Getting It Together

The March/April 2018 issue of Briarpatch Magazine features this article that I co-wrote with the other members of Punch Up Collective: Alexis Shotwell, Amanda Wilson, and Dan Sawyer. I’m re-posting it here. This is a companion piece to a workshop that we have developed that focuses on starting and sustaining functional, effective collectives.

Every year since 2002, a small group of people has produced the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners calendar, a showcase for gorgeous political artwork and thoughtful radical writing, and a fundraising tool used by activist groups across North America. Impressively, the people who produce the calendar do so in collaboration with three political prisoners incarcerated in upstate New York.

How do they manage to accomplish all of this year after year? Relationships, creativity, tenacity, and broader movement support are crucial. But there is clearly another key feature that has kept this project going: Certain Days is run by people organized as a collective – a small group in which all members share decision-making power, rotate leadership and responsibilities, and work collaboratively.

Four years ago, a group of us decided to start our own collective in Ottawa, on unceded Algonquin land. We came together after regularly encountering one another in local activist efforts. We discussed shared politics, investigated our terrain of struggle, identified potential alliances, and established goals for our activity. And then we got to work as the Punch Up Collective – pitching in with protests, organizing educational events, fundraising for campaigns, and constantly trying to learn from our accomplishments and mistakes.

We believe that collectives offer a promising approach to building something that we need in our movements and that can sustain us as people.

The importance of organization

In Ottawa, as in other places, many social justice initiatives are ad hoc and short-lived. Few activist groups manage to stick around longer than a year or two in any consistent form. It often feels as though we’re starting from scratch rather than expanding or strengthening our organizations and networks.

There are many reasons why groups don’t last. Most of us are working and living in precarious circumstances that produce isolation and disorganization. Beyond our material circumstances, it may be that movements also have difficulty being good spaces for people to stick around. In his essay “Someday We’ll Be Ready, and We’ll Be Enough: Building Anti-Authoritarian Movements with the Size and Resilience to Win,”activist Jeremy Louzao perceptively describes this: “Our movements themselves, their structures and attitudes, their narrowness and cultural insularity, their straight-up meanness, pettiness, and violence are all just as much to blame as any outside forces for the ways that we are constantly shedding solid and well-meaning people.”

What’s more, to create and sustain social justice efforts often means learning how to organize, and this isn’t easy to do. As Toronto-based organizer Syed Hussan puts it in a recent blog post, “Organizing is a skill set, it’s not just a set of ideals, and those skills must be honed. There are no schools, and few mentors.”

All of this makes the idea of getting from where we are now to creating movements that are broad-based and powerful enough to fundamentally change society seem incredibly daunting. When people primarily experience social justice efforts through small, often-dysfunctional groups that fade out quickly, it becomes hard to even picture what long-lasting, sustainable organizing might look like.

But it is possible to build organized, widespread, and resilient left infrastructure that can sustain itself over the long haul. This begins with stronger groups. Organizations, at their best, unleash collective capacities that are greater than the sum of the individuals involved. As Hussan writes, “One person can’t change anything. But a few people, working together, in comradeship[,] certainly can.” Organizations make it possible for people to be visionary and courageous, while also more focused, responsible, and effective.

What is a collective?

There are many useful kinds of organizations, including membership organizations, traditional unions, campaign-based groups, and more. But it’s collectives that we’re keen on. A collective is a non-hierarchical organization, usually with fewer than 20 members. One core aim of collective structure is to reduce the tendency for certain group members, whether formally or informally, to hold more power and influence than other members. For this reason, collectives generally make decisions using consensus or highly deliberative democracy, and many collectives emphasize skill-sharing and mutual support.

In collectives, tasks and roles are shared, often rotating among members so that no one person is always the one, for instance, speaking to the media or doing dishes. In her book Undoing Border Imperialism, Vancouver-based organizer Harsha Walia lays out the reasoning behind this: “Sharing tasks within our groups decentralizes knowledge, ensures a more sustainable division of labor, encourages learning, builds confidence with new skills, and strengthens interpersonal bonds as we work on projects together. Instead of only a few people being ‘in the know,’ this approach fosters a shared sense of responsibility and ownership over the group’s work.”

Collectives can take many different forms. Some collectives are open, always accepting new members, while others are closed, only admitting new people under certain circumstances. Collectives can be defined by their focus: identity-based, as with some groups in the Movement for Black Lives; project-based, as with the collective that runs the AKA Autonomous Social Centre in Kingston; or campaign-based, as with many No One Is Illegal groups. Some, such as the Graphic History Collective, go on indefinitely, while others are based on a particular moment or struggle, like the student activist collectives during the Quebec student strike of 2012.

Collectives, past and present

Collectives have been important formations throughout left history. During the Spanish revolution, grupos de afinidad (affinity groups) were building blocks of radical regional and national organizations. In the women’s liberation movement, collectives were central to organizing activities and running clinics and shelters. Collectives have also been crucial in the feminist organizing of women of colour. Two groundbreaking examples are the Black Women’s Collective in Toronto and the Combahee River Collective in Boston, the latter a group of Black feminists who formulated one of the earliest understandings of what is now called intersectional analysis. There is also a long tradition of collectively run left bookstores, including the Toronto Women’s BookstoreL’Androgyne in Montreal, and Spartacus Books in Vancouver.

In Ottawa, several successful, long-running projects were organized as collectives. The Ticket Defence Program, which provided free representation in municipal court for individuals charged with panhandling-related bylaw infractions, operated as a collective from 2003 through 2009, and still exists, though its structure has changed. The Carleton Food Collective, also known as the Garden Spot, was founded in 2001 and continues to operate a free soup kitchen. The 7-Year Squat defendants, arrested following the occupation of an abandoned building in 2002, collectively organized their own legal defence during several years of court proceedings, culminating in a month-long jury trial and complete acquittal on all charges.

Activists have used collectives in the anti-globalization movement, Indigenous solidarity work, migrant justice organizing, and many other efforts. Presently, collectives across North America run campaigns, produce activist media projects, coordinate radical spaces, provide legal support, conduct research for movements, and provide training, among a wide range of other activities.

Why build collectives?

Starting a collective doesn’t require significant resources or large numbers of people. It’s something you can do with a handful of people you see regularly and with whom you share some values. In circumstances of widespread isolation and disorganization, building a collective is a low-stakes entry point for those with limited time and energy who are trying to figure out how to engage in activism.

Collectives can also facilitate putting our visions into practice. In an interview in Chris Crass’ book Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, former Heads Up Collective member Rahula Janowski elaborates on this: “Many of the things I hope to see in that world are best manifested in the here and now through collectives – things like shared leadership; attention to interpersonal dynamics and how they reflect larger social issues; sharing of resources, be they material goods, relationships, or skills; and accountability to the people you live and work with.”

Importantly, collectives encourage a high level of political affinity and trust among members. Even if all members aren’t friends, membership can enable mutual support. This is best when it’s grounded in a shared sense of responsibility, alongside enough support and redundancy that members are able to pass on specific responsibilities to others when necessary. Collectives can also facilitate organizational, rather than individual, collaboration and accountability with other groups and campaigns.

At their best, collectives help people to stay politically involved, become more effective, and keep growing. Perhaps most importantly, collectives can enable members to turn their individual values and aspirations for a better world into ongoing collaborative work and, in turn, to reflect on and learn from that work.

Challenges and considerations

While a collective structure helps to address some common challenges for activists, organizing in collectives can present its own set of obstacles. One of the most pernicious and frequent problems occurs when people pretend that their collectives are structureless or leaderless, or that working in a collective nullifies the social relations of harm and benefit that run through the rest of the world. The problem here, as Walia writes, is that “the denial of structure and leadership just creates a layer of unspoken leadership, and informal hierarchies emerge. Based on systemic power imbalances around race, gender, and education level, as well as experience and comfort in activist circles, certain voices tend to dominate over others.” This is something we’ve witnessed time and again; it frequently leads to collectives falling apart, or certain members leaving, though often without a framework to explicitly name what’s happening.

Other times the collective structure itself can act as a barrier to addressing conflict. For instance, in a collectively run pirate radio station with which one of us was previously involved, the combination of shared vision, commitment to working together, and a meaningful project sometimes actively stood in the way of naming and responding to interpersonal harm and political disjuncture within the group. It’s vital for our political work to not stop simply because we’ve found a group of people with whom we are working on something we care about.

Even though collectives represent a non-hierarchical mode of organizing, this does not mean that they should not have structure. Quite the opposite!

Explicit politics and practices can contribute to shared power and collective leadership by making it plain to all members what is expected of them and their comrades, how decisions are made, and who is responsible for what. Early on, we established a conflict resolution and accountability framework, and we talked explicitly about our priorities for political work and our pace of activity. As a small collective of four people, it felt a bit silly to establish formal policies to guide our interactions and ways of working together, but these policies and explicit practices form a crucial foundation for our collective, enabling us to grow and work through difficult situations when they arise.

We’ve found, too, that collectives work best when they are based on clearly articulated shared aims and politics, and when they see themselves functioning as part of an ecosystem of broader movements. This can help to limit navel-gazing or an insular orientation and encourage the building of relationships among collectives and other organizing formations. Functional collectives also have shared understandings of the skills and capacities of members and actively work to develop these further.

Experimenting with answers

We often have many unanswered questions about how best to build and coordinate collectives, how to develop complementary vision and strategy, and how to fit our approach within a dynamic ecosystem of movements. However, all of us can more easily experiment with answers to such questions if we take a first step of coming together with other people in organized, sustained groups. Collectives are not the only way forward, but they represent a relatively easy and effective way to get organized and work together with mutual aid, co-operation, and care.

This is a moment of significant opportunity. Thousands of people are mobilizing for the first time, or rejoining the struggle after some time away. We firmly believe that well-organized collectives can contribute to resilient left infrastructure that will help us find one another, share knowledge and experience, stick it out over the long haul, and grow large-scale, formidable movements. Let’s build!

Study for Struggle: Direct Action

Following the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, L.A. Kauffman consistently offered some of the most insightful writing about the global justice movement. In the early 2000s, I was excited to hear that she was working on a much-needed book about the recent history of direct action politics in the U.S., and I’m so glad that it’s finally out! As far as social movement histories go, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, published by Verso, is unique and uniquely helpful. Rather than focusing on one movement, Kauffman traces the development of a set of direct action organizing practices from the tail end of the New Left through gay liberation, the nonviolent direct action movement, the anti-apartheid movement, ACT UP, the Central American solidarity movement, Earth First!, the global justice movement, the anti-war movement, occupy, and the movement for Black lives. Importantly, she foregrounds the work of women, especially queer women, in carrying and modifying these practices across movement experiences. Kauffman also brings refreshing clarity and nuance as she discusses both the contributions and limitations of direct action politics. This is a marvelous book, full of insights and lessons for transformative movements today!

Here’s one gem from Kauffman:

Waves of activism always recede, for one reason or another: because they succeed; because they fail; because movements sabotage themselves, or are sabotaged from the outside; because the organizers who create them burn out, or sell out, or become discouraged, or win something real and move on to another fight. The activist style that was so novel and edgy in the late eighties ran its course by the mid nineties, but the movements that created it transformed the practice of radical organizing in the United States in lasting ways. Their bold imagery, sophistication, daring, and political flair found their way into everything from the hip-hop criminal justice activism of California’s Third Eye Movement to the blockades that famously stopped the WTO meetings in Seattle. Most importantly, their concreteness and radical pragmatism showed that even relatively powerless outsiders could win meaningful victories when their actions were strategic rather than simply symbolic or expressive.

Study for Struggle: The Regulation of Desire

When I introduce Gary Kinsman to people who don’t know him, I usually say that he is a leading scholar of state regulation of sexuality in the Canadian context. He’s also a long-time queer liberation, anti-poverty, and anti-capitalist activist from whom I’ve learned a great deal. This past month I spent some delightful time reading Kinsman’s first book, The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, published as a revised edition back in 1996 by Black Rose Books. I now see how this book established Kinsman as a leading scholar! He offers a really helpful analytical framework – historical-materialist in the best sense – for looking at gender and sexuality, and he rigorously applies this framework to tracing the emergence and development of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality,” deeply enmeshed in state relations, in the Canadian context. Drawing on oral history interviews, activist publications, court proceedings, parliamentary debates, and other sources, Kinsman tells the story of state categorization, regulation, repression of sexuality, and the determined resistance of those who have fought for what we now would call queer liberation. This is an instructive book on a surprising number of levels; it’s definitely worth checking out!

Here’s one gem from Kinsman:

There is no need to code difference as disadvantage or deviance. We need to focus instead on social transformation and ending violence and the abuse of social power, not on dividing consensual sexualities into “deviant/normal” forms. The aim of this socialist-feminist pluralism would be to democratize sexuality by expanding the possibilities of non-exploitative sexual choices. This approach transforms the sexual agenda toward collectively clarifying the criteria on which to build our sexual communities and lives. An emphasis on choice, relationships, context, social equality, pleasure, and consent – taken together – could provide us with the initial basis for alternative sexual policies. One aim of such a perspective would be to expand the possibilities of choice and consent in people’s erotic lives and to ensure that these words have a real social meaning.

Study for Struggle: Normal Life

For several years, I’ve been hearing positive things about Dean Spade’s book Normal Life: Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, first published by South End Press and more recently published in a second edition by Duke University Press. Happily, I finally got a chance to read it, and now I can see why so many people appreciate this book! Not only does Spade elaborate a transformative politics of gender liberation, but he also offers a wonderfully accessible introduction to neoliberalism, a grounded critique of rights-based approaches to social change, and useful frameworks for understanding power and structural violence. In addition, Spade lifts up instructive examples of movement-based efforts that center the well-being of trans and gender-nonconforming people who are among the most vulnerable, exemplifying what he helpfully describes as “trickle up” social justice. Normal Life is a great book!

Here’s one gem from Spade:

I argue for a model of thinking about power and law that expands our analysis to examine systems that administer life chances through purportedly “neutral” criteria, understanding that those systems are often locations where racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, xenophobic, and transphobic outcomes are produced. Through this lens, we look more at impact than intent. We look more at what legal regimes do rather than what they say about what they do. We look at how vulnerability is distributed across populations, not just among individuals. This allows us to shape resistance strategies that have a better chance at actually addressing the conditions that concern us, rather than just changing the window-dressing that attends them.

Study for Struggle: Lavender and Red

I’m always hungry for histories of social movements that get into the nitty-gritty of developing shared politics, building organizations, dealing with internal conflicts, running campaigns, and carrying out direct actions. Emily Hobson’s book Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, published by the University of California Press, does this and so much more! Focusing on San Francisco, she charts the trajectory of the queer left from early gay liberation through direct action AIDS activism of the 1980s and 1990s. In telling this fascinating story, Hobson carefully takes us through lesbian feminism and gay radicalism into lesbian and gay Central American solidarity work, consistently emphasizing the commitment to solidarity and internationalism across these efforts. Narrative-driven and exhaustively researched, Lavender and Red is full of questions and lessons for advancing radical queer liberationist politics in today’s movements. I highly recommend it!

Here’s one gem from Hobson’s book:

The history of the gay and lesbian left also cautions us to consider the gaps that appear as certain locations of struggle begin to appear less relevant or assaults fade. It is striking that U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer radicals’ awareness of Central American politics virtually evaporated after the late 1980s, leaving few sustained connections. Nicaragua’s current, and now neoliberal, Sandinista government is isolating feminist activists and pursuing a massively privatized interocean canal, yet transnational links with Nicaragua seem nowhere to be found today. Likewise, in 2009, responses were scarce when the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras led to harsh persecution of LGBT people there. We must question what makes some sites of solidarity attractive while others are left ignored, and consistently assess our practices of solidarity lest they become inattentive or narcissistic.

Study for Struggle: Disability Politics & Theory

Looking for a solid introduction to disability justice? I recommend reading A.J. Withers’ book Disability Politics & Theory, published by Fernwood. After reading parts of it in study groups, I finally got a chance to read it cover to cover over the last month. Withers’ book is accessible, thoughtful, and historically grounded. I believe it’s a great starting-point for going deeper into a disability justice framework that can benefit all of our efforts to change the world.

Here’s one gem from Withers’ book:

we are all actually interdependent. Chances are, disabled or not, you don’t grow all of your food. Chances are, you didn’t build the car, bike, wheelchair, subway, shoes or bus that transports you. Chances are you didn’t construct your home. Chances are you didn’t sew your clothing (or make the fabric and thread used to sew it). The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of people who are not labeled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized. The world has been built to accommodate certain needs and call the people who need those things independent, while other needs are considered exceptional. Each of us relies on others every day. We all rely on one another for support, resources and too meet our needs. We are all interdependent. This interdependence is not weakness; rather, it is part of our humanity.

Interview with Sharmeen Khan

The new issue of Upping the Anti features an interview I conducted with the brilliant Sharmeen Khan, an extraordinarily committed activist and a founding editor of UTA who has been essential to the journal’s 10 years of continued publishing. Too often we don’t hear the stories of radical publications – how they started, how they continued, what challenges they faced, where they succeeded. This interview offers part of the story of UTA with lots of lessons for others trying to build and sustain radical publications of various kinds in increasingly inhospitable circumstances. As Khan says in the interview:

So many of our radical movements don’t have the capacity for – or perhaps take for granted the importance of – archiving political processes, discussions of strategy and tactics, and histories of our movements. When I think of movement histories, I often think of the smaller struggles or the failed struggles that don’t make it into history books. And for me, being a revolutionary hasn’t always been about being part of a huge, exciting movement. Often, it has been a struggle to keep things going. And I feel being able to respond, reflect, critique, or celebrate movements in particular periods helps revolutionary work in the future. It’s not to replicate tactics or politics, but to see how activists experimented with different approaches in particular times. Especially being centered in Canada, I want UTA to be used by activists to speak to other movements in different areas.

For the Long Haul

The July/August 2016 issue of Briarpatch Magazine features this article. I’m re-posting it here. This piece combines some of the reflections I presented at Another Politics book events with thoughts and experiences that activists across North America shared in discussions at those events. A longer version of this article appears in What Moves Us: The Lives & Times of the Radical Imagination.

Over the last decade, I’ve travelled around the U.S. and Canada, talking with people involved in a variety of radical movements. Along the way, I’ve heard stories, ideas, worries, and questions about struggles for social transformation – a kind of collective brilliance that I’m eager to share widely. While I’ve encountered many themes across these conversations, one that has struck me is “the long haul,” a concept that came up in conversations with community organizers in Boston, Indigenous solidarity activists in Winnipeg, labour organizers in Los Angeles, and youth activists in Vancouver, among other places. It clearly resonates.

The basic idea of the long haul is this: building large-scale movements capable of fundamentally transforming society requires people to work together, with persistence, over decades and across generations. Those of us committed to creating radical change can and should fight for victories along the way, and as the late historian Howard Zinn regularly asserted, we can anticipate that there will be many unexpected turns, both positive and negative. But there will be few certainties, many setbacks, and no infallible formulas for action. Although it’s not easy, the only way forward is to stick around in struggle.

Based on this conviction, I began giving short presentations called “For the Long Haul” while on tour in 2014–2015 with my book Another Politics. Very consistently, these presentations catalyzed discussions among groups of activists. I’d like to describe my own journey into these discussions and share some of the questions and insights I’ve come across.

A long view

I grew up a white guy in a middle-class suburb of Anchorage, Alaska, on traditional Dena’ina territory. My relatively privileged life didn’t offer me many resources for making sense of the col-onialism, poverty, gendered violence, militarism, and ecological destruction that I encountered in Alaska. But while attending a public alternative school in the early 1990s, my anarchist and socialist teachers presented more critical ways of understanding the world. As the U.S. government was carrying out the first Gulf War, my friends and I were taking classes in developing nations studies, the civil rights movement, and women’s literature. We read radical history and theory voraciously, discussed politics constantly, and started organizing around environmentalism, feminism, labour solidarity, and democracy at our school.

We also began to see ourselves as participants in long lineages of struggles for justice and dignity. While learning about past movements was an important part of this for me, even more crucial was building relationships with elder radicals who had been active in those movements. One of these people was Ruth Sheridan, whom I first met when she came to speak in my Grade 8 labour history class. Sheridan, then in her 70s (and now in her 90s), is a lifelong anarchist who has participated in the Industrial Workers of the World, the women’s liberation movement, the Central American solidarity movement, waves of antiwar organizing, and much more. She has a keen mind, a hearty laugh, an indomitable spirit, and a fierce love for people.

Neither Sheridan nor the other older radicals in her circle are famous. Their names will probably never appear in history books and their individual contributions will be mostly forgotten, except by their close comrades and loved ones. They knew this, and yet they kept going, sustaining lives in struggle through major wars, mass movements, state repression, political transitions, new upsurges, and crushing defeats. They were in for the long haul; they carried, as Spanish anarchist José Buenaventura Durruti Dumange used to say, a new world in their hearts. Their steadfastness profoundly shaped my political consciousness.

One of the most important things I learned from Sheridan and others like her is that sticking around in struggle is easier when we cultivate “a long view,” an expression that suggests two things. First, things have been – and can be – different. After all, most of the social relations and structures that we currently take for granted – race, prisons, the nuclear family, waged work, fossil fuels, and much more – are comparatively recent developments in human history; they can be challenged and changed. Second, as a migrant justice activist from Tucson pointed out to me, a long view involves viscerally experiencing ourselves as links in an intergenerational chain of struggle; we build on the sacrifices and contributions of those who came before us, and we make our own sacrifices and contributions for those who will come next.

Challenges

But, let’s be honest: holding a long view is helpful but not sufficient for staying involved for the long haul. Our movements face consistent challenges that are shaped by how power is presently organized and administered. The ruling relations in our society generate immense wealth and power for a very small proportion of the population while creating differentiated misery among the vast majority and ecological destruction across the planet. This social structure affects the challenges we confront while building resilient movements – including precarious work, fragmented communities, state violence, and displacement. Overcoming these sorts of challenges requires organizing on a scale that most of us are really only beginning to imagine.

Other challenges for sustaining long-haul efforts are more directly rooted in movement cultures. These are ways in which we, as activists and organizers, trip ourselves up through our habitual patterns of acting and relating. While these challenges grow out of ruling relations, those of us involved in movements bear real responsibilities for sustaining them. I’ll focus on two such challenges here, both of which have come up regularly in my discussions with people in the U.S. and Canada.

The first is the tendency for movements to replicate, however unconsciously, oppressive values and practices from the society in which we live. This is nothing new; many who have come before us (notably, radical women of colour feminists in the 1960s and 1970s) have observed this tendency. Still, it’s worth repeating the insight: even as we fight hierarchies based on gender, ability, race, sexuality, class, and other ruling relations, these hierarchies have shaped us and we frequently participate in reproducing them. As New York prison abolitionist Pilar Maschi said to me, “We’re trying to break down the system, and it lies in all of us.”

We can see the replication of the systems of oppression in the types of people who most often step confidently into leadership roles in movements (often men, usually white and able-bodied, frequently university-educated), the ongoing reality of sexual assault among activists, and the movement activities that regularly get the most social recognition (writing, public speaking, and high-risk direct action). This is also visible in the exclusionary assumptions that sometimes get built into campaigns – as, for instance, when immigrant rights efforts have used the slogan, “we’re not criminals,” which leaves out anyone who has ever been entangled in the criminal justice system.

This is a significant challenge. Oppressive values and practices don’t just mar our liberatory aspirations. They also undermine our effectiveness: they spread hurt and distrust, corrode alliance-building, impede visionary strategy-making, damage and sometimes destroy organizations, and hold people back from stepping into their full capabilities. And though I understand why many radicals have become jaded about all of this, I side with those who say we can do better.

A key part of this shift is recognizing that no one is untouched by power relations. As feminist theorist and activist Alexis Shotwell argues in her forthcoming book, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, “We need to shape better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures.” This means working with commitment and intention to shift oppressive values and practices – and reduce their everyday harms – without pretending to be untainted by them. It means that, even with the best of intentions, our efforts will be imperfect and contradictory. Building long-haul movements, I believe, requires patience, humility, and a determination to struggle with this challenge without easy answers or quick resolution.

The second challenge is the tendency toward suspicion, rivalry, and dismissal in activist circles. A longtime radical at an event in Boston described this as “a climate of contempt on the left.” And though rarely written about, this is something many have experienced. Indeed, whenever this topic comes up in discussions, I’ve found it quickly evokes head nods and horror stories about takedowns on social media, organizational territorialism, activist social status hierarchies, sectarian posturing, and a general atmosphere of radical self-righteousness.

Kim Smith and Nick Montgomery, two graduate student activists I met in Victoria, helped me to better understand this tendency. Building on queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s use of the concept, they propose that “paranoid reading” has become the dominant mode of engagement on the radical left. This is a way of relating with people, ideas, and activities by looking primarily for their failures and limitations; it’s about criticizing first and asking questions later, if at all. Smith and Montgomery suggest that “a paranoid stance tends towards constant vigilance, so that there can be no bad surprises. But the upshot of this is that there can’t be any surprises at all when we’re paranoid, because we close off our capacity to be curious, open, and vulnerable.” While this stance is justified and useful at times, it becomes problematic when it’s the dominant approach because “it tends to force out other ways of relating,” Smith and Montgomery say. “Kindness, curiosity, gratitude, and other ways of relating can come to seem naive or counter-productive when paranoia is the reflex.”

Ways of relating based on objectification, competition, and exclusion are deeply ingrained in how power works in this society. It’s not surprising that these corrosive ways of relating seep into movements – thriving, in fact, in the last few decades of weakness and defeat for the left. In this period when radical activist culture has become closely connected to universities, it’s also not surprising that “paranoid reading,” as a pervasive mode in academia, has had such influence on the left.

Still, we have a responsibility to reach toward other, more affirmative ways of being and acting. As Montreal anti-prison organizer Helen Hudson pointed out to me, “struggle can be a really humanizing experience.” That is, when people come together to fight collectively, we can feel our own humanity and the humanity of others in profound ways. People are more likely to stick around, I believe, when movements offer opportunities to experience kindness, curiosity, gratitude, and care as part of effective collective action to change the world.

Lessons

There are things we can do right now to build long-haul movements. Across North America, thousands of people are deeply, earnestly engaged in transformative initiatives and are developing valuable knowledge about what they’re doing. Activists and organizers are crafting a variety of innovative approaches for sustaining struggles, but we frequently lack the time and mechanisms for sharing what we’re learning across places and movements. In one small effort to remedy this, I’ll highlight two lessons that I’ve encountered repeatedly.

The first lesson is that long-haul movements need organizations – intentionally structured groups of people with shared goals and activities. This is something I’ve heard from many people, but Rachel Herzing, an Oakland-based prison industrial complex abolitionist and co-founder of Critical Resistance, makes this point particularly well. During a conversation in Berkeley, Herzing said, “Re-orienting toward organization and talking about the variety of formations it can take – whether that’s a network, an organization, a coalition, etc. – really is important to me in terms of thinking about the long term. So, what is possible to build not only as a collection of individuals but when you put an organizational form to work in terms of organizing?” Organizations, at their best, can become much more than “collections of individuals”: they can generate collective power, hold memory and vision, and steadily build, even during movement downturns.

I recognize that this point may be controversial. In some parts of the anti-authoritarian left especially, I’ve encountered reticence toward developing anything more than small and/or short-term groups and projects. I have some sympathy for this. Too often on the left, “building organizations” actually means erecting party or party-like structures that tend to be top-down, male-dominated, obsessed with toeing a “political line,” instrumental in how they treat people, and vanguardist in how they relate with popular struggles. But with care and intention, I think we can avoid that long-standing rut. As Herzing suggested, let’s explore a variety of forms. If we want to grow and coordinate long-haul movements, we need resilient, bottom-up organizations through which people can, together, develop liberatory visions, make plans, take action, learn, be accountable, and care for and defend one another.

Thankfully, activists and organizers are already engaged in some valuable organizational experiments. These include multi-tendency left organizations such as Solidarity Halifax, grassroots coalitional efforts such as the Southern Movement Assembly in the U.S. South, radical worker centres such as Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre, collectively run non-profits such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, democratic membership organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in south Florida, networks of movement-based collectives such as No One Is Illegal in Canada, working-class self-defence organizations such as the Seattle Solidarity Network, and bottom-up labour unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union. We can learn a lot from the experiences of all of these models while we also experiment further.

The second lesson is that long-haul movements must be intergenerational. Sustained efforts to transform the world need contributions and continuity from people throughout their lives. Rahula Janowski, an anti-racist organizer with the Catalyst Project in San Francisco, has consistently articulated this point. In a 2007 article for Left Turn, she writes, “mono-generational movements that do not include people in all stages of life will neither move nor win. We need communities that are strong, that can withstand difficult times and challenges, and that can nurture and support its members to continue the work. A community of resistance that is multi-generational will have a continuum of memory, will carry lessons from one generation to the next, and will be a base for strong multi-generational movements.”

We still have a ways to go before we have movement cultures in which most people stick around as they grow older and, particularly, as they have children. In radical activist scenes especially, people tend to “age out” by their 30s, if not earlier. But lately, I’ve been excited to encounter increasingly more people who are serious about intergenerational movement-building. Doing this well, they suggest, will require growing in at least a couple of directions.

One is about opening space for kids and families. It’s no coincidence that some of the most influential advocates for intergenerational movements (including Victoria Law, China Martens, and Cynthia Dewi Oka) are mothers. They bring sharp perspectives about the ways in which many radical initiatives, mostly unintentionally, exclude children and the adults responsible for them. They also highlight the benefits of welcoming families in movement efforts: more intentionality in caregiving activities, deepened relationship-building, new opportunities for organizing, more play and creativity, and greater participation and leadership from the women and gender non-conforming people who overwhelmingly tend to care for kids.

Some of the most tangible efforts to take up this direction of work are city-based radical child-care collectives, many of which loosely coordinate through the Intergalactic Conspiracy of Childcare Collectives. Closely collaborating with grassroots organizations, these collectives provide child care for parents involved in political activities while developing broader kid-friendly movement culture.

Another direction for intergenerational growth is opening space for people beyond their early adulthoods and especially in their later years. One thing that has repeatedly struck me as I’ve travelled is how rarely younger and older radicals, particularly in bigger cities, interact. (Bear in mind that, in youth-oriented activist time, “older” can be as little as five years’ age difference.) This kind of generational segregation is tremendously debilitating for movements. It deprives older people of the energy and insight of younger people, and it cuts younger people off from the endurance and knowledge of older people.

What can we do to change this? Building organizations, as I mentioned earlier, is key. We could really use more structures that hold and nourish people as they age to ensure that, as they encounter new life demands, they remain involved in political activities. Disability justice also offers a crucial starting point for building intergenerational movements. As organizers in numerous places have told me, this partly means creating organizations and campaigns with multiple points of entry and engagement, rather than simplistically assuming that people are either available for everything or are not serious activists. Across life stages and abilities, people experience a variety of limits on what – and how much – they can do, and they also have a beautifully wide array of contributions to make. We need our structures and culture to recognize, invite, and facilitate their involvement.

We can also learn from activists and organizers who have already been cultivating cross-generational relationships. In Vancouver, for instance, No One Is Illegal conducted and filmed interviews with older radicals, making the videos available through its Inheriting Resistance project. I’ve found that people involved in supporting political prisoners tend to be especially deliberate about this kind of relationship-building. They understand that many dedicated revolutionaries of earlier generations have been imprisoned or murdered, and thus are significantly cut off from younger generations. In the words of Helen Hudson, “the state actively tries to separate generations of organizers.” This analysis is partly what led Hudson and others to work on the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar, a yearly cross-generational collaborative project between younger activists and older imprisoned radicals. These types of initiatives point toward the vibrant intergenerational movements that, with intentionality and creativity, we can grow.

Building in a movement moment

There is no question in my mind that we are in a movement moment. Black Lives Matter is blossoming alongside a growing movement against the prison industrial complex, and there are still significant reverberations from the Occupy movement experience. Idle No More has re-energized anti-colonial struggles, and the Quebec student movement has set a benchmark for large-scale, combative struggles against austerity. Across the continent, migrant justice and climate justice organizing are especially on the rise, and activists involved in both are increasingly bringing direct action and radical vision. And there is much more happening, too. Although movements still are quite weak, these are encouraging openings.

Stephanie Guilloud, an organizer with Project South in Atlanta, summed this up during a discussion in Brooklyn: “so many people are moving into motion right now.” Consequently, she said, “a big question that faces longtime organizers is, how do we support large numbers of people moving into motion and sustain that activation over time?” At least in part, this is a question of the long haul: how do we develop movement cultures and structures that can last beyond the high points of mobilizations, maintain momentum, and provide ways for people to stay involved in lifelong struggle? We can answer this by reckoning with challenges and limitations, especially ones we generate ourselves, and building on the rich experiences and insights that our movements possess. This, I believe, is how we can turn a moment of upsurge into a sustained confrontation with dominant institutions and relations, and realize the new world in so many hearts.

Movement Knowledge

When people come together to struggle for justice and dignity, they frequently produce some of the most vital and innovative ways of understanding themselves and the world. Robin Kelley puts this well in Freedom Dreams: “Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression.”

This is something I love about movements: at their best, they create ways of doing and thinking that point beyond taken-for-granted ideas and toward visionary possibilities. Consider, for example, the successes of feminist struggles over the last half-century in politicizing parts of social life that were previously considered “personal,” such as sexual violence, intimate relationships, housework, and child-rearing. Or, to take another example, consider how prison abolitionists are creating approaches for reducing harm and creating community safety that don’t rely on cops, courts, or incarceration.

In highlighting the capacities of movements to generate knowledge, I don’t believe I’m making a novel or controversial point. In fact, I think it’s a pretty obvious one. Most people who have spent time in movements have experienced collective forms of learning, research, and analysis, even if no one used those sorts of terms to describe what was happening.

But it turns out that this point is controversial in many scholarly contexts, where the reigning assumption is that academic intellectuals are the ones who come up with the most important ideas about the world. In “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed,’” Joe Kadi points out that this assumption fundamentally rests on “the social lie that poor people are stupid.” It separates out a specialized set of people as the only ones capable of producing knowledge – or at least knowledge of any consequence. And in this way, it reinforces systems of domination, exploitation, and oppression.

I encountered this assumption in graduate school when I was required to read a lot of books and articles in the academic subfield known as “social movement studies.” In Learning Activism, Aziz Choudry tactfully describes much of this literature as showing “a relative lack of attention to, awareness of, and sometimes even condescension toward the processes and practices of learning and producing knowledge in movements.” Put more bluntly, this scholarship mostly ignores or belittles movement knowledge.

Reading that literature, with its self-importance and frequent disregard for actual people in struggle, made me angry. So, my friend Doug Bevington and I began channeling our shared frustration into writing a critique of social movement studies that was eventually published as “Movement-Relevant Theory.” Among other things, we emphasized what we called “movement-generated theory” – the self-reflective activity of people engaged in struggle. We saw this as a modest contribution toward validating movement knowledge in one small corner of academia.

Since publishing that article in 2005, I have regularly encountered people in and around universities – mostly graduate students, but also undergraduates and professors – who are attempting to do relevant movement-based research while facing intense skepticism, and sometimes outright attacks, from supervisors and colleagues. They’re frequently looking for resources to help them justify movement knowledge as a legitimate source for their academic scholarship.

To help, I’ve been actively curating a list of books to share. I suggest these texts not only for their insights into movement-based research, but also for their use as a kind of “citational shield” (i.e., you can cite them to defend your focus on movement knowledge). I include my list here, which I’ll update with new additions as I find them. And beyond these books, I also recommend looking at the work of Convergence, Interface, the Radical Imagination Project, the Research Group on Collective Autonomy/Collectif de recerche sur l’autonomie collective, the Team Colors Collective, and Undercommoning.

On Movement-Based Research:

Aziz Choudry, Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, eds. Learning From the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Caelie Frampton, Gary Kinsman, AK Thompson, and Kate Tilleczek, eds. Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements/Social Research. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.

Jeffrey Juris and Alex Khasnabish, eds. Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Charles R. Hale, ed. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber, with Erika Biddle, eds. Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Oakland: AK Press, 2007.

Examples to Learn From:

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.

Douglas Bevington, The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear. Washington: Island Press, 2009.

Andrew Cornell, Oppose and Propose! Lessons from Movement for a New Society. Oakland: AK Press, 2011.

Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso, 2002.

Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Deborah Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Emily Hobson. Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

George Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997.

Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile. The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Jenna Lloyd, Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Ian McKay, Rebels, Red, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2005.

Scott Neigh, Gender and Sexuality: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2012.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Laura Pulido, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. Toronto: Penguin, 2005.

Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.

Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986. Oakland: AK Press, 2012.

Becky Thompson, A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism. Oakland: AK Press, 2013.