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Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

Protests achieve their goals when leaders actually organize. The left knows this, the right, not so much.

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.

In 2017, President Trump’s inauguration was met with the violent and destructive J20 protests in Washington, D.C. There were arrests and prosecutions, but in the end everybody who hadn’t already pled out had their charges dropped. You may have seen the question posed on social media: Might those arrested for storming the Capitol in 2021 receive the same treatment? 

No. Unlike the J20 crowd, the Capitol stormers didn’t conceal their identities, don’t have legal support, and don’t have the communication lines and established relationships necessary for defense solidarity to make successful prosecution difficult.  

Investigations will take time to shake out who had plans and who acted impulsively, but the common denominator among the Capitol stormers is a failure to give serious consideration to the prospect of major legal trouble. They were a motley crew: mainstream MAGA fans and militiamen; LARPers and special forces veterans; business owners and the unemployed; law enforcement and people with criminal histories; and, of course, devotees of QAnon. The only thing they had in common was that none of them knew what they were doing. 

The naivete on display was staggering. Normies and radicals alike bragged about their actions, during and after the fact. They live-streamed. They texted and tweeted and Instagrammed, showing their faces and giving their names. One man posted a picture of himself pummeling law enforcement, and added a helpful label: “THIS IS ME.” Another literally stormed the Capitol wearing a court-mandated GPS monitor. A former Navy SEAL bragged about his actions on video. A law enforcement officer lied to Joint Terrorism Task Force agents about his involvement—and then consented to them searching the deleted pictures and videos on his phone. Another man posted to social media, “Just finished speaking to an FBI agent, I believe I’ve been cleared.” (He was wrong.)

By contrast, here is how a hard-left group billing itself as the Tucson Anti-Repression Crew addressed the investigations into the Capitol storming: “There’s word coming in from Arizona of FBI door knocks under the guise of ‘looking for information on far right extremists and protests.’ NEVER EVER talk to the FBI. Immediately contact your comrades, a lawyer, and anti-repression support.”

Say what you will about the left, at least its radicals know what they’re doing.

In leftist organizing terminology, storming the Capitol is an example of a direct action. Lefties take basically two different approaches to direct actions: either don’t do anything (too) illegal, or take steps to make sure you don’t get caught.

Consider the Women’s March: On October 4, 2018, protesting the imminent confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, they planned to occupy the Capitol with hordes of protestors. But the building closed, and so—get this—the Women’s March organizers did not break into it. They occupied public areas in the still-open Hart Senate Building; they did not break into people’s offices.

On October 6, 2018, the day of the Kavanaugh confirmation vote, the Women’s March assembled outside the Capitol, climbed over police barriers, and occupied…the Capitol steps. By their estimate, over 250 of them were arrested—but on minor charges.

They didn’t go inside or try to disrupt proceedings, because they knew exactly how much they could get away with. This provides cover for sympathetic outlets to provide unhesitating praise, rather than having to make excuses for actions that alienate people.

That last action required experience, careful legal advice, and careful training. The people who crossed the barricades had seriously considered the consequences of being arrested, and had accepted them, and had voluntarily limited their behavior so as not to incur greater consequences for themselves and cause problems for the organizers. The organizers had prepared for arrests and had arranged legal support beforehand. The people who wanted to support the cause but were not prepared to get arrested stayed outside the barricades. Everyone stuck to their roles and performed their functions.

This is only possible because Lefties carefully plan their direct actions beforehand. Lefties get advice from experienced lawyers. Lefties train their people, and they reinforce those trainings by using marshals and de-escalators. (A Lefty college buddy of mine learned this in person when he got his dander up at a BLM event, went to go get in a fight with a counterprotestor, and promptly got his ear cuffed by a marshal because they didn’t want fights there.) 

Even more radical Lefties incorporate these steps, using what they call “diversity of tactics.” Leftists know different people have different abilities, desires, and tolerance for risk. Think about the siege on the federal courthouse in Portland: Some people want to black bloc up and set fires. Some people are more comfortable just serving as human shields (remember the “Wall of Moms?”). These groups don’t simply show up and hope for the best. They negotiate. They mark events off in time and space, creating as many opportunities as possible for sympathizers to make excuses that the unrest isn’t so bad. 

Sometimes (though some Hard Lefties are critical of this, especially of late) negotiating diversity of tactics is done according to the St. Paul Principles, which were established by the Hard Lefties out to disrupt the 2008 Republican convention. These principles are: 

  1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
  2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
  3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
  4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption, and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.

In practice, that means using plausible deniability to obtain complicity. The Wall of Moms, for example, famously filed out before hardcore radical actions really got going. Militants might look down on them for that, but it’s how you guarantee the Wall of Moms shows up in the first place.

Instructions for a specific action are called “action agreements.” For example, when they were protesting ICE facilities in 2019, the group IfNotNow put together a tremendously informative onboarding packet. Along with warnings not to do actions during visiting hours, not to do anything to facility staff that might bring repercussions to detainees, and not to alarm detainees yourself, they contained detailed action agreements: There would be no violence (including “verbal violence”), no property damage, no weapons, and no flags; protestors agreed to follow procedure for making decisions, to respect diversity of tactics within the rules laid out for the action, and to everyone being responsible for ensuring the agreements were followed.

It’s not that leftists aren’t violent. Ask any business owner who’s had the premises looted or set on fire, or anybody sucker-punched by black bloc, or the family of the teenage boy murdered by “security” in the CHAZ (whose occupiers, faithfully not snitching, have covered up for the murderer). But leftists learned to be careful about how and when they use violence, and the degree to which they use it. They’ve learned that events have to be managed, crowds have to be controlled, and there are fewer legal consequences if you give the impression of a dangerous mob without actually being one. These organizing skills haven’t come from nowhere. Leftists have a long history of trying, failing, and trying again, with considerable effort given to analyzing successes and mistakes. 

The people storming the Capitol didn’t have the benefit of that experience. They didn’t have agreements. They didn’t have risk assessments, or marshals, or de-escalators. They didn’t analyze the potential consequences of their actions. They didn’t plan for legal support, or think about the effect their action might have on ostensible allies, or on the people watching on TV. 

They stormed the Capitol because it felt good. 

We may like to say that facts don’t care about your feelings. Well, we need to internalize it. You cannot do a direct action on the spur of the moment because it feels good. If you are part of an impulsive, uncontrolled direct action, you are very likely to incur serious consequences, because while Hard Lefties have free legal aid from the National Lawyers Guild, you have the equity that is in your house.

Some people might like the idea of sacrificing their freedom to TAKE A STAND™, but as the leftist organizer Jonathan Smucker has pointed out, a sacrifice is a cost incurred in order to achieve a benefit. Without a path by which the sacrifice can achieve the benefit, the sacrifice is stupid. (Smucker learned this as a member of a peacenik group that valorized breaking into a military base to take a hammer to an F-16; he couldn’t help but notice this action invariably incurred serious federal prison time for his comrades.) 

It is true that activists and journalists who normalize and praise the occupation of government buildings by people they like shouldn’t be surprised when people they don’t like feel the right to occupy government buildings. Activists and journalists who normalize and praise “nonviolent property damage” shouldn’t be surprised when people they don’t like feel the right to break windows and steal property. Activists and journalists who accept people they like setting up guillotines at protests—including outside the home of the owner of the Washington Post—shouldn’t be surprised when people they don’t like feel emboldened to set up gallows. And when journalists pretend that organized outrage is organic, people who don’t know how organizing works will believe that lie, too. But none of that absolves Righty would-be leaders of the responsibility to do their jobs and organize correctly. 

Direct action is like an iceberg. The smashing and yelling you see doesn’t tell you about the infrastructure and hard work beneath the surface. Responsibility for building that infrastructure and doing that work lies with the organizers. Which is why, despite there being blame to go around, the grotesque fiasco at the Capitol is ultimately Righty would-be organizers’ fault.

It is their fault that police officers were assaulted, that Officer Brian Sicknick died, that Kevin Greeson and Benjamin Phillips died, that Rosanne Boyland died crushed by the crowd. And it’s their fault that the untrained, unequipped, unprepared Ashli Babbit died because she was egged on into climbing through a broken window towards an armed officer, assuming he wouldn’t shoot her. And when he did shoot her, the untrained, unequipped, unprepared people around her watched her bleed to death because they didn’t have any medics or any plan for serious injury. 

The people on the right most drawn to direct action cannot under any circumstances be trusted to commit it. This is a serious problem. When it comes to direct action, the issue of the morality of any given action tends to be intensely tribal: our brave activists, their scum of the earth. But the real question of any action is stupid vs. not stupid. If you do a stupid direct action, you will hurt your cause more than help it, and people may get hurt, and people may die. And whether your action is stupid or not, if you’re the organizer and your people don’t know the risks they’re running and how to mitigate them, that’s on you, too.

Tell me again how the right would win a civil war.

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.