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Anti-authoritarian Organizing in Practice

DIRECT ACTION TO STOP THE WAR

This article intends to provide a memory of the successes and mistakes made in anti-
authoritarian organizational practices implemented by a reborn Direct Action to Stop the
War to coordinate actions in conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

On March 20, 2003, San Francisco, Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW)
united a very diverse San Francisco Bay Area anti-war movement to shut down the city’s
financial district. As SFPD officer Drew Cohen put it, “They succeeded this morning-
they shut the city down. They’re highly organized but they are totally spontaneous. The
protesters are always one step ahead of us.” This action was one of the largest and most
successful direct actions in recent history. However, this action, along with the millions
who protested in cities across the globe, did not stop the invasion from continuing as
planned, and the anti-war movement declined sharply soon after.

For five years there were highs and lows in the anti-war movement, but there was and
continues to be a feeling of powerlessness to make a true difference in ending this war.
This hopelessness has arisen in part from the inability or unwillingness of the
‘democratic’ government of the United States to act in accordance with the will of its
people. Congress, controlled by the Democratic Party, has betrayed its promises of
ending the war. None of the current presidential candidates seems likely to end the war.
By ignoring and marginalizing both creative and massive protests, this government has
revealed that its interests and priorities are not those of the people.

And so, by the fifth year of this senseless war many of us had had enough: we decided to
take action that would skirt the political system all together. With no West Coast actions
planned for the fifth anniversary of the war, a few affinity groups got together and
discussed taking mass direct action in the San Francisco Bay Area. An anti-authoritarian
call out for action on the fifth anniversary was created in pamphlet form. We quickly
distributed these to every affinity group, anti-war group, and anti-authoritarian co-op,
bookstore or working space we knew of. But mostly, we ran pamphlets to every work
cooperative, living cooperative, bookstore, coffee shop, artist space and bike shop
around, then put it in email form and repeated. Thus, we called the first spokescouncil
meeting in December.

So that’s how the rebirth of DASW began. Its not glorious or dramatic, its just how it was
done. That’s all it takes though. You don’t have to have been shot with a rubber bullet or
been organizing since the 80’s to call a mass action. Just find some fiercely dedicated

Direct Action to Stop the War: “Anti-authoritarian Organizing in Practice” 1 of 6


Coordinator: Team Colors Publisher: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement & Movements
www.inthemiddleofawhirlwind.info

friends and go for it. Those of us who rekindled this whole thing had incredibly little time
and resources, and some had never done anything like this before. But once the fire was
started, it quickly grew out of anyone’s control (exactly what we had wanted), and the
rest is history.

Below we outline and critique the organizational practices we used to take action.
Forgive us, but we want to make no assumptions about what readers know about anti-
authoritarian organizing, and so explain the structure in full detail below. We don’t do
this to bore you, but to empower anyone anywhere to take these principles and begin
organizing today, because they work!

ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE OF DIRECT ACTION TO STOP THE WAR

Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) is a decentralized, anti-authoritarian network of


affinity groups and individuals from the San Francisco Bay Area. Our network uses a
spokescouncil organizing structure to coordinate mass action. Briefly, an affinity group is
a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together autonomously on their chosen
projects. Each affinity group empowers a spoke (representative) to attend spokescouncil
meetings to decide on important issues for the action. This horizontal framework not only
facilitates good security culture, but it also protects against infiltration and co-opting.

There are several practices DASW uses in order to keep spokescouncil meetings as short
and efficient as possible. First, create a list serve for all members to sign on to receive
important announcements only. We had difficulty with clutter on our list (some people
even stopped opening emails), so think about creating a discussion list for those
interested. Next, we create working groups to hammer out details of certain projects as
needed. Members are encouraged to freely associate with groups working on details and
logistics of specific actions or days of action. Other working groups such as outreach,
financing, medical support, legal support, media and communications also work
independently and report back to the spokescouncil. Keeping well-monitored group
emails helps communication between working groups, which was a weakness in our
experience. Only very important discussions that absolutely require the input of all
affinity groups are conducted at spokescouncil meetings. Finally, it is important to
recognize that with so many anti-authoritarians working together there is bound to be a
large spectrum of opinions. We all know that we are against the war, and large theoretical
debates are avoided unless absolutely necessary (they’re better one on one anyways).
This helps unite people with different political perspectives.

Although some people may lead by example or temporarily lead groups in action, there
are no established leadership roles in DASW. Meeting facilitators are changed for each
spokescouncil meeting. Each individual or affinity group gets involved at whatever level
they are comfortable with and no one is told what to do. This means that it is extremely
important to be inclusive to all members and encourage a ‘step up’ work ethic within the
network. Any suggestions for what an individual feels needs to be done or would like to
be done are at least initially led by that person. These methods allow members to feel

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Coordinator: Team Colors Publisher: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement & Movements
www.inthemiddleofawhirlwind.info

comfortable in their involvement and empower people to work on projects that are most
important to them.

We decided to use consensus minus one decision making for major group decisions.
Briefly this means that proposals are brought before the group and everyone must agree,
with the exception of maybe one objector, before decisions are made. Before this, we
usually do polls on what ideas most people thought were the best, to narrow down to the
best proposal. This decision-making technique takes a great deal of group unity,
tolerance, and patience and may not be best suited for every group or situation. Use
sparingly!

The organizational strategies mentioned above worked very well for DASW considering
the diversity of perspectives at each meeting. Now that we’re moving forward, there are
improvements to be made. First, it is important not to assume everyone attending these
meetings understands the spokescouncil, affinity group, and working group structures.
Briefly explaining what an affinity group is and the meeting structure at the beginning of
each meeting could help. Also, it is important to use language that isn’t so wordy that it
alienates new people. Next, encourage the formation of affinity groups at meetings for
those that would like to get more involved. More experienced activists can explain the
basics and let the groups go as independent organizing bodies. Once formed, these
affinity groups can decide their own level of action. Finally, be more inclusive. It is easy
to forget how intimidating walking into a bustling room of activists can be. We don’t
have to be best friends forever, but show new people around and explain to them how
things work while they settle into the group.

We hope these lessons will help you to get to the fun part of your organizing more
smoothly: the action itself.

DIRECT ACTION:
The strategic use of immediately effective acts to achieve a social or political end and
challenge an unjust power dynamic.

DASW uses direct action tactics to actively confront the economic and political interests
behind war. The use of direct action circumvents our flawed electoral political system to
directly affect the business of those responsible for the continuation of the war.

MARCH 15, 2008

On March 15, 2008, DASW took direct action against the Chevron refinery in Richmond,
California. This facility refines over 1 million barrels of Iraqi oil every month and serves
as a busy central refueling station for tanker trucks of all types (Shell, Exxon Mobil, etc.)
for a large portion of the Bay Area. DASW coordinated a rally with community and
environmental organizations and marched to the refinery to take direct action. Several
affinity groups locked together across the entrance of the truck refueling station and the
street was reclaimed in festival spirit with bands, dance, and street theatre. Once it was
clear that the police were blocking the Chevron refinery entrances for us, people calmly

Direct Action to Stop the War: “Anti-authoritarian Organizing in Practice” 3 of 6


Coordinator: Team Colors Publisher: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement & Movements
www.inthemiddleofawhirlwind.info

unlocked and simultaneously stormed the police barricades protecting the facility. 25
people were arrested. The direct action was a success; it brought media coverage linking
Chevron to the war and shut down Chevron’s truck refueling station for most of the day.

Although specifics about the organizing around the direct action can’t be discussed
because of pending charges for those arrested, we can touch on some aspects of
organizing around the rally and march. The March 15 working group organized several
bike brigades and arranged for a shuttle bus from the subway to the rally site. A solar
powered sound system and stage were set up for speakers and performers. Food and
water were provided for free, restrooms were brought in and all the trash was collected.
Bicycles were used to block traffic for the non-permitted march. All roles were
voluntarily filled based on a step-up mentality. In combining the rally with an effective
direct action, we were able to involve the community and expose them to more radical
forms of protest. By supporting the community since then, we have maintained
relationships and helped to build the movement. All of this was accomplished by a non-
hierarchical working group, which demonstrates how effective anti-authoritarian
organizing can be.

MARCH 19, 2008

On March 19th (M19), DASW called for direct actions against the economic and
politiclal interests behind the war in the Financial Disctrict of downtown San Francisco.
A variety of tactics were employed including a snake march, bike bloc, paint-bombings,
poetry reading, use of U-locks on building entrances, and most notably sit-ins, lock-
downs, and die-ins. Legal, medical, media, and communications teams coordinated to
support the day of action.

The main short-term goals of the day’s actions were to bring attention to the fifth
anniversary of the war and to disrupt the normal operations of war profiteers and
government facilities in San Francisco. Organizationally, the day went off with varied
success.

The media working group had spent considerable time doing interviews before M19,
calling national media outlets alerting them about M19, making press kits for the day of
M19, and engaging the media on M19. These efforts succeeded in making local, national,
and international media in all forms. However, much of the coverage had a
condescending and paternal tone, patting us on the back for not causing too much trouble
or making note of our low turnout. Due to the structure of the corporate media it was only
possible to have minor influence in the tone of the coverage. This leaves the question of
whether there is any value in using the energy and resources of the network to develop a
strategy of engagement with the corporate media. It is difficult to tell.

The legal team, in conjunction with the National Lawyer’s Guild, provided a great deal of
support for those risking arrest, and thus aided in the goal of business disruption. An
arrestee hotline was set to track those arrested into jail and through the process until
release. Legal observers were stationed at meeting points and public direct action points.

Direct Action to Stop the War: “Anti-authoritarian Organizing in Practice” 4 of 6


Coordinator: Team Colors Publisher: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement & Movements
www.inthemiddleofawhirlwind.info

For secret arrestable actions, legal observers were contacted a half-hour before the action
to dispatch to the secret location. DASW highly recommends contacting a legal collective
or the National Lawyer’s Guild for support before any possibly arrestable actions.

The medical working group was not utilized in this day of action because the police did
not engage in large-scale brutality (though there were incidents police aggression).
Regardless, the medical team was very important for the perception of safety among our
people and those trained carry their knowledge into the future.

The communications team (comms) was very successful in many aspects, but did have
some troubles. Each affinity group had a designated comms person to contact a central
comms team to disburse information. A text mob was set up so that anyone who signed
up would get immediate notifications of where events were occurring in the city. Because
of the relatively low number of subscribers (hundreds not thousands) and the purposeful
limitation on the number of messages, the text mob worked without much time lag. A
pirate radio station also broadcast updates in downtown. Minute-by-minute updates were
posted online at indymedia.org. One incident with comms however, illuminated a larger
problem with DASW’s planning. At one point an affinity group called in a paint-bombing
action to comms and the dispatcher refused to relay the action over the text loop because
they did not recognize this as an action and did not want to encourage this type of
behavior. The problem illuminated of course, is the spectrum of what constitutes non-
violence. Without getting into a theoretical tirade, the lesson learned here is that the
violence/non-violence discussion must be had among the group, regardless of its
difficulty. If prior to the actions there been even general agreement to respect a diversity
of tactics, even those some people might not wish to engage in, this incident could have
been avoided.

Did DASW succeed in disrupting the normal operations of war profiteers and
government facilities in San Francisco? We did have some limited success, but the final
answer must be no. There are two main reasons for this: 1) too much secrecy and lack of
communication about targets between affinity groups, and 2) lack of affinity group
formation to plug new people into actions. We have discussed these two mistakes, and
will take them into account for any future mass actions.

One last note on the use of direct action: it’s exhausting! It takes an enormous amount of
work to do direct actions properly, all of which leads to one (or several) emotional day(s)
of confrontation that tend to wipe people out. It is normal for people to burn out and take
a little break after an action. For a month DASW did evaluation meetings leading to
eventual discussions of what our next actions will be. This process is important so that
people can decide how to improve tactics and techniques, get through court dates, and
soak in the impact of the actions. Continuous direct actions can lead to fatal burn out
which can lead to group dissolution, so use the tactic wisely.

THE FUTURE OF DIRECT ACTION TO STOP THE WAR

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Coordinator: Team Colors Publisher: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement & Movements
www.inthemiddleofawhirlwind.info

Since March 19th DASW has mostly focused on evaluation and long-term strategy
discussions. However, DASW took action at the Oakland docks in solidarity with the
ILWU shutdown of west coast ports and led a march to the US Military Recruiting
Center and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement buildings in San Francisco on
May 1st. Those actions are outside of the scope of this article.

DASW remains committed and enthusiastic about continuing into the future with clear
long-term goals. DASW will continue to use direct action targeting the “pillars” that hold
this war up (corporate profiteers, military recruitment, corporate media, etc.). DASW
will rotate which pillar is targeted every few months and work with community and
issue-specific organizations to connect social issues and broaden the base of the anti-war
movement. Working with other groups is extremely important in illuminating the reality
that the wars waged against people abroad, the racist war against poorer communities at
home, and global climate change all stem from the same cause: capitalist globalization.

CONCLUSION

This account of DASW’s practices in anti-authoritarian organization is intended to serve


as a memory of what we are trying in San Francisco in 2008. Remember to be inclusive,
be positive, communicate, work with community groups and organizations, and always
respect the diversity of tactics employed by your fellow anti-authoritarians. It is not our
intention to seem incredibly together or organized, or that we have all the answers,
because we certainly don’t. But, whether organizing against the war, wars, globalization,
or capitalism in general, we hope you find this article useful in your organizing by
learning from our successes and mistakes. Our structures are not rigid, so take what you
want and leave the rest.

Direct Action to Stop the War has not ended the war in Iraq, but we hope its reemergence
signifies and inspires a larger revitalization of the anti-war movement. If the war is going
to end, it’s up to the people to end it. So get away from your computer and start taking
action!

- May 15, 2008 – by: @nonymous

Links:
DASW website: www.actagainstwar.net
People Powered Strategy Project (pillars of war):
http://www.couragetoresist.org/x/content/view/183/46/
Friendly Fire Collective (review of March 19th):
http://friendlyfirecollective.info/articles/17/m19-the-reconstruction-of-an-anti-war-
movement
Media: http://www.indybay.org/antiwar/

Contact us: takedirectaction@riseup.net

Note: the word “war” in this article is used to encompass the word “occupation” as
well, which was omitted to save space.
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Coordinator: Team Colors Publisher: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest

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