As an organizer I run into my fair share of problems in trying to construct an action. For those of you unfamiliar with activism, organizing just refers to planning events and being an activist and an action refers to any deliberate activity meant to actively confront and challenge oppression as part of your activism. Now that we’ve got the vocab out of the way we can move on.
Planning as an activist can be daunting, there are so many factors to consider. Not only do you have to think logistically about how you want an action to play out, but there are big picture details to be mindful of to boot. One of the more challenging aspects of organizing is getting your word out and your message heard. On a surface level this seems easy enough, make a facebook event, create a twitter hashtag and make the usual social media rounds, sounds easy enough right? Even novice activists can get publicity. This does however pose the question, is publicity always good.
When I started out as an activist I’d often turn to social media to plan events and many organizing friends did so as well. Unfortunately on many of those platforms where we hoped to build support we encountered hostility and backlash. My junior year in college I moderated a panel to discuss recent riots in Baltimore. I used Facebook to advertise the event, which was to be held at my school in New Jersey, yet somehow a man from Arkansas found the page and took it upon himself to comment on every post showing off his wide array of racial slurs. This hasn’t just happened to me, many times an action that is being organized on Facebook will have its page inundated with contrarians, some more violent than others. If all we had to deal with was a few dissenters this would not be such a significant issue, but what happens when vocalization turns to action? When the bigots really do show up to the march? Or when the opposition becomes violent? When we advertise on public spaces anyone has access and anyone can copy down the information we are releasing. Countless progressive leftists have been threatened, had their information released via doxxing, or been subject to all sorts of harassment. Protests of all kinds have been infiltrated by right-wing supporters who sought to antagonize, incite or do harm in various other ways. So the question becomes how do we get our word out and bypass those who seek to destroy us?
It is inevitable that people will disagree with you, it is also inevitable that those people will interact with you at some point and that is to be expected, it is not an issue that people who disagree with you are present, but rather people who violently oppose you coming to infiltrate your spaces. White supremacist sites like Storm front boast that their followers have created thousands of fake social media profiles, profiles they use to create false information, portray offensive stereotypes or to silently monitor leftist spaces, obviously none of these is positive. We as organizers have to be mindful of this in our activism and move in such a way we do not alienate our supporters but also do not provide information these same Neo-Nazis seeking to watch our every move. If we far right spaces are advising each other to monitor the left does that mean we must change our conduct? Or tighten down and foster a deeper sense of community? We can’t let this reality scare us into silence, but we know the proverbial walls have ears.
These central questions have come to inform my own activism and I remind myself to be cognizant of the spaces I occupy, sometimes online spaces-and all public spaces-necessitate a different kind of activism. In physical spaces I am aware of who is in the room both literally and figuratively. In these spaces activists and allies are present and in the midst of community I feel free and empowered to share strategy and technique, but when I am engaging a digital platform I try to remind myself to be mindful and vigilant. After all loose lips sink ships. What was born as a cautionary phrase against unguarded speech during World War Two holds relevance some seven decades later. What we say can reach unintended audience sometimes building in silence is necessary to overcome your obstacles.
Understandably not everyone is an activist and not everyone is looking to be part of the movement, whatever that may mean. Regardless of our intent our impact has consequences and what is said in the perceived privacy of our circles may ripple out. Even water cooler gossip at the offices finds it’s way to individual cubicles, being able to safeguard ourselves should be the concern of all of us. Literally it may only be your neighbor listening in, but the far reaching impact of your conversation may be greater than you imagine.