A Prologue and a Plea

It is my belief that those who possess monolithic institutional and repressive power will never allow the people to vote it away or steal it back. No matter how great and sweeping the best–intended reformist legislation becomes, at a certain point, it will reach a final ceiling while the fundamental injustices which create the need for reform continue. Over the course of many years and many struggles without total success, the people at large will reach new heights of awareness, consciousness, common bond, and skepticism such that a passive role in the slow destruction of humanity is no longer acceptable.

The billionaires and bankers, and the politicians who benefit from them, will never allow fundamental change such as would be necessary to effect a fundamental justice. Therefore, though a peaceful transition is always preferable, only a violent overthrow of the existing social and economic order and political system by a massive organization consisting of all participating members of all segments of society will achieve true and lasting justice.

If the thoughts, instructions, and words in this book someday contribute to the formation of that organization, and it takes upon itself the responsibility of committing defensive violence (for all revolutionary violence is defensive violence), I urge that the measures taken are done so for the good of the movement, and not for the momentary glory of any one person or fraction, nor for short­-term gains, nor for political expediency, but because the material conditions made them necessary in order for humanity to progress.


This book is intended to serve as a guide and as an inspiration. It is comprised of my experiences and the reflections and thoughts derived from them. At Montclair State University in 2011­-2013, Students for a Democratic Society did some extraordinary things. And if not extraordinary, really cool. And if not really cool, then necessary.

But some of what we did was unnecessary, and some of what we left undone turned out, in retrospect, to have been necessary.

I know full well this book could also be titled, “What we would do differently.” We were a young organization at MSU, and quite young ourselves. We’d never led a mass-oriented student movement, or a large organization. We fell victim, time and again, to many of the same hazards and missteps that have dogged countless radical student groups large and small since time immemorial. Some we overcame, and some we did not.

College is a vast and inspiring world, full of contradictions: as befuddling as it is informative, as analytical to your character (in the sense that it breaks it apart) as much as it synthesizes (or puts together) a “new you.” A college does not stand still or remain simplified; it changes like an organism with a hundred million processes in place, all interacting for the supposed benefit of the whole.

Nor is college isolated. The “ivory towers” from which both our finest and worst professors pontificate are actually very much connected to the high­-rise buildings in the downtown area of any given college town, or to the crumbling public housing projects in the “bad part of town,” or to city hall, or to the local correctional facility. Where one population is informed—whether with facts or lies—another is kept ignorant; where one is allowed to flourish, another suffers. Both are part of a seemingly interdependent whole that constitutes the institutions of our society, upon whose perpetuation, in their current form, that society most completely depends.

In many ways, colleges and universities constitute one of these “institutions,” specifically an economic one, in which a tremendous amount of money, resources, and values are concentrated. The students provide and sustain that value, in turn bringing value to the surrounding geographic area and, theoretically, economic value to the society as a whole.

It is in the economic interests of this society, then, that the institution of college remains generally the same, along with the institutions of finance, military might, the criminal justice system, and others. In large part, one of the chief functions of colleges and universities is to train students to apply their minds to the task of either reinforcing those institutions, or having no effect on them whatsoever. 

But what if colleges and universities were used primarily to train students to alter, shake up, resist, or even destroy those institutions of society that they viewed as unjust and unacceptable? Being that students are the lifeblood of a huge economic force—the colleges and universities themselves—the potential absolutely exists.

That is why it is spurious to deny or in some way condescend to the power that students possess to not only shake things up but to change them, to not only ride the wave of the college experience but to actually shape that experience and extend it beyond the college halls and walls.

The student movement is also condescended to because it has been fragmented for many years, with only the “glorious” 1960s and 70s to serve as a point of comparison. At that time, there was a heinously destructive and murderous war being fought in which tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were being killed. Nowadays, anti­war ardor has cooled, leaving no single unifying point from which to mount a successful attack, while the U.S. Government protects us from “terror” and drones are used to “keep our men and women in uniform out of harm’s way.”

At that time, there was also the semblance of a fighting labor movement. Social issues, such as abortion rights and marijuana legalization, and identity-based civil rights issues such as gay rights, the need for affirmative action, and immigrant justice have taken center stage, not without good reason, but only as the main things that divide nine-tenths of the populace between “liberal/Democrat” and “conservative/Republican.” Meanwhile, the labor movement is in as bad a shambles as the student movement if not much worse, with the lowest membership levels in a generation, in part due to the destruction of America’s manufacturing base and the dominance of the service industry and so-called “gig economy.” Additionally, while some unions are still doing invaluable work, labor failures on various levels—whether in the form of the Teamsters giving up various protections for workers at UPS, or the AFL­-CIO in supporting Hillary Clinton for president—contribute to an overall image of irrelevance and corruption, which has done very little to convince the average American that organized labor is the key to a brighter future.

I mentioned Hillary Clinton, and speaking of presidents, the Millennial generation of which I am just barely (but thankfully) a part, is the most politically alienated generation. Never has there been less representation of the values of young voters among the soon­-to-­be-­collecting-­Medicare, mostly-­white, white­-haired men and women running for or occupying public office. These run­-of­-the­-mill, tie­-wearing, TV-­news appearing, sound­byte-­sloganeering, earpiece­-dependent animatronic mannequins inspire us to be politically involved about as much as being told to jump from a plane without a parachute. Their monolithic control of nearly everything can make struggle seem pointless.

And the would­-be pundits of the prior generation complain that ours is not politically engaged, that we’re the “Me Generation.” Well, look what you left in place for us to engage with: an economic recession, a weak jobs market, $1 trillion in student debt on our backs, scarce social services, political deadlock, bankers getting away with economic murder, rampant police brutality, a new mass shooting every week, endless and undeclared wars abroad and more on the way, and political parties that block our preferred candidates from being nominated while other candidates become president despite losing the popular vote. It is almost as if you wanted us to be politically disengaged…

These are not stochastic occurrences, meaning they do not appear at random or by accident. They may constitute “the way things are” currently but that doesn’t mean they arose of their own volition. They arose because the current social and economic forces benefit from them and the vast majority of Americans do and say nothing to stop them, whether they approve of killer cops, prison slave labor, civilian bombing in Syria, Yemen, Gaza, or not, or whether they don’t know such things exist. They do nothing, they say nothing, they are complicit, and whether they like it or not, a large percentage of them benefit from the fruits of U.S. world domination, while our working class and poor are lowered to similar (or at least proportional) levels as its victims abroad.

And so do the students. Benefit from it, I mean. What I said regarding the college’s place in a community applies to the community within society. Each institution is interconnected and mostly controlled by the same forces, political or corporate, that prefer society and its institutions remain as they are now. It is not that the students aren’t benefitting economically from violent U.S. domestic and foreign policy in terms of bigger college campuses, more buildings, or maybe a privatized Dunkin Donuts or Chick Fil-A on campus (but why are college textbooks still so expensive?) It is rather that the preservation of those so-called benefits is dependent on maintaining an element of political and ethical detachment from the conditions that create our own trillion-dollar debt, lack of jobs, and political instability. It is this detachment that we know contributes both to our own alienation and sense of powerlessness and, in its own way, to the totally unnecessary and unacceptable level of misery enveloping the earth.

The folks in power are banking on this detachment. They hope that we will choose to remain powerless and divided, and view our “freedom” to remain unaware and un-responsible as a privilege in exchange for allowing various bosses to mercilessly exploit us for 40 years and placing our various dreams and “ideals” by the infinite wayside. Americans indeed have a privilege that much of the rest of the world envies and with good reason. At the same time, the image that they envy­­­—the American dream—is being built on our shoulders, with our futures, and at the expense of our conscience.

Any country where it is impossible to live according to one’s conscience is not free.

These phenomena—war, prison, alienation, exploitation, mass ignorance and fear, freedom, resistance, and liberation—should fall into the purview of any radical student movement. While demonstrating for longer library hours or water-bottle refilling stations is important, valuable, and useful, these larger-scale conditions of injustice are our long-term target. As I discuss the means by which to connect them to your own student movement, I will speak from experience whenever possible. When impossible, I will speak from what I believe would have worked better. I am not an exhaustive expert on student activism; I just know what I have seen and what I have learned from those experiences. If these reflections inspire you, or help you avoid at least one pratfall of being a student activist, I will feel pretty radical about it.

Chapter 1: The Two-Pronged Approach

On any college campus, both radical and reformist means of effecting positive change exist. The radical means consist of the students themselves, who, by mass organization around a common ideology and for a common goal, can effect a desired outcome. The reformist means—­­­student government, chartered student organizations, school newspapers, and other structures—while often preserving a rich tradition as apologists, defenders, and instruments of the administration, simultaneously possess the ability to actively pursue student interests, institutionally recognized by the university itself, once they have been repurposed to suit the needs of the students.

Only a program of simultaneous and coordinated mass action, based in both radical and reformist means, can ever hope to achieve the scale of student resistance necessary for reaching our goals of tuition freezes leading to free tuition, de­privatization, and mass student empowerment. These are essentially revolutionary goals, dependent on at least an erosion of “the system” as it is, if not its complete dismantlement, above and beyond the confines of the campus itself. That is why no less than a revolutionary ideology is necessary in order to accomplish them.

Any hope for a student movement that can actively contribute to the dismantling of the violent and oppressive systems in place—imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, transphobia, and the like—which is the ultimate goal of any large­-scale systemic transformation for which we would struggle, is dependent on the understanding that only a two­-pronged unified militant reformist/radical approach can succeed based on a long-­term timetable and a class-conscious radical ideology.

Without this ideology in place, the “student movement” will remain small, unfocused, and divided between radical and reformist elements with whom there can seemingly be no collaboration. The feuding, co­optation, and inertia which arose after the (largely government­-engineered) disintegration of the student movement in the 1970s will continue to be our trademarks. Meanwhile, defense contractors, pharmaceutical companies, oil magnates, education privatizers, and other profiteers continue to reap record profits from the ever­-increasing tuition rates in which they and their brethren have so wisely invested. This, in the midst of the same economic recession now prompting students to scramble for as much higher education as possible to secure themselves jobs of dubious existence within our austerity-­ridden market.

The goal must be to mobilize the students against the administration and force that administration to, in turn, agitate against the state. High-level administrators are often millionaires and billionaires with great personal resources, but they will only use their resources to serve the people when they are given no choice. A mass organization of students that has taken control of the functions of the universities would possess the power to deprive administrations of choice. No other conditions are sufficient. Then we will possess the power to demand free tuition and other fundamental changes within the university system, and be in a position to mobilize for greater changes within the governmental system itself.

In this book, I will elucidate the complexities of what a large­-scale two-­pronged organized student resistance movement would look like, what its objectives would be, and how to implement it, based on my years of student organizing and personal research.

First we must illustrate that some conditions for positive change already exist (oppression and exploitation), but that a necessary condition is yet to be created: a culture of subversion based on active awareness. The conflict between the oppression and its resistors will inevitably produce the change, whether immediately or through prolonged struggle, much as it flushes out all those who would resist the change itself—reactionaries, apologists, right-wing trolls, and the like­­­—who must then be combated on their own scale (to be discussed in a later chapter).

A principle to always rely on is this: the students are all on the same team. This is not to say that we are all equally oppressed, exploited, or disadvantaged, but rather it serves as a theoretical basis upon which to convince any student that her interests are directly contradictory to the interests of the administration, since tuition levels are the same for everyone. True, some folks, especially in student government, hope to reap benefits of a relationship with administrators that is self­-serving and can border on the sycophantic. But again, these entities are reactionary, with interests based in the maintenance of the current system as it is, and must be dealt with individually on their own scale and in a way that furthers the goal.

One theoretical key to our understanding of an “Education­-Industrial Complex” is its core objective: to prepare students for a lifetime of conformity to a system which is dependent on their economic disempowerment through debt, wage slavery, and other means. It wants to inure students to an accepted understanding of their own powerlessness, to the point at which it becomes no longer an inurement, but another privilege to be aspired to upon acceptance into the vaunted middle class: the privilege of bearing no responsibility for any oppression that is perpetuated either on themselves or anyone else.

It is our job as activists to prevent this controlled slide into calcified denial of responsibility and complicity with every injustice committed in our name and with our implied consent by our government. As student activists in particular, we aim to degrade the Establishment’s access to one of its main weapons of propaganda, the educational system, to shake out the spent shells of neoliberal and imperialist dogma that enforce the status quo, and turn that weapon back towards the Establishment with the People’s curriculum loaded into every cylinder.

The Carrot and the Stick

One way to view the two­-pronged approach is in line with the negotiating tactic known as “carrot and stick.” In this scenario, one of two options is available: either something moderate and agreeable—almost like a reward for compliance—or something severe and punitive.

The two­-pronged approach, such as it entails both reformist and radical tools at its disposal, utilizes this dynamic, especially when extended outward beyond the walls of the university. Of course, there is room for overlap, but in general terms, voting, petitions, lobbying, boycotts, and the like represent the “carrot,” while strikes, walkouts, sit-­ins, and other disruptive tactics represent the “stick.” Both are intended to effect a certain outcome from the adversary. It will be our purpose to coerce our adversaries and enemies to choose the carrot over the stick while we continue to build up the size of both.  

This will continue until such times at which the carrot is no longer effective, as it will inevitably become. But because we must demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the carrot to produce justice, it is necessary to build the two wings of our movement concurrently, and as that inefficacy becomes self­-evident—when enough legislative battles have been lost and enough radical wars won­­­—those who cleave idealistically to the carrot, to reform, in essence, to the system, will do one of two things: join the radical movement, or be exposed as careerists, opportunists, half-­measure-­takers, and ultimately, reactionaries.

Fomenting Subversive Culture

Any movement that wishes to change the status quo could be considered subversive. In order for such a movement to truly succeed, it must permeate the culture in which it exists to the extent that its central idea or tenet becomes the dominant idea within that culture.

A “subversive culture” or a “culture of subversion” is a culture in which subversion itself—disruption of societal norms, the empowerment of formerly disempowered groups, the destruction of oppressive institutions, et cetera—is the dominant idea, where the urge and desire for change are the trademark of the culture. In essence, in a subversive culture, progress, change, upheaval, and intermingling of ideas is “normal,” while regression, stasis, calcification, and an extreme separation of ideas is considered alien and unacceptable.

The goal of any student group is to create a subversive culture on their own campus, but one that does not exploit, alienate, undermine, or endanger cultures that already exist on that campus and that act in the interests of oppressed or marginalized groups of students. In this case, I am referring to groups that represent certain ethnicities, such as the Latin American Student Organization, religious groups like the Muslim Student Association, feminist groups, or organizations that represent the LGBTQ community.

The “subversive culture” should not be imposed on these local cultures, for it will simply not do for us to try to shape the destinies of groups of people whose cultures are so under attack within our society—because they deviate from societal “norms” of whiteness, Christianity, heteropatriarchy, and others—that each one requires the creation of its own “group” simply to assure its own continued recognition and preservation.

Rather, our movement must be one of solidarity and shared experience upon which a mutual trust is developed with such groups and individuals, such that they become “swept up” into our subversive culture and function not only as its participants and beneficiaries, but also its leaders.

The first step in fomenting subversive culture is to promote active awareness. By “active awareness,” I mean an awareness of conditions that can lead to action, in contrast to an inactive awareness, which also constitutes an awareness but leads to feelings of disempowerment and helplessness and can appear as apathy. It is the role of the student activist to transition students from unawareness of conditions as they are, towards inactive awareness, and then onto active awareness of an impermanent sort, and finally to permanent active awareness.

The most subversive question possible is, “why?” Students must be encouraged to ask, “why is my tuition increasing?” “Why is housing/food/parking so expensive?” “Why do nearby residents dislike the university?” “Why does my academic department get short­-shrift in terms of funding but the business school gets as much as it wants?” “Why do some student organizations get so much more funding than others?” “Why do some organizations get chartered and others don’t?” “Why do so few students read the school newspaper or literary magazine, or listen to its radio station?”

All of these questions have answers, and they all relate to two things: a) administrative power, and b) students who fail to check that power by asserting “student power.”

Students often adopt apolitical viewpoints throughout their college careers, not necessarily because of some defect of character, but because their entire presence at college is based on an understanding of “things as they are.” Throughout grade school, we are taught to work hard so we excel in middle school. Throughout middle school, we are taught to work hard to excel in high school. In high school (and sometimes earlier these days), we are commanded to work hard in order to excel in college. In college, we are told to work hard in order to get a decent job. The establishment leaves as little room for “why?” as possible.

In one sense, this “real world” ideology does serve the student’s interests: within this system, better grades can lead to better opportunities, granted you are in a position to receive and act on such opportunities. Not to be overlooked, toeing the conventional line minimizes potential friction with family­-members and other familiars, who “only want what’s best” for the student.  

However, from another perspective, this ideology is completely in contradiction with the student’s interests. How is it remotely in the student’s interests to pay as much as possible for everything, up to and including postgraduate education, when she will be saddled with decades­ worth of debt and unable to find employment in her field amid our pathetic excuse for a job market? To say nothing of whether the student goes into a field in which she possesses no passion or genuine interest? And to say nothing of students who lack the privilege and upward mobility to take advantage of the aforementioned hypothetical “opportunities,” let alone pursue passions?

Sadly but truly, since our capitalist American culture is based on self­-interest, it is often at the point of self-­interest that our initial arguments must rest. Once it can be demonstrated that “rocking the boat” is in greater alignment with the true interests of the students than “following the straight and narrow,” we will draw the greatest number of students to the cause of collective interest and a new educational and social paradigm.

Literally every exploitative aspect of the higher education system is the direct result of one or another profit­-driven interest extending its influence over an increasingly profit­-driven education system. This sobering realization is the best illustration of how the drive for profit permeates every aspect of our society, whether those profits serve the military-­industrial complex, the prison­-industrial complex, greater bureaucratic repression, or the vicious cycle of bottomless American consumerism.

A microcosmic view of the university illustrates, by useful albeit imperfect analogy, the dynamics by which the ruling class actively preserves all of the exploitation and injustice in society, irreversibly exposing would-­be apathetics to the absolute necessity of radical mass agitation against these conditions. Once the collective interests of students are identifiable with one’s own self-­interest, an empowering moral standpoint develops, one in which apathy and inaction are identified as weapons of the oppressors, counter not only to the cause of the student struggle, but to the struggles of all oppressed peoples the world over.

Oppression and exploitation create the conditions for revolt, but that revolt is dependent on the actions of the revolters, not on “fate” or any other mystical source or force. That is to say, it is not by “fate” or the inherent superiority of “good” over “bad” that a better world is accomplished, but by the deliberate cultivation of collective consciousness among differently oppressed sectors of society and the application of that consciousness to the task of redressing the injustices and inequities of which we were once woefully ignorant.

I cannot guarantee that a new generation of lifelong radical activists will arise, but I can state that there is little chance of a such a generation developing until student activism is tied to the international struggle, until it is able to articulate the connections between wealth and splendor in one area of the world, or of town, and poverty and destruction in another. Though we are fighting tuition increases on the one hand, we must expand the scope of our impact beyond matters pertaining to our own particular interests on the other. Unlimited to the four-­year confines of our university stay, our instrumental role in effecting a greater vision of society—­­­through massive mobilization of radicalized students in the seizure and control of the universities themselves, and the subsequent upheaval of American society—­­­will finally be self­-evident.

And the true transformation will have only just begun.

Chapter 2: What Kind of Group Are We?

The answer to this question relates to your political aims: mass appeal with the goal of large­scale radicalization, or fringe appeal based on acting as an extremist political vanguard? Sometimes the line between the two seems blurry. The potential for a small group influencing a large group is present in both. The decision comes down to whether you want, at some point in the future, for the masses of students to agree with your tactics and be inspired by them, or whether you just want to “fuck shit up,” rattle them in their apolitical, apathetic slumber, and maybe make an impact after you’ve graduated in the form of stories about your conduct that inspire both horror and maybe a little romance for these “real revolutionary kids” who “didn’t give a fuck” and were “badasses.”

In reality, neither attitude is 100% right. Always suiting the predilections and prejudices of the masses leads to dilution of revolutionary fervor. Always utilizing the most disruptive tactics possible (to the extent that they cease to be tactical) alienates the common person from our struggle, especially those who have the most to lose and may have otherwise proven the most effective radical student leaders. One mindset is deferential to mass sensibilities, while the other is dismissive of them.

The truth is that the “mass appeal” advocates need the extremists to keep them in line with the radical goals and ideals, while the extremists need the mass appeallers to keep them relevant to the struggle, sensible-­minded, and not working at cross­-purposes or actually against the masses by incurring repressive reprisals from the Establishment. The only way for a mass student movement, or an individual activist, to survive, strive, and thrive is to combine both attitudes when approaching any particular area of disagreement.

Take that old bone of contention, recruitment, for example. A group’s members will have to decide at what point the principles of the group are being compromised for the sake of attracting people to your group and not scaring them away by being too “radical.” Issues of whether or not to suit “mass appeal” are problematic for nearly every political group (student and non­student) that I’ve ever heard of, often leading to friction and splits. The only way around it is for both sides to listen to each other, try to understand each other’s viewpoints, and make cogent arguments for or against a certain measure. Whether the disagreement pertains to working with a certain group or not, altering a logo or the wording on a flyer to be more “acceptable” to a greater number of people, or endorsing a mainstream political candidate or party, the first question should be, “is this tactical?” or, “how does this fit into our overall strategy?” and concomitantly, “does it seek to alter our overall strategy and/or message?” 

In other words, if you seek the destruction of the two-party system, don’t tell people that voting Democrat is the answer to all of the world’s problems in order to get them to join your group. That’s a bad idea on many levels.

When it comes to barricading a building, acts of vandalism, holding a disruptive event, or boycotting an SGA election, “is this tactical?” is still the first question, and therefore the first thing that needs to be proven by whomever is advocating it. And if they can’t, well….maybe it’s time for them to form a “splinter group,” which I will discuss later.

When it comes to making statements or taking public positions on real things­­­, like racism, police brutality, war, cops on campus, misogyny, etc, ­­­it is important to remember that you will, by definition, be limiting your audience. If your actual desire is to alter the course of humanity, you must not be afraid to separate the “wheat from the chaff.” But unlike wheat, a human being is not defined by her physical state but by her mental state; that is, her state is not static. She can change from chaff into grain if she is given the means and chooses to do so.

Part of what “radicals” do is articulate ideas and feelings that our “moderate,” middle-of-the-road, “don’t rock the boat”-oriented society doesn’t allow people to openly express, even if their consciences tell them that something is terribly wrong with the world. Should people be satisfied with endless wars, increasing poverty, millions in prison, a shrinking middle class, the oppression of women, and the like? No! And not only should we demand the end of these things, but we should demand their exact opposites, and not just a little of those opposites, but A LOT! An extreme amount of something good: not only no war, but world peace. Not only the end of poverty, but a high living standard and security for everyone. Not only people out of prison, but the re-integration of former inmates into society and the end of the poverty and deprivation and social stigma that lead to crime. Not only a strong middle-class, but no more billionaires at all, sucking up and hoarding the resources of humanity for their own wanton accumulation. Not only an end to oppression against women, but the complete empowerment of women over their own bodies, their careers, and their lives. Et cetera.

This is what “radicals” demand. But when you try to express these ideas to the average person, much of the time, you are met with heavy sighs and accusations of being an “idealist,” “naive,” or “childish.” And you must be able to respond to their accusation in a way that doesn’t insult their intelligence, but that draws them into your way of thinking and inspires them to grow towards a more critical, less content existence.

The challenge, then, becomes how to articulate your ideas in meaningful and concrete ways. This question of what to say and how to say it is often what decides whether a student group is wholly “radical” or wholly “reformist” in its essence. The choice of what to say and how to say it can depend on the material conditions of your college or university. For example, it is easier to communicate some element of these radical ideas to working- and middle-class people, and marginalized groups in general, who have  suffered more acutely from the oppressive measures than folks in a more affluent, privileged, or “upper crusty” area.

At the same time, though, the question of what to say and how to say it also comes down to your personal disposition as an activist. If you cannot possibly stomach the thought of having people being “against you,” then it’s possible that, even though you may truly support the idea of a revolution and the total end of the status quo which creates oppression and exploitation, you don’t believe in it enough to get out of your comfort zone. I know what this feeling of doubt is like because I have always hated being disliked or disagreed with, even when a large part of me knows I’m right.

As is often the case, despite sincerely revolutionary sentiment in the activist’s mind, a certain fear of discomfort lingers, a discomfort instilled by a society based on complacency that tries to keep people from engaging in meaningful conflict at all costs and urges them to “mind their own business.” It is a difficult fear to face; getting chastised by authority figures—­­­like parents, cops, teachers, et cetera—­­­and the accompanying fear it engenders, is often identified as something to be avoided at an early age. But the fear can be overcome, ­­in steps and phases­­, by being faced, and again, by asking the question “why?” and knowing how to react to these figures when they interpellate you.

I’m speaking quite abstractly here, so allow me to become a little more concrete. When SDS was protesting the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, some comrades and I were trapped by lines of riot police in an intersection, a practice known as “kettling.” I realized that I might just get my ass kicked. Having not engaged in any kind of physical conflict since middle school, I noticed that my knees were shaking. The protesters started yelling, “they’re running!” perhaps in fear. Then, the cops closed in. Some protesters fell and were injured, but the police line was not as impenetrable as it looked. Soon, most of us were free and running down the road towards the rest of the (illegal) march. I realized later that I had been afraid; my political convictions had nearly drawn me into a violent conflict with police. In other words, my political convictions had put my physical safety in danger. I questioned my convictions somewhat, but carried on, staying close to my friends.

The next night, a group of about 200 protesters participated in a spontaneous anti-capitalist march. Chanting and waving flags, we began to cross a small bridge extending over a dried­-up trench which I assume was once a river. As the tail of the marchers arrived on the bridge, SWAT vans appeared at either side of it. Soon, we were just about trapped, confronted at both ends by riot cops who wanted nothing more than to kettle us on the bridge and beat the living shit out of us under cover of night. A line of stormtroopers blocked the bridge’s exit, while another approached us from its entrance. They came steadily closer from behind until they started running at us. Again, the protesters started yelling: “THEY’RE RUNNING!” Then, we ran from them. Batons started raining down on us. I was with a girl named Tatyana; she was on parole, having been arrested at another protest, and was terrified of being arrested again. We ran beside each other. As a cop caught up to us, his baton raised, she stumbled. But instinctively, without thinking, I reached back and grabbed her around the shoulder and pulled her towards me, away from him. His baton struck her heel; she was okay. We made it far enough towards the other side of the bridge that it was only a few feet above the ground. We jumped off, landing on soft earth, and made our way back whence we’d come.

Why am I telling you this romantic-­sounding, but true, story? To illustrate that after you have faced your fear, and maybe even questioned your convictions, once put to the true test of seeing brutality and repression in action, you will know to do what is right, and not what is convenient. You will not let an innocent person be brutalized. You will not let the aura of authority carry any more weight than you bestow upon it.

But you must first test the limits of your comfort zone, and that takes time, practice, conscious effort, and growing your stores of the type of knowledge that IS power: knowledge of oppression.

It can be hard to know where you truly stand on issues of oppression if you have never been oppressed or threatened by “the system.” As activists at a university or college in the United States, many of us have heard more about oppression than have actually experienced it viscerally, especially us white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied cis-males.

The simple truth is that most people aren’t “radicals,” and if we want our movement to succeed, we’re going to need the support of “most people.” It is up to us as radical activists to make our ideas coherent to the masses and to clarify why they would be better than the status quo; it does not fall to the masses to accept our ideas without understanding them, nor is it their fault when they reject our ideas if we cannot explain and support them adequately. We mustn’t denigrate what critical thinking or skepticism people have, or blame them for requiring proof that our ideas are better.

Now, we don’t need literally everyone. We don’t need nazi scum, reactionary liberals, deranged right-wing nutbags, geriatric Reaganites, or free-market fetishists to “come around” to our side. Yes, sometimes their minds do change, but when this does happen, it happens through a long period of self-reflection. People yelling at each other on street corners or over the internet is usually not what gets it done.

Very generally speaking, these individuals’ entire identity and belief system is based on ideas which engender systematic oppression, exploitation, and social stratification, and at a certain point, they will defend the ideas for that egotistical reason—because their sense of identity depends on it—and not because the idea is the most sound, valid, or ideologically coherent.

We are, of course, also susceptible to this foible, and constant self-criticism and refinement are necessary in order to avoid its main pratfall: becoming dogmatic, inflexible, and incapable of articulating ourselves meaningfully, and apt to blame others for not automatically accepting or understanding something of which we ourselves cannot demonstrate a clear, flexible understanding.

This point brings us back to the original question: what kind of group are you? Whatever formal structure you choose, or lack thereof, keep this in mind: A group that is well-versed in its ideas and in the origin of those ideas, that knows what it is fighting for and how it plans to fight for it, that can give historical examples of how their strategies have succeeded, that has anticipated the counterarguments of their adversaries and prepared answers to deflect all of them, and that is willing to grow, change, and learn from its mistakes while remaining steadfast to its principles…this group and its members will not be afraid, and will win support.


Chapter 3: Group Structure, Part One

Just so you know, bolded areas below are where I’ll be placing links in the future as more chapters are posted. Thanks for bearing with me.

The first thing I want to make very clear about group structure is this: structure is a reflection of a group’s purpose and often arises in the pursuit of that purpose and as a result of necessity. In the beginning, founders create a group, build it, and engage in various activities with it. In doing so, group-members work together and interpersonal bonds and relationships form as a result of working together. Structure, or something like it, almost inevitably arises as an organic outcropping of these activities and interpersonal dynamics. Hence, there will be leaders, there will be sort-of leaders, there will be members, there will be supporters and sympathizers, et cetera, even before any formal structure has been decided upon.

It is important not to try to impose inorganic and artificial structures on your group before it has even begun to actively pursue its goals or grown its membership. Structure—its nuance, its implementation, its administration, and the interpersonal dynamics that can arise from it—can all pose formidable distractions to your goals if they are adopted too early. It is very easy for someone to start thinking about structures and getting all kinds of idealistic images in their head for the “perfect” structure before your group has even gotten its fifth member.

So, if your group tries to adopt a structure, or form committees and elect a president, et cetera, and the structure doesn’t last, or if election results are not taken seriously, or if folks can’t properly delegate or be delegated to…in short, if your structure or election doesn’t seem to mean anything, perhaps this is because it did not arise naturally or as the result of organizational necessity. Perhaps it is not the right structure, or it is too early to be concerning yourself with structure. A group functions best when people work together, listen to each other, take each others’ instructions, and defend each others’ freedom because they have worked together and trust each other, not because some structure, however well-intentioned, tells them to do so. So that is important to keep in mind.

That said, in a two­-pronged organizational structure, it is important to consider questions of structure because you are bringing together two different types of activist with probably greatly differing personalities and worldviews, and having answers to these questions can help avoid the kinds of hazards that can arise when different types of people work together.

In order for your group to grow and thrive, it helps if activists are given tasks and roles in areas that interest them whenever possible. One advantage of the two-­pronged approach is that it provides a wide array of roles both for the “rebels” (for those who feel constrained by politics and rules) and for the “crusaders” (those who derive a sense of empowerment from them). Many people are somewhere in the middle. 

Another distinction can be drawn: organizers of a revolution, versus administrators of that revolution. But they are both, in their own way, fighting for the revolution.

Revolutionary consciousness must be maintained within the reformist wing, and an understanding of the tactics in use by the reformist wing must be maintained within the radical wing. Full communication and a sharing of resources are necessary. Therefore, an extremely clear enumeration of principles and goals must be established from the outset, and it must be referenced and refined on a regular basis, if full understanding of the group’s tasks is to be maintained.

Here is a metaphor to illustrate my point. If you are trying to get to the other side of a river, building a bridge is one method of doing so, as is attempting to find a way around. Both ways are valid.

The bridge-­builders should not criticize the go­-arounders for wandering off to find a way around the river when they could be helping build the bridge, nor should the go­-arounders criticize the bridge-­builders for spending time finding materials and putting forth effort to build the bridge when they could be helping with finding a way around the river.

Rather, the go-­arounders should be free to find their way around the river, and the bridge-­builders should be free to build their bridge, and when the bridge has been built and is placed across the river, the go­-arounders—who, having found a way around and are already on the other side—will be in a perfect position to grasp it and set it firmly in place, so that the entire mass of people, and anyone else who follows, can safely and easily cross the river.

The same dynamic applies in the student struggle. The radicals need the reformists, and the reformists need the radicals. The students occupying a building require the help of supportive students outside the building who choose not to occupy, but who are free to shout slogans, distribute literature, draw more attention to the cause, and work on supporting the occupiers with food and other necessities. This understanding­­­ of mutual need­­­ must be made as clear as the program and its methods. It is a more inclusive program, a more dynamic one, with more routes of recruitment and methods of success at its disposal, and a far greater net of appeal to cast.


Charterment: General Overview

The question of whether a radical student organization should be formal, ­­­by which I mean chartered and/or recognized by the school, ­­­or informal and free of both any bureaucratic organizational restraints and the student government money and recognition that are the supposed reward of those restraints, is a challenging one that can depend on the material conditions.

As an unchartered organization at MSU, SDS often used bake sales to raise money for our printing fees and other expenses. Then one day, while we were selling brownies and bananas in University Hall, the police arrived and informed us that no non­-chartered organizations were allowed to sell food on campus. Why? The “reasoning” is twofold: a) all food sales on campus are contracted through the food provider, Sodexo, and b) we had “no authorization” and had not reserved the space. We fought it as best we could; Comrade Greg spoke to the uniformed and gun­-toting cops for over an hour in the middle of the busy academic building. But there was virtually no alternative. It wasn’t the time to mount some sort of massive insurrection over some brownies. If we’d been chartered, and had gone through the process to reserve the space, et cetera, we (theoretically) would have had no problem. Yet the SGA funds (which come directly from students) to which we would have been entitled might have forestalled the need for a bake sale in the first place. So there you go.

However, I say “theoretically” above not merely rhetorically, but because being chartered is no guarantee of being left alone. SGAs and universities often use the “process” to complicate, restrict. and monitor student activity. At Montclair State, at least, there is a minimum of “events” each student group must hold in order to maintain its funding, and the SGA must give its approval to each event.

So, if a highly apolitical SGA doesn’t think your event is “appropriate,” they can deny you funding for it.

And if a chartered organization doesn’t hold enough events, they can lose their funding altogether. Why? Not because there is so little money to go around (there was a $1 million surplus in the SGA funds my Junior year and most every other), but because the SGA wants to be informed and aware of what the organizations are doing (and able to approve or reject “inappropriate” activities through their “democratic” vote).

This repressive tendency is euphemistically referred to as “managed activism,” and is a tool of the university administration to prevent student political awareness or involvement. Though SGAs are often generally unwilling to take political stances on anything of national or political importance, they are usually all too willing to impose their narrow view of what is politically acceptable, or “politically correct,” on a student organization. This illustrates the role of most SGAs themselves as defenders of the status quo, which I will discuss in a separate section.

So it is important to decide if the organization you are building wants to have to devote some or any amount of effort and attention to following SGA rules and regulations, and dealing with any other obligations attached to that (such as dealing with SGA legislators for the writing of bills, following posting procedures, or attending SGA meetings, where political items are often put last on the agenda as a repressive measure so as few people hear them as possible).

Being actively repressed by an SGA is not without legal recourse; organizations like FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) exist to assist students who feel their rights have been violated, specifically free speech rights. In 2014, the Students for Justice in Palestine at Montclair State chapter won a ruling with FIRE’s assistance that demanded SJP be allowed to distribute a specific political pamphlet calling for an end to apartheid in Israel, after the SGA attempted to prohibit such publications as “divisive” and “inappropriate” and imposed “sanctions” on SJP, fining it 5% of its budget. This was a victory for free speech, and demonstrated to the entire student body that the edicts of “authority” figures need not be deferred to without question.

Additionally, SGAs are often incorporated bodies, governed by laws like any other corporation that forbid discrimination against political beliefs and are compelled to uphold our civil rights. (And no, being a 501c(3) nonprofit, as many student governments are, does NOT bar them from engaging in political activity. This is a common myth). Being formally recognized by the SGA can add to a group’s credibility, recognition, and human resources among the student body, in addition to the monetary resources I mentioned earlier. Chartering may or may not be worth it; you have to decide.

Ideally, because of its monetary and PR benefits, chartering is the better approach, granted you have someone(s) in your organization who is comfortable and happy being in charge of overseeing adhesion to SGA rules and making sure everyone knows the important ones (without being a divisive, nagging, goody-goody bureaucrat about it). Additionally, if you install someone in the SGA to write bills for you and who knows the system, that further simplifies the process.

But these individuals must be committed to your group and its task, not half­-assed about it. SDS at Montclair State was de­chartered for not following some posting procedures, and while it certainly did not spell the end of anything, it did affect our credibility in some quarters. Not following that piddling procedure posed a perfect excuse for the SGA to silence the message reflected on the offending flyer. While bureaucratic repression of your message is often a sign that you’re doing something right, it is not something to be precipitated through neglect. If it was to be precipitated deliberately, as a tactic, well, that’s a different story. But still probably not a good one.

Let me be clear, however; SGA infiltration by active members of your group is a necessary part of the overall two­-pronged approach, whether or not your group decides to become chartered. It does not have to begin immediately upon your group’s creation, but it must happen down the line.

Part of the potential advantage of being chartered is that it provides your group with concrete structure. There is usually an “executive board,” or e­-board, consisting of a President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer, or some variation thereon. Whether or not they are fully observed, the roles for these positions are predefined. Additionally, chartered organizations generally have constitutions that are created to define the group’s basic goals, its structure, and the rules that govern membership within it (I discuss constitutions in detail in another section.) In the hands of capable, hard­working activists, this strict structure could prove a boon for optimizing efficiency, identifying a democratic chain­-of-­command, allowing for the removal of ineffective e­-board members, and clearly defining what the group “is all about,” among other advantages.

However, if the activists in your group are resistant to a structure that mimics that of the Establishment, and become unreliable in the face of it, or if they are against it on principle, then a non­-chartered organization might be a better option. There is really nothing wrong with either way of doing it. (However, having chartered front groups is a good idea in the future. But I’ll discuss that later.)

Just as there are complications arising from being chartered, certain complications can also arise in an unchartered group. The question of structure often comes up, and whether or not to utilize common formalities as President, Vice President, et cetera, or perhaps to embrace a more horizontal structure as popularized by the Occupy movement, or to adopt no formal structure whatsoever and keep things “spontaneous,” “open,” and “fluid” (which can sometimes translate to “one or two people do all the work and everyone else just shows up if and when something gets planned.”)

The issue of structure can become a sensitive one, especially when everyone has gotten used to things being a certain way. Then, when someone gets frustrated with the perceived inequities or inefficiencies of structurelessness, they are viewed as a “bureaucrat” or “reformist” for wanting to foist all of this responsibility and accountability on people that wasn’t there before. Of course, if such a transition is handled poorly, i.e. insensitively or coercively by its proponents, such contempt would be  at least partly warranted. Long-building resentments and interpersonal tension can boil over, leading to divisions and splits. Hence, it is good to figure out at least the basics of your structure earlier, when you see the signs that it might be a good idea, rather than later, when it may be too late.

All right, I’m going to cut through the B.S. and give you the honest truth: having no structure at all and actively resisting structure indefinitely is a bad idea. If you ever want your group to grow, there are a handful of benefits to having some formal, predetermined structure. In no particular order, here they are:  

The first is the appearance of unity, organization, and “realness,” signifying that you, as a group, actually exist. The second is the establishment of leaders who constitute the public face of the organization and can speak for it, which is very helpful in building credibility. These folks can also be enlisted to run for student government office when the time is right, and having built a public profile, they may have an actual chance of winning.

The third is potentially having many different roles for people and new members, rather than everything being vague and undefined. The fourth is a chain of command—whether top-down, bottom-up, horizontal, or whatever—that allows decisions to be made. The fifth is the way in which a clear structure helps your group process a growing membership and gives new members a sense of belonging, of being an actual “member” instead of just someone who hangs out with the cool political kids. And the sixth is creating a means by which your group maintains its existence after you and its other founders/leaders have graduated.

All of these benefits highlight what, in my opinion, should be some of the priorities of any radical student organization. If any of these points are not met, the chance of success and persistence is greatly diminished. That is why I have provided my “Ideal Group Structure,” not as something to necessarily be strictly adhered to, but to illustrate the importance and necessity of certain leadership roles and to inspire your group to find its own way of fulfilling that necessity.

When Do We Need a President?

Your group may already have its leaders, who are often its founders, but when does an unchartered group need a “president,” a “secretary,” and the like? The answer is twofold: when the group has enough members and activities—meetings, outreach, disruptions, reading groups, long-term campaigns, et cetera—to keep track of that having some kind of internal bureaucracy may be helpful for keeping it all straight, and two, when the group is trying to create a public profile.

If no one can agree on a certain structure, or the structure cannot be committed to and is constantly being changed or removed, maybe it is too early to impose a structure on your group. Maybe its structure will arise over time, through the actions and behaviors of its members, or through necessity, as I said earlier.

However, the decision of whether or not to establish titled leadership positions should rest first and foremost on whether folks are ready and able to commit to and make the most of such positions. In other words, the positions need to actually mean something.

So if a group holds an internal election to elect its first president, folks need to accept those results as legitimate. The purpose of any structure is to define roles and allow for decisions to be made. 

Leadership means leading: delegating tasks, articulating goals, integrating the concerns of members, and acting as the face of the organization and helping to establish its public profile.

It is important to remember that, when utilizing a two-pronged structure, the need for a public profile will arise; sooner or later, the people will need to know who you are if you want them to work with you on making the large-scale changes that you seek.

If your goal is to remain “underground” indefinitely, unknown, and ineffective, by all means spurn the concept of a public profile (and, I will discuss the topic of underground splinter groups, which act in concert with the above-ground group, elsewhere). If, however, you want to win the support of the people and, by extension, win the privilege of fighting for their interests, they are going to want to know who you are.

If you’re the type of person who feels that having your “role defined” is limiting to you as a person, then, again, belonging to a formal structure is probably not for you, but don’t project your fear of authority and positions and titles onto your entire group, because without any structure at all, your group’s ability to function (especially when its numbers increase) may be limited as a result.

A Note on Leaders and Followers

If we can agree that the purpose of structure is to create a chain of command, to allow decisions to be made, to facilitate a public profile, to allow the group to continue after you graduate, and to give roles and corresponding tasks to everyone in the group so that no one is burdened with all of the work, any activist who resists establishing structure out of hand needs to ask herself a question: despite my sincere progressive or revolutionary fervor, am I too afraid of commitment to my task or to this group to allow for formalized decisions to be made to which I am subject? Do I just not want to be held accountable if I lose interest in my role, or if our efforts fail? Do I just want the freedom to walk away at any time? If the answer is yes, then you should not enlist or run for any position because you are not a leader. At least, not yet.

This is going to sound harsh, but at present, you are not yet even a follower. You do not even follow yourself, at least politically. As a prospective activist reading this book, you probably are aware that something in this world is not right. You are ill at ease; you feel that society produces more unhappiness than happiness, more dullness than joy or vivacity. Your conscience reacts negatively to a general injustice that you perceive all around you. Yet, perhaps you do not yet possess an understanding of the specifics of that injustice—why it exists, where it comes from, who suffers from or perpetrates it—so your understanding of it is entirely emotional, not factual. Concrete convictions are necessary for concrete actions, or at least they certainly help, and a wholly emotional understanding of something doesn’t generally lead to concrete convictions.

If your mind changes, which it often does, you lose interest. You are unable to focus on any goal or endeavor, especially if it involves other people and their convictions. Does being this way make you a bad person? No. Not only that, but it is also completely understandable to be this way. Life is a confusing, murky mess, and the more you learn, often the less sense it seems to make.

Still, I think part of this inability to commit to certain ideas, goals, or priorities can originate in a fear of new ideas, and of being a follower of them. The prospect of embracing or “adhering to” certain ideas seems equated with an inability to evolve, adapt, and grow. If I was a prospective new member of a group, and the group’s leaders seemed inflexible and unable to articulate relevant answers to my questions, and they seemed dogmatic, reflexive, and insincere in everything they said, I probably wouldn’t want to be a member.

Sadly, many people in leadership positions—whether politicians, CEOs, and even our own parents—are like this. They push a doctrine that seeks our obedience, not our understanding. So it is understandable why someone, especially a younger person, would be wary of commitment to their ideas. This skepticism is actually a good thing. 

One question you can ask yourself is, why can’t I commit? I sometimes attribute this tendency to what I call “ideaphobia.”

There are two forms of ideaphobia. The first is fear of ideas that seem complicated, such as political, economic, or philosophical ideas. One begins to feel “out of one’s element” when such ideas and concepts are being discussed, perhaps a sense of inadequacy, as though they doubt they will ever be “masters” of the subject matter as the “seasoned” activists seem to be. Often in these cases, the person’s mind opts for more familiar, safer, “lighter” territory, which might include subjects like sports, TV shows, craft beers, comics, art films, fashion, or any other “enthusiasm,” any other commoditized incarnation of consumer capitalist connoisseurism, none of which is inherently wrong or bad in and of itself.

See? Maybe I just gave you a little ideaphobia. Or at least a small headache.

It is up to the leaders and members of a group to avoid inducing this type of ideaphobia on prospective members, mainly by being willing to explain certain concepts and speak with as few acronyms and abbreviations as possible when necessary. But I’ll discuss this in the section pertaining to meetings.

The other type of ideaphobia is the fear that allowing the ideas or movements of other people to influence your moral or ideological development will limit your individuality.

This is very common because it is an extension of the dominant idea of “every man for himself” American-style individualism. If you’d like to read my personal experience with ideaphobia, which pertains to the ideaphobia of the artist, please do.

Being an ideaphobe doesn’t make you a bad person, of course, and it is undoable. Despite the widespread perception that we are “individuals” and possess “free will,” most people, including me, are follower-types, not leader-types. By that, I mean we function more effectively when expectations are given to us or determined in cooperation with other people, and less so when we try to impose expectations on ourselves. We don’t necessarily crave the spotlight, at least not when it comes to espousing political opinions. Yet we are as absolutely necessary to changing society as we are to keeping it the same. And students, young folks who are still discovering who we are, are rife with both types of ideaphobia. The Establishment knows this and tries to uphold it, because not knowing who you are makes you easier to control; you can easily be made to doubt yourself, your ideas, and your power.

The question is, assuming you seek a better, more just society, are you a good follower? Do you do what is required of you to accomplish the goal? Are you informed by what needs to be done rather than what you feel like doing at any particular time? Not “are you selfless?” but are you willing? Do you seek to become better armed with knowledge and experience to become more effective? Do you listen to the personal experiences of others and try to integrate them into your overall understanding, rather than rejecting them because they don’t fit your preconceived understanding of reality? Do you listen to your leaders (whether they are other students or read in books) and question them when they are mistaken? These are the trademarks of a good follower, one who seeks to become a leader.

And the trademark of a good leader is to empower others. Your group, and the student movement in general, should strive to inform and empower its activists to the point that they are all self­-motivated and clear­-minded, willing to take orders (or requests) and give them as the conditions require, and possessing a keen conviction based on knowing that we are right. If everyone was self­-motivated, collaborative, communicative, and clear­minded—­­­a leader—­­­there would be no need for structures of any kind. At that point, the formality of the structure disappears, and things just “work,” because we are all the same level of understanding, devotion, and purpose.

In the meantime, those who don’t seek to become leaders, who wish to remain unrooted and “free,” are still necessary to our task. Remember, all students are on the same side; we must try to bring as many “free people” into the struggle as possible, as supporters at least, and if we are failing, we must be willing to admit it is not because people are “naturally apathetic,” but rather that we are not communicating effectively (or perhaps we are targeting the wrong people with our message). We can’t articulate how our ideas relate to them or how their self-interest is negatively impacted by the status quo.

And, of course, there are those who simply resist any subversive idea out of hand (“compliance idealism,” reactionary proto­fascists), whose minds will never be changed, whether out of a knee-jerk distaste for anything that “rocks the boat,” or because they enjoying creating chaos and strife from a position of privilege. But I will discuss them more later.

But herein lies the beginning of identifying your group’s “natural” structure at its most basic level: it has its core (leaders), its members (good followers who strive to be leaders), and its supporters (the “free” people who, for whatever reason, can’t commit to the group but who may feel the same ill-ease that you do). And of course there are those member/supporters who can’t commit because their lives are too busy, with multiple jobs, family obligations, and the like. These pressing “real life” concerns are not to be trivialized; sometimes these folks are the most radical because they have suffered more of society’s injustices than the activist who has the free time to dedicate every waking hour to activism. And guess what? We need them too, very badly.