The Spider Diagram: A Tactical Map for Direct Actions

If organizing is about transforming power, we need to understand the power relationships already in place. This is called a power analysis, and there are a number of ways of doing it. I’ve seen very detailed maps, with different people and organizations along x and y axes which represent the degree to which they are allies or opposition and the amount of power and influence they hold. This is a helpful tool for looking at a campaign holistically. But when a campaign is ready to take direct action, I’ve found having a simpler map really keeps the planning focused. And it doesn’t get any simpler than a spider diagram. Here’s what you do:

1)   Write the name of the “target” of your campaign—the person who has the power to give you what you want–in the middle of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it.

2)   Draw a bunch of legs coming off that circle, like a spider.

3)   Draw a circle at the foot of each leg, and in each one write something or someone that is very important to this person.

4)   Now decide what kind of pressure you can put on those feet and which one you’ll go after first!

One campaign stands out in my memory as being exceptionally fun to plan this way. Fuerza Laboral had met a group of workers at a catering company and restaurant whose owner, Nathan, had been stealing wages from the workers, promising to make it up to them at a later date that never came.

Between the workers’ knowledge of Nathan and a little internet sleuthing, we determined that these were the feet of his spider:

1)   His restaurant. A popular lunch spot. A protest here would drive away customers and be a big inconvenience to him, and if we timed it right we’d be certain of having an audience.

2)   His catering business. Could we follow the trucks to their destination and protest there? Could we somehow get a message into the food trays?

3)   His neighborhood. We didn’t know much about Nathan’s relationship with his neighbors, but we knew he lived in a pretty upscale neighborhood that would not appreciate a noisy protest, and would probably let Nathan know that.

4)   Religion. Nathan was very connected to his house of worship, and was a volunteer teacher there. That meant we had a number of opportunities for messaging the congregation, the leader or both.

5)   Philanthropy. Nathan gave some small amount of your lunch purchase to a nonprofit of your choice. We could flier folks about our organization, not expecting him to actually donate, but it’d be another way saturating his mind with our organization.

6)   Comedy. Nathan was a restaurant owner, but he really wanted to be a comedian. We found out what clubs in the area he went to that had open mic nights for amateurs and figured we’d wait till he got on the microphone, stand up and say, “Know what’s not funny? This guy steals his workers wages!”

With every possibility, we became more and more excited until we could barely contain ourselves. Where to start? They were all so good! We laid out a sequence that would increase in intensity with each demonstration. The first one was simple. We went by the catering business during off hours, and covered it with dozens of poster-sized signs about wage theft and the amounts he owed.

Nathan was horrified. By the time we got back to the office, there was already a message from him. The workers called him back, and right there they got him to commit to a payment plan that they were happy with. In my gut, I felt we could have gotten the full payment if we continued organizing, but it wasn’t my decision to make. The next time I work with an organization whose target is trying to make it as a professional comedian, I’m ready. I’ve been planning the action for seven years!

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