by before the fall, from Lines of Demarcation:
Of the General Assembly on October 7, I witnessed little: a few scattered eruptions of applause, audible on the deck north of Doe; photographs in the days that followed. What I saw instead on Thursday evening while I was stationed outside the library, were hundreds of people, in clumps of five or ten, leaving Doe in search of food. Most didn’t return that night, and the once massive sit-in gave up the ghost at dusk with a slight wheeze.
What is there to say about these groups passing out of Doe?
We could, I suppose, judge them in the name of the event, claiming that, by departing, they deprived the sit-in of the numbers it needed to sustain itself. But what if, instead, we focused our attention on these mobile groupings of friends?
It would certainly be easy enough to hold the General Assembly responsible for the boredom and exhaustion so palpable on the faces of those who left Doe. And it’s worth asking why a few hundred sandwiches and some lentil stew was all the food prepared and carried into the library that day. Hunger is, perhaps, a force of dislocation more powerful than dispersal orders.
But what of the simple activity of grouping? Can we see in the recomposition of friend circles, outside the General Assembly, something other than the decomposition of the political event? Might this movement – away from a scene structured like a cinema and toward molecular groupings – point the way toward more effective, and engaging, forms of political activity?
On October 7, we temporarily claimed, and filled, one of the largest rooms on campus. So large that sound produced in one corner of the room petered out, or was fatally distorted, by the time it reached the opposite corner. The success of the mass assembly was also its undoing. And yet, this need not have been the case.
Before the start of the General Assembly, the still large group had broken up into smaller groups that were discussing what they wanted to do in the event of a dispersal order, how they felt about the larger political context, and what should come next. These groups reappeared in similar configurations outside the event after it ended. The structure of affinity groups was already present, why not simply graft onto this structure a spokescouncil capable of articulating these varied groups, and of hosting a conversation about how to variously proceed? Instead of allowing our political energies to dissipate into political angst why not insist on taking each other seriously in the moments when we do hold space together and share demands?
The General Assembly model carries weight because it has been used successfully in the European student movements of the past and today. If it works for them, why shouldn’t it work for us? This logic overlooks the various ways that the model doesn’t work, as well as the fact that the general assembly emerges out of different conditions in Europe. But more importantly, practice has shown that it doesn’t work here. Decisions reached by affinity groups have the advantage of being made in relative comfort between those who are familiar with each others’ political positions, capacities, and willingness to risk arrest. Consensus can be reached more quickly and spokespeople sent to a meeting can collaborate in non-hierarchical ways. Smaller groups, less time, more consensus. This structure allows for action to take place….
My first experience using a spokescouncil model to organize with tens of thousands of strangers was in Seattle in 1999, when the World Trade Organization held their summit 90 miles away from the town where I was living. For months before the big event, a handful of us would trek down to Seattle to attend some of the meetings where we planned how thousands of people, most of whom would never meet each other, could immobilize a city, disrupt and shut down a major global economic summit. I recall the foggy, moist heat of the warehouse within which some 150 people ducked in from the rain, to lay the groundwork for what would be some of the most exciting and successful protests in our lifetimes up to that point. I remember the mystique of the terms “direct action,” “consensus,” the strange “twinkle” of fingers to signify agreement. But weeks before the summit, I still had my doubts: How would these strange terms and formations work once we were out on the streets?
I had no idea how massive Seattle was going to be. From our little town up north, we filled a few busloads of steelworkers, student activists, anarcho-punks, and elderly liberals. While our divergent crew of 300 was immense for that sleepy town, we arrived to find some 50,000 of North America’s most organized and impassioned political organizers and activists dropping banners from 20-story highrises and occupying intersections with stationary blockades and roving black blocs. In every direction, “we” seemed to be creating that new world we dreamed of, displacing the old, crumbling one of confused riot police and smashed-in bank windows. Back in 1999, almost no one had cell phones, and the internet was inaccessible to many. Laptops were a rarity. So we relied mostly on multiple daily meetings to organize ourselves, and in this way, we, in small and great numbers, created and disseminated creative DIY agit-prop, attended to our ill and weary with medics and free food; and housed late-arrivers in collective houses, fancy apartments, and just-opened squats. We produced communications and media with sophisticated analyses; we coordinated mass arrests, clogged the jails with anonymous Jane and John Does and courtrooms with our radical lawyers, and finally, we negotiated the terms of our releases. The newspaper headlines indicated what we already felt from the chills that ran up our spines all week: we fought the WTO, and despite being hoarse from screaming, drenched from the rain, and hungry from jail, we came out looking better than ever.
All this we coordinated using the affinity group and spokescouncil model.
Last year, strikes, walkouts, protests, shutdowns, occupations and marches sprang up here at UC Berkeley and throughout many of the UC, CSU and community college campuses. We opposed rising student fees, as well as lay-offs and furloughs imposed on workers.
The UC system is public and receives about half of its operating funding from the state. Since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, completely changing the structure of property taxation and allowing the richest people to pay the least in taxes proportionally, California’s revenue for public spending on education, infrastructure repair, services like public libraries and youth programs have decreased. Sharp class divisions in the state ensure that legislative reform overturning Prop 13 or other similar policies is unlikely if not impossible.
When we’re told that change is “impossible,” we can respond with direct action to begin to create the world we want to live in, now. We do not have to petition our legislators for change. We can demand different priorities and create new structures within this one. We can re-shape the public conversation until our opponents are forced to try to bargain with us on our terms. When paired with intelligent campaigns and strategies, direct action – sit-ins, lockdowns, occupations, mass marches, expropriations, work stoppages and walkouts (to name just a few tactics) – have won some of the most fundamental liberties we take for granted today. Almost every social and political movement – from labor organizers to Third World nationalists to feminist queers – have utilized direct action.
Last year, protests and actions captured some of the frustration, anger, and excitement on campus and in the larger community. As state money for education declined and incarceration rates increased (the prison industrial complex doubled its number of employees over the last 20 years), teachers, students, and others took to the streets, took over university buildings, and held countless organizing meetings.
But we think we can do even better.
Is it possible to coordinate with even a third of the 35,000 students at Berkeley instead of just having everyone show up at a march or General Assembly where little happens because little was planned? How could we coordinate with the 9 other campuses to put on never-ending protests until we can get what we want? We’ve already been planning simultaneous days of action… how can we take that a step further? Last year, some 80 people were arrested after running up a freeway onramp without a plan. What if instead, in a dozen cities across the country, difficult-to-remove, serious barricades with people locked to them blocked major commercial arteries, demanding immediate concessions and spouting a common message against neoliberalism and privatization?
We want to think big but start small, and we refuse to sacrifice the caring, egalitarian relationships, and uniqueness that we, with our small groups of friends planning together, take for granted. But we want to dismantle “invisible” hierarchies where those with more power or privilege end up acting as self-appointed “leaders” and make decisions for the rest of us that compromise our ability to remake ourselves and our social conditions, and that can jeopardize our safety. We’re stronger when we’re all leaders, working together. That’s the idea behind affinity groups, direct action planning, and spokescouncils.
You may already be in an affinity group
Who are affinity groups composed of? Your friends. Maybe your co-workers, if you get down politically. Your neighbors. Your roommates. Try asking yourself: Who do I know and trust? Who do I find myself rolling with to actions? Do we share a concern for each other’s care? Do we fight together? Dream together?
Once you have a sense of who this group is your next steps might include: having an explicit conversation with these people about how you want to relate (as a group) to the ongoing political situations you are facing together. Talk about what skills you each have and what skills you would like to develop. Talk about what kinds of risks you can or can’t take and who to call if shit goes down. Make plans together. Maybe even give your group a cool name…
One of the most compelling aspects of the affinity group and spokescouncil models is a respect for each other’s time. Not everyone in a single affinity group needs to attend the spokescouncil, but rather they are able to send a (rotating) representative of their group to talk about plans at the spokescouncil and report back to their group. This way the burden of attending every single meeting that happens on campus and the fear of missing out on crucial decisions does not fall on individuals.
Spokescouncils can also allow for the flourishing of a diversity of plans and actions such that no particular ideology dominates the outcome. The past year of campus organizing is a testament to the fact that we all have wildly different politics, that sometimes intersect and sometimes don’t–and that’s fine. Under the spokescouncil model we are able to unite our affinity groups through the spokes over common causes or goals, without having to sacrifice our unique political visions/identities/dreams.
The spokes prioritizes expanding our political communities, where undergrads and grads, workers, faculty, staff, high schoolers and K-12 teachers, community members and activists can come together to share their frustrations, their visions, and choose targets and actions that intersect. This might be the sort of groundwork that could lead to collective direct actions where we can support and sustain each other’s struggles. Using this approach, we could collectivize our resources and skills to further our common goals, even if — as is often the case — these goals remain common only for the moment.
[Editor’s Note: another critique of the General Assembly at Cal on October 7th by anti-capital projects is available here.]