Activism Then & Now: Organizing in the Pre-Twitter Era
Recently a contemporary member of the new resistance asked me- a veteran of the 1960s resistance- how we managed to organize a movement without social media. How indeed?
I came of political age in the late 1960s, when my Milwaukee high school was consumed by movements for change: for an end to discriminatory housing and segregated schools, for Black history textbooks, for free speech.
I was an introverted white kid from a working-class family with no political pedigree. But the idea of social justice and fairness, and the realization that authority is often a paper tiger, somehow clamped a hold on my teenage imagination.
My high school rebellion soon morphed from Dadaist pranks into antiwar and draft resistance, and I eventually found my way to the Communist Party USA, where I remained active for eight years. Here my scope widened and I participated in dozens of campaigns- labor solidarity with striking workers, the fight to impeach Nixon, support for the struggles of welfare moms- the roster of capitalist indignities was (and remains) endless.
Long-term, ongoing struggles were our main pre-occupation. But from time to time there were political emergencies that required quick mobilization: the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile (that other September 11, in 1973); the arrest of our comrade Angela Davis; and, always, the latest atrocities in Southeast Asia.
We communicated well enough to respond to both types of imperatives, often in impressive numbers, and without the casual ease of social media tools. But how?
The most elementary form of mass communication, our lifeline, was the leaflet. It was relatively cheap to maintain an AB Dick mimeograph machine, and no credible movement office was without one.
1968 was not just the pre-twitter era, it was pre-Xerox copier era. If you needed something reproduced, you did it yourself. We wrote, designed, printed and distributed hundreds of thousands of flyers during my CP years.
Note that we are not speaking here of what some elementary school nostalgics recall as the “ditto machine,” which generated those damp, lavender-scented sheets handed out in classrooms.
The mimeograph machine was a much nastier beast. Text was typed and drawn on stencil sheets, which were unforgiving of error. These were then attached to a rotating barrel filled with sludge-like ink, and, if all went well, a ream of flyers could be run off in a few minutes. But woe to the comrade who left the barrel in the down position, as the morning shift would find a gallon of spilled ink on HQ floor.
The loud, rhythmic clacking of the mimeograph machine is the soundtrack that comes to mind when I think about every movement office I remember. We printed so many leaflets, newsletters, fund-raising appeals, meeting minutes and memos that mimeo runs had to be scheduled in advance. When the machine broke down- a common occurrence- it was as if our very voice had been silenced.
For the rare, large-scale distribution, we’d resort to a professional printer, always making sure the union bug appeared prominently. But this was expensive. The mimeograph machine was the movement workhorse, and the single piece of technology that stood in most closely for the mass emailing and social media postings we take for granted today.
The distribution of printed propaganda could sometimes be highly inefficient. On the one hand, we passed out thousands of pocket-sized cards explaining the rights of draftees outside the induction center in downtown Milwaukee, where the match between message and target audience was clear. Feedback was immediate, and antiwar inductees we identified this way sometimes became very effective draft counsellors themselves.
But the many early mornings we spent at plant gates, distributing the CP newspaper The Daily World to bleary-eyed first shift workers- like the neighborhood door-to-door routes we endlessly tried to build- were scattershot and distinctly less productive.
But there was always the sense that we might be raising a little consciousness. Sure, there was the can of paint dumped on our heads, and the occasional unpleasantness at the bar across from the plant where we mingled with third shift workers who had just punched out, and whose consciousness hadn’t been sufficiently raised. But it was important to persevere in hopes of reaching that one receptive worker.
There was also the inspirational feedback from comrades who worked inside the plant, many politically closeted, who described how thrilled they were to see coworkers walking around with the Daily World sticking out of their pockets.
Perhaps there’s a better, cleaner, socially mediated way of reaching factory workers today, but the face-to-face experience of distributing a communist newspaper at 5:00am to American Motors workers made for a truly bracing sense of movement building.
The telephone was another technology without which the mid-century Left would have been immobilized, although we assumed that many of our calls were monitored.
Imagine organizing the simplest meeting, trying to find a time when, say, a dozen already over-taxed activists might be able to get together No cell phones, no answering machines, no voicemail. You had to catch someone at home, (and not on the phone already- remember busy signals?) or get a message to them, and hope they call back when you are near your phone, and not using it. For this reason, recurring meetings always ended with an agreement on the next meeting time and place, and changing it later was a complicated process.
For events and demonstrations, phone trees were an essential mobilizing tactic. Every organizer worth the name had a ready list of personal contacts who might be jolted into action on request. If you didn’t get someone you just kept calling back.
I’m amazed at the specificity with which events organized via social media can predict outcomes- “14,658 people are coming to this event!” (Though I wonder how many actually showed? And is a virtual event a real event as the term is usually understood?)
The results of our outreach were much harder to predict, so it was a satisfying morale boost to see a credible turnout for a picket line after a campaign of phoning, mailing and leafletting to get people there.
The quintessential 1960-70s structural format was the coalition. The antiwar movement was a vast coming together of hundreds of organizations, who sometimes only really agreed on one issue, and not always on how best to fight for it. Unions, civil liberties groups civil rights organizations and churches played a huge role, and would use their own long-established communication channels with their membership to build actions.
The sight of mass mailings being prepared in movement offices was as ubiquitous as the sound of the mimeo, and a key volunteer opportunity was the envelope-stuffing party. Bulk rate mailing permits were relatively cheap, and communicating by monthly newsletter (mimeographed, of course) was routine for most organizations.
What we call “mainstream media” today were not particularly friendly to the Generation Sixties resistance, although much work went into cultivating press relationships and getting news coverage before and after actions. This was usually in vain, and it was a uniquely deflating experience to come from a massive, highly successful action only to find no media coverage, or some caricature distorted beyond recognition.
The movement’s own media were extremely important for this reason. Every Left political flavor had its own newspapers and magazines, but there were also consensus sympathetic news sources like The National Guardian, Ramparts, The Nation and the early Village Voice that were invaluable for sharing information and fostering a sense of solidarity.
Bookstores performed a similar critical function. In Milwaukee, a bookshop started by radical Catholics around Marquette University called Rhubarb was a hub of organizing activity, offering meeting space, books, and camaraderie. (In addition to these non-denominational Left stores, the CP had bookshops in many major cities until the early 1970s.) Radical bookshops were a model that gave rise to the feminist and LGBT bookstores that later spread across the country, and were often a port of entry to the movement for the curious and unaffiliated.
As for differences in how we managed movement fund-raising, I gaze in awe at the jaw-dropping money-generating power of social media. Our generation’s organizations were sustained by regular contributors, who would pledge to send in a check each month. But many of these contributors required time-consuming cultivation, and were apt to waver in their commitment from time to time.
There was a steady stream of urgent financial demands, and people of means had to be hit up continually. I remember spending long hours meeting with deep-pocketed liberals, trying to convince them that our political emergency of the moment deserved their attention more than someone else’s. Chicken dinners and car washes also brought in a few bucks. In all, a far cry from Go Fund Me and Instant Giving apps.
Petitions were a potent organizing tool, but the signatures were collected at stores, schools, plant gates, and on busy street corners rather than amassed via clicks and likes. I wonder whether the stacks of paper petitions, bearing thousands of real signatures, were more effective than a forwarded email petition. But when does Capital respond to petitions in any form!
Education- raising public consciousness, and countering the establishment story line with our own- remains an essential component of any successful movement, and certainly was for ours. We organized teach-ins, sponsored lectures, and distributed books, pamphlets, and news articles in hopes of changing minds. But nothing we did can touch the effectiveness of contemporary digital resources, from instant news sharing to inventing and spreading clever subversive memes to devastating effect.
International contacts, the building of a feeling of solidarity, the idea that we’re part of a world-wide revolutionary movement: this is perhaps something we did better than 21st century activists are managing. But the worldwide Left seems fragmented and decimated, whereas it felt “on the march” in 1970. That’s a problem social media can’t fix by itself.
It’s sometimes shocking to be reminded that the radical movements of the late sixties, which still seem fresh to so many of us who joined and led them, took place fifty years ago. But for a young 2017 activist, seeking the wisdom of movement warhorses of that era would be something like our 1967 activist selves looking to the generation of 1917 for advice.
I spent dozens of long evenings in the warm company of old comrades, listening to their combat stories of the 1930s, reveling in the history I’d signed on to. And now I’m somehow one of those old timers telling stories about our generation’s past glories. But this is something precious for new young activists to know they have: a history.
The brave actions of our radical foremothers and fathers were organized at an even greater remove from the technological wonderland we inhabit today, yet they got it done. Their successes and failures- and ours- suggest that what’s decisive about strategy and tactics transcends technology.
There’s no question that social and digital media are transforming the way movements are built and organized. But technology by itself has never overthrown a tyrant nor seized state power- yet anyway.
I’m struck by the extent to which Facebook, Instagram and Twitter seem mainly like sites for political self-expression, places to declare yourself. It reminds me of how obsessed we once were with political buttons and badges. To walk through my high school wearing a peace button or armband (“Free the Milwaukee 14!), to ride the bus wearing my Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council sweatshirt (on the back: “Sock it to me Black Power”)- these totems made me feel incredibly powerful. Maybe building a passionate, political social media profile evokes the same feeling of empowerment today.
This sort of self-expression is a potent thing, but as a plan of action it’s just a start. Progress demands that the contemporary social media-based resistance overcome its fear and loathing of leadership, organization and ideology. Right now, we need a major pivot from the anarchistic and spontaneous to the organized and led. It’s unclear whether social media will be a friend or foe of that shift.
1) A working person even modestly active in the movement could have a meeting every night of the week. Sometimes it seemed like having meetings was the movement, perhaps in the way that frequent Facebook postings can come to seem like activism.
2) By 1971, there were two great competing antiwar coalitions- the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC) and the People’s Coalition for Peace & Justice (PCPJ). PCPJ, in which CP members were active, pressed for a slogan of “Set the Date!” (for a withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam); NPAC, under the sway of the Socialist Workers Party, objected on principle to this slogan because only immediate withdrawal- “out now!”- was an acceptable goal. At one of the last huge marches on Washington, NPAC led loud chants of “Out Now!” and PCPJ answered with “Set the Date!” We were actually screaming at each other in a somewhat hostile way, but the irony was that ordinary people along the march heard it as one coherent, and non-contradictory demand- “Out now, set the date!”
3) Q: “How did you deal with Milwaukee’s German-American Bund when they held pro-Nazi rallies?" A: “We beat them up!”
John Eklund is a writer based in Milwaukee. He has worked in bookselling, publishing, and was once a fulltime political functionary."