A Rebel Alliance for New York

A couple weeks ago, Justine of STORG tweeted about a “Nonviolent Militia” and sent the dispersed remnants of #Occupy atwitter. Part of the problem is surely the word ‘militia’ connoting as it does racially pure compounds in Idaho.

NVDA – Infrastructure and History

Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA) has a long history. But over the last generation of activists, it has become intertwined with anarchist politics. This isn’t a surprise:

  • The famous Battle of Seattle fight against globalization and the WTO spawned a generation of tourist mobilizers for whom large gatherings, spokescouncils and twinkle fingers merged into an unbroken whole of glorified resistance.
  • Those who focused on or sought professional training in NVDA tended to be more marginal political types in the first place, bleeding not only into anarchist political thought but alterna-whatevers: punk rock, veganism, giant puppets, and single-syllable names like “Tree” or “Free”. When ‘regular people’ train in NVDA before an action, the person training them is often some kind of anarchist.
  • One of the legacies of the anti-globalization movement was the formation (and break up) of the Direct Action Network. Many of the veterans of DAN continue as trouble-makers active in various niches, including David Graeber and Lisa Fithian, who were very active in OWS. There is an unbroken chain linking the development, theory and practice of NVDA in the United States to avowed supporters of anarchist politics.

And there’s actually an existing infrastructure devoted to NVDA in the broad sense of the term. This includes State Dept. advisers like Gene Sharp, The Ruckus Society, The Backbone Campaign, Training for Change, The Other 98%, and many more. These folks engage in trainings, but seem to show up more visibly before and during large mobilizations OR when a group with funding wants to purchase some spectacle for an upcoming action.  Here’s a list of what they don’t do:

  • Focus on one city for the long term
  • Build permanent infrastructure in a single community
  • Serve as embedded leaders – they prefer to be trainers, advisers, consultants.

The “Nonviolent Militia” Broken Down

The core of Justine’s idea can be isolated and simplified as follows:

  • An organized entity devoted to the intelligent, long term practice of NVDA within a specific city and by specific people (“members”).
  • A refusal to adhere to the norms of anarchist political practice and theory while using whatever works.

In discussions with smart people inside and outside of Occupy I heard a lot of support for the combination of these two ideas. It seems that no one can remember a time and place that simply had a kind of ‘reserve’ community of trained NVDA practitioners who were on call within a structure capable of issuing that call. And for good reason – it’s hard. Lots of problems to solve…

How can we get a group of 24 people who are not only trained in NVDA, but trained with each other, to be on call for specific local actions on a regular basis, with the intention of putting together complicated scenarios at the drop of a hat?

Start a training program that has participants commit to a full day once a month for five months and an additional commitment to participate in 12 NVDA actions over the course of a year. In exchange for this, offer a stipend of $2500. This assumes that acceptance is competitive, with due attention to diversity, organizational backgrounds, experience, and one year commitment. The filter would exclude many who currently overpopulate front lines of rowdy protests: students, young white males, the undisciplined and the unkempt. But it would incentivize others to consider making a commitment in line with their values.

By working with cohorts of 12 every three months, you’d grow a stable group of current ‘members’ and alumns who speak the same language of direct action and have developed an esprit de corp, the special something that bonds people together and creates a willingness to sacrifice. Because a stable organization is managing the administration, the people doing the NVDA don’t also have to focus on other details that would otherwise sap their focus and reduce motivation.

Over time, leaders would emerge who can take formal roles (scenario planner) while enjoying legitimacy from their fellows. Leadership won’t be something we count upon to emerge spontaneously, it will be planned for and taken into account.

How can we agree on which actions this group should support? Who would be in a position to call on them?

A city like New York has countless struggles and battles going on at any one time. And most of them are likely to be led by a community more invested in that particular struggle than in the use of a particular tactic. At the same time, a great many existing groups are familiar with NVDA and welcome it, depending on circumstances, and they welcome respectful allies who can be trusted.

My dream ‘executive council’ would be made up of leaders I know and trust. These are people who serve different communities and issues, but they share a broad left politics, an emphasis on grassroots activism, and a desire to have real world impact based on existing electoral or legislative time frames. These are the folks who know what is bubbling up elsewhere, and they are in a position to make suggestions: how about having this great group of NVDA folks take part? What role might they play? What parameters would need to be worked out?

With explicitly political leadership playing that role, community groups accountable to their own base could more safely invite NVDA folks. They would know in advance that this won’t result in crazy messaging, temper tantrums, efforts by un-designated activists to grant press interviews, or any adventurism. But they would have folks who know each other, who can withstand aggressive policing, provocations from opponents, who have privileges (education, legal support, life circumstances) that allow them to protect and serve.

Keep in mind, this happens, sort of, all the time. In that sense this proposal seeks to ratchet up a kind of existing cross-community cooperation to a higher and more accountable level.

Another point which deserves to be made explicit: this group shouldn’t operate using general assemblies. Not everyone gets an invite to the planning sessions. You might not be allowed to join. And joining, as a paid or volunteer member doesn’t mean your voice is equal to everyone else’s. This makes the project ‘hierarchical’! For me, that’s one of the strengths. At the same time, affinity groups can be quite useful. Building consent is important – no one should ever be ‘ordered’ into a risky situation! No one is building an army where leaders must be followed. There will always be a tension in our small ‘d’ democratic activism between inclusiveness and efficiency. Let’s live with it while getting bigger and better projects done, like this one.

Wouldn’t this kind of effort attract the attention of law-enforcement? Aren’t some parts of NVDA inherently illegal and risky?

Of course! I’d assume constant infiltration and surveillance. But a few points are in order. The practice of NVDA assumes that participants are willing to put themselves, their bodies, arrest records and employment prospects on the line. That isn’t new.

Good NVDA also tends to follow certain best practices. These include very serious discussions of the legal ramifications of any given action, planning for legal consequences and the provision of ongoing support, and serious attention to things like political goals and professional communications. Doing these things with a higher level of organization that draws in more serious practitioners over longer periods of time but with serious political and financial support – that makes all of it less risky than a lot of what passes for militant activism today.

Creative NVDA with well trained, trustworthy and physically present volunteers opens up whole vistas of possibilities in a wide range of situations. Let’s list a few:

  • Fighting a school closure with high school students and parents.
  • Rapid response to police violence and lack of accountability.
  • Support for workers who might lack English, documentation, or a union contract against private employers used to acting with impunity.
  • Supporting a large mobilization with trainings and planning far in advance.
  • Occupying a bank lobby, politician’s office, or fancy fundraiser.
  • Homeowner’s militant defense against foreclosure.

Why a Rebel Alliance?

Calling something a militia suggests that we are acting in service to established authority. A Rebel Alliance on the other hand borrows a heroic posture from pop culture. Specifically, a piece of pop culture based on expert story telling and myth making strategies from the master – Joseph Campbell.

This age of discontent has already produced an inspiring wave of revolt, from the Arab Spring to the Spanish Indignados to Occupy Wall Street. But in all of these cases, part of what was lacking was serious, long term, deep organizing. Base building member organizations competing for scraps from the state are mostly unable to contain the millions of educated, middle class, youthful activists eager for a ‘plan b’ alternative to what this society offers. And this cohort doesn’t have a name or political expression. Yet they are at the front lines of whatever struggle emerges, looking for a way to make a difference with their bodies. Why aren’t we building strong containers for this energy, to harness it better in service to winnable campaigns?

Some theorists have hypothisized that the proportion of the population that needs to be active in pursuing real change is 1-5 per cent for there to be any chance of success. We aren’t there – not by a long shot. But obviously a large number of those people are going to be from the demographic mentioned previously. They’ll show up no matter what. Wouldn’t it be better to have stronger institutions made up of this constituency?

It’s a small-big plan. A pilot. Let’s be sane, humble and self-sacrificing practitioners of nonviolent direct action in close knit coordination with other movements and communities. Let’s be a Rebel Alliance of sorts. Wouldn’t you want to be part of the Rebel Alliance, if it existed?

I know I would.