As protests and demonstrations continue throughout the country in response to the election of Donald Trump, a great deal of discussion is circulating –particularly in more conservative media circles- about the “professional left” and professional protestors. While to substantial degrees invoking names such as Soros and Moore are apt for such conversations, considerable swaths of not only the structure of the professional left, but also the mechanisms by which demonstrations are organized, as well as the means by which such can spiral out into riots seem to go largely under-discussed. For the purposes of both transparency, as well as hedging myself against claims that I may have missed or omitted aspects of this industry –which I am almost certainly bound to do- I wish to make it clear that the insights provided here come from my own experience in the professional left.
That being now clarified, while it can be tempting to view the evolution of events as a strongly centralized and coordinated effort to sew dissent and disruption throughout the nation, chances are that matters are a bit less cut and dry than that. Namely, by way of the players and institutions themselves. While as tempting as it may be for the uninitiated to simply chalk it all up to radical actions being funded and undertaken by progressive ideologue millionaires and billionaires, the reality of matters is undoubtedly more complicated than that.
To begin with, one must consider the Political Action Committee (PAC) scene. Beyond the ads, mailers and surreptitious “issue advocacy” these campaigns are known for, it is often their field operations which derive the most real action electorally speaking. Ranging typically from door to door canvasses, handing out literature and running various forms of field polls up through staged demonstrations and sometimes protests, the PAC world is one made up of many players from many different backgrounds. For most PAC operations which seem to only crop up during elections, many of these campaigns are two-pronged in respect to their management.
At the top end one quite often (but not universally) finds two key bodies. The first is the PAC itself. Normally focused on a single issue or issue set such as environmental protection or middle class economic concerns, organizations such as NextGen Climate or Working America are often the formal faces of campaign efforts waged by either wealthy individuals (For NextGen, millionaire Tom Steyer) or established institutions (for Working America, the AFL-CIO.) However quite often, especially as was the case for NextGen in 2014 when I last stepped foot into the field as a professional, many of these campaigns rely on an industrial infrastructure of for profit turn-key consultancies such as FieldWorks LLC or Grassroots Solutions for staffing and campaign management.
Beyond these however there exist even more substantial networks of full time professional campaigns, such as Working America which are often –if only in part- the political activities of America’s larger unions. SEIU, AFSME, AFL-CIO and other assorted collections of letters representing the generally larger national and international unions all rather routinely and consistently have one form of political campaign running at one time or another. A large part of these campaigns, funded almost entirely by union dues and guided generally if not exclusively by the political aspirations, ambitions and agendas of senior union officials, are often their field operations.
Having been part of these very campaigns myself, I can say that very often a fledgling union organizer hired and trained specifically for the purpose of organizing workers into bargaining units (an endeavor that even to this day, despite my own harsh criticisms of existing establishment unions, that I wholly remain in support of,) found themselves thrust into the field as a community and political organizer, much to the chagrin of many. It was in this very same manner that in 2010, after being brought on by SEIU as an Organizer In Training with this same intent on being a workplace organizer that I was sent to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in an effort to begin an opposition effort against then Governor-elect, Scott Walker. If any of this is beginning to sound familiar, just wait. It gets more interesting.
After having had some marginal training in workplace organizing and already possessing roughly four years of professional political and community organizing experience, I was pulled from a campaign underway in Pennsylvania where we worked to bring home-care nurses into the fold and sent up to Wisconsin for something entirely different. Almost identical to work done during a previous experience of mine with the now largely defunct community organization; ACORN. Going door to door for weeks on end, our job was to hold specialized sorts of conversations, known as “organizing conversations.” These directed discussions centered around guiding them through phases of building rapport, identifying issues of concern, refocusing those concerns to the central goals of the campaign, using rhetorical manipulation to create senses of outrage, the painting of visions for proposed solutions and then, mobilizing those we spoke with, all in tried and tested manners that themselves stemmed largely from the works of Alinsky and his successive intellectual heirs.
Without spending too much time on the mundane, day to day details or the processes by which the campaign was made successful (a piece I may likely write in the future) I can say that after several weeks of pounding pavement in the various neighborhoods which surrounded the A.O. Smith factory in the center of Milwaukee, we were able then to rally nearly seven hundred members of the impoverished and dilapidated communities we were working in and bus them one early morning to a staged protest at the inauguration of now Governor Scott Walker.
(photo taken 2011 at Madison Wisconsin protest of Gov. Scott Walker’s inauguration)
As seen there in the photo above, the arrival of the black flag was both anticipated and somewhat dreaded. A martial of the event, -meaning that sporting a yellow arm band along with my fellow organizers so as to identify ourselves to one another and do our best to guide and control the movements and goings-on of the demonstration- the arrival of the black flag, with its college anarchists dressed themselves like punk rock dollar store knock-off Matrix action figures signified the likelihood of things going awry had just increased substantially. As the event progressed, these very fears became reality.
Lined up with arms locked, their bandanas masking their faces and absolutely no interest or likely even awareness over the “good jobs now” orientation of the demonstration, the small band took up a position near one of the main entrances to the capitol building. Once a sufficient number of protesters had arrived and chants demanding good jobs and livable wages began, the black flag took action. It began with a girl.
Running up into the capitol building (which was open to the public anyway as many had to use the restroom,) she in an act of what I can only presume to be some fantasy reenactment of V for Vendetta, drew from her pockets two knives which she proceeded to run down the hall with, before being tackled by state police. As it stood, none outside had witnessed this and only upon receiving eyewitness accounts after the fact had I or any of the martials learned about it and as such, the only observable events that the crowd and her anarchist comrades outside were able to witness was her being carried out, kicking and screaming by a cadre of large state troopers.
It was, as I recall thinking at the time, a masterful bit of political theater. As she was then loaded into the police SUV at the base of the steps, the black clad “activists” locked arms in front of the vehicle chanting in loud and synchronized voices; “Let her go!” Naturally as police declined to acquiesce, the crowd nearby saw only an activist being loaded forcefully into a cruiser in handcuffs and a small contingent of protestors demanding she be released. From there, the ranks chanting this line only grew.
As a martial of the event, it took us the better part of twenty minutes to diffuse the situation, disperse the protestors I had organized and restore some sense of normality and civility to the event. However this story is but a single example of how professional activists, grassroots recruits brought on by way of selling sometimes inflamed senses of righteous obligation and hardline ideological sycophants can come together to form a perfect storm for political strife and theater.
The corruptions and short sighted failures of the professional left however, do not end merely with the unforeseen flare ups of radical outside groups. Much as I have previously written about the regressive left being largely useful idiots working for the benefit of the established elites, so too do many professionals within the world of industrial activism seek to co-opt the efforts of many often well intentioned grassroots activist movements in pursuit of their own ends. One such story comes by way of an SEIU attempt to infiltrate and take control of the Chicago camp of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.
Relayed to me by a friend and former comrade who has himself since left the union in disgust, it was during this very same organizer program that as the movement that was Occupy Wall Street truly began gaining steam, SEIU sought to utilize their financial and material strength to attempt a series of underhanded maneuvers, all in the aims of bringing Occupy Chicago to heel. First plying them with tents, jackets and other logistical necessities for encampment protests in the Windy City, it soon began seeding their “general assemblies” with organizers and mobilized activists in the hopes of creating an artificial democratic majority during their votes. Their aims, as my former comrade informed me, was to turn the Chicago based protest movement into a front supporting the agenda of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The irony to this effort, being an attempt to bring what at the time was an anti-corporatist and anti-corruption movement to support what many regard to be an extraordinarily corrupt politician with close ties to the very financial elites that Occupy stood against is only appreciable now thanks to their own response. Thanking SEIU for their material support, their efforts were resoundingly rejected by the activists on hand, who instead took to marching against the policies of Emmanuel, despite the union’s best efforts to the contrary. Though in this instance the grassroots were able to resist the partisan trickery itself, my own career was itself littered with instances in which smaller locally based organizations with true belief in progressive principles were themselves usurped and swallowed up by larger institutions, only to be then used as fodder for campaign efforts down the line. Likewise, it is not entirely uncommon for artificial “astroturf” efforts to be put into effect by these same institutions, all with the aims of creating the appearance of organic activism in support of their causes, in spite of their sometimes corrupt or illiberal overall aims.
In this, it is my hope that I have illuminated some greater truths to situations as we see playing out presently.
For it is not merely union political actions or PAC campaigns revolting against election wins and proposed policies that lead to the rise of a professional protestor. In almost any given election seasons, PACs and consulting firms as referenced previously can be found openly recruiting on sites ranging from DemocraticGain.org down through Craigslist, offering anywhere from minimum wage to $15 an hour simply to help put bodies in the field. Having run such operations in the past myself, I can attest to the truth that quite often those organizing said events or protests or even merely knocking on doors often have little interest or knowledge in the politics in play and are simply seeking a paycheck.
All this being the case however the dynamics of professional field level politics, especially in regards to reactionary response or resistance politics must be understood with (if only with the addition of) the functional realities to its infrastructure. The “how it works” is as important as the questions of what it does. As such, without proper understanding chalking the actions of the professional left up to the whims and whimsies of one or two ideological industrial tycoons is not only dismissive, but counter-productive. Much in the way calling all corporate conservative political action the direct result of Koch Brother influence, it is the absence of nuance and depth of understanding which undermines any form of ideological or political narratives, even before they’ve been spoken aloud.