by David Reaboi and Kyle Shideler
When, in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s career as a community organizer was lampooned at the Republican National Convention, few understood what the words meant. Most sympathetic voices in the media stressed “community,” evoking images of soup kitchens, clinics, and shelters. Republicans had every reason to look more darkly at what this kind of work meant and, probably due to Obama’s race, were inclined to associate the candidate’s time “organizing” in Chicago with New York racial demagogues and shakedown-artists like Al Sharpton.
That description was closer to the mark, but the full truth was deeper and considerably more sophisticated; left-wing organizing is a robust intellectual universe. Thanks largely to talk radio, conservatives soon learned the name Saul Alinsky and began to digest his now-infamous Rules for Radicals.
After several brilliant investigative pieces into Obama’s time among left-wing organizing meccas like the Northwest Academy, Stanley Kurtz wrote the valuable Radical-in-Chief. Unfortunately, for much of the public, the thread frayed shortly after the election that November; emboldened by Democratic control of both houses of Congress, the newly elected Obama would use what he’d learned from Chicago activism to instigate and win battles on more pressing political issues.
For those eight years, the organizing ecosystem that would eventually erupt into Antifa and Black Lives Matter street violence and direct-action grew in strength, sophistication, and funding. Obama’s own career in Chicago should’ve been a kind of clue: the former president served on the boards of Public Allies, the Woods Fund of Chicago, and the Joyce Foundation, which together distributed tens of millions of dollars to various local left-wing groups—some of which themselves were organizing for street-level direct action.
Antifa, of course, is far more than an “idea”—even as ideas, themselves, can be serious threats with which it is necessary to contend. But it is also far more than just an organization. Even as it traces its origins to pre-war Germany, one might think of “Antifa” as a relatively new product line from a larger industry that has existed for decades. That industry is the giant ecosystem of left-wing direct-action and organizing, with its own history, pedagogy, institutions, as well as tens of thousands of career professionals operating in the open, and funded every bit as well as the staid network of establishment conservative think tanks and magazines that tend to cluster along the Acela corridor.
Writing at the American Mind last month, Michael Anton, author of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, brought attention to a war game report issued by the Transition Integrity Project, an ad hoc group associated with the George Soros-funded Democracy Integrity Project. Anton’s widely read essay, “The Coming Coup?” was heavily discussed on social media and by conservative talk show hosts including Dan Bongino, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck.
What conservatives found so alarming was that the Transition Integrity Project urged Trump’s opponents to wage a “street fight, not a legal one” in the near-certain event of a contested election. In other words, forces arrayed against the president’s reelection should abandon the American political system—and pin their hopes of election victory not on the Constitution-mandated quest for the most electoral votes, but upon the street mobilization and direct-action capabilities of Antifa and the Left’s other professionally-staffed organizing groups.
As a heavily contested Election Day approaches, it is crucial for both conservative activists and officials in law enforcement to understand that left-wing organizing for direct-action and “nonviolent” civil disobedience is being planned by career organizing professionals working within well-funded, interlocking organizations.
“Uprisings, Resistance, and Mass Direct Action”
Americans watching videos of Black Bloc activists tearing apart Portland, Seattle, or other cities are seeing the results of thousands of training sessions, budgets in the tens of millions, and a carefully mapped radicalization process as extensive as those used by Islamists or any other ideological on-ramp toward extremism.
For tactical reasons, much of the expected actions will take place in heavily Democratic cities—as well as in the nation’s capital. Breitbart’s Joel Pollack recently identified a document called “Stopping the Coup: The 2020 Guide,” distributed by one such group, Shutdown DC. As he notes, it is described as an organizing how-to guide by The Disruption Project, seeking to use, in its words, “uprisings, resistance and mass direct action” in order to prevent President Trump from “stealing” the election.
Shut Down DC was founded in 2019 as a coalition of DC-based direct-action groups, initially launched around the climate change agenda, and focused primarily on agitating for the Green New Deal. The group was sponsored by All Out DC, a local Antifa group with a professed objective of, according to its Twitter profile, “Burn Down the American Plantation.”
The group’s ambitions are greater than the November election, of course; its members are not simply Democratic partisans. The Disruption Project urges its supporters to “stand up and take action against the unjust systems of racial capitalism, the heteropatriarchy, white supremacy and settler colonialism.” Its more immediate goals include an effort to
dismantle the systems that uphold structural racism and win reparations for Black folks, win some sort of repatriation of land to indigenous people, create an open US border and an end to imperialism, and a just transition out of a destructive economy.
While Anton and others have been attacked by the New York Times for warning of a “coup” when reporting on scenarios laid out by groups like the Transition Integrity Project, these left-wing groups use the word far more liberally. Possibly due to polling, many if not most of these organizers have foreclosed the idea of a legitimate Trump victory. And, thanks to a highly partisan and disciplined media, they have also foreclosed the possibility of voter fraud. Any legitimate objections or potential lawsuits challenging election law violations or seeking to identify alleged voter fraud will be seen as totalitarian election meddling.
In this understanding, any Trump victory will be treated as a “coup.” This is a new and radical thread that runs through similar documents and statements from anti-Trump partisans in left-wing organizing and media alike, from more mainstream groups like the Transition Integrity Project to Antifa. A candidate being declared the projected victor—what was once a completely normal tradition of America’s election night drama—has been transmogrified, through intense hatred of the president and indulgence in projection, into an authoritarian scheme justifying extraordinary measures.
It’s unsurprising, then, that groups like Shut Down DC plan demonstrations beginning on Election Day. It proposes an initial occupation of Black Lives Matter Square in Washington on the evening of the election, November 3. Shut Down DC plans multiple disruption operations from November 4-7, aimed at preventing the Trump campaign from declaring an election day victory. From November 8-11, the focus shifts to Capitol Hill, as Congress is expected to return for the lame-duck session.
Timeline to a Meltdown
The days and weeks leading up to the election are crucial, too. In an October 8 update on planning operations, Shut Down DC offered a timeline urging affinity groups to begin scouting targets, and making preparations—beginning this week. Local, state, and federal law enforcement tasked with responding to upcoming unrest should be particularly aware of individuals conducting surveillance and reconnaissance of likely targets within the next 7-14 days. The project has been soliciting and recruiting affinity groups seeking to participate. The online registration form coyly warns participants not to include any “incriminating” information about their plans.
As recently as last year, Shut Down DC’s directors were Liz Butler and Patrick Young, both veteran professional organizers with decades of experience between them. As environmental activist group Friends of the Earth’s Vice President of Organizing and Strategic Alliances, Butler played a role in Inauguration Day protests against President George W. Bush in 2001. She also assisted in organizing IMF protests a year later, leading to over 600 arrests, as protesters targeted multiple locations throughout the city, and threw rocks and smoke bombs at police. Washington, D.C. was subsequently sued for its aggressive (though largely effective) crowd dispersal tactics in a long-running case that was finally settled in 2016.
Shut Down DC’s other director, Patrick Young, markets himself as a professional direct-action organizer for hire, offering “training, action support, strategic research, and digital campaign support.” After a stint at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), America’s second-largest labor union, Young is currently employed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. On his LinkedIn page, he touts his volunteer experience with the Continental Collective of Rising Tide North America, an environmental direct-action group.
On his website, Young writes about “Where and How” election chaos will play out. He ends the piece by warning,
those of us who are committed to seeing Donald Trump removed from office should start organizing now to fight back against the Trump administration’s systematic efforts at voter suppression, hit the streets in key states where election outcomes are likely to be contested, and be ready to take bold direct action to bring Washington, DC to a standstill if Trump refuses to concede.
The language is identical to that which appears in Shut Down DC’s “Timeline to a Meltdown,” highlighting the perceived need to “take to the streets” in response to an apparent Trump victory on election night. It is not clear whether Young or his group envision any scenario in which President Trump is reelected fairly—or whether such a victory would influence his commitment to seeing him removed from office.
Meanwhile, the group boasts of an October 20 training session by veteran anarchist organizer Lisa Fithian. She previously played a role with Disrupt J20, the effort to interrupt the Trump Inauguration Day ceremony, and became infamous for her roles in the 2008 Republican National Convention, Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Shut Down DC document cites another document on the effort to influence the post-election situation, entitled, “Hold The Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy,” authored by Hardy Merriman, Ankur Asthana, Marium Navid, and Kifah Shah. The group built around the guide, Hold the Line, is advertising a series of two-day training seminars conducted on Zoom, over the course of the next two weeks.
“Hold the Line” mirrors Shut Down DC in its timeline and scenarios in some ways but differs in style and some substance. While Shut Down DC is clearly aimed at bringing hardcore anarchist and Antifa affinity groups into the streets, “Hold the Line” appears to be aimed at a slightly less radical audience; unlike the Disruption Project document, it urges its readers to avoid property damage. Unlike most other Antifa and Resistance tracts, the document at least pays lip service to the integrity of the voter’s choice in the election, conceding the possibility that Trump could win legitimately, and that victory should be accepted.
Yet the authors of “Hold the Line”—identifying themselves as, “researchers, organizers, and activists who’ve seen how people-powered movements have protected freedom and democracy around the world”—propose several future scenarios calling for “civil resistance,” including in the event that Trump attempts to declare victory on election night. The document quotes from the Transition Integrity Project as part of its justification for “civil resistance.”
Like Shut Down DC and countless other left-wing organizing groups, the authors of “Hold the Line” are veteran professionals in what they do. The document’s chapter on “civil resistance” was authored by Hardy Merriman, the president and CEO of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC).
One might say that helping to train activists to overthrow governments is quite literally Merriman’s profession. Founded by Peter Ackerman, an investment banker who Business Insider called “notoriously secretive,” ICNC is an international nonprofit that specializes in training activists to overthrow governments—including playing a key role in training activists responsible for ousting U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. Merriman transferred to ICNC from the Albert Einstein Institute, another activist training operation founded by Ackerman and the “Machiavelli of non-violence” Gene Sharp known for his role in theories promoting “Color Revolutions.”
Meanwhile, authors Marium Navid and Ankur Asthana are both employees of M+R Strategic Services, one of a constellation of progressive public relations firms focusing on supporting progressive non-profit organizations. M+R appears to be providing some level of media support for the “Hold the Line” project, given that it held a roundtable promoting the guide. Like Shutdown DC’s Patrick Young, Navid worked at SEIU prior to working with M+R, as a digital organizer. She got her start in the organizing field as the Communication Coordinator for the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Finally, Kifah Shah is currently the senior campaign manager for Mpower Change. Its executive director is notorious Islamist activist and former Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, known for anti-Semitism and calling for a “jihad” against President Trump.
The two groups are curious in their similarities and differences. While the Shutdown DC group appears to be made up of environmental anarchists—and sponsored by a self-described Antifa group—its organizers are seasoned and professionally-trained, and at least one is a union organizer. “Hold the Line” is more academic in appearance; it draws its organizers from the non-profit advocacy and digital tech worlds. Because of its focus on nonviolent street action and mobilization, this document appears to be targeting liberals closer to the mainstream.
These two approaches—tailored to two specific types of audiences along the radicalization path—work together in what left-wing organizers have long called, “diversity of tactics.” Without using the term, the authors of “Stopping the Coup: The 2020 Guide” addressed this point.
It’s important to locate strategic thinking, and offer strategic tools at the grassroots level. If our different organizations, crews, and affinity groups have a shared understanding of the strategy involved we can accommodate different tactics, different groups taking lead on actions at different times, and trust that individual participants and organizers can move with confidence that they are furthering movement goals. This doesn’t mean that every group you try to organize with immediately will be the right fit for the fight. It’s ok to set an agenda and invite participation and allow groups to choose. (Emphasis added.)
An Elaborate Show
Participants in nonviolent efforts must not be made to directly condemn the violent direct-actions of others in the coalition. Rather than a moral or ethical objection to violence, this is a strategy that allows both violent and non-violent approaches to exist on a continuum. While politicians, law enforcement, and even some conservative commentators may criticize Antifa and other violent direct-action anarchists, all are publicly insisting that Antifa are merely unwanted agitators in the midst of legitimate protests.
But this is wrong. In any given protest, the “agitators” and the “legitimate protestors” are, instead, two products of the same industry which exist in a symbiotic relationship, and may even share overt memorandums regarding agreement on tactics. While Antifa relies upon the mass protest in order to hide among the crowd, the public destruction committed by Antifa draws attention and adds urgency to the political demands of the larger movement.
At their roots, both expressions of what could be called the Antifa industry are staffed with professionals preparing to engage in profoundly illegitimate revolutionary street politics. Their radicalization long precedes the politics of 2020; at the leadership level, maybe all have considered the American system “fascist” for decades before the candidacy of Donald Trump. They are veterans of countless far-left radical causes, protest events, and political warfare communications efforts. And they’re good at what they do.
Come November 3, we are likely to see the full force of this industry at work. The media will show the streets appear to creak with both Antifa agitators and protestors, possibly with claimed numbers in the millions. It will be said they are normal, patriotic Americans outraged about the election, furious at Donald Trump. Conservatives must be prepared to recognize what they are seeing as a form of theater—the product of decades of infrastructure, tens of millions of dollars in funding, and the work of tens of thousands of direct-action tacticians, public relations flaks, and professional organizers.
An elaborate stage show is being choreographed right now to play out on America’s streets designed to convince both regular citizens and opinion-makers that a scary authoritarian regime has just seized power and extraordinary measures are justified in removing it. We cannot fall for it.
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David Reaboi is a strategic communications consultant and national security and political warfare expert. He has written extensively on the Middle East, the Arabian Gulf, and Sunni Islamist movements. Follow him on Twitter @davereaboi Kyle Shideler is the director and senior analyst for homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy. Follow him on Twitter @ShidelerK
Photo “Antifa Supporters” by cantfightthetendies. CC BY 2.0.