Kelly Hayes talks with L.A. Kauffman, a longtime grassroots organizer and author of the book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, about the history of protest movements and what the current political moment demands of us.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.
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Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. This is episode two of Movement Memos and I just want to take a second to thank everyone who’s been supportive of this project. Truthout is a nonprofit news publication with a virtual office, so I’m not recording this in a fancy studio somewhere. I’m sitting at a my desk in my bedroom, recording with a very do it yourself setup, and hoping my cat doesn’t make too much noise.
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To be real, I almost said no when Truthout asked me to develop a podcast because I liked the job I had and I don’t really know how to do this one, but I said yes because, in the end, I can’t turn down a bullhorn. There’s too much that needs to be said and we need to use every tool at our disposal to uplift ideas that matter right now, so thanks for joining me in this adventure. We’ll see where it goes.
Today, we are going to be talking about one of my favorite subjects in the world: direct action. If you’re thinking, what the heck is that? No worries. We’re gonna go deep. Because the constant refrain that we should all be in the streets protesting is meaningless, unless we’re having thoughtful conversations about protests and the impacts we hope they’ll have.
But before we get to today’s interview, with the brilliant and insightful L.A. Kauffman, who literally wrote the book on direct action, I want to say a couple of things about where we are right now and what’s happening. When I recorded this interview with L.A., she was working on the Swarm the Senate protests. Within a few weeks, I was working on The People’s Removal Trial of Donald Trump in Chicago. I know a lot of people were fired up about removing Trump and are feeling really discouraged now that he’s doubling down on his fascist ways in the wake of a rigged Senate trial. So I just want to tell everyone who’s listening right now that it’s your enemies who want your despair, and that you shouldn’t give it to them.
I believe Trump is a fascist authoritarian. I also believe in the lessons of history that tell me that there are ways to live meaningfully and to fight and be fought for, even as fascism tightens its grip. It would be ahistorical for us to lose hope now, and honestly, no matter how tired we get, I don’t think we ever have the right to give up on each other. What we need in this moment is a show of political force. We need to organize power and show the oligarchs that we will not surrender. People like Trump rely on us being desensitized and off balance. What we need is to build power together and to demonstrate that power in the streets.
We’ll be talking in an upcoming episode about the Poor People’s March, which I’m working on with Cheri Honkala and some other great folks, that’s going to happen on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. I think it’s crucial that we show anyone who attempts to override democracy what we’re made of, and that this government is still answerable to the people. I don’t think we can win unless we do that. I think we need to be real about the fact that we have a president who may resist a peaceful transition of power, and that our best defense against that is to show everyone at every level of government that if our will is disregarded, we will become ungovernable.
I know that’s a tall order, and that people are feeling discouraged, so before we jump into this interview, I just want to read a few words to you all from a speech I delivered at The People’s Removal Trial of Donald Trump.
“To do the work ahead of us, we cannot simply be a crowd of concerned individuals. We will have to be a collective force.
We will have to act together against fascism, against voter suppression, against the destruction of the natural world and in defense of each other. We will have to be dangerous to the forces that would destroy us. But we also have to be prepared, because they will use every grudge, every disagreement — any wedge they can widen will expand. They will use your contempt to keep you from acting. They will use what we love to keep us from acting. They will promise normalcy for you and your family, if you just play along. History tells us this is a lie. They will use our desire to cling to our usual way of life. They will use the alienation that exists between us. They will use us to destroy each other, if we allow it.
I know these are frightening times and that it’s easy to look away, or to simply retreat into our private lives. And it’s a very hard time to take action against the things we fear most. Sometimes, I feel like we’re organizing in the eye of a hurricane. The eyewall is close enough to touch and people are already drowning. But there are people, like my people, the Menominee, who have already lived through their own apocalyptic storms. They cultivated hope in the darkest of places so that we might have a fighting chance at doing the same for our children and grandchildren. This is our time. It’s a time for solidarity and a time for courage. It’s a time to put ego aside and realize that our political silos have become death traps. It’s a time to act. And in our hearts, we all know that.
The sky was quiet in Paris when the Germans invaded in 1940, because the bombing of petrol dumps had created an oily black cloud that had cut down birds in flight. But beneath that quiet sky, people went along with the Nazis… because they were promised that their lives would remain the same. Does that false promise sound familiar? Going through the motions of normalcy as Nazis slowly took over their lives, their commerce, their homes, and entire city streets. They were lulled into complicity, even after their enemy’s bombs had robbed them of the sound of birds singing. But resisters emerged. And they fought.
Some of us may take issue with other’s politics, but we need to draw a line between ourselves and the authoritarians right here and now, and declare that an attack on any of us is an attack on every last one of us. That is how we will find the power to defeat fascism — and it’s what they fear the most.”
Today’s guest is a longtime grassroots organizer and author of the books, How to Read a Protest, and Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. L.A. Kaufman, welcome to the show.
L.A. Kauffman: Thanks so much for having me.
KH: I’m a big fan of your work. Really excited to have this conversation. To jump off, in your book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism – a book I highly recommend to anyone who’s interested in protest – you wrote that direct action can refer to a huge variety of efforts to create change outside the established mechanisms of government.
In my work doing direct action education, I found that the idea of diverging from the status quo is key for a lot of people in terms of opening up their imaginations. The question of what we can do when we stop asking for permission really uplifts radical possibilities for people. In my work, I often tell people that disarming our imaginations is one of the most successful acts of violence this government has ever perpetrated.
We’re in a country that largely stays within the lines as though the lines are our friends. What is your creative process like when you’re envisioning a protest?
LK: I love what you just said, the idea of holding up the imagination as being one of the core principles of direct action, that opening up of possibility. I mean, when I think about organizing, I always think, I do admit that sometimes I just do this on the board, but I always have a mental map in my head where I put a- first, winning is the top line. Below that is movement building and below that is organization building, they’re all things that we need and to do any of them, we need a lot of tactics and tools. But winning is the ultimate goal, whatever winning looks like. And there’s a lot of ways one can think about what it means to win. And to me, having that framework, helps me when I’m approaching an action. Not fall into one of the most common traps of organizing, which is to kind of fall in love with your tactics or to confuse your tactics with principles.
So, there are forms of direct action that our movements have taken that can be really powerful, like occupations, for instance, that aren’t appropriate in all contexts, and then aren’t going to bring you closer to winning, if, they become these kinds of imaginary lines that we create ourselves in the world of direct action. So I’m always, even though I think that ultimately, movements facing long odds need to really use outsider tactics to leverage power and to win, I’m never dogmatic about- also, sometimes using those tactics that are inside the rules or inside the box. Like sometimes you need to write letters to your representatives as the first step in a campaign, or it’s an important step in a campaign.
As you note, if you disarm your imagination and you can only imagine standards, civics textbooks ways of participating, you’re never going to get to winning. But similarly, if you decide that blockades are radical and bad-ass, and so they must be used in all contexts, you’re not going to win either.
KH: Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. And, I think that what you’re saying about imagination, but, you know, being contextual about what we’re trying to accomplish. You talked about in your book How to Read a Protest, how people look at the March on Washington and they think they know what protest looks like. They think that things- that there’s some sort of ideal that all things should live up to and all things should be measured against. And I really liked what a good job you did of sort of both giving credit to what that protest meant and how valuable it was and also why people shouldn’t see it in the sort of hallowed way that folks do and use it as a cudgel against people who are trying to accomplish other things.
LK: Yeah. Thank you. I always try to look at the way in which we have- I’m very struck by how often we have really distorted ideas of what protests were like in the past and then I’m struck by how those distortions often depress participation or encourage cynicism or otherwise dissuade people from action.
For instance, if you think about some famous moment of the ’60s, like the Chicago ’68 clashes, in Chicago at the Democratic Convention, you might get it in your head that there were, you know, tens of thousands of people there. The number of protesters [at most demonstrations] actually numbered in the hundreds.
With the ’63 March on Washington there was a lot of internal dissension about the role of women, about the role of leaders, about the balance between the needs of local frontline grassroots organizers in the South who were literally risking their lives in the fight for voting rights and the staging of a dramatic national spectacle in Washington. And we lose all of that nuance. And also, we tend to over-inflate the impact of past protests while underestimating what we can accomplish through protests now. So people will be very quick to say that, you know, the ’63 March on Washington somehow automatically led to the Voting Rights Act, which is not the case. It’s one of many factors that help build momentum for that legislation.
KH: I feel like one of the big problems we have too is the idealization, not just of a past protest that had been sanitized, but the idealization of those movements that comes from a lack of exploration, you know, a lack of actually reviewing the history in an in-depth way.
I think it’s discouraging to people when they look back at these photos and they think, “Oh, well they had unity, they had solidarity, and we’re all at each other’s throats all of the time.” When the reality, of course is these people were at each other’s throats too. There’s never been a point in history where people who wanted the same things weren’t fighting about how to make those things happen.
LK: Yeah. The women who were in what should have been leadership positions in the ’63 March on Washington were so pissed off on the day of the march that they basically held a separate march on the other side of the Mall because they, the wives of the big civil rights leaders, were not allowed to march with the male figureheads.
No women were allowed to speak from the podium. Women were not allowed to be on the executive committee. I mean, all these things that are really shocking now and that you have to really read in-depth about the history to know, they are not commonly known things about, and it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of Dr. King or the grandeur of that march or its significance, to, as you’re saying, really look at the humanity and ordinariness of formations that have done extraordinary things.
We’re all messy people and we fight and we squabble and we have differences of opinion. And there’s also just differences in personality. And it’s not like our heroes in the past didn’t have those issues too.
KH: I also think we see a lot of the work that went on, the complicated work, you know, the messy work, the things that people weren’t credited for in the big moments. I think it’s clear to me that a lot of that is invisibilized for the sake of us losing those lessons. You know, the system, the structural sort of oppressions we’re all up against, the society doesn’t want us to know what worked and what didn’t. They don’t want us to learn from the history.
So things like the Montgomery Bus Boycott in your book, How to Read a Protest. You talked about how most folks don’t know that overnight, women leafleted and informed black families all across the city. It’s kind of presented to us in popular culture, as you know, there was this big moment of civil disobedience. Someone took a stand and then everything just sort of came together. People were angry and everyone was in solidarity instantly, magically. And I really feel that, that the system, the power system that we are up against, they don’t want us to know how people made some of these things happen because they don’t want us to organize on that level.
LK: Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the kind of received wisdom that, you know, protests don’t work, is, it’s a lot like, tax cuts create jobs. There’s no evidence to support the claim. I mean, the evidence overwhelmingly refutes the claim, and yet it’s, this little, you know, snippet a kind of ruling class ideology that comes through all the time.
You know, the reason why we hear the message so consistently that protest doesn’t work is because it does. Right? I’m not saying it works always. I’m not saying it works easily. But protest is one of the weapons of the weak and when people come together and when it’s not just a matter of Rosa Parks, it’s not just a matter of, like, one extraordinary person of exceptional courage taking a larger-than-life act in like in the mythologized version of that. It’s a lot of ordinary people who put together a way to mimeograph leaflets in the middle of the night and get their kids and their families to run members, to run them all over town, so they got in everybody’s hands in the Black community before warning without the white power structure knowing like that, that kind of, story that, that anybody who’s ever like. I dunno, you know, organized a bake sale for a school or you know, anybody who’s ever organized anything could imagine themselves being part of an effort like that.
And that’s exactly what this myth is intended to dissuade, is people being able to see themselves in making history, being able to see themselves in joining together and creating extraordinary change because of an extraordinary collaboration. Not because we’re special anointed people, not that we don’t cherish and celebrate those among us who have, you know, particular gifts of inspiring us and, leading the way by their example.
KH: Yes. as I think anyone who has been organizing protests for a minute knows we do lose more than we win, but a lot of us have a skewed notion of what victory looks like. Given that the work of movements involves building community, building culture, and taking action, the action is the highly visible part that people see. So they often assume that if a protest didn’t immediately stop a war or free a prisoner or whatever, whatever the goal was, that it was all for nothing. What’s your pep talk for people who are stuck in that mindset?
LK: You know, there are times when we… we do just lose. You know, when I look back, I was very centrally involved in the big protest against the Iraq War in 2003. And, you know, we mobilized quickly. We, many people, did extraordinary work and we just lost. We were not able to slow or change the drive to war.
We were not really able to have any impact on it whatsoever. and there are, there are times when that just happens when you just lose, but that, I think that becomes, a cudgel again, that gets used against people, you know, either we can’t. We have a hard time looking at movements that win meaningfully, but not, but win over time and understanding that.
So for instance, Occupy Wall Street is a great example of a movement that often gets described as having just failed. And I see it as having succeeded in a lot of crucial ways in shifting conversations and putting issues on the agenda and creating new senses of possibility. A lot of that imagination work that you were invoking early on in this conversation and that, that kind of work, you know, it’s not as tangible as like, we passed this new piece of legislation in our city. But it’s often the precondition for that more concrete kind of win.
And I also, when I think about what we win, sometimes the way that we win is by not losing as much as we would if we didn’t fight back. And when I think about the Trump administration, and. The scale of the resistance to Trump that has emerged in various, forms over the three years that he’s been in office. You know, I think we’ll, we’ll never know what was slowed down. And what wasn’t rolled out. What harm didn’t happen because we were out there.
And of course, it’s part of that message of disempowerment, for us not to know. I have a line, you know, I’m not a religious or a spiritual person particularly, all respect to those who are, but I have a line in my book How to Read a Protest about organizing being, and protesting being, essentially an act of faith and that it involves, it’s a vote for possibility or a vote for imagination. It’s a vote by making noise, by stirring things up, by bringing people together. You don’t know what could shift. You know what harms will continue if you don’t take action.
That’s where the certainty lies is in the harms that happen when you don’t take action. I have so little patience right now for the people who are the sort of, you know, the blase world-weary folks who share, or claim to share. their horror at all that is unfolding around us, and yet will never take action because they insisted that it’s pointless. to me, that kind of, you know, yeah, that sort of blase jaded pose. I dunno, this is strongly, but it’s almost as like, it’s like a seditious. It’s like you’re aiding and abetting the enemy. Just keep that shit to yourself if that’s how you feel, you know?
KH: I couldn’t agree more. I often tell people your fatalism is probably much more toxic to others than it is to you, and you don’t really have the right to sow despair where hope could be blossoming. You know, hope that could sustain work that could make the world more survivable or a little more just from people who are not us, who don’t have the luxury of sitting around musing about whether it’s even worth fighting. Because for a lot of people, the fight is now and there are already people dying so that the rest of us might live.
LK: Yeah. It’s like that’s what your journal is for your journal. You know? If you don’t keep one, maybe you should start one. Like, yes, of course we all have our private feelings of despair. But it helps no one, it really helps no one to put that out in the world. And particularly to put that out as like, you know, some, like, you know, you’re one of the cool kids.
It’s your badge of honor because you can’t really, you know, you’re not going to be all starry-eyed. I don’t think hope is starry-eyed. I don’t think hope is the same thing is niavety. It doesn’t mean you, you can, you can, I guess Rebecca Solnit distinguishes between hope and optimism and casts optimism as that kind of more a kind of hollow, starry-eyed feeling, you can hope is, the certainty that inaction will not help. And the gamble, that action may, that doesn’t have to mean your, you know, unrealistic about what you could accomplish, sometimes you can be brutally realistic and you keep fighting because, as you alluded to, you feel no choice. Your personal survival or those of your loved ones, those of your community are at stake. The moral issues are very clear. You can’t not act.
KH: Absolutely. since you are a movement historian, I also wanted to ask, what history do you think people should be looking to right now? Obviously it would be great if people just read endlessly about these histories of protest and what we can take away from them. But right now, folks who are, you know, gonna make a little time to pick up a book or read some articles based on this conversation – what lessons of history do you think they really need to be taking in right now?
LK: Gosh. Well, certainly a lot of the thoughts that we were discussing earlier about the distortions of history, and this is not, it’s a step back from the moment we’re in, but I find that often really helpful. A lot of that is inspired by the work of the historian Jeanne Theoharis. She wrote a beautiful book called A More Beautiful and Terrible History,
about the civil rights movement and the distorting myths of it and how they have been weaponized against Black Lives Matter and other more recent Black-led movements. Um, so that’s a wonderful book that I would recommend.
I would also, you know, it’s interesting, when I think about things that have changed over the time that I’ve been an organizer, obviously there’s some ways in which we are connected to each other much more easily than we used to be. You know, back in the olden days before we had the internet and, all of the tools of social media. But there’s kinds of training and political education that we’ve really lost, that I don’t see happening in movement spaces as much as they used to, and my longtime friend and collaborator, Lisa Fithian, has gathered a lot of that wisdom in her recent book called Shut It Down, which I believe the subtitle is Stories From a Fierce Loving Resistance? She weaves together stories of her own involvement in quite a large number of movements over the last decades with really pragmatic advice on organizing, on tactics, on ways to think about strategy. A lot of kinds of wisdom that are really valuable and harder to find in movement spaces than I think they used to be back when we routinely would have, a lot more training built into the process of mobilizing for actions than, than I see happening in this more, you know, kind of NGO-led and social media- driven moment we’re in now.
KH: I wanted to return to the question of hope and having hope. One of my favorite questions to ask visionary people is what gives you hope personally? What keeps you going in these fights?
LK: I think what keeps me going is having seen it work and having seen how it works, having successfully made a difference. I’ve been meditating a lot recently on what is my favorite campaign that I was ever involved in where we had a really solid, concrete, tangible win, um, was a win against, uh, Rudolph Giuliani, who’s back in the news again.
And so I’ve kind of been going back and savoring just how delicious it was to win something real and meaningful against Rudolph Giuliani. Like, just, just even thinking about it now, like, it makes me light up, uh, to, to remember how powerful it was. And we brought together, you know, community gardeners from all around the city to stand up to his plan, to privatize all of these beautiful community spaces that people had created, attended, and sustained, and that had become part of the fabric of their communities. And he ended up, you know, completely backing down and we won. Big wins like that don’t come very often, the kind where you can, you know, I can still go walk around – I live in New York City, I can walk around the city and I can see the gardens that were going to be put on the auction block and still exist. And that are still hubs for community.
You know, a lot of times you don’t have anything that tangible. But we can read about victories like that, that other movements have won and know that it can be done and know that the transformations and the consequences of those, those wins can keep expanding for long periods of time. You know, what difference does it make in the air quality of a neighborhood that 20 more ugly condo towers didn’t go up, but there’s 20 gardens instead.
It may be a small thing, but it’s something that I really hold onto as I hold on to that sense that when we win, it really matters for people and it really matters for a long time. I think the Right is always, they, you know, they’re sort of like, they were all schooled in competitive athletics and in a whole culture of winning and conquest and victory. And we tend not to be, because there’s aspects of that that evoke, you know, a culture of domination that we’re not interested in participating in. But I do think there is something about that, that it, that, framing of the thrill of winning something meaningful that keeps me going and keeps me, you know, fighting for things where the odds of winning are incredibly long. I’ve been with Lisa Fithian and others. Um, I’m one of the founders of a group called Remove Trump. That’s our goal. That’s obviously a tall order. And, you know, I’ve been putting a lot of my energy in recent months into working towards that, even though I know that a sitting U.S. President has never been removed from office. That, even though I hear all the messages that it could never happen, it will never happen. The Republicans will never, uh, distance themselves from Trump. He’ll never resign all this. Never, never, never. And I still keep going because I look at history and I say the future’s unwritten.
We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know if we stop fighting. That we’ll just be crushed. And we know that sometimes when we come together in our power and we are able to really focus our energy strategically, we create change beyond anything we can even imagine. And that keeps me going.
KH: That’s wonderful. Thank you. I know that when I’m struggling there, there are moments that I return to, in terms of what it meant that people were willing to fight, and I think sometimes when we lose and when we know we’re probably going to lose and we fight anyway.
We’re also showing the next group of people who comes along, what we’re made of. I think that our strength has a way of surviving us, even when our movements crumble. Even when the state falls down on us, like a ton of bricks, I think we leave something behind in the will to fight. That is very important and I think so many of the stories you tell really carry that and really help that process along in terms of us remembering what it means that people are constantly willing to take on those impossible odds and understanding that that’s the kind of person most of us want to be. And so maybe that means not being dissuaded by long odds and just so grateful for your work and the lessons it imparts. And we’re really grateful to you for being on the show today and yeah, for the hope that your work stirs up in so many of us. L.A. Kaufman, thank you so much for being on the show.
LK: Thank you so much, Kelly Hayes for having me on.
KH: Okay. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, as long as we’re fighting the good fight there is good in the world and we have the power to create that. Thanks for listening and I’ll see you in the streets.
Music: La Luna, by Son Monarcas