No matter how you look at it, those of us who want a better world are engaged in a struggle that has a decidedly asymmetrical arrangement of power. The capitalist class controls almost every aspect of our society, and even peaceful challenges to their power are met with brutal police violence, infiltration and espionage, rhetorical attacks from politicians, and even legislation that effectively legalizes the murder of activists. And remember – that’s just at the “imperial core”. When it comes to activism in the regions where the U.S. anti-Left war machine has influence, the story is often far, far darker. The U.S.-led war on any left-wing movement, no matter how democratic or nonviolent, has included terrorism, assassination, torture, sexual assault, disappearances, massacres, genocide, chemical warfare, and ecological destruction.
What I’m trying to say is that over the years, activists have learned that even the generally “acceptable” forms of resistance – marches and rallies – require planning, preparation, recruitment, protective equipment, defensive strategies, medical personnel, training, budgeting and fundraising, a press strategy, and more. That’s why I like the idea of mutual aid networks as an organizing tool. Even if the network itself never does anything beyond getting emergency help for those who need it, it can act as training for those involved. While I’ve engaged in a tiny amount of this kind of activism, most of what I know about this stuff comes from listening to those who’ve dedicated their lives to this important work, all over the world.
It seems to me that interest in organizing for political change outside of electoral politics is pretty widespread right now. To some degree it was always there – I knew many people growing up who were involved in activism around Palestine, the sanctions against Iraq, the SOA/WHINSEC, and so on – but in the last year I’ve seen more efforts at unionization, mutual aid groups, and discussions of alternatives to police, than at any point in my life. Along with that comes all of the knowledge-sharing that is part of those discussions. I’ve also seen a lot of people trying to feel their way through local organizing, even if it’s just making connections with other people who share that interest. That last category is who I’ve been thinking about as I’ve worked on my direct action post. I think many more people want change than know how to get it, and the concept of “local organizing” as the first step is pretty widespread. The concept of working with your community to improve that community is not new to anyone, but I think it’s hard for folks to see how that can lead to national change. You get your network of well-meaning folks, and then what?
This is my attempt to provide one answer to that question. This is not the only answer, just the path forward that seems best to me, based on what I currently understand about the world.
We’re facing an increasingly hostile climate, massive levels of waste and pollution all over the place, and a rise in fascism that feels sickeningly similar to the early 20th century. It’s not hard to see how a local – or even national – mutual aid network would make a huge difference in people’s lives, and maybe even counteract the way capitalism encourages mistrust and selfishness. What’s harder to see is how that can challenge the power of the ruling class, or push lawmakers to support legislation. In terms of activism other than protests, how do we go from group chats and local networks to coordinated national or multinational actions that attract attention, spread ideas, and maybe even bring some discomfort to the ruling class?
No, but seriously. Think about what you’re seeing in that video. Think about how those events came to happen. Think about the fact that many of those people were strangers to one another. Some of them may not have even known what they were going to be doing until shortly before they did it. Some of them had done flash mobs before, or had a pre-existing skill they used, but plenty of people may have participated in one flash mob, and never bothered to do it again. Some of those people organized that event, and some just showed up because they heard about it and it seemed fun.
Starting in 2003 a trend emerged in which a group of people would converge on a location, take some kind of pre-arranged action, and then disperse. A flash mob could be anything from suddenly filling an intersection with people wearing red shirts, or an unannounced theatrical performance, or even people all following instructions from their smartphones. Flash mobs happen without warning, and crucially they often happen without the participants knowing what they’ll be doing until they start. This last point is key, especially for doing things at malls, where security would try to prevent it if they had advance warning (people who control public gathering spaces like to either charge for events, or require an application). The people organizing flash mobs developed an approach to get around those obstacles by limiting who knew what, arranging events without visible leaders, and having immediate dispersal as a built-in part of the game. A core group designs and prepares for the activity, and then they put out a call, by word of mouth or by social media, for anyone who’s game to show up at a specific time and date. Tell them what to bring and where to be. Ideally, you want to have them gather somewhere “off stage” so you can go over the plan, hand out props, and do any rehearsing that’s needed. From there you can give the group the actual location of the action, and instructions for how and when to join in.
Whether you want to draw attention to a message, carry out a last-minute counter-protest, or just make people’s day a little more interesting and fun, it seems to me that flash mobs – including ones that are either limited to a simple message, or are entirely frivolous – are a great way to develop a useful skillset for collective action, while lowering the barrier to involvement for those who want to help but don’t have time or energy for organizing work. There are some elements that are common to any other form of organizing, but flash mobs tend to focus on accomplishing a specific goal.
At this point I want to leave the theoretical and talk a bit about what’s already going on. As I mentioned earlier, people all over the world have been working out ways to resist their rulers for centuries. As the tools and tactics of governments have changed, resistances movements have changed in response. Folks involved in protest – particularly those who’ve taking part in Black Bloc actions – are likely to be familiar with some or all of this stuff. For the purposes of this particular piece, I don’t want to go too deep into specific actions that have been taken, but I do want to focus on this description from a conservative woman who joined in on some Black Bloc activities to see what it was like:
There are different types of bloc organization styles. The building block of antifa is what’s called an affinity group, people you live and work with and trust and know in real life. All the planning is done within that closed bloc, and they don’t let everyone know [what they’re going to do]. I didn’t know that they were going to burn the Portland Police Association when I joined. What they did was put a call out that said, “Anyone show up in black that night at this place, and you can join the action.”
That’s called a semi-open bloc. The planning is done within the closed group, but anyone who’s dressed in black can come join the action.
To be clear – I’m not suggesting that people should burn down buildings, this is just a real-world example of that “flash-mob” style of organizing in action, as described by someone opposed to the group’s goals. These tactics are a tool set, and as with any tool a great deal depends on who’s using it and why. A similar approach could be used to hand out leaflets in a particular location, or to generate buzz about a particular word or phrase, or to crash a politician’s event, or to attract attention to a particular problem. Regardless of what you’re doing, practice and training will increase your odds of a successful outcome.
Flash mobs done for fun or to spread a simple message, are a safe way of practicing logistics and helping people practice coordinated action. In a lot of ways, it’s practicing martial arts – you might be doing it in case you need to used those skills, but it’s also a fun activity by itself, and largely devoid of any kind of ideological commitment. The same can be said of running, or any other form of exercise. The same can be said of the kinds of marches and rallies we’ve come to associate with political activism.
Generally, those of us interested in organizing are involved with at least one group of like-minded people (if you’re not, you might find help on finding or making such a group somewhere in here). What would it take for that group to get a flash mob together? What are the obstacles? How much notice is needed?
What about having two flash mobs do the same thing at the same time in two different cities? What about more than two?
What would it take to have a flash mob do something in Washington DC at noon, and another do the same thing in London at 5pm? How many people could you get to join in without knowing precisely what was going to happen?
There are already groups that organize events across large regions, but we want to build the capacity for mass coordinated action that – and this is important – is not being run by the political organizations that uphold the power structures and policies we want to change. What I want is for you, dear reader, to have the capacity to do this in pursuit of your own goals. I’ve heard a lot of people over the last year saying that the Left needs a new leader, and while I disagree, I would say that leaders worth following tend to emerge out of work that’s already being done. If you want a leader to follow, then work hard to create a movement that will build up the leaders it needs. Who knows, maybe you’ll find that the real leader was you all along!
Returning to the topic at hand, I listed various tasks involved in organizing an event to underline the need for training. None of us just naturally know how to go about doing any complex action. Even the stuff that seems more or less built in, like moving and talking – all of that requires practice. There’s no reason to think that the skills involved in building and maintaining a just and democratic system wouldn’t be the same. The good thing is that it’s not hard to find basic instructions for how to do this stuff, and it’s not hard to practice it safely and legally, and you can even have fun while you do it!
You will also be practicing field-tested tactics from protest movements around the world. I mentioned this earlier, with the Black Bloc example, but it goes beyond that. During the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, in addition to ingenious use of things like umbrellas and laser pointers, protesters used flash mob tactics to avoid arrest and continue their protests:
Hong Kong protesters have deployed a new strategy of popping up in small groups in multiple locations across the city in an effort to avoid arrest, during their ongoing campaign against police and the local government.
Small flashmobs of protesters demonstrated across a dozen districts after a call for protesters to “blossom everywhere” on Sunday, with many staying closer to home where they could evade police on foot or by bus.
“We are Pien Dei Hoi Fa[blossoming everywhere],” she said, while behind her a group of fellow protesters smashed up a traffic light.
Crystal, another 21-year-old protester, said: “The police do not allow us to have a big group of people gathering together. They block all the MTR stations, where the police have arrested [us] many times. The police also stop and search at the MTR stations.” She wore a mask, cap and sunglasses to disguise her identity during the demonstration.
She said: “People they just stay around this area. When something happens they can still go home at night without being searched in the tunnel.”
In Chile, where police are notorious for deliberately mutilating protesters, women gathered to sing “Un Violador En Tu Camino”/“El violador eres tú”, as part of their efforts to end the destructive reign of neoliberalism that began with Pinochet. This chant has been taken up, and used in the fight against oppressive governments and patriarchy in other parts of the world as well.
In the 2011 Egyptian revolution, a similar approach to Hong Kong was used, and in the description, we can see how they put their “home field” advantage to work in their favor:
Starting in the alleys was not a random decision. It makes tactical and strategic sense regardless of the technology used to coordinate this. Starting small and away from the main protests is a safe way to pool protesters together. It’s also about creating an iterative approach to a “strength in numbers” dynamic. As more people crowd the smaller the streets, this gives a sense of momentum and confidence. Starting in alley ways localizes the initiative. People are likely neighbors and join because they see their friend or sister out in the street.
The guide also stressed the need to remain peaceful and not engage in sabotage. The discipline of remaining non-violent is instrumental in civil resistance. Engaging in violence provides government forces with the excuse they’re looking for to clamp down on protesters and delegitimize them in a public way. The guide also recommends that activists try to win over the police and army instead of attacking them. The protesters behind this guide were clearly well trained and knew what they were doing.
This brings up another reason I think forming strategy based on local conditions is crucial: trying to win over the enemy is not always a good idea. It’s definitely one of the tactics that’s been used by the BLM movement, but the opposition in the U.S. is not just agents of the State; it’s also the fascist movement. Fascism, as an ideology and strategy that relies on conspiracy theories and ethnic scapegoating, has mass extermination as its end goal. Fascists don’t want to get along, they want you to cease existing. Deradicalization is important work, but even if that’s something you want to do, it is not work that should be attempted in the setting of a public confrontation. In general, these are people who are more likely to be holding themselves back from violence that might get them in trouble, rather than forcing themselves to attack because of orders. Given that we know for certain that white supremacists have been deliberately infiltrating law enforcement in the United States, it’s worth considering whether the people you want to appeal to even consider you to be human. You and those around you are likely to have a better idea what you’re going to be facing in your city or your country than someone who doesn’t live there, so you can shape your tactics accordingly.
If you do a quick search for how to organize a flash mob, you’ll come up with a lot of sites with a basic guide. I definitely recommend looking at multiple guides, but the central theme is the process of recruiting people to show up at a designated time and place, and to join in. If you want to limit who knows about your action in advance, you can rely on personal networks – contact people you know and trust, and have them contact people they know, to find people who might be on board. If you want a larger group, and don’t care who sees, you can put out a recruitment call on social media. For the rest, success largely seems to depend on how much work you can do in advance. The less you need to teach the folks who join up, the easier the experience for everyone once things get rolling. Once you have some practice arranging things locally, you can try working with a group somewhere else to do the same thing in two locations, and get some practice coordinating events. As ever, be aware of what information you give out, and how you go about doing so. US law enforcement has been known to spy on some pretty innocuous groups when it comes to any activism left of center.
I said it before, but it bears repeating: when you’re first trying out this sort of thing, it’s probably better to aim fairly small, and err on the side of caution. Part of the point of using this form of political action is to maximize safety for the people involved, so they’re able to keep working. This approach to political change will be more effective if it can be done at a larger scale. “Blossom Everywhere” is going to make a bigger impact than “Blossom in a couple places”. That means that we want a growing number of people who know what they’re doing. Your wellbeing is a key part of that. There are times when putting yourself at risk is the right thing to do, but the risk is never the goal. So practice, have fun, and if I can impart a bit of wisdom from my brief stint in a youth circus, be willing to make a fool of yourself in pursuit of something worth achieving.
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As with other such pieces, I will probably update this over time to improve it. Suggestions or discussion in the comments can help a great deal with that process, so feel free to chime in. Thanks for reading, and take care of yourself.