Street Medics?—Keeping Our Movements Healthy and Safe

Cross-posted from Medium

by Patrick Young

This is the third segment in the Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series, a project that explores the role shared social movement infrastructure has played in social movement uprisings and how this infrastructure has evolved over time, moving across issue areas and geographies to knit together a shared fabric of progressive social movements.

Over the past decade, people across the US and around the world have taken to the streets in wave after wave of popular uprising. They have camped out in city centers and remote construction sites through hot summers and cold winters. They’ve faced down militarized police forces with their chemical weapons, fire hoses, tasers, clubs, and rubber bullets. And in each of these uprisings, teams of medics have mobilized alongside protestors, warriors and protectors, to keep our movements health and safe and in the streets.

DC Medic Collective

Medics don’t run and medics don’t lead.
Others are happy to rush forward while medics are busy trying to make sure everyone gets there alive.
Medics see what our movements collective mistakes and loses look like and have to wash it of our clothes some days. Yet still we strive to not lead we won’t tell warriors and protectors to stop and go back to camp, to pray more, that is not our role.
We say, ‘those goggles suck for pepper spray, here take these.’
We strive for informed consent in all our interactions, so we strive to train people to be ready for the worst as we train to be ready for the worst.
We say, ‘hey look a trap, let’s go they’ll need help.’
We walk at your back and to your side so you know your bravery and willingness to risk yourself is not without support.
We want to help build the world we want with y’all so we strive to demonstrate that a better world is possible every time we set up a clinic out of nothing or gather to provide the best care to those typically denied.
We literally will run ourselves down to nothing till we are burnt out and sick and will still strive to take care of others first.
But still…
We stand with our brothers, with our sisters, with our family of all genders and orientations for the land, for the people and for the water.

— Noah Morris

Television footage of street medics in protests often invokes images of medics flushing protests’ eyes after they have been exposed to chemical weapons or providing trauma care to protesters struck by rubber bullets or police batons. Certainly, this is an important aspect of providing medical care in social movements, but the vast majority of medical issues that arise during mobilizations are the much less dramatic issues that often arise when large groups of people are together for long periods of time: dehydration, fainting from low blood sugar, trips and falls, heat stroke, and frostbite.

Medical workers have been mobilizing to participate in contentious politics since at least the Spanish Civil War. American doctors and nurses mobilized alongside the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to provide medical support for the Republicans. During that war, the doctors and nurses would make significant advances in battlefield surgery and front-line blood transfusions. They also pioneered a tradition of medical workers mobilizing in their skills in support of contentious politics.[1]

During the civil rights movement, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) mobilized doctors, nurses, dentists, psychologists, and social works to travel to the deep south to provide medical care in poor Black communities and support civil rights workers. A brochure that the MCHR distributed to doctors emphasized the need for doctors. “An ‘on-the-scene’ medical presence is urgently needed. When a civil rights worker is jailed, the first person to see him is often a Medical Committee physician. Frequent visits by physicians, local and MCHR, help ensure the well-being of the workers.”[2] Importantly, MCHR volunteers also worked to improve access to primary care for Blacks and poor whites in the south developing rural health centers and mobile health units, health education programs, and support for community workers in developing health and medical programs.

Medical Committee for Human Rights

In 1973, two veterans of the MCHR, Ben “Doc” Rosen and Ann Hirschman took what they had learned in the civil rights movement to South Dakota to support the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee. Rosen stayed with the AIM for the entire 71-day occupation and was shot in the arm by US Marshals. Hirschman traveled in and out of Wounded Knee along with other medical volunteers. During her time there, she operated without anesthesia on a patient who had been shot in the back of the head. She was able to stabilize his airway, keeping him alive for four days until he succumbed to his injuries. [3]

In 1999, Rosen traveled to Seattle to lead street medical trainings for what would become a new generation of street medics. Longtime street medic Noah Morris observed, “after Seattle, there was a recognition that medics were needed in urban organizing… The number of major actions that took place during the global justice movement allowed new medics to develop a lot of skills and experience very quickly.”[4] In the early years of the twenty-first century, street medic collectives emerged in many major cities across the country.

While many roles in social movements require few specialized skills, providing medical care safely and effectively requires training and there are massive differences in training levels and capabilities of medical workers. Today, medic collectives and networks of medics take different approaches to the work depending on their local circumstances, but there are some widely shared norms among the street medic community. Generally, medic collectives require volunteers to have at least 20 hours of training (these courses are typically offered over three days) to ensure that everyone offering medical assistance has a reasonable base of knowledge. Medical professionals who have much more extensive training in their field are generally expected to participate in an eight-hour “bridge training” to learn the common norms and shared practices used by street medic collectives and learn how to effectively provide medical care during street protests.[5] The Paper Revolution Collective publishes a relatively comprehensive and regularly-updated street medic guide that can augment this in-person training.

Street Medic Wiki

These basic levels of training, however, cannot equip medic volunteers for all situations. Noah Morris observed that when medics with limited training go into challenging situations, they can create more on support structures. “We’ve got to be realistic about what we can offer. Twenty hours of training isn’t going to help much in a desert.” Before inviting volunteers to join medic teams or healer councils, organizers typically go through a process of vetting potential volunteers to assess their skills and check in with movement references who can vouch for their trustworthiness.

Today there are as many as 44 action medical collectives operating in the US, but as almost entirely volunteer-based organizations, the capacity and consistency of these collectives and clinics varies drastically, ranging from well-established and high-functioning collectives with years of experience to smaller, loosely-formed networks with just a handful of volunteers with limited skills. Unions of healthcare workers have also organized workers with specific skill sets to support social movements. In October of 2016, National Nurses United deployed a team of registered nurses through its Registered Nurse Response Unit, a national network of volunteer direct-care RNs to North Dakota to support the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council.[6]

Responding to Disasters?—?and Everyday Disasters

Organizing to provide medical support for social movements fighting for environmental, economic, and racial justice during periods of mobilization quite naturally illuminates the ongoing crisis facing the millions of people who lack every day medical care in their communities. While advocating for access to quality healthcare within the existing healthcare system, many medics are taking direct action to provide the care that their communities need.

In Chicago the all-Black Ujimaa Medic Collective came together in 2014 after a young person suffering from a gunshot wound died on the way to the hospital on the other side of town. “The fact that he was shot just a few blocks from one of the biggest and best hospitals in the country, and died on the way to another on the other side of town seemed to add grievous insult to grave injury.”[7] Since 2014, Umedics has offered more than 100 trainings in urban emergency first response to more than 1,000 people. They also offer trainings on preventing and responding to asthma attacks.

Another important approach to continuing and expanding the work of developing social movement infrastructure is deploying social movement infrastructure to provide disaster relief. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, the Common Ground Collective mobilized social movement infrastructure organizations and networks to provide food and medical support in the 9th Ward long before federal officials were on the ground. In the months following the storm, Common Ground established a medical clinic, a legal clinic, a food distribution operation, and recruited volunteers to gut hundreds of houses to allow residents to return.[8] In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Occupy Sandy deployed much of the infrastructure that had been developed to support the Occupy Wallstreet movement to mount a massive relief effort well before FEMA or the Red Cross made it into the communities hardest hit by the storm.[9]

The Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) network has emerged as an important space for promoting and supporting this work.[10] Founded by veterans of Common Ground, Occupy Sandy and other relief efforts MADR has organized trainings for new relief workers, helped to coordinate mutual-aid based relief programs in the wake of dozens of storms and other disasters, and developed a clear political analysis around the role of mutual aid disaster relief in the face of the climate crisis.

As the frequency and severity of superstorms increases, more and more communities are likely to experience catastrophic disasters. When the state struggles to respond, democratic and horizontally organized movement infrastructure can fill that gap and support communities as they respond to those disasters. Deploying the infrastructure created by social movements to support communities in helping themselves and each other can provide much needed relief, dramatically improving?—?or saving?—?peoples’ lives while at the same time filling the vacuum left by the state’s failure to respond with systems and practices that are directly democratic and rooted in commitments to mutual aid, sustainability, and collective liberation.

[1] Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, Reprint edition (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

[2] “The Medical Committee for Human Rights” (Medical Committee on Human Rights, 1965),

[3] Kelsey Whipple, “Meet Colorado’s Activist Medics, a Rogue Band of Good Samaritans | Westword,” Westword, April 17, 2012,

[4] Noah Morris, Interview with author, April 2, 2019.

[5] Paper Revolution Collective, “Street Medic Guide” (Paper Revolution Collective, 2018),

[6] “Registered Nurse Response Network Sends Nurse Volunteers to Assist with First Aid at Standing Rock,” National Nurses United, October 10, 2016, /press/registered-nurse-response-network-sends-nurse-volunteers-assist-first-aid-standing-rock.

[7] “ABOUT US,” Ujimaa Medics (blog), accessed June 15, 2019,

[8] scott crow and Kathleen Cleaver, Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014).

[9] Alan Feuer, “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There,” The New York Times, November 9, 2012, sec. N.Y. / Region,

[10] Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, “About Us,” Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (blog), accessed May 13, 2019,

Toronto: Wet’suwet’en Supporters Deliver Message to TC-Energy Exec’s Neighborhood

Photo via Rising Tide Toronto

Cross-posted from Rising Tide Toronto

“[Saturday] morning, twenty people dressed as construction workers arrived at 232 Douglas Drive in Toronto, erected construction fencing and turned the well-manicured lawn into a site of destruction. They also postered and flyered the neighbourhood to bring attention to one the people behind the ongoing violence occurring on Wet’suwet’en territory. As people based in Toronto we have a clear connection with the destruction out West and a responsibility to fight it.”

Here is a statement from Rising Tide Toronto on the action:

“It seems like the direct impacts of TC-Energy on the lives, land and bodies of Indigenous people are too far away for Mr. Vanaselja so we decided to bring it home. This is a personal matter for all the people on the ground facing the destruction of their homes and harassment from pipeline workers so we decided to make it personal for Mr. Vanaselja. This is referencing the ongoing construction of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline in contravention of Wet’suwet’en law, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the 1997 Canadian court decision on Delgamuukw, and of the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office’s (EAO) directives.

Coastal Gas Link is a project of TC-Energy. Since January, after unarmed Indigenous Wet’suwet’en were forced at gunpoint to concede a checkpoint at the entrance to their unceded territories and tentatively struck a deal with Coastal Gas Link (CGL), CGL has been clearing and preparing their proposed “Camp 9A” man camp intended to house up to 450 pipeline construction workers. An Unist’ot’en representative says that, “the man camp would threaten the safety and security of Wet’suwet’en people and residents of the Healing Center.”

Photo via Rising Tide Toronto

While TC-Energy is invading sacred Wet’suwet’en territory in a time of climate crisis, we are here as a reminder to Canadians this ongoing genocide. Indigenous people are in inherently connected to the land to defend and protect it from projects like CGL. We all share a crucial responsibility to take action in solidarity with Unist’ot’en Camp.

Released just last week, the National Inquiry’s final report into widespread violence against Indigenous women and girls directly addresses the connection between workers in man camps and higher rates of violence and sexual assault.

Stopping sexual assault and gender based violence connected to energy projects and assuring that Indigenous peoples’ rights and laws do no continue to be violated is imperative.

In March, CGL was ordered to stop work in an area of a trapline by the BC Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) due to non-compliance with permits. CGL ignored the EAO order and continued to block access, bulldozed a trapline, and operated bulldozers and excavators within meters of active traps.

We are bringing the attention and bringing consequences to the people behind the project. We want Mr. Vanaselja to pull out all Coastal Gas Link workers from Wet’suwet’en territory and stop man camp construction.

This action is a part of an international call to action for support and solidarity called for June 15th.”


Kitchen Crews Fueling the Movement

Cross-posted from Medium

by Patrick Young

— Part II of the Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series

Every mobilization, every blockade, every march depends on a complex network of movement infrastructure that will likely never make it to the front page of the papers. To make all of these things possible, hundreds of people prepared and served food, organized legal support, set up medical clinics, designed websites, facilitated trainings, organized transportation, secured meeting spaces, maintained databases, and took on dozens of logistical tasks that allowed movements to operate.

The Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series is a project that explores the role shared social movement infrastructure has played in social movement uprisings and how this infrastructure has evolved over time, moving across issue areas and geographies to knit together a shared fabric of progressive social movements. In this segment we look at the networks and organizations that provide one of the most basic infrastructural tasks movements need to take on?—?feeding people.

Fueling the Movement

Feeding people during mobilizations, particularly for activities lasting more than a few hours, is one of the most basic infrastructural needs to be encountered by social movements. All over the world, the practice of preparing and sharing food plays an important role in displaying hospitality, sharing culture and cultivating relationships. It is not surprising, then, that the organizations and networks that provide food for social movements share a rich legacy and history.

Many of the kitchen collectives currently organizing providing food for social movement mobilizations can trace their histories to two long-standing (and often intertwined) institutions?—?Food Not Bombs (FNB) and Seeds of Peace?—?both of which emerged from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s.

Photo Credit: Occupy Eugene

Food Not Bombs is a network of all-volunteer collectives that serve vegetarian and vegan meals for free in public squares and parks in cities around the world. It was started by Keith McHenry and C. T. Butler, two activists who had been deeply involved in the movement against the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station in New Hampshire. In 1981 the two helped to organize a protest at the annual shareholder meeting of First National Bank, one of the major financial backers of the Seabrook Power Station. In their history of the Food Not Bombs movement, McHenry and Butler laid out their plan for the action. “As nuclear-power protesters, we wanted to do street theater that would remind people of a 1930s-style soup kitchen, to highlight the waste of valuable resources on capital-intensive projects such as nuclear power while many people in this country went hungry and homeless.”[1]

The two initially planned to recruit actors to fill out the soup line but then they realized they could recruit people who were actually hungry and homeless to participate. McHenry and Butler collected day-old bread and salvaged produce from the local food coop and cooked a large bowl of soup. During the shareholder meeting over 100 people turned out for the meal. The event was an incredible success. The Food Not Bombs frame proved to be so salient that serving free salvaged food in public places as a protest of the massive spending on nuclear infrastructure became a staple in the anti-nuclear movement’s repertoire of contention.[2]

Michael Maher Photography

By 1988, Food Not Bombs groups had spread to Boston, San Francisco and Washington, DC. In May of that year, the San Francisco chapter decoupled their food servings from other actions and started holding weekly servings in Golden Gate Park, offering free healthy food for poor and hungry people. While this fulfilled the charitable function of feeding hungry people, Heynen observed that these food servings also acted “to expose poverty to the glare of those who do not want it to exist.”[3]

The next summer solidified a major shift in the political nature of Food Not Bombs. In 1989, after a decade of austerity and at the peak of urban disinvestment, people experiencing homelessness organized major tent cities in urban centers around the country to protest the crisis of homelessness. Food Not Bombs chapters in New York and San Francisco offered mass food servings at these camps and became deeply involved in organizing in support of them. By this time, Food Not Bombs had developed a robust political analysis around poverty, hunger, food security, and public space.[4]

In less than a decade a group of anti-nuclear activists that had initially planned to recruit actors to participate in a soup line as a street theater action developed into an organization that was organizing around homelessness and regularly risking arrest while serving food in public parks. In 1992 Food Not Bombs held its first international gathering with representatives from 30 active groups in the US and Canada.[5] At the meeting, Food Not Bombs established its three foundational principles: “1. Always vegan or vegetarian and free to everyone. 2. Each chapter is independent and autonomous and makes decisions using the consensus process. 3. Food Not Bombs is not a charity and is dedicated to non-violent social change.”[6]

Throughout the 1990s, Food Not Bombs chapters continued to form around the US and worldwide. In addition to serving free food in public parks, Food Not Bombs chapters often contribute to social movement infrastructure by providing food during actions and movement events. In 1999 when the global justice movement burst onto the scene during the protests of the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, Washington, members of different Food Not Bombs chapters, primarily from the US and Canada traveled to Seattle to gather, cook and serve food to the thousands of people who took to the streets during the multi-day mobilization.

The other principal nucleus of social movement institutions providing food at mobilizations is Seeds of Peace. Seeds also traces its history to the anti-nuclear movement, emerging out of the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament in 1986?—?a nine-month, 3,700-mile march from Los Angeles to Washington, DC to raise awareness about the growing dangers of nuclear proliferation. The group of activists that came together to provided food, water, medical support and other logistics for the march recognized the important role that this type of logistical infrastructure could play in social movements and decided to form a permanent collective.[7]

Continuing its anti-nuclear work, Seeds developed a relationship with the Newe (Western Shoshone) who were demanding an end to nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site and the return of their historic homelands. Later, Seeds organized food and other support for the Dineh (Navajo) elders in their fight against forced relocation and became deeply involved in Earth First! forest defense campaigns.

While Food Not Bombs established a network of chapters organized regular food servings in their communities and could be mobilized in support of actions, from the start, Seeds was much more focused on building infrastructure to support mobilizations. In addition to food, Seeds of Peace organized to provide medical and logistical support and direct action trainings in support of mobilizations, campaigns, and action camps, often building out the logistical core of movements and mobilizations. During Redwood Summer in 1990, a three-month mobilization in northern California to protect old-growth redwood trees from logging, Seeds of Peace organized nearly all of the core infrastructure for the campaign. That summer, when labor and environmental organizer Judi Bari’s car was bombed, she was on her way to the Seeds of Peace house in Oakland.[8]

When Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast in 2005, scott crow, a co-founder of the Common Ground Collective published a national call to action inviting volunteers to come to New Orleans to provide relief where the government would not. Food Not Bombs organizers were among the first to answer that call. crow writes, “a Food Not Bombs chapter from Hartford took the initial risk to get hot food into people still stranded in the waters across the river in the Seventh and Ninth Wards. The Red Cross would not go there. We knew people on the other side needed water, food, and medical attention immediately.”[9] Over the next several months, dozens of Food Not Bombs and Seeds of Peace activists traveled to Common Ground to participate in the relief efforts.

Common Ground Collective

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Seeds of Peace, Food Not Bombs and a wide range of similarly structured kitchen collectives would provide food support for mobilizations and other movement events around the country in a wide range of different organizational formations. While these organized collectives could deploy mobile kitchen equipment and experience in feeding thousands of people thousands of people in mass mobilizations settings, they would generally integrate large numbers of local activists to provide the labor to actually prepare meals.

Seeds of Peace identifies their role as something of a facilitator. “It is our intention to use our skills and equipment, not merely to provide a ‘service,’ but to promote individual empowerment and community solidarity by providing an effective and adaptable framework. As a small collective, we cannot, by ourselves, cook for 5,000 people. But by providing kitchen equipment and a certain level of experience, we can work with and facilitate a group of people to cook, deliver and serve a meal on such a scale.”[10]

Kitchen Crews Emerging Organically

While Seeds of Peace and Food Not Bombs have played an incredibly valuable role in supporting movements and uprisings, movements and communities often organically develop the capacity to provide food as movements emerge. In Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the murder of Mike Brown, Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, a retired grandmother went looking to find a way to help out. “I asked, ‘what can I do?’” she told the Huffington Post. “They said a little home-cooked meal wouldn’t hurt nothing, so I went home, and the next day I came back with spaghetti and salad and garlic bread. After that, every day I fed them. Every day.”[11] Daniels would continue serving food through the weeks of protests and the non-indictment. Later on, volunteers from Seeds of Peace would travel into Ferguson to support Daniels, particularly during the Ferguson October mobilization and the resurgence of activity following the announcement of the non-incitement.

During the mobilization to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock the task of feeding the thousands of water protectors who had converged in North Dakota brought together a wide arrangement of kitchen collectives. There, water protectors organized at least 13 different kitchens across the three main camps to feed the thousands of people who were living at Standing Rock. The main kitchen was coordinated by a vegan chef named from the Netherlands who had worked with a collective of vegan chefs in Greece that cooked meals at refugee camps for 8,000 people a day. Another kitchen was staffed by Seeds of Peace volunteers, yet another was led by Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef and chef de cuisine at the Sioux Chef, a Minneapolis-based catering company that works to revitalize Native American food culture.

Photo Credit: Brian Yazzie

Elizabeth Hoover from the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) observed that preparing traditional indigenous foods became culturally and politically important to the movement. “Traditional foods are considered an important tool in, and motivation for, winning this fight against polluting fossil fuels. Getting traditional foods into camp to keep morale up?—?whether that was enough buffalo meat in the stews across camp, or more tribally specific delicacies… was an important focus.”[12]

Stepping Up Stepping In

The participatory aspect of preparing and serving food at mobilizations has acted as a useful tool for absorbing new activists and providing opportunities for people to meaningfully participate in creating the mobilizations they are participating in. Kim Ellis, an organizer with the RAMPS Campaign said, “it’s just easy to plug into this work. It’s a way for people without a lot of experience to get involved… When you are doing something concrete you know you can be useful.”[13]

While some roles in an uprising require complex skill sets and long-term commitments, nearly anyone can help out in a kitchen, washing dishes or chopping vegetables. Involving volunteers in cooking food and washing dishes helps to bridge the gap between the people attending or participating in mobilizations and the people who are organizing them and making them happen. Ellis also observed that the landscape of organizations and collectives organizing to provide food for social movements has expanded. “It’s not just Seeds anymore. There are lots of kitchens being formed. Lots of people are doing this work all over the place.”

[1] C. T. Butler and Keith McHenry, Food Not Bombs, Revised edition (Tucson, Ariz.: See Sharp Press, 2000).

[2] Nik Heynen, “Cooking up Non-Violent Civil-Disobedient Direct Action for the Hungry: ‘Food Not Bombs’ and the Resurgence of Radical Democracy in the US,” ed. Paul Routledge, Urban Studies 47, no. 6 (May 2010): 1225–40,

[3] Heynen.

[4] Butler and McHenry, Food Not Bombs.

[5] McHenry, Keith, “Documenting 30 Years of Food Not Bombs,” accessed May 1, 2019,

[6] “Three Principles of Food Not Bombs,” Food Not Bombs, accessed May 1, 2019,

[7] Seeds of Peace, “About Us.”

[8] Nick Stocks, Interview with author, March 16, 2019.

[9] scott crow and Kathleen Cleaver, Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014), 120.

[10] Seeds of Peace, “About Us.”

[11] Zeba Blay, “In St. Louis, This Woman Is Making A Change One Meal at A Time,” HuffPost, 54:24 400AD,

[12] Elizabeth Hoover, “Feeding a Movement: The Kitchens of the Standing Rock Camps,” From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds: Indigenizing the Local Food Movement (blog), December 7, 2016,

[13] Ellis, Interview with author.

Send Lawyers, Lockboxes, and Money

Wikimedia Commons

cross-posted from Meduim

By Patrick Young

Shared social movement infrastructure in popular uprisings

Across the United States and around the world, the past decade has been marked by a series of dramatic episodes of social movement uprisings. Thousands of people have taken to the streets facing down chemical weapons and police violence, camped out for months at a time blocking the expansion fossil fuel infrastructure, and faced felony charges and decades of jail time for their alleged participation in militant direct action.

Images of protestors facing down tear gas, people locked to construction equipment, and burning limousines have appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the country and been plastered across social media. But every mobilization, every blockade, every march has depended on a complex network of movement infrastructure that will likely never make it to the front page of the papers. To make all of these things possible, hundreds of people prepared and served food, organized legal support, set up medical clinics, designed websites, facilitated trainings, organized transportation, secured meeting spaces, maintained databases, and took on dozens of logistical tasks that allowed movements to operate.

Many of the social movements that have emerged in recent years have moved beyond simply critiquing the systems they were struggling against, they also offered new models of how society could be organizing. Throughout these long and challenging mobilizations, thousands of people experimented with modeling and developing the practices of direct democracy, autonomy, and mutual aid that their movements aspired to create.

Much has been written on the manifestations of direct democracy in the political sphere that were on display at the mass assemblies of the Occupy Movement and other plaza mobilizations around the world.[1] Something less explored and certainly less celebrated are the practices of mutual aid and solidarity that have been baked into the economic and social, as well as the political spheres of these new social movements. In the plaza movements and the more recent episodes of contention in Ferguson, Standing Rock and J20 social movement infrastructures emerged to provide the food, medical care, legal support, internal communication, transportation and myriad other logistical needs of the movements. Developing all of these aspects of social movement infrastructure offered participants opportunities to create and practice models of direct democracy and mutual aid in allocating scarce resources, navigating social relationships, and providing the basic human necessities that participants needed to continue to engage in the movements.

While much of this social movement infrastructure emerges organically within distinct social movements or mobilizations, many of the networks, organizations, and institutions with the skills, resources, and experience in providing social movement infrastructure frequently mobilize across seemingly disparate social movements spaces at different times and in different places. From the outside, the episodes of contentious politics that played out in Ferguson, Standing Rock and J20 appear as distinct social movements with little overlap. But interestingly, many of the same organizations and networks providing food, legal support, and medical care participated in each of these uprisings. The people doing this important work each had unique backgrounds and movement histories but over a lifetimes of activism, their paths have continually crossed in the streets.

Shared Social Movement Infrastructure

Traditional theories on how social movements emerge focused mainly on the individual grievances that catalyzed movements, the relationships between participants in these movements, and the ways that new threats and grievances emerged.[2] By the 1970s, scholars reflecting on the social movements of the 1960s began to recognize that the role that the availability of resources and a number of structural factors can play a more important role in the emergence of social movements. McCarthy and Zald describe this new body of analysis which has become known as resource mobilization theory as an approach that “examines the variety of resources that must be mobilized, the linkages of social movements to other groups, the dependence of movements upon external support for success and the tactics used by authorities to control or incorporate movements.”[3]

Researchers have argued about which types of resources contribute to the success of movements and how those resources impact various movement outcomes, but the idea that movements need money, facilities, legal skills, and other resources to operate is relatively non-controversial. Movements have built out infrastructure to develop and organize these resources in distinct ways: vertically (internal to movement organizations) and horizontally (shared movement infrastructure).

Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Most commonly, social movement organizations have sought to build infrastructure vertically within their organizations and issue areas, amassing trained volunteers, skilled staff, and large treasuries. This infrastructure gives social movement organizations the ability to make strategic decisions about how to allocate their resources as they plan campaigns and mobilizations. It also, however, also forces social movement organizations to compete for scarce resources, respond to the whims of funders and donors, and jockey to ensure that their particular movement or issue receives the most attention.[4]

Alternatively, organizers who recognize the intersections between different movements and issue areas have worked to build out infrastructure horizontally, developing an infrastructure of material and technical support that can be deployed in different times and spaces among various seemingly-disparate social movements. The networks and organizations that provide these resources across different social movements make up a shared social movement infrastructure.

When social movement organizations, labor unions, and NGOs build infrastructure internally, that infrastructure is constrained by the same limitations of the organizations that they are controlled by. Historically, social movement organizations and labor unions have not created movements and have often acted to constrain movement. Piven and Cloward observe this playing out in Poor Peoples Movements, their important analysis of four major social movements in the 20th century. “Because [mass membership organizations] were acutely vulnerable to internal oligarchy and stasis and to external integration with elites, the bureaucratic organizations that were developed within these movements tended to blunt the militancy that was the fundamental source of such influence as the movements exerted.”[5]

Recognizing Piven and Cloward’s critique of the limits of social movement organizations, Engler and Engler suggested a “momentum-driven” theory of organizing to “build decentralized networks to sustain protest mobilizations through multiple waves of activity.” This model suggests that social movement organizations can develop infrastructure to absorb and energy as moments surge and retain capacity to be mobilized in future waves after the “moments of the whirlwind” recede.[6]

The momentum-driven organizing approach is useful because it acknowledges the natural ebbs and flows of social movement activity and suggests strategies for sustaining movements through multiple waves of activity, in large part, by developing social movement infrastructure. The Momentum Community has emerged as a “training institute and movement incubator,” teaching and promoting this momentum-driven organizing approach. Momentum has incubated the launch of some important movement organizations including Movimiento Cosecha, IfNotNow, and the Sunrise Movement.[7]

But the momentum model still implicitly assumes that infrastructure must be developed vertically within a particular social movement or social movement organization. Many of the organizations and networks that provide key infrastructure for social movements are mobilized across movement spaces, however. This shared social movement infrastructure, then, does not necessarily need to ebb and flow the way that individual movements do. Instead, movement infrastructure organizations can move laterally from movement to movement in response to trigger moments and in support of uprisings happing across a wide range of social movements. Infrastructure organizations doing this work have created the shared social movement infrastructure that has emerged in uprising after uprising in recent years.

Bringing More to the Table Than Breakfast

When the people, organizations and networks that build and share the infrastructure that social movements rely on move across different movement traditions, issue areas, and geographies, the impact that they have can extend well beyond the specific resources that they are bringing to those spaces. As infrastructural organizers enter new and emerging movement spaces, they also often bring with them a set of organizational practices, politics, movement histories, and relationships. Nick Stocks, a longtime organizer who has worked with the Seeds of Peace Collective and Rising Tide North America observed, “the organizations that provide infrastructure for movements, like Seeds [of Peace] have been some of the standard bearers for some of the practices our movements have been using for decades.”[8]

Kim Ellis from RAMPS expanded on this point. “Most folks who get involved in infrastructure come to it out of a particular political theory around horizontalism. That brings prefigurative politics into lots of movements.”[9]

When a kitchen collective with three decades of experience providing food at protests shows up to provide food for a nascent movement, they don’t just bring breakfast, they bring decades of movement history, shared norms about how to cooperatively operate a campaign kitchen, the explicit or implicit political analysis that has guided their work over time, and relationships with organizers in other movements and other types of infrastructural roles. These shared practices can have a profound impact on emerging social movements.

Often these practices are transferred organically. When activists participating in movement infrastructure use horizontal organizing structures, local activists often take notice and adopt those tools and practices. When activist legal collectives work with groups of defendants who have little experience with the criminal justice system and share stories of activists successfully engaging in collective defenses and strategies of non-cooperation the defendants can become more likely to adopt those approaches.

In many cases, however, this dissemination of common social movement practices can be more deliberate. Most notably, infrastructure organizers have historically played an important role in promoting principles of horizontal organizing and consensus-based decision making. C.T. Butler, one of the founders of Food Not Bombs co-wrote and published a manual on the formal consensus process, On Conflict and Consensus.[10] That manual has been circulated widely within a broad range of social movements and has introduced thousands of organizers to the formal consensus process. The Seeds of Peace Collective has also offered consensus trainings. Medical teams conduct ‘bridge trainings’ to teach medical professionals about principles for consent-based care and horizontal organizing. The Tilted Scales Collective’s Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant presents an explicitly political context for legal defense work. [11]

Because infrastructure organizations are generally not tied to one specific movement and instead move across movement spaces, they often create important bridges between different social movements. Kim Ellis observed “any issue or movements need infrastructure. That’s a way to bring movements together, and it’s an incredible coming together point.”[12]

Movement Infrastructure: Scarce Resources, Huge Potential

In social movements and uprisings all over the country, movement infrastructure organizations and networks have mobilized an astonishing level of support activity. In Ferguson, legal workers built a legal support structure from scratch in less than a week that was able to track down people who were arrested and, in most cases, bail them out and get them back on the streets the very next night. At Standing Rock kitchen crews and medics kept thousands of people who were camping outside in North Dakota in the winter healthy and well fed for months. At J20 the creation of shared infrastructure created space for dozens of different movements?—?many of whom had no experience working together?—?to take bold direct action on the same day in the same city.

What is more astonishing than the sheer scale of activity generated by these infrastructure projects is how relatively few resources have been dedicated to them. While the value of sustainable infrastructure projects is widely acknowledged, there are only a handful of well-established organizations that work to create movement infrastructure that operates across social movement spaces. Few of these organizations have paid staff, and nearly all depend almost entirely on volunteer labor.

Fundraising can be difficult for movement infrastructure projects. Many donors will be happy to give money to bail an activist out of jail, but be less likely to donate to make sure that there is a well-trained, experienced and sustainable legal collective available to set up the fundraising link, track the activist through the legal system, and show up at the jail with the cash to bail them out. Many foundations and other traditional funding sources for social movements consider infrastructure ‘overhead’ and will not fund it, opting instead to support programmatic work.

Activists who organize movement infrastructure projects report that this work is also often undervalued or ignored within movements. One long-time organizer lamented, “within our movements, there is a tendency to celebrate the people who take really big risks…the people who are doing the labor (to create infrastructure) are often undervalued.” The limited support for movement infrastructure takes a toll on the people who are doing this work. The organizer continued, “A lot of people who fill support roles over the longer term are people who have dedicated a substantial portion of their lives to movement work. They’re showing up at the cost of having stable jobs, healthcare, and financial security.” This can lead to burnout and high turnover. Nick Stocks said, “the people who do any type of grassroots organizing work often do it for two or three years and then burn out. Very few people are able to do it for the long haul.”[13]

Behind every protest, blockade, encampment, or occupation there is a complex set of organizational structures that handle the logistical, administrative and other support functions that keep the action going. Sometimes, the infrastructure to provide this support emerges independently within specific social movements, but in important ways, the individuals, networks, and organizations that offer infrastructural and logistical support are often mobilized across dramatically different movement spaces through informal and semi-formal networks, personal relationships, and formal organizational structures.

It is reasonable to argue that the availability of this social movement infrastructure can hasten the emergence and increase the resilience of social movement uprisings. Relying on existing movement infrastructure to provide or, at least coordinate, key logistical needs of the movement can free up movement organizers to focus on the political and strategic work of their movements. Organizations providing infrastructural support to social movement bring with them important resources including technical skills, political relationships and often physical equipment.

The legal support collectives, campaign kitchens, and medic teams that work tirelessly to support a wide range of social movements will, unfortunately, probably not be featured in the history of our movements. But looking closely at social movement moments throughout recent history it’s clear that the people who staffed the clinics, organized the kitchens, and coordinated legal support played an important role supporting the action on the front lines and in weaving the fabric of our shared social movements.


[1] Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini, They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy From Greece To Occupy, 1 edition (London ; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014); Jerome E. Roos and Leonidas Oikonomakis, “They Don’t Represent Us! The Global Resonance of the Real Democracy Movement from the Indignados to Occupy,” in Spreading Protest: Social Movements in Times of Crisis (ECPR Press, n.d.), 117–36.

[2] J. Craig Jenkins, “Resource Mobilization Theory and the Study of Social Movements,” Annual Review of Sociology 9, no. 1 (August 1983): 527–53,

[3] John McCarthy and Mayer Zald, “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory,” American Journal of Sociology 82, no. 6 (May 1977): 31.

[4] INCITE! The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Reprint edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2017).

[5] Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, unknown edition (New York: Vintage, 1978).

[6] Mark Engler and Paul Engler, This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016).

[7] “Movements,” Momentum, accessed May 13, 2019,

[8] Stocks, Interview with author.

[9] Ellis, Interview with author.

[10] C. T. Lawrence Butler and Amy Rothstein, On Conflict & Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decision Making, Second Edition (Food Not Bombs, 1991).

[11] The Tilted Scales Collective, A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant.

[12] Ellis, Interview with author.

[13] Stocks, Interview with author.