Month: April 2012

A Practical Guide to Co-option

Also published in Occupy! #4. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an “outsider” force.

Good problem to have

In the wake of the initial successes of Occupy Wall Street, establishment Democrats&#151including the White House&#151started clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave. Some Democratic Party strategists asked what electoral use they might get out of the new movement. Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress (CAP) told the New York Times in early October that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”

The hypocrisy of a party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street trying to ride an anti-Wall Street surge was widely ridiculed. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald scoffed at efforts “to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA [Organizing For America].” Greenwald was right, and was echoing a widespread sentiment inside Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country. Very few of the committed folks sacrificing time, safety, and comfort to make the occupations and street protests happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

And yet, something important is missing in many movement conversations about the threat of Democratic Party co-option: namely that this is a good problem to have. This is what political leverage looks like. Grassroots social justice movements haven’t had much leverage for a very long time, and over the past months we’ve finally gotten a taste of it. Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull things in a social justice direction. In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.  

Floating Signifier (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 6)

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Andrew Boyd, and Dave Oswald Mitchell

The American flag inspires extreme passions . . . but what exactly does it stand for? To different people it means freedom, justice, imperialism and terror &#151 its meaning shifts wildly depending on context and observer. This emptiness, into which observers can pour almost any meaning or desire, is a large part of the symbol’s power.

For activists, a well-crafted floating signifier can be a powerful tool for catalyzing broad-based action. Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, for example, deployed the concept of the floating signifier masterfully. Marcos described the masks the Zapatistas wore as a mirror in which all who struggle for a better world can see themselves. The Zapatistas’ iconic black balaclava was not just a necessity for personal security, but became a powerful statement of unity and universality. “Behind our black mask,” they declared, “we are you.”

In 2008, presidential candi-date Barack Obama also made masterful use of floating signifiers. His poetic rhetoric of “hope” and “change we can believe in” inspired a population weary from eight years of misrule. He became whatever his supporters wanted him to be. Obama explicitly acknowledged this phenomenon in the prologue to his campaign screed, The Audacity of Hope: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  

Expressive & Instrumental Actions (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 5)

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Joshua Kahn Russell, and Zack Malitz

Sometimes activists will take an action without much thought to how others receive it, or what precisely the action will achieve. Many people participate in actions because it’s meaningful to them, or simply because it feels good to do the right thing. We call this the expressive part of an action. Expressive actions come from the heart and the gut &#151 whether or not our “heads” calculate the specific outcome.

“Taking the street” during a march is a perfect example. Sure, it feels good to march un-permitted in the street. You and your comrades bravely disobey police orders and, all together, walk out into traffic. You can practically smell the group cohesion in the air. It’s intoxicating. It’s also usually inconsequentialin terms of broader social movement objectives. Still, how many times have you heard someone say a march was “bad” simply because it stayed on the sidewalk? When someone says this, it may be because their goals are primarily expressive; affecting social change is of secondary importance.

Most trained organizers think on another level: regardless of the self-expressive value for those involved, we ask “what is this action actually achieving for our issue, cause, movement, or campaign?” We call this the instrumental value of an action.

Seek Common Ground (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 4)

When disagreeing with someone else’s ideas, it can be tempting to engage in narrative attack; to make a direct attack on one narrative from the vantage point, and in the language, of your opposing narrative. For example, when someone wraps climate change-denial views in the rhetoric of creationist beliefs, it is tempting to directly attack the climate change denier’s whole belief system. Once a narrative attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible because the attacked person feels that their whole belief system is under siege. Change becomes impossible.

A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative framework, learning the component parts and looking for points of connection. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, for instance, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment home-grown insurgency against the most problematic beliefs by identifying ally beliefs and seeking to reinforce them. When speaking to creationists about environmental issues, for example, emphasizing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation can be an effective point of entry.

If we are to transform the political culture, we need to think not in terms of attacking opponents’ views head-on, but rather in terms of fomenting homegrown insurgency. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative, transforming that culture from the inside out.  

We are all leaders (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 3)

What is the difference between saying “none of us is a leader” and saying “we are all leaders”? At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying the same thing, which is essentially, “We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.” But the word leadership can mean a lot of things, and not all involve the creation of hierarchies. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward, or taking responsibility for recognizing what is needed, and stepping up individually or collectively to do that thing.

It is important, in other words, to distinguish between horizontal organization and disorganization, and to foster models of dispersed leadership that promote responsibility, accountability and effectiveness.

This is not just a matter of semantics. If we are part of a group that boasts of having no leaders, participants may be overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative for fear of being seen as a “leader,” which would be a bad thing. If we really want to change the world, we need more people stepping up to take initiative, not less. The more initiative we each take in our work together, the greater our collective capacity will be. Building our collective power is one of the most important challenges of grassroots organizing.  

Welcome New Folks (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 2)

Bringing in new participants is essential to any activist group that wants to grow in size and capacity &#151 but recruiting is only the first step. Integrating people into an established group can be a much bigger challenge, and it helps to be intentional about it. Getting good at involving people requires some deliberate attention and probably the establishment of some basic procedures to make new folks welcome.

For starters, when someone says they’re interested in finding out more or getting involved in your group, don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting and leave it at that. Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders. To increase your new member retention rates, schedule one-on-one intake interviews with new folks before they come to a group meeting. Get to know the person. Find out what attracted them to the group, what kinds of tasks they enjoy or are good at, and how much time they have. Then tell them more about the group and discuss what their involvement could look like. While this level of orientation requires more time up front, it saves time in the long run: people tend to plug into the work faster and stick around longer. It may make sense for one or two members of your group to take on this responsibility as an ongoing role.

Escalate Strategically (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 1)

There is a tendency within highly cohesive political groups to want to turn up the heat. It seems to be written into the social DNA of oppositional political groups: when group members’ level of commitment increases, they want to go further. They want to be a little more hardcore. This tendency toward escalation and increased militancy can be a good thing &#151 but not inevitably. It all depends on how hardcore is defined within the culture of the group. It can either move a cause forward &#151 or send it into a dangerous or dysfunctional downward spiral.

Compare the trajectories of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) &#151 two of the most important radical youth organizations of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society imploded in 1969 and the Weather Underground was born because some leaders succeeded in defining hardcore to mean immediate armed guerrilla struggle against the U.S. government &#151 an absurd prospect for their context. In the case of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), on the other hand, some very astute leaders defined hardcore to mean acts such as going into the most segregated areas in the south and organizing some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country. SNCC engaged in other more visible “hardcore” tactics as well.

In both cases, hardcore really was HARDCORE. (You can’t satiate the desire for hardcore with anything less!) Members of both groups demonstrated overwhelming levels of commitment to the values of the groups they belonged to. Members of both groups risked their lives, were imprisoned and brutalized, and some lost their lives. But hardcore was defined strategically in the case of SNCC, and tragically in the case of the Weather Underground.

Good leaders anticipate the emergent desire for hardcore&#151for escalation&#151and they own it. They model it themselves. And they make sure that the expression of hardcore is designed to strengthen bonds between the group’s core members and its broader political base. It should feel hardcore to the participants, and it should look like moral leadership to the political base and to a broader public.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution – Party Tonight

It’s out! And there’s a party tonight (April 5th)!

After months of sweat and tears, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution has hit the shelves! Huge props to Andrew Boyd for herding about 70 cats into writing a whole lot of short, outstanding essays about activism, organizing, creative action, and social change. Beautiful Trouble is “a book & web toolbox that puts the best ideas and tactics of creative action in the hands of the next generation of change-makers, connecting the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest to the popular outrage of the current  political moment…”

It’s a great book! Order it here!

AND NOW IT’S TIME TO PARTY &#151 TONIGHT (April 5)

Come party with us TONIGHT (Thurs. April 5th, 7pm) in Dumbo (Brooklyn, NY). Click here for details.

I had the good pleasure of participating in three exhilarating book sprint weekends in NYC. And then, in the midst of Occupy Wall Street, Mr. Boyd pushed me over the finish line on the essays that I contributed to the book. Check back &#151 I’ll be posting my pieces here at BeyondtheChoir.org over the next few weeks.

Participating in this project has been delightful. Beyond the Choir collaborated with Agit-Pop, The Other 98%, Yes Lab, smartMeme, Center for Artistic Activism, Ruckus Society, Waging Nonviolence, Nonviolence International, Codepink, and Alliance of Community Trainers &#151 fantastic folks!



Many of them will be there tonight &#151 hopefully you’ll be there too!