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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Victory By Mistake

Recently I was training a group of organizers in Boston on direct action campaigns and telling a lot of stories to illustrate different tactics. Afterwards, a trainee came up to me and asked, “How do you have so many crazy organizing stories at your age?”

“By mistake,” I said.

For all of the exciting victories, funny direct actions and amazing things I’ve witnessed grassroots community leaders doing, there are many more stories of big mistakes. Actually, they’re not distinct. The stories of big wins are also stories of big mistakes. The difference between the failed campaigns and the successful campaigns is usually: Did we keep making mistakes long enough to get something right?

I’ve had more than my share of meetings where nobody showed up, press interviews with leaders where the total “wrong message” was printed, direct actions where no one was home, big events for which I didn’t prepare leaders well enough and they didn’t show up, and much more. These mistakes caused a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of stomach distress (I could write another whole blog called “Revolutions of the Stomach.”) But they also forced us to reconsider what we were doing; to be nimble and respond to changes.

Many organizers are afraid of making mistakes. And well we should be, because organizing is a tremendous responsibility. We should treat that initial reaction of fear with healthy respect. But the biggest mistake of all would be succumbing to it and letting the fear freeze us.

My organizing mentor, Shel Trapp, once related something his mentor told him when he was a new organizer:

“I will never fire you for making a mistake,” he said. “I will fire you for not taking action.”

Those words have been burned in my memory for most of my organizing career. Not the part about being fired, but rather the unacceptableness of inaction. Don’t get stuck in your head. Don’t get analysis paralysis. Move it forward, in community. Be thoughtful, but be bold and make it happen.

The great thing about making a mistake in community is that you have lots of people to remind each other to not make the same mistake twice.

Ain’t No Power Like the Power of Your Ex’s Mom

In 2007, a group of janitorial workers came to Fuerza Laboral’s office because they hadn’t been paid for several weeks of work. One of the workers was Santa’s son. Santa was his last name, but that’s all anyone ever called him; a clean-shaven-jolly old man who often came to our meetings and, no matter how raucous they were, promptly fell asleep.

Santa’s son was ticked, as were the other workers. It seems like the most basic thing–to be paid for your work–but it’s one of the most common and longest-running scams of unscrupulous employers: send people to work  and then intimidate and threaten them, often with violence, from returning to pick up their pay.

This was no different. Santa Jr. and friends worked for a physically intimidating karate instructor who ran a cleaning company out of his dojo. After his workers labored for three weeks without pay, he described in detail the horrible things he, as a black belt, would do to them if he ever saw them again.

We decided to use their anger as motivation and, after a quick training, went down the street to the karate studio, with protection in the form of group solidarity and a video camera.

Even though it was mid-morning when we entered to the dojo, all the curtains were drawn and a sleazy red light illuminated the boss’ desk where he sat, with a huge velvet painting of Jesus hanging over his head. My skin crawled; the place oozed grossness.

“Pay up now!” we chanted. He grabbed the desk phone off the receiver and bellowed, “I’m calling the authorities!”

My coworker burst out laughing and soon all of us were laughing. “Go ahead!” someone retorted.  “What are you going to tell them? ‘I run an unregistered cleaning company out of a karate studio and my workers stormed in because I didn’t pay them?’”

I don’t know if he’d ever been laughed at before, but it really caught him off guard. There were a couple more exchanges (“Turn that thing off!” he kept shouting to the video camera), until, totally flustered, he opened his wallet and pulled out a stack of cash that included a bunch of hundred-dollar bills and paid in full. Who hangs out in a red-light-lit room under a velvet Jesus with thousands of dollars in his pocket? Yup, this guy.

For the next few days, he drove his bright red SUV in front of our office, screaming out the window how he was going to kill us. Then, during our Saturday meeting, we were talking about the action and describing the boss, and Lola, a feisty lady with long silver hair, stood up. “I know him!” she said. “He used to date my daughter, and…” She paused, gritting her teeth, deciding not to share any more details.  “…if I ever see him again I’ll tear him up!”

She didn’t have to wait long. Boss man had made a habit of driving by every day, and that day was no exception. When he stopped in front of the office to yell his threats, Lola opened the front door and stepped onto the sidewalk. The face of this enormous black-belt karate instructor contorted into sheer terror at the sight of barely 5-foot Lola. He stepped on the gas and never came back.

The picture in the header

At the top of this site is a photo of one of the moments in my life most clearly responsible for my transition from a middle school history teacher to a direct action community organizer. I’m actually in it, on the right hand side, but my face isn’t visible; only the lime green bandana tied over my baseball cap. In black and white I’m impossible to find.

In the summer of 2001, when I was living in Guatemala, the government passed a 2% sales tax increase. People were tired of President Portillo’s corruption and broken promises so, all over the country, they refused the tax. And by refusing, I mean they shut the country down in protest.

In Xela, Guatemala’s 2nd biggest city, the protest was organized by the UTQ—La Unión de Trabajadores de Quetzaltenango, the Quetzaltenango Workers’ Union, which was a revolutionary force during the civil war and since then has been a community organization for grassroots unions as well as an organizing vehicle for the informal sector—like taxi drivers and street market vendors. The UTQ had 4 staff–only a couple of whom were full-time–yet they coordinated the logistics that resulted in 150,000 people taking to the streets of Xela and 95% of businesses shutting down for the day in solidarity.

I had heard about the demonstration and decided to go, and invited my friend Noelle to come along. As thousands of people gathered in front of the Free Autonomous University of San Carlos and began to organize themselves into three lines to take over the streets, Noelle asked me, “Do you think we’re welcome?” Before I could say anything, a father and his little girl called to us, “¿Nos ayudan?”

Will you help us?

‘Help us’ in the sense of “Hey, as long as you guys are here for the march, and standing right there, would you mind taking a corner of this banner?”

They gave us long strips of black plastic trash bag–the unifying clothing of the protest—and big smiles. I tied one around Noelle’s arm. She would later pen her memory of the little girl: “She tied the black ribbon around her head like a soldier, and marched like a child.”

As we walked down streets that are usually choked with diesel smoke-spitting buses, people chanted in unison,  “Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” (Only the people save the people) and “El pueblo que lucha es el pueblo que triunfa” (The people who fight are the people who triumph) and “Sálganse, sálganse!” (Come out! Come out!) All along the route, families poured out of their houses and apartments and we grew exponentially. We stopped in the city center, in front of the government offices, where the picture was taken from the back of a pickup truck loaded with a huge PA system for a lone local singer and his guitar. The musician tested the microphone and launched into “No Basta Rezar” by the Venezuelan protest band, Los Guaraguao. Everyone knew the words. A hundred and fifty thousand voices sung out,

“No, no, it’s not enough to pray. Much more is needed to achieve peace.” 

The old standby, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, {whatever we’re protesting}’s gotta go” would never again do it for me after that.

The PA system suddenly stopped working, but no one needed to be led; without missing a beat, everyone kept right on singing. In my mind’s eye I still see the entire crowd bouncing up and down this whole time, but it may just have been that my heart was leaping. I was witnessing a singing protest. A perfect fusion of labor and community organizing, of direct pressure tactics and art, of anger and joy, demands and celebration. I realized I didn’t want to be teaching history anymore. I wanted to be in community with the people who were making it.

(Photo courtesy of the UTQ)