I came away with a more complex vision of strategy and action. Strategy is more than one person's viewpoint. I learned that even when we try our hardest, we screw up a lot, especially in regards to assumptions. But screwing up doesn't mean giving up, it means that we keep learning and keep trying harder. I left with the reinforced realization that anti-oppression organizing is key to strategy. Without it, at best we're ineffective, at worst anti-effective.

Strategic Resistance Against Global Capitalism: lessons from a conference on strategy and anti-racism

by Rahula Janowski and Chris Crass

“Our conversations are finally moving beyond anarchism 101”, he said. “It’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?” I responded. Facing challenging questions of radical political organizing was the goal of Strategic Resistance, a conference held August 3-5, 2001, in Los Angeles, California. Over 150 anarchist and anti-authoritarian organizers and activists from the West Coast gathered for a weekend of dialogue on strategy and anti-racism in the movement for global justice.

The convergences for global justice have not only had significant political impact, they have also created movement wide discussions on a scale that many of my generation (20-35yrs old) have never seen before. Such debates include long term strategy and the lack of it, the overwhelming whiteness of the politics and participation of the protests and the need for anti-racist practice, and the roles of anarchists and anti-authoritarians in the larger global justice movement. Since the conference this debates include how to organize against the endless war waged by the United States and how to work in solidarity for Palestinian liberation.

Strategic Resistance (SR) as outlined in its’ mission statement is “an organizing conference based upon the premise that our movement has a need for long-term goals, lacks a focus on organization and needs to recognize that anti-racism/anti-white supremacy is a strategically important struggle.”

The statement continues, “We recognize that thus far in our work, a white culture/space has been well established and thus maintained up to this point. As a part of this conference, we are committed to doing anti-racist work, and figuring out how to be accountable in that work and committed to local organizing.”

There were two strategies used during the organizing of the conference that worked to support and strengthen each other. First, conference organizers of color, in particular, worked to create a space for organizers of color to come together, strategize and network. Anarchists/anti-authoritarians of color who had organized the conference talked about the vast numbers of organizers of color who use anti-authoritarian methods of organizing, but don’t consider themselves anarchists, in part because of the overwhelming whiteness of the anarchist movement. The second strategy was lead primarily by white organizers who concentrated their efforts on anti-racism work with other white activists.

SR was organized into small group discussions with facilitators, caucuses based on identity, common work areas, plenaries to report back from the small groups and caucuses. There was time set aside on the last day to discuss specific proposals for organizing.

The small groups came together to discuss lessons from the organizing people have been involved in since Seattle (recognizing that while movements for liberation have struggled for hundreds of years, we used Seattle for the sake of having a common starting point to evaluate our work). The small groups were made up of about 8-20 people. The dialogue focused on what has been working, what has been problematic, what lessons have we learned. People were then asked to share their visions of both a liberated society and steps for moving in that direction.

These same small groups met again to look at an organizing scenario asking how people would approach a struggle in a multiracial community fighting against an incinerator. The exercise asked questions about how race and gender impact organizing, how to connect global and local issues and what is the role of global justice activists who are white or middle class in this effort. One small group that was bilingual provided an important lesson for multiracial organizing. The translator was overwhelmed by the quick discussion. Spanish speaking activists had limited participation while some of the english speaking participants showed noticeable frustration with the slower pace of the discussion because of the translation. An additional lesson is the need to be prepared, many of the facilitators explained that they were not adequately prepared for this exercise by SR organizers.

loretta carbone, an international political economy teacher, commented on what she gained from the small group discussion. “Strategically, we need to think about both our organizing models and our goals. On organizing models we focused on anti-authoritarian leadership, community based organizing, what it means to be accountable in our work and ways of bringing anti-racist analysis into all of the organizing we do. We talked about moving away from just looking at numbers of people to also focus on building our organizations, developing alliances with other social change groups and to do the hard, slow work of developing respectful relationships so that we can build movement for social transformation.”

The caucuses were determined by attendees and were intended to be a proactive space for groups to discuss the role of their identity in relationship to strategy. The logic behind the caucuses was to create space for historically marginalized voices to come together and discuss strategy. Similarly historically privileged voices were to come together and discuss strategy in relationship to challenging privilege. The groups that held caucuses were ‘Queer and Trans’, ‘People of Color’, ‘Revolutionary Women’, ‘Anti-Racist White Women’, ‘Biracial’, ‘Anti-White’ and ‘White Guys Challenging Racism and Sexism’. An enormous amount of important and difficult work went on in the caucuses and in their subsequent report backs to the larger group. Anti-Racist White Women explored the struggle to work against both the oppression of patriarchy and the privileges of white supremacy. The People of Color group, in which a delegation of anarchists from Mexico participated, developed a proposal for a People of Color Anti-Authoritarian Network that was discussed throughout the weekend. The Queer and Trans caucus raised critical issues of gender and transgender politics in their report-back. It was pointed out that discussions of patriarchy and gender oppression in SR’s agenda felt slapdash, while anti-racism was front and center. It was argued that focusing on racism was a needed step, but that there was confusion since some of SR’s literature mentioned a focus on gender as well.

Catherine Jones of San Francisco Food Not Bombs commented on the connections between anti-racism and the need for anti-sexist work, “SR was set up so that primarily white activists were able to look at our organizing through the lens of anti-racism, but many of us noticed white male domination in small and large group structures. Partly because of SR I’m beginning to realize the insidious ways in which power and privilege assert themselves in our work and the efforts I have to make to be conscious of it at all times.”

The Queer and Trans caucus provided important leadership on gender analysis. Transgender, as defined in Amy Sonnie’s Revolutionary Voices, is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is different from and/or transcends the sex and gender role they were assigned at birth. Trans folks live in direct opposition to the strict binary gender system which impacts all of us with it’s strict definitions of what it means to be male/female. The Queer and Trans caucus also brought forward the need to systematically challenge heterosexism that places heterosexuality as the norm and all others inferior (manifesting both institutionally and in day-to-day interactions).

The common work groups were also determined by SR participants. Common work groups included; alternative media, anti-prison organizing, community-based alternative institutions, educators, homelessness and economic justice, immigrant rights ‘fuck the INS’, indigenous resistance and solidarity organizing, police brutality and Copwatch and trade union organizing.

The final discussions focused on specific proposals for organizing. Some of the common work groups generated proposals for organizing efforts, while most of the proposals had been brought to SR by organizations. Small groups formed to discuss proposals; Midnight Special Law Collective’s proposal for a network of activist legal collectives, the Ruckus Collective of Phoenix, AR with their call for a national anarchist federation, LA activists working to start a Copwatch, and the People of Color Anti-Authoritarian Network coming out of the People of Color caucus. Additionally during this time a group came together to discuss problematic aspects of SR itself and explore lessons for future organizing efforts.

After the closing farewells of SR, many gathered for the film screening of Jessica Lawless’ “Paint it Black: Anarchism, Urban Uprising and the Media” which examined the corporate media’s obsession with the Black Bloc and it’s effects on anarchist organizing.

So what did people get out of SR and what direction(s) does it point us in? When asked this question, Candace from Los Angeles, who works to support political prisoners, said “I personally took away a better idea of what my direction as a revolutionary should be and needs to be after participating in discussions and social time with some very inspiring people.”

Heather, an organizer of SR from Humboldt County explained, “I left SR exhausted, frustrated and worn out and yet it all felt positive. I came away with a more complex vision of strategy and action. Strategy is more than one person’s viewpoint. I learned that even when we try our hardest, we screw up a lot, especially in regards to assumptions. But screwing up doesn’t mean giving up, it means that we keep learning and keep trying harder. I left with the reinforced realization that anti-oppression organizing is key to strategy. Without it, at best we’re ineffective, at worst anti-effective. I didn’t leave with a point by point strategy for Utopia. What I did come away with is a better understanding of the steps that need to be taken towards creating a just world.”

Challenges and lessons from the organizing process

While Strategic Resistance was a success in many ways, the relative smoothness of the conference and fairly high level of political affinity amongst participants did not fully represent the experience of organizing SR. My name is Rahula Janowski and I write as one of the two people who were involved with the organizing body from drafting the original proposal to the conference itself, and my perspective is shaped by my involvement in that process and my own frustrations and satisfactions.

The organizing process of SR was in many ways an experiment. The organizing body included many people who had never met face to face. Much of the organizing, from finalizing the initial proposal to consensing on the agenda happened by email. The organizing body was not localized in one area or community, and it was a closed, self-selected group who were not officially representing, or accountable to, any defined group of people or constituency (although many of us felt very responsible to our communities and made efforts to bring to the table input and feedback from the people we lived and worked with). The organizing body had the task of creating a very different, structurally and contextually, sort of anarchist conference, focusing on issues that have been difficult for much of the modern north american anarchist-identified movement to address in any meaningful way.

The organizing of SR began in September, 2000. Five people came together to discuss organizing an anarchist conference that reflected the need to have a discussion, amongst anarchist organizers, about where the anti-corporate globalization movement is going; what sort of strategy is needed; what is the role of the anarchist movement/community within that larger movement; and what strategies should we as anarchists be employing to a) overthrow capitalism and b) make anarchism a truly dynamic, important, and recognized factor in the larger movement. From this discussion, a proposal was crafted that reflected our ideas of what sort of a conference was needed, what its focus should be, and who we wanted to attend. Our intent was to organize a conference with an anti-racist focus that would lead to the development of very specific strategies for anarchists and anarchist organizers involved in broader movements for social change.

To pull together the larger organizing body, the initial five organizers brainstormed people to whom we sent the proposal and an invitation to join the organizing body.

16 people came together in December in the San Francisco Bay Area to work out the logistics, structure, and content of the conference. Realizing the size of our work we pushed back the timeline and set another weekend meeting. We met again in Eureka, CA the following February. In between the meetings and the conference, work was done by working groups and over an email list set up for the purpose of communication.

At the December meeting, it was agreed that the conference would be invite only. This is a difficult thing within our movements, opening us up to accusations of exclusivity or elitism. This decision came out of a concern that, because there are so many tendencies within the anarchist community, open attendance could lead to such a diversity of view points that we would spend the entire conference arguing and trying to find common ground, never moving on to more involved discussions. We also wanted everyone who attended the conference to have a high level of affinity with our mission statement, and we felt that a process which required face to face contact with an organizer would ensure this.

We also discussed outreach and prepatory work. The informal consensus at the December meeting was that each local area would have small, local conferences based on the goals and themes of the conference, addressing white supremacy in particular.

The idea of preliminary local conferences played out differently in each area where organizing for the conference happened. In Humboldt County, for example, the organizers held two anarchist oriented open meetings, focusing on the themes of the conference, and hosted a workshop by the Challenging White Supremacy Collective. In the Bay Area, a series of 5 prep events were held, one of which was in Spanish, which discussed the background, history and goals of the conference. Invitees then broke up into small groups to discuss anti-racism and how it relates to organizing.

In Los Angeles, two major meetings were held before the conference. One of them was focused on getting people excited about doing logistical work for the conference, and the second was a picnic where folks got together and discussed the goals and themes of the conference. However, the main focus of work in LA was logistics, since, as Jane, an organizer from LA who was responsible for much of the logistical work said, “We had an amazingly small group of people doing the local logistics and planning work.”

The main problems we faced were lack of effective communication, lack of clear political affinity or unity, and lack of continuity of participants on the organizing body.

In an interesting way, lack of political unity among the organizing body contributed greatly to the overall success of the conference. Many different types of anarchists and anti-authoritarians were invited, and many apparently contradictory concepts were included in the agenda. This lead to a conference with broad frames of reference and a more holistic, inclusive approach to anarchist organizing and politics than is usual at anarchist identified events. It also made a difficult process far more difficult. Misunderstandings, disagreements, and lack of unity were rampant at the face to face meetings, in particular in February, and on the email list.

The original proposal states, in part, “Our goal is … to create an environment at this conference where there is enough affinity among people so that we can accomplish the above goals in a few days.” To a large extent, that environment was created at the conference. However, although all of the organizers had a fundamental agreement with the statements in the original proposal, there was an overwhelming lack of agreement about how to structure the conference in order to meet the stated goals, and about what those goals actually looked like.

An example of this disunity was a focus on sexism, gender, and patriarchy at the conference. In the beginning stages of this conference there was an agreement to focus explicitly on white supremacy. This was not to ignore other forms of oppression, and there was (is) an implicit understanding that it is the work of anarchists to address all forms of oppression, both outside of our movements and within them. White supremacy was chosen as a focus because of an analysis that one of, if not the, most strategically important thing that anarchists need to address and deal with is the impact of institutional white supremacy on our work.

However, by the second face to face meeting, sexism was being verbally included as a focus of the conference without any discussion or consensus to do so. For some people, this came out of a habit of saying ‘sexism and racism” in the same breath as issues we are constantly hampered and disrupted by. For others, this came out of a very specific analysis of oppression and white supremacy. As Alycee Lane, a professor and SR organizer from LA, commented at the time, “How can you possibly address White Supremacy without taking into consideration gender, class, homophobia, etc.? …let me simply pose the question: is not White Supremacy, and the practices thereof, gendered?”

Some of the organizers felt that if we included patriarchy as a central focus, the work we did at the conference around white supremacy would be less focused, while others felt that to separate out one particular form of oppression created a hierarchy of oppression, implying that some oppressions are worse than others. As with so many of the contentions brought up over email, the inclusion of patriarchy did not get fully discussed nor did it get resolved. In addition to hampering the organizing process, not addressing this question meant that conference attendees had very different expectations about the inclusion of gender issues based on which of the organizers they had spoken with. Ultimately, patriarchy was not adequately addressed and many women felt that typical dominant male behavior overtly present at SR. As Angela Wartes, a prison organizer from Berkeley said, “Many participants never got past the breakdown in communication and came away from the conference feeling disappointed and disempowered” by the gender dynamics at SR.

The issue of patriarchy was not the only area where the organizing body had conflict. One of the more troubling issues was how to deal with racial dynamics within the organizing. Early in the process, most of us were envisioning a conference for mainly white anarchists and anti-authoritarians to take a good hard look at, and do important work on, how racism manifests in, and hinders, our work. This reflected the experience many of us have of anarchist scenes with an overwhelmingly white presence/culture space and lack of commitment to anti-racist work. This is not the experience of many of the organizers from LA, and as organizers from LA began to play a stronger role in the organizing, they objected to language and to proposed structures that they perceived as excluding people of color from the conference or ignoring the roles anarchists of color play in our communities.

There was no discussion among the OB about whether this was a conference for mostly white anarchists to strategize through an anti-racist lense, or if this was intended as a multiracial, anti-racist anarchist conference. It was never openly acknowledged that a political difference existed, and as the conference shifted to a more multiracial context there was no discussion about how that differed from the original intent or about what the change in participant’s demographics meant. Ultimately, the conference participants took the anti-racist content seriously, and I believe the active participation of people of color created a climate in which white people were far more accountable to an anti-racist commitment than they would have been in a mainly white setting.

Another challenge we faced as organizers was a lack of clear communication. Aside from the two meetings, the vast majority of our work was done electronically on a closed email list. As Fred, an SR organizer and tenant organizer from Arcata says, “We set ourselves up for an impossible task when we tried to plan a major conference via internet.”

Electronic communication and coordination created a whole new set of obstacles to clear and effective discussion. When political differences and misunderstandings arose there was little dialogue and issues tended to be set aside, ignored or glossed over. For example, Caylor, an SR organizer and a member of the agenda working group said, “The difficult part of the agenda process was dealing with negative, sarcastic e-mail comments and responses. The negative nature of the arguments around the agenda made actual changes and room to hear legitimate arguments difficult. As we continue to work electronically, we must develop guidelines for our electronic work and remember who is on the receiving end of our messages.”

As a means of improving communication and coordination, and attempting to incorporate mechanisms of accountability, the “accountability, communication, and overall coordination” working group was created at the February meeting. This group took on the task of maintaining open lines of communication, ensuring that those without ready access to email were getting information, creating an overall timeline and ensuring that deadlines were met, and putting out regular updates from each local group and working group so everyone would know how the work was progressing. Unfortunately, the goals of this working group were only partially met. As Fred, who was part of this working group, says, “It is hard to keep tabs on each other or hold each other accountable via computer.” However, the workgroup did take on the task of bringing the group to consensus on the conference’s name, through phone calls and emails, and several bulletins were put out updating everyone on the work being done.

The organizing of SR stretched over 11 months. During that time, many people joined the process and many others left. Of the 16 people who attended the first meeting, only 9 attended the second, along with nine new people. Of the five people who initiated the process, four attended the first meeting (one having already stepped out of the process for personal reasons), three the second, and only two attended the conference.

As one of the initiators, I felt that we, as a group, had a responsibility to provide more vision and leadership in the process. Unfortunately, as time went on, it became clear that even among the five of us there were divergent views about the goals of the conference and how to meet them. Strong vision and leadership from the initial group would have been very helpful in resolving many of the points of disunity, and could have kept the conference more closely aligned with its original intent. That, however, is a mixed bag as the conference turned out very different than planned, but in very good ways. Had we provided more leadership and stuck more closely to our original vision, many of the people who participated may not have, and many of the components of the conference itself which lead to its success would not have been included.

The group in Portland, which initially had a strong involvement in the process, became frustrated with the lack of clarity around the process and stopped participating after the first meeting. Ultimately only two people from the Portland group came.

After the second meeting, amid controversy around the agenda, the Olympia group pulled out of the process. In statements explaining their decision, they cited the differences between the original goals of the conference and the likely outcome. They discussed the difficulties we were having incorporating meaningful strategizing in our own process, as well as many other relevant and important points about the shortcomings of our process, and their belief that such a flawed process would not lead to an effective or useful conference.

The issues raised were important and central to the initial ideas and goals of the conference. It was troubling that another of the initiators was stepping out, especially considering the strength of his critique of our process. Perhaps at this point it would have been appropriate for the organizing group to take a moment to reassess our progress and our process; discuss if we were straying too far from our original goals and if so, how to address that. However, the only method of communicating amongst the entire group was email and such discussions were not happening effectively in that medium.

In the end we did not come away from SR with, as the original proposal said, “Concrete short-term goals as well as a long-term focus for the next 5, 10, 25 years.” We did do important, if often difficult, work necessary to, as the original proposal states, “sustain/create a movement that targets the imperialism that underlines global corporate capitalism, focuses on globalization and has a strong commitment towards anti-racist organizing.”

According to Jose Palofox, an immigrant rights activist and writer, “SR was a historic event for anti-authoritarians and revolutionaries trying to figure out the challenges (and this is not just related to ‘strategy’) that imperialist globalization has put front and center in our present world. In reality, questions related to tactics and strategy within the anti globalization movement reflect the multiple visions of what kind of society we want to live in: How do we challenge the new global apartheid while remembering that the process in our struggle must also be multiracial and cross gender/trans-gender lines? How does our struggle for global justice respect the multi-faceted and differences in organizing while at the same time not relying on the movement police to ‘police the movement’ (read: arrest the Black Bloc) as some have suggested? These were some of the questions the movement faces and that we tried to address in a few days. Indeed, more of these discussions are needed.”

Rahula Janowski and Chris Crass were both part of the organizing crew of Strategic Resistance.