Behind the Blockades: A look at the infrastructure that kept people on the streets in Ferguson, Standing Rock and J20

cross-posted from Medium


by Patrick Young

In Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 thousands of young Black people responded to the murder of Mike Brown with weeks of bold and fearless mobilization and direct action, facing down mass arrests and brutal repression to start a national movement for Black lives. In North Dakota in the fall and bitter cold winter of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their water-protector accomplices fought back against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by mobilizing tens of thousands put their bodies on the line, camping, praying and blockading construction equipment. On January 20th, 2017 thousands of people from all over the country converged in Washington, DC to confront the inauguration of President Donald Trump, blockading checkpoints, disrupting celebrations, and burning limousines.

All three of these moments of contention captured the imagination of millions across the country and around the world to catalyze unrest. Images of protesters facing down with riot police through clouds of tear gas, water protectors locked down to construction equipment, and limousines burning were projected across the front pages of newspapers around the world. But behind all of those dramatic moments, each of these uprisings relied on a complex network of movement infrastructure to make sure that everyone is fed and healthy, to facilitate communication and outreach, to provide legal support, and coordinate hundreds of other tasks to keep the action going.

Each of these mobilizations emerged separately in very different social and political contexts. But despite the differences in time, location, and issues raised in these mobilizations many of the same movement infrastructure organizations and networks emerged to provide important logistical support for each of these movements. The level of spontaneity, the relationships between movement organizers and movement institution organizations and networks, and the availability of internal resources all informed the ways that movement infrastructure was mobilized in support of each of these struggles.

Black Lives Matter — Ferguson, Missouri

At 12:02 pm on August 9, 2014 police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Jr., an unarmed Black teenager while he and a friend walked down the middle of a residential street in Ferguson, Missouri not far from Brown’s home. Ferguson Police left Brown’s body lying uncovered in the hot sun for four hours while crowds began to grow. That night and every night for the next several months, young Black people took to the streets demanding justice for Mike Brown and an end to racist policing.

Brown was not the first young Black man to be murdered by a police officer that summer, and he wouldn’t be the last. But his death sparked a movement. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson — but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States… It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question ‘why Ferguson?’ just as it’s impossible to ever accurately calculate when ‘enough is enough.’”[1]

Johnetta Elzie described her experience on the night following Mike Brown’s murder in an essay published in Ebony.

“That evening, my best friend and I took the back streets into Ferguson, down the now-famous West Florissant Avenue, only to be turned around. The police had the streets completely blocked off. There was SWAT everywhere, in gas masks, full body riot gear, police dogs, batons, and really big guns, also known as M16’s swinging from their hands. This was unimaginable… The police dogs were barking so loud we could hear them through our rolled up car windows. As we drove away and found a safe space, anxiety took over. Yet, I was not afraid.”[2]

The protests were met with brutal repression at the hands of local and state police and the Missouri National Guard. Outfitted with riot gear and armed personnel carriers, police officers sic’d dogs on protesters, deployed chemical weapons, shot rubber bullets and arrested hundreds. But people were not deterred. In the face of a militarized police force overwhelming police violence, hundreds of people returned to the streets night after night.

The protests, particularly the nightly contentious mobilizations on the streets of Ferguson, were generally spontaneous and primarily organized over social media. DeRay McKesson, who emerged as a leader in the uprising wrote in the Guardian,

“I will always remember that the call to action initiating the movement was organic — that there was no organizing committee, no charismatic leader, no church group or school club that led us to the streets. It is powerful to remember that the movement began as everyday people came out of their homes and refused to be scared into silence by the police…In those early days, we were united by #Ferguson on Twitter — it was both our digital rallying cry and our communication hub.”[3]

While the calls to action were organic, the mobilization happened within an ecosystem of organizations and networks. On a local level, the Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and Hands Up United all played a significant role in supporting the mobilization and national organizations including Color of Change, Black Lives Matter, and Black Youth Project 100 amplified the action beyond Ferguson. Alongside the nightly actions, a scaffolding of infrastructure emerged to support the burgeoning movement.

As police deployed chemical weapons and other ‘less lethal’ crowd control mechanisms, it became immediately apparent that if people were going to be able to stay in the streets, the movement would need to develop the capacity to provide medical first aid. Because there was not an active street medic team in St. Louis, community-based organization Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) recruited volunteers who were interested in providing first aid on the streets. MORE set up a telephone training call with Noah Morris, a longtime street medic organizer who walked volunteers through the basics of providing first aid in the streets. The following week MORE was able to recruit a street medic team from Chicago to come to Ferguson to help build out a more formal medic support infrastructure.[4]

In the first week of protests, as the arrest count grew, other organizers from MORE who had gained some experience organizing legal support for actions from the climate movement launched a legal support structure. “We printed up slips of paper with a legal support phone number on them and set up a fundraising link,” remembered Arielle Klagsbrun, an organizer who was working with MORE at the time. “The first two nights I went out to the streets and handed out these slips of paper while Molly [another MORE organizer] waited by the phones. People looked at me like I was crazy, but then the number and the link blew up on social media.”[5]

The legal team trained volunteers to staff phone lines, set up an intake system to keep track of people who had been arrested and bailed out of jail. While the MORE team had some experience with organizing legal support for smaller actions, the volume of arrests was overwhelming. Volunteers were staffing four phone lines around the clock. A couple of weeks into the protests, Sarah Coffee, a veteran of the Midnight Special Law Collective showed up at the volunteer office to offer to help. Coffee, along with other legal workers affiliated with the NLG helped to set up a more formalized system that could handle the volume of arrests that were occurring on a nearly nightly basis.[6]

Meanwhile, on the streets of Ferguson, 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.”[7] 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.

Geographically, the World Community Center in St. Louis where MORE and other organizations had their offices acted as an organizing hub for coordinating support work. Throughout the fall and into the winter, churches in Ferguson also opened their doors for meetings, vigils, and as safe spaces during the chaotic nights of protest. One national NGO gifted the movement a subscription to the Revolution Messaging platform which allowed organizers to send out mass texts to a list that grew to 6,000 cell phone numbers.

On October 10, sixty days after the murder of Mike Brown, Ferguson Action, an umbrella of St. Louis-based organizations kicked off Ferguson October, a weekend-long national mobilization bringing thousands of people from all over the country into St. Louis. Over four days organized dozens of actions and events including marches, rallies, trainings, and a series of direct actions in Ferguson and around St. Louis.

On August 8th of 2014, no one would have imagined that Ferguson, Missouri would become the site of a major uprising that would catalyze a national movement about structural racism and police violence. And certainly, organizers on the ground did not have the infrastructure that they would need to support that type of uprising. But within weeks, organizers in St, Louis were able to mobilize and deploy a sophisticated movement infrastructure by pulling from local assets that had been developed over time, years of relationships with organizers across a broad range of social movement spaces, and absorbing an influx of energetic volunteers, eager to plug into meaningful work.

Standing Rock

In April of 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters set up camp near the banks of the Cannon Ball River, in the path of the planned 1,172 mile Dakota Access Pipeline starting the Sacred Stone Camp. Construction of the pipeline would violate the Fort Laramie Treaty, which affirmed the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s right to their land and risk contaminating the tribe’s drinking water. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock’s Historic Preservation Officer, said she hoped the camp would “educate the world about the abuse of fossil fuel, the history of the cultural sites along the path of the pipeline and provide education on non-violent direct-action training and non-violent civil disobedience against a billion-dollar oil company.”[8] Participants in the camp eschewed the term “protester” as a negative and colonial term, referring to themselves instead as “water protectors.”[9]

By June of that year, the camp had outgrown the Sacred Stone site, and a larger overflow camp, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) was set up nearby. The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3), Honor the Earth, Greenpeace USA, the Ruckus Society, and several other organizations released a video “Warriors Wanted,” a call to action for “trained action organizers” and “skilled builders.”

“We need folks to bring supplies and stay to take action with their bodies and prayers. We need allies to come prepared for the elements to stand with us on the high planes of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and to peacefully stop this destructive pipeline with us. Be prepared to follow the guidance of indigenous leadership but also to operate with autonomy.[10]

Indigenous people, climate activists, and other allies answered the call in droves. By late September more than 300 federally recognized Native American tribes were represented at the camps, and the camps swelled to more than 4,000.[11]

The logistical and infrastructural challenges of operating a camp of four thousand people in rural North Dakota for several months were daunting. As winter approached these challenges became even more acute, communiques coming out of the camps inviting supporters became more specific about their needs. One call to action from the Oceti Sakowin Camp emphasized the logistical needs of the camp.

“Coming here is now about more than our individual experience, it’s about pulling together so we can Stand Strong. Oceti Sakowin needs community members prepared for arctic conditions. We need people with the fortitude to dedicate a significant portion of each day to the survival of the community. Please bring all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Areas we need help most are in the kitchens, compostable toilet maintenance — an essential foundation for healthy communities, and people able to transport donations to camp from surrounding communities… We welcome skilled experienced builders who can help us with reinforcing existing structures. We welcome skilled medics and natural healers who work collaboratively to take care of our Water Protectors.”[12]

By early fall, the water protectors had 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 du cuisine at the Sioux Chef, a Minneapolis-based catering company that works to revitalize Native American food culture. 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.”[13]

While the kitchen crews kept the camps fed, the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council worked to meet the basic medical needs of the thousands of people who had converged at the camps and provide first aid to water protectors who had been injured by the police or by the cold during the numerous actions and confrontations. There was no shortage of volunteers interested in helping with the medic team, but organizers struggled to match volunteers with the appropriate skills with the appropriate tasks. One of the organizers of the Medic and Healer Council, said,

“We had to triage which volunteers we could take. Higher credentials were great, but folks needed to be able to work in our systems and be able to survive the conditions without being a drain. The effect of this was we prioritized more well-rounded folks who could stay longer than folks with high degrees of specialized training. There were a lot of folks who just showed up we had to tell to leave or that they weren’t welcome to work with us. A lot of folks were pissed off by that — especially white folks who felt more entitled.”

To fill the gaps experienced action medics reached out through networks of medics he had worked with in the past to recruit volunteers with both the skills and the cultural competency to do the work appropriately.

In addition to dealing with the logistical challenges of camping in North Dakota in the winter and police violence, water protectors at Standing Rock also faced hundreds of arrests and aggressive prosecution by authorities. In total the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline led to 836 criminal cases.[14] The caseload was so large that the State of North Dakota was forced to appoint an additional judge to hear cases and allow out-of-state attorneys to practice in North Dakota. In its ruling, the Supreme Court wrote, “due to the significant increased caseload of the South Central Judicial District as a result of criminal charges stemming from the pipeline protests,” out-of-state lawyers would be permitted to represent defendants “in criminal cases pending in the south Central Judicial District arising from arrests made during protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”[15]

Once out-of-state lawyers were allowed to take cases, attorneys from all over the country with backgrounds in a wide range of social movements were invited to take on water protector defendants. Some had backgrounds supporting Native American struggles while others traced their backgrounds to other social movements. Lawyers with backgrounds in the Wounded Knee Defense/Offense Committee, the Peoples’ Law Collective, the NLG Mass Defense Committee, the Civil Liberties Defense Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, EarthRights International, the Oakland Law Collective as well as dozens of law firms all took cases. By the time all 836 cases were resolved 392 were eventually dismissed, 188 were granted pre-trial diversions, 146 resulted in plea agreements, 42 resulted in acquittals at trial, and 26 resulted in convictions at trial.[16]

The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline catalyzed the struggles for indigenous sovereignty and climate justice, capturing the imagination of millions of people all over the world. The thousands of people who poured into North Dakota brought global attention to the fight, but at the same time, they also brought dramatic logistical and infrastructural challenges. Over a ten-month period, social movement organizations and institutions from a wide range of movement traditions mobilized existing infrastructure and generated new resources under the leadership of indigenous leaders to support the camps and amplify the struggle. As a result, thousands of people were able to face down relentless police violence, aggressive prosecution, and the North Dakota winter mounting a forceful challenge to the rich and powerful fossil fuel institutions.

J20 — Two months of organizing, one day of action, and eighteen months of legal defense

On January 20, 2017, after a bitter presidential campaign, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. While his press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,”[17] many commentators observed that the crowd was embarrassingly small. Just outside the fenced-off parade route, human blockades had shut down the checkpoints leading into the parade route and National Mall, leaving thousands of would-be Trump-supporting audience members surrounded by angry protesters. Meanwhile, an anti-fascist bloc snaked through downtown Washington, leaving broken windows, spray-painted graffiti, and at least one firebombed limousine in its wake. Police responded with tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, and mass arrests. By the end of the day, 234 people had been arrested — all of them facing serious felony charges.[18]

Much of the infrastructure to support the protests, which came together under the banner of #DisruptJ20, was organized by the DC Welcoming Committee (DCWC), which described itself as “a collective of experienced local activists and out-of-work gravediggers acting with national support.” The DCWC continued, “We’re building the framework needed for mass protests to shut down the inauguration of Donald Trump and planning widespread direct actions to make that happen. We’re also providing services like housing, food, and even legal assistance to anyone who wants to join us.”[19]

DCWC organizers experienced a unique set of conditions in mobilizing the infrastructure to support the protests. First, in contrast to more spontaneous mobilizations, like the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Mike Brown, the date and time of the Presidential Inauguration is prescribed in the Constitution. This gave organizers an important opportunity to plan ahead and build infrastructure before people spilled out into the streets. Second, as the nation’s capital, Washington, DC is home to a wide range of NGOs, movement infrastructure institutions, and experienced organizers.

To kick off organizing for the inauguration, DC-based organizers hosted a spokes council meeting on December 11th, 2016. Coming out of that meeting DisruptJ20 organizers began pulling together the logistical infrastructure for the protests. An e-mail report-back laid out the infrastructure plan, “We are putting together all of the infrastructure needed to support mass protests, including a convergence space for the week, mass housing, a legal collective, a medic collective, food, and security.” The report back included a link to volunteer to join one of the infrastructure teams and went on to describe some of the infrastructure plans.

“Medics-We’re looking for trained street medics, EMTs, Medical professionals, healers, body workers, herbalists, and anyone else to support the health and well-being of everyone participating in the protests against the inauguration.

Legal- We’re looking for law students, lawyers, trained legal observers, or anyone interested in helping staff the legal hotline or jail support.

Food-Seeds of Peace and Food Not Bombs are both involved in organizing food for the week. We need donations of both bulk foods, produce, and prepared foods, as well as volunteers.”[20]

Robby Diesu, a longtime DC activist, said DCWC organizers — many of whom had worked closely with mainstream NGOs in the past — made a conscious decision to use their relationships with existing organizations to mobilize for DisruptJ20. While many of these NGOs did not have the stomach for being publicly associated with the unpredictable and confrontational street protests, “some of the people that work at NGOs want to support the work because they see it as important, even if it does not fit in their organizing model.”[21] He also said that DCWC organizers saw organizing for the inauguration as an opportunity to build capacity within local social movements. “From the get-go, there was a conscious decision to use J20 as a training and development opportunity for newer organizers.” Newer activists stepped into leadership roles with the support of more experienced organizers who shared contacts, offered advice, and helped newer leaders debrief meetings and plan next steps.

The medical team also saw the protests at the inauguration as an important opportunity to develop new street medics. While there were a number of experienced street medics living in Washington, DC, there had not been a formal medical collective for several years. About a month before the inauguration, the DisruptJ20 medic team organized a 20-hour street medic training for new medics.

Heather, who was a member of the medic team for DisrupJ20 said that the upcoming action provided a useful backdrop for a training, the effort was “directed to Black and brown participants trying to practice mutual aid healthcare in their communities in DC and around the DMV [the DC, Maryland, Virginia metropolitan area].”

While that training was well attended and incredibly useful for local organizers, many of the participants were focused on organizing in their communities and not particularly interested in throwing a lot of energy in a mobilization with lots of people coming in from outside the area. Few of those trained ended up participating in the medic team for the inauguration. “The absorption of people from the training into the actual medical team was very low. A lot of people were there because they wanted to get skills to take to their community or other types of actions.”[22] Between the training, veteran medics in DC and a call out over one of the national street medic email lists, a full complement of medics came together, ready to support the protestors who faced tear gas, pepper spray, and police violence.

One aspect of the infrastructure for DisruptJ20 that, in retrospect, turned out to be quite underdeveloped was the legal support structure. In 2004, after being slapped with a series of multi-million dollar lawsuits for unlawful mass arrests, the Washington DC Metro Police Department adopted a hands-off policy for protest activity, essentially ending mass arrests in Washington, DC. For the more than fourteen years leading up to Trump’s inauguration, DC police had not made a mass arrest other than those during planned civil disobedience activities. And even then, the DC Metro Police widely employed post-and-forfeit arrangements allowing protesters to pay and forfeit a small sum of money — usually $50 or $100 — to have their charges resolved.[23]

During the protests against Trump’s inauguration, DC Metro Police rounded up and arrested 234 people, mostly near the anti-fascist bloc march. Nearly all of those arrested were charged with a suite felony and misdemeanor riot charges carrying a total of 60 years in prison. The DisruptJ20 Legal Working Group had conducted a series of “know your rights” trainings and published materials on what to do if arrested and how to navigate the Washington, DC court system — down to a detailed explanation of the city’s “post and forfeit” system. The legal working group also operated a legal hotline number, organized a jail support team to track people through the booking system.

While the legal team had posted on its website that, “for anyone who has legal entanglements that take them in the days and weeks after the Inauguration, we will be providing you with support the entire way through the legal process,” few organizers actually believed that mass arrests and prosecution were a likely possibility.[24] The legal infrastructure was well prepared to track arrests, communicate with arrestees’ support people, document police violence and meet arrestees when they were released from custody, but it was not prepared to support hundreds of people from all over the country being prosecuted on serious felony charges.

Dylan Petrohilos who was involved in legal support work and, months later had his home raided and was himself arrested on charges relating to the inauguration protests, said “at the beginning of February we had no idea what was going on. Some people who were released had left town, and we were just trying to figure out where everybody was.”[25] Recruiting activist lawyers to take the cases was challenging because at the time there was not an established network of lawyers and relationships between defendants and one of the attorneys most well-known for taking on activist legal defense cases in Washington became strained over strategic disagreements.

Eventually the legal support team, which became known as the Dead City Legal Posse, came together, recruiting a team of about 25 dedicated volunteers to coordinate fundraising, recruit lawyers, turn supporters out for hearings and trials, organize media support work, and take on the herculean task of supporting the hundreds of defendants who live all over the country who needed to regularly travel into DC for their hearings. Other support infrastructure came together as well. Jerry Koch, a grand jury resister who had spent 241 days in jail for refusing to inform to a grand jury, addressed one of the early defendant summits. The Tilted Scales Collective provided training and support for defendants and their lawyers on strategic decisions in political criminal defense work. Members of the RNC 8 who had faced felony conspiracy trials for their role in organizing protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention made personal phone calls to defendants offering their support and advice.[26]

In November of 2017, the first group of defendants went to trial. After hearing four weeks of evidence the trial judge threw out the felony charges against the six defendants, ruling that no reasonable jury could return a conviction. After deliberations, the jury acquitted all six defendants of all charges.[27] Then in January of 2018, prosecutors dropped charges for 129 of the remaining defendants, while moving ahead with the prosecution of the remaining 59 defendants, against whom the state apparently had the strongest evidence — a move that could have isolated those still facing prosecution. In May, while the second group of defendants went to trial, prosecutors revealed that they had withheld a large amount of evidence from the defense.[28] That trial ended without convictions, and by July prosecutors dropped all charges against the remaining defendants.

In the end, the only protesters who were convicted of crimes relating to the protests of Trump’s inauguration were the 21 people who plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges and lighter sentences in the initial weeks and months following their arrest. While some of the defendants that accepted plea deals may have done so regardless of what support had been available, it is certainly possible that some of these defendants may have continued to fight their charges along with the other defendants if a more robust legal support system had been in place immediately following the action.

In their call to action, DisruptJ20 organizers declared, “from day one, the Trump presidency will be a disaster. #Disrupt J20 will be the start of the resistance.”[29] They took advantage of the two months of lead time to use the mobilization not only as an opportunity to mount a bold protest but also to build capacity and develop new organizers. On January 20th, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States in front of an embarrassingly small crowd while protests raged on the streets outside. Images broken windows and a burning limousine appeared in newspapers around the world making it clear that there would be a militant opposition to Trump’s presidency. When hundreds of protesters were arrested a sluggish process of developing a legal support apparatus that was up to the challenge created a difficult and emotionally taxing time for the defendants. But with months the organizational infrastructure came together to support arrestees through their trials and secure complete acquittals for all of the defendants who stood together through the process.

Infrastructure for an Uprising

The availability of social movement infrastructure can play a role in strengthening social movements during episodes of contention and failure to mobilize resources to provide the movements basic infrastructural needs can prevent uprisings from taking off, but infrastructure alone cannot create the political conditions that lead to uprisings. Infrastructural resources, then, are mobilized in the context of existing political conditions, social formations and grievances that give rise to moments of social movement uprising. These local conditions inform the ways that individuals and institutions with specific capacities in providing social movement infrastructure are mobilized in different circumstances.

Some of the key factors determining the way that infrastructure institutions are mobilized include the degree of spontaneity of the uprisings; the infrastructural capabilities of social movements organizations engaged in mobilizations and their openness to outside support; the degree to which local movement actors engaged in these mobilizations are networked with other social movements and the availability of well-known individuals and institutions with these infrastructural capabilities to deploy in new settings. Interestingly, in recent years we have seen examples of many of the same individuals and institutions providing movement infrastructure being mobilized in support of dramatically different social movements in different geographies in support of different types of mobilizations, so it seems the specific grievances being raised matters less to the mobilization of movement infrastructure.

The degree of spontaneity of uprisings plays a major role in the way that infrastructure is mobilized and organized. Mobilizations at summits, conventions and other events allow organizers to plan ahead of time to develop the infrastructural tools that they need to support themselves. This advance notice also enables individuals and institutions with the capacities to provide infrastructure to make connections with local organizers and prepare to travel to the sites of the actions. Uprisings that arise rapidly in response to externally imposed grievances give organizers little time to develop infrastructure locally or within their movement organizations. These spontaneous uprisings are more likely to embrace external support leverage support of individuals and institutions outside of their immediate movement ecosystems. But because of the spontaneous nature of these mobilizations, the individuals and institutions that can be mobilized to provide infrastructure are likely to be those with significant organizational flexibility.

Although organizational relationships between social movement organizations and social movement infrastructure organizations and networks can facilitate mobilization of infrastructural resources, these infrastructural resources are most frequently mobilized through informal networks based on personal relationships and shared experiences. Organizers who are well-networked across social movements at regional, national and international levels can play an important role in building bridges across movements and geographies to recruit individuals and institutions with the capacity to provide support. These well-networked organizers can also play an important role in vetting the capabilities of individuals and institutions offering infrastructural support. Additionally, the availability of well-known institutions can remove barriers for local organizers who are not strongly networked in recruiting the infrastructural support they need.

Finally, the internal availability of infrastructural resources can reduce the need for social movements to mobilize infrastructural assets across social movements and spaces. Well-resourced organizations like labor unions and large NGO’s are unlikely to solicit, or even welcome, support from grassroots social movement infrastructure institutions. Additionally, communities with robust local infrastructure are less likely to rely on support from other geographic regions. While the availability of this local infrastructure can be a valuable asset for movements and uprisings, the fact that these organizations and communities are less likely to rely on outside support can play an isolating role by reducing the involvement of individuals and institutions from different movement spaces and geographies.

[1] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2016).

[2] Johnetta Elzie, “[FERGUSON FORWARD]’When I Close My Eyes at Night, I See People Running from Tear Gas’,” EBONY, July 22, 2016,

[3] DeRay Mckesson, “Ferguson and beyond: How a New Civil Rights Movement Began — and Won’t End,” The Guardian, August 9, 2015, sec. Opinion,

[4] Morris, Interview with author.

[5] Klagsbrun, Interview with author.

[6] Molly Gott, Interview with author, March 31, 2019.

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

[8] “Sacred Stone Camp,” Sacred Stone Village, accessed May 8, 2019,

[9] “Standing Rock Activists: Don’t Call Us Protesters. We’re Water Protectors.,” Public Radio International, accessed May 13, 2019,

[10] #NoDAPL Call for Action Organizers, accessed May 8, 2019,

[11] Louise Liu, “Thousands of Protesters Are Gathering in North Dakota — and It Could Lead to ‘Nationwide Reform,’” Business Insider, accessed May 8, 2019,

[12] “Oceti Sakowin Camp — Posts,” accessed May 8, 2019,

[13] 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,

[14] “ND State Criminal Cases,” Water Protector Legal Collective, accessed May 8, 2019,

[15] In the Matter of a Petition to Permit Temporary Provision of Legal Services by Qualified Attorneys From Outside North Dakota, ?20160436 (Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota January 18, 2017).

[16] “Our Board,” Water Protector Legal Collective, accessed April 4, 2019,

[17] Saba Hamedy, “The Top 5 Sean Spicer Quotes,” CNN, accessed May 9, 2019,

[18] It’s Going Down, “Disrupt J20 Coverage from DC Direct Action News,” It’s Going Down (blog), January 21, 2017,

[19] DistuptJ20, “About,” January 20, 2017, 20,

[20] Disrupt J20, “Report Back from #DisruptJ20 Mass Meeting,” accessed May 9, 2019.

[21] Diesu, Interview with author.

[22] Heather, Interview with author.

[23] “Oldie but Baddie: D.C. Police Resume Unlawful Mass Arrest Tactic,”, accessed May 9, 2019,

[24] DisruptJ20, “Legal,” January 20, 2017,

[25] Dylan Petrohilos, Interview with author, April 5, 2019.

[26] Petrohilos.

[27] Adam K. Raymond, “J20 Defendants Cleared of Charges in Trump Inauguration Arrests,” Intelligencer, December 21, 2017,

[28] Jude Ortiz, “Second J20 Trial Ends with No Convictions, Prosecutor Hiding Evidence,” National Lawyers Guild, June 13, 2018,

[29] DistuptJ20, “About.”


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.

Rising Tide North America Statement of Solidarity with Ferguson

fegusRising Tide North America Statement of Solidarity with Ferguson

In response to last night’s grand jury decision in St. Louis, Rising Tide North America issued the following statement:

“Rising Tide North America is continental network of climate justice groups and individuals challenging the root causes of climate change and for social, environmental and climate justice. We believe that we can only address climate change by exposing the intersections between the oppression of humans, communities and the planet. In order to create a livable and just future, we work toward the empowerment of marginalized communities and the dismantling of the systems of oppression that keep us divided.

Rising Tide North America stands in solidarity with the community of Ferguson and communities everywhere in the struggle for racial justice and against state violence. We stand in solidarity with the right of communities to express their grief and rage, and to take action for justice.

We call for the immediate de-escalation of militarized policing and for transparency, accountability, and safety in our communities. Furthermore, we condemn racist attempts by opinion-makers and power-holders to demonize residents and protestors as “looters” and “violent criminals.”

Our fight for climate justice is inextricably connected with racial justice. We cannot have the one without the other.

Please donate here to support our friends and allies with the Organization for Black Struggle and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) in the ongoing on-the-ground organizing currently happening in Ferguson.