.S. invasions of Iraq.

But oftentimes, the Women's March would be a prime example, the most important work that big mobilizations do is movement building. They're more important, I think of the Women's Marches as having broke the spell of fear and a kind of paralysis that people were having after the election and emboldening people to act in a new way. That's very different from a protest that is really looking to pressure a very specific target, to make a very concrete change. It's more of an amorphous kind of protest, and I understand where people kind of look at it and say, "What's it doing?" But part of what it's doing is it's providing all those millions of people with an opportunity to do something they've never done before and step outside their comfort zone and take more action, priming them to get involved in, the kind of thing that Jesse's been talking about. Some more ongoing organizational work, that can build power over time.

Jesse Myerson:Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. I think that the airport protest was a perfect example of this because, on that day, people who perhaps had never protested before and were showing up to that, tasted victory. I think that feeling of being in collective action with people, and having a victory come down, is intoxicating and will probably spear them on to do other things. I also think that a big distinction here is who actually is in power. I think of the protest that the dreamers did, in Obama campaign offices and Harry Reid's office, where previously Obama was saying, well I can't just wave a magic wand, and defer action on, you know, deportations and these young people, showed up and said, "We have no papers, we have no fear, we're shutting down your campaign office." And these were ostensibly members of the Obama administration coalition and so it put real pressure on him, and he found that actually, he could just wave a magic wand and defer action on it. Whereas of course Trump is much less susceptible to, these sort of protests because there being led by people who are not ostensibly part of his coalition.

 


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