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The World that Made Lisa Fithian

Call it pinko talent development, but we can still learn from it

Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.

When Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbot proposed legislation making particular radical tactics crimes — many of them felonies — carrying mandatory jail time, much commentary, positive and negative, focused on DeSantis’ proposal (previously made by other jurisdictions) that a driver fleeing from safety from a mob should not be liable for injury or death caused by hitting someone with his car.

That proposal was especially popular with those who, beyond supporting the right to physical safety and self-defense, fantasize about breaking radical Lefty movements by scaring them off with the prospect of force. In reality, radical Lefties aren’t scared off by the prospect of force because radical Lefties aren’t cowardly. What’s rare and remarkable, however, is that DeSantis’ and Abbott’s proposals include something that actually does work: not just thinking about dissuading individual leftists; they’re targeting supporting infrastructure. DeSantis would allow allow people to sue for governmental negligence in protecting people or property from violent or disorderly assembly, and attach RICO liability to anyone funding or organizing a violent or disorderly assembly. Abbott’s proposals included making “aiding and abetting riots with funds or organizational assistance” a felony requiring mandatory jail time, and empowering Texas’s Attorney General “to pursue civil penalties against people and organizations” involved. This has the potential to cause considerable damage to their movements.

Righties mostly don’t have an adequate appreciation of leftist infrastructure, or a good idea of what it looks like. The elites are too lazy and too focused on policy nerd stuff; the grassroots tends to fantasize about all-consuming conspiracies or get hung up on specific individuals. But you can learn quite a lot about leftist radical infrastructure if you just sit down and read their books. Here’s a recent one that’s worth your time: Lisa Fithian’s 2019 memoir Shut It Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance.

Conservative outlets spend a lot of ink criticizing the radical left. But unless they’re reacting to mainstream media coverage they rarely mention names of prominent organizers like Lisa Fithian, which is rather like American newspapers in the 1940s never mentioning the name “Erwin Rommel.” This is, of course, an inexact comparison; the two represent opposite ends of the political spectrum, and Fithian doesn’t issue orders from a position in a hierarchical structure (so don’t get hung up on her just because you know her name, like the obsessions with Alinsky and Soros). But she is a prominent and influential strategist, and serves as a good example of other people like her. The book is well worth reading for its tactical discussions of how campaigns are designed and conducted, and the principles that make them work. But it’s also fascinating because of what it says about the career track that got Fithian to where she is today.

Born in 1961, Fithian got her start in serious activism in 1982 when Abbie Hoffman of Yippie fame spoke at her college. She went to work at his environmental organization upon graduation, which led to her radicalization on foreign policy: Hoffman and his partner Johanna Lawrenson were avid supporters of the leftist Sandinista government and travelled to Nicaragua regularly. By 1984, Fithian was organizing Nicaragua show tours; when she took a job with an electoral pressure group in Boston in 1986, she hooked up with the Pledge of Resistance campaign, which was a leftist Christian campaign against U.S. support for the Contras and anti-communism in Latin America.

After some organizing adventures that included a blockade of CIA headquarters, Fithian went over to the Washington Peace Center, where she was involved with blockading the Supreme Court, the White House, and the Pentagon before moving over to union organizing in 1993. After nearly bankrupting a local hotel with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, she moved to SEIU, where she cut her teeth on the hugely important and influential Justice for Janitors campaign, about which I’ll write in a future column; it’s a seminal campaign that present-day radical organizers talk about in the kind of rosy tones reserved for foundational myths. From there, she went on to a host of causes: the Battle in Seattle, World Bank and WTO protests, Hurricane Katrina relief, the International Solidarity Movement, war protesting, Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson, Standing Rock, abortion rights in Texas, and protests against Justice Kavanaugh.

You should take two things from Fithian’s resume. The first is that she’s a mercenary, the leftist equivalent of a Mad Mike Hoare, and her memoir is a sellsword’s memoir of a host of campaigns for a variety of causes on different battlefields. Righties and Fithian herself might grimace at that comparison. But what is use of coercion to achieve strategic and political goals, if not military? This is a book about what leftist military science looks like. These techniques don’t use guns; that’s all.

The second thing you should take away is this: look how many different organizations and campaigns Lisa Fithian had an opportunity to be a part of from the jump. Abbie Hoffman didn’t just come to her campus to collect a speaking fee and go home, like a host of prominent conservatives I could name; he came to recruit people to an organization that actually did things outside of running campaigns for political office. Joining that organization exposed Fithian to other causes on her side, and networking with larger groups that shared those and related ideals. Note that these groups weren’t just producing content and hoping people listened; they were teaching practical skills and going out and making use of them on the ground. And they were working together and talking to each other all the time.

Fithian rose to her present state because she had a host of radical organizations to join. When she was young and hungry, she started being trained in direct action. When she needed a better-paying job that used those skills, union organizing was available to join. She’s had opportunities to meaningfully collaborate with colleagues locally, across the country, and internationally. This is a career track that does not exist on the right, and the infrastructure in which it exists is key to leftist successes. As Fithian describes it: “When historic people-powered movements like this one [Ferguson] rise up, there are patterns that tend to repeat. You’ll often see a grassroots groundswell from the margins that is ignored, shunned, or criminalized; then grassroots organizers with skills to offer start hitting the ground. As time goes on, national groups send people in, generating action alerts, starting publicity and fund-raising campaigns while more established local groups translate the resistance into political reforms.”

The Right never gets past the grassroots groundswells. Maybe those people get dollars, sometimes, but there’s no framework for building skills, no network of people to make sure attention gets where it’s needed, and no lasting local groups with the skills to pressure local officials. Most of Righty civilians’ organizing energy is spent in getting people into office. In Fithian’s view, this is a trap: “…people believe democracy is about representation. We think that somebody else is in power, and therefore our problems are somebody else’s responsibility. If something is wrong, we feel powerless to fix it, always waiting for someone else to solve the problem, leading to resentment, weakness, apathy, or anger.” This, to me, pretty neatly nails the powerlessness felt by the grassroots right: eternally hoping for Someone To Do Something.

By contrast, Fithian describes her focus as “horizontal, network-based community organizing.” What this means, she elaborates, is that “action is most effective when it takes place within a strong, moderately dense, linked network of participant groups with a focus on “strategic, creative, nonviolent direct action.” Her usual modus operandi is to create a strategic crisis that empowers her people, with the goal of forcing elites to resolve the crisis by acceding to change — in the form of a plan that organizers have conveniently ready to hand them. “The most difficult part of this work,” writes Fithian, “is not flattening or smashing the pillars but changing the foundation that creates the culture in which they operate. The foundations are made of mental models, which I see as the steps. The first step is history, the second is belief systems, the third is values, and the fourth is norms and practices. Combined, these steps form the dominant culture in which we are socialized.”

Yes, that’s a real mask-off moment: Lisa Fithian really does want to destroy the world you care about and build a new one on its rubble. But she’s not following the One Big Master Plan that Righties often imagine Lefties to have. Lefties take much more of a scattered approach. This has virtues and flaws, if you’re a Lefty. But the biggest leg up it offers is that it’s okay to start small. You don’t have to draw up a Great Big Plan to change the world. You can change a small part of it, and help others to do the same.

Here’s the nice thing: we can learn from that approach, too.

David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.

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