How the Left Uses Successful Political Activism

This post features two articles written by David Hines and originally featured at The American Conservative on November 3, 2021 and November 24, 2021.

It’s no secret that Righties kind of suck at protests.

Like anybody else who sucks at something, we have excuses. “We all have jobs!” Well, no slight to P.J. O’Rourke, but I have Lefty friends who protest stuff, and they all have jobs. “It just comes naturally to leftists!” This is false, and leftist organizers like it because it means their carefully orchestrated newsmaking seems very organic and spontaneous to their enemies. “They aren’t repressed like WE are!” Except leftists developed organizing skills under and because of considerable repression. Back in the day, a mining company could crush a strike by deputizing a couple thousand men to purge a town of Wobblies and their sympathizers at gunpoint (the Bisbee Deportation; look it up).

The ironic part: The reason Lefties are so good at protests is that they give themselves jobs.

They do this in two senses. The first is that they’ve professionalized organizing leadership. The second and more important reason is that they train their people, professionals and volunteers alike, to design, plan, execute, and learn from actions—they teach them how. When it comes to protest design and execution, that how involves identifying and delegating roles and responsibilities within a structure that can ensure all the necessary jobs get done, before, during, and after the event (you don’t plan for your action, you plan through your action).

Being a Righty, you’ll want to think of this structure in rigid, top-down, hierarchical terms. Don’t. Lefty organizing structure is flexible, because they don’t like hierarchies and lefty groups are quite variable. When it comes to planning and executing actions, one person might wear multiple different hats.

Let’s take a look at how one particular Lefty group, Never Again Action (NAA) plans and executes protests. As you’ve probably guessed from the name, they’re a Jewish-oriented group; the name, which refers to the Holocaust, is an effort to claim unearned moral authority for a crusade to shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement and legalize illegal immigration by appropriating and redirecting society’s outrage about an actual genocide. It’s geared to be especially manipulative toward progressive and liberal Jews, whom NAA is targeting for recruitment and radicalization. (“You’d act to prevent another Holocaust, wouldn’t you? Well…”)

NAA wants its events to include everyone from longtime radicals to enraged normies. This requires walking a bit of a tightrope: they’re strident on morals, calm but firm on tactics and strategy, and use lots of olive branches and careful stepping. Radicals get an acknowledgment that direct action includes armed resistance, but the normies get normie-friendly boundaries: NAA is not going to use violence against people, or damage property, or carry weapons, or disobey the decision-making process used by the action. Normies agree not to peace police radicals, and radicals agree not to shame or egg on normies. NAA don’t carry flags; they don’t go into detail why, but if you know the communities it’s obvious: American flags would upset the radicals, other flags might upset the normies.

Remember, the purpose of an action is not just “to feel good” or “to make a stand,” but to advance strategic goals. The strategic goal of NAA actions is to materially impede ICE from operating by identifying and blocking chokepoints, places where the system is vulnerable to the tactics NAA is capable of employing. That action is amplified by sharing the story of it, so even a single, uncaptioned picture needs to leave no question what side NAA is on and what they’re about.

Here’s where the jobs part comes in. NAA action-planning divides into five stages: Preparation, Escalation, Execution and Amplification, Debrief, and Absorb (remember: plan through your action). The first of these, Preparation, is initial staffing and planning. For NAA, the staffing core of an action is the local chapter. These people are unpaid volunteers. They connect with a professional organizer working for NAA nationally, who is (badly) paid. This professional is referred to as the coach.

The key departments in an NAA action are Comms/Digital (telling the story of your event to people who aren’t there, as well as internal communications like speakers and song leaders), Tactical (the direct action part, including any rowdy stuff), Logistics (supplies, people-moving, and getting people out of jail), and People Support (accessibility, medics, meeting spaces). Staffing these departments starts small, with the local chapter filling out a few key roles: coordinator, tactical lead, digital lead, comms lead. The leads get in touch with the coach and with local organizers from allied organizations (the key to turnout is getting people in sympathetic organizations to turn out for your event, and turning out for their events in return).

The key roles and the coach identify what other roles the action needs to have staffed, and fill them as needed. Sometimes this results in a large staff; sometimes people wear multiple hats. To design the action, the key staff identifies a specific material goal. Then they work backwards from the endpoint to identify the key stages along the way, all the way back to the starting point.

Designing an action involves asking yourselves a lot of questions. What do you want your action to do? What do you need to make that happen? How much time, what capacity, what resources do you need to pull this off? What problems do you anticipate? Which of these can you prevent, and what do you need to do that?

For example: what are the risks to your people? These can be physical, legal, financial, social, or emotional. You need to prepare your people for these risks as individuals, and, if you can, mitigate them as an organization. Physical risk includes being punched and pepper-sprayed, but also medical issues, including being separated from necessary medication if arrested. Legal risk includes being arrested or sued. Financial risk means having to pay bail, pay lawyers, or lose salary if you’re in jail and can’t work. Social risk means being dogpiled by strangers on Twitter or by your family at dinner, even being fired. Emotional risk involves everything from disillusionment to PTSD. It can be devastating for a movement when people discover they are facing a level of risk for which they have not prepared. They need to know what risks they’re taking and how those risks can be mitigated.

To give you an idea of how far these preparations go, let’s drill down a bit on NAA’s recommendations on legal preparation. Some of their questions might occur to you if you take some time to think about it. What kind of charges can you expect for the kind of thing you’re planning to do, what are the usual penalties incurred, and what’s the worst case scenario? What kind of legal help are you in a position to give: advice, legal support, or none of the above? Will you help or disavow somebody who does something bad, dumb, and counter to the action agreements?

Some of the answers require digging deeper: for example, are the authorities in the jurisdiction your action takes place in likely to be lenient or harsh? The answer may depend on specific individuals in those jobs, your organization’s relationships, or where you happen to be standing. NAA tells its people to look up parcel ownership of the land they’re protesting on and all nearby plots so they know exactly which authorities they’ll be dealing with, and who will be arresting and charging their people if it comes to that.

As the local group moves into stage two, Escalation, they continue preparation, staffing, and sourcing. If they need equipment—giant puppets, stuff for locking themselves to things, what have you—now is the time they buy or make it. They identify the staff they need and start building out in order of priority. They outline the rules for the action, continue staffing, and train their people for the action: what to do, how to behave, what contingency plans to have.

And now they really start giving people jobs.

Next time, we’ll talk about what those jobs are, and how they come together to perform a successful action.

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Last time, in Part One of this two-part series, we talked about the Lefty group Never Again Action (NAA), an anti-ICE protest organization that’s heavily community-specific: It’s all about onramps to recruit and radicalize progressive American Jews. Because it’s oriented toward newbies, they’ve been pretty open with their toolkits and about how their protests work.

To recap: An NAA action is designed and carried out by (volunteer) members of a local chapter of NAA, under the guidance of a (paid) professional organizer who works for the national organization. NAA calls its professional organizers “coaches.” Their action-planning divides into five stages: Preparation, Escalation, Execution and Amplification, Debrief, and Absorb—i.e., not just the action itself, but the stages before and after.

Last time, we covered the first stage, in which the local chapter chooses a coordinator and department leads: tactical, digital, and comms. The leads and the coach decide on their goal and work backwards from there to identify the path the action will take and what those steps require in terms of resources and personnel.

The second stage, Escalation, is where people really start getting staffed into the action structure’s departments: Comms/Digital, Tactical, Logistics, and People Support. (Remember, this structure is flexible, and people in it may have multiple roles).

In the lead-up to the action, Comms/Digital requires a lead, writers of press releases and scripts, someone to handle advance outreach to press, and a coach for the spokespeople, whose job will be to train spokespeople as they are brought on. On the day of, there’s a lot of emphasis on the infrastructure for getting the story out: lead comms, the spokesperson coach, people doing social media, someone to do the livestream (and someone to support the person doing the livestream), photographers, spokespeople, emcees for the event, speakers, a support person for the speakers, song leaders if the event has singing (NAA events frequently do)—that sort of thing.

Tactical roles are about what you’d expect. They’re in charge of the execution of the direct action, including any rowdiness. There’s a tactical lead and a second tactical lead. There are a couple of scouts. There’s a lead marshal and a marshal for every 20 people, based on an ahead-of-time estimate of the crowd size. The marshals’ job is to keep people from doing anything stupid like, for example, redirecting the march or escalating beyond what was agreed on. There are police liaisons and legal observers, the latter often free courtesy of the National Lawyers’ Guild.

Logistics is the department responsible for all the stuff necessary to make the rest happen. There’s a logistics head and a host of subsidiary roles: materials, driver coordination, support vehicle drivers, and jail support. The materials person is in charge of getting, well, materials—if you need supplies to build those giant puppets Lefties love, they’re the ones to buy them. Driver coordination is the head of transportation, supervising the necessary number of support vehicle drivers. There’s also jail support, with a lead and a number of jail support staff. The job of jail support is to help people who get arrested. Whether or not people will be arrested depends a lot on choices the police make, but some protestors (termed “red team”) may deliberately do things that increase or make certain the chances of arrest. (An action that carries a heightened level of conflict that may lead to arrests is termed a “red action.”)

Jail support is worth a digression, because it’s something that Righties completely lack familiarity with and it’s tremendously important to the Lefty protest scene. Most of it is just practical stuff: knowing where the various jails are located, what their routines are, and what the usual procedure is for getting people out of them. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a protestor with a phone number written on their arm in marker, that’s the support number they call in the event that they’ve been arrested.

Sometimes jail support has money to bail people out, or legal support to hook people up with. Sometimes all they can do is just let friends and family know someone has been arrested. But one small thing jail support does can be tremendously important: just being at the jail and providing a favorite snack or cold soft drink to people who’ve just been released. It sounds silly, but it shows meaningful support and helps with bonding—that’s why Hard Lefties do it.

And yes, they ask people for their favorite snack or drink in advance: Each person risking arrest fills out a jail support form ahead of time. These include personal identifying information necessary for finding someone in the system and getting them out, emergency contact information, and whether emergency contact should be notified immediately upon the arrest or not. The forms ask for any relevant health or legal information, where to transport the person to after release, and (if they’re from out of town), if they need to be out by a specific time to catch their transport home. They give you an overview of what to expect if you’re arrested, how to deal with police (i.e., “shut up”), and to not say anything sensitive in social media or on a jail phone call.

This is a lot of groundwork, but it can be tremendously helpful; even if the organizers aren’t in a position to get people out of jail, knowing what to expect from the experience and having some kind of support through it makes being arrested with friends less demoralizing than being arrested alone.

The last department is people support; this is accessibility stuff, medics (these are useful on scene if you’re getting pepper-sprayed, or if God forbid somebody gets really hurt), and people hosting and facilitating “healing space,” i.e., where people meet to discuss the action.

By the way, just a reminder: the action hasn’t started yet.

Everything discussed up till now has been preparation. Now the organizers have their plan, they have their structure staffed out (again, one person may have multiple roles, and this isn’t about hierarchy so much as just making sure stuff gets done). They know what they’re doing, and they conduct trainings to make sure everybody is on the same page and knows what to do. Now it’s time for stage three: Execution and Amplification. That is, do the action, and tell the story. If the story isn’t told, the action doesn’t matter; that’s why NAA puts so much focus on media outreach.

On the morning of the action, there’s a huddle for the key leads, including people risking arrest, a short walk away from the action. There’s no invocation, but there is a spiritual quality deliberately employed to ground it. People introduce themselves; the coordinator recaps their goals, what metrics they’re using to determine success, and reviews the agreed principles of the organization and the action. Following this, the coordinator reviews the schedule beat by beat, lays out potential scenarios that are planned for, and reviews the plans for exit and how the group will claim victory afterwards. Key leads of various departments introduce themselves. Everyone is put on the same page about who makes decisions in particular circumstances, and how communications will be handled. The meeting concludes with a song or a trust exercise, and then everybody walks to the action place, does the action, and tells the story of it.

After the action comes stage four, the Debrief, in which people learn and process their experience, particularly those who took escalated risk. NAA red teams (the people who do things more likely to result in arrest) actually have a quasi-religious ceremony for this. Finally, stage five: Absorb. In other words: take the lessons learned from the action and use them to inform your actions in the future. You know, that thing we Righties never, ever do, unless the lesson we decide to learn is “we should never do this stuff because it is scary and hard,” rather than things like: “Maybe I shouldn’t go to events organized by people who mysteriously consistently manage to avoid legal entanglements they really should have suffered—or, if I do, I should be very careful of the fast friends I make there.”

The Lefties absorb, then they take what they learned, design another action, and do it again.

Don’t take my word for it. Here are a couple hundred pages worth of NAA’s toolkits and references, including a couple of references from other organizations. Names, locations, and contact information are redacted, because this column isn’t about making news or singling out individuals but about helping readers understand the history, methods, and mechanics of organizing. Go page through NAA’s onboarding manuals, and appreciate the fact that this is what giving your people help looks like. Whatever your cause is, wouldn’t you like something this detailed and helpful on a meaningful action for the cause you care about?

Now take a moment to remember what the structure enabling all this looks like: paid organizers working for the national organization helping out volunteer-run local chapters.

Righties like to get hot under the collar about paid protestors, but that’s just not how it works. Paying protestors to turn out would get expensive. But organizing is more about skills than money. Setting up nonprofits that pay the people to create and run the events is actually pretty cost-effective. Even when there’s big money funding it, organizing is not usually lucrative. Lefty organizers can do all right running an organization, but most get paid at best a modest living.

Never Again Action actually tweeted out their budgets for the last three months of 2019 and all of 2020. According to these, they had 11 organizers and in the last three months of 2019 were paying them very modestly—only around $2,000 per month. They spent $54,000 on national and distributed actions, with about half of that being travel.

2019:

2020 saw some changes, due in large part to the pandemic:

Never Again Action upped everyone’s salaries to a total of $404,606.73 for 11 organizers—this is more than fair considering how poorly they were paid before—and cut the budget for actions for Covid reasons. They also put actions, leadership development, and planning retreats under the same line item, which is probably a lot more fun than if they’re separate line items. The last quarter of 2019 had a total budget of $140,793.00; if you quadruple that, you get an estimated annual budget of $642K for the level of activity they produced in the last three months of 2019. The total 2020 budget was $537,176.73.

These figures are a lot of money from the perspective of a normal working person. But just for comparison, a few years ago the budget of Turning Point USA was approximately $8.3 million. That’s mostly salaries, conferences, and speaking engagements, in contrast to NAA’s cheaper actions. Which organization made more news and directly impacted the narrative? Which one was more successful at steering their side of the aisle? You could triple Never Again Action’s budget for salaries and actions, create three additional organizations just like it, and you would still be coming in cheaper than one year of TPUSA.

Or, put another way: What could our well-funded conservative organizations and our deep-pocketed donors do to help people do in their own towns, if they put their minds to it?

If by any chance that’s you, consider helping out your local activists. It’s easy to write a check to somebody famous, or a politician with a slick ad in a hopeless district. But if you spend money on local grassroots work, you can get a lot more bang for your buck, impact the conversation, and just might help build a stronger community on your side of the aisle where you live.