As of this writing, there is a lot of fear that election day, and the weeks after, will be full of civil unrest. Optimistically, many of us hope that the civil unrest could be harnessed into mass action to resist the newly consolidated fascist movement, inoculate people against illusions in a Biden presidency, and win some of the radical demands we need to uplift our class.
However, the US Left hasn’t navigated social unrest on this scale since the Civil Rights movement. For most of us, living memory doesn’t provide any clear experience or guidance for what to expect and how to strengthen our side. This means we need to be bold and experiment with strategies and tactics that can position us in a way that, win or lose, leaves us stronger than before.
But please notice that I mentioned “living memory.” While history does not like to repeat itself, it loves to rhyme. The challenge for socialists to win the trust and leadership of the masses requires us to figure out how to provide the leadership that encourages others to join us in struggle around concrete objectives while giving everyone the freedom to uphold their own positions regarding the struggle.
In that spirit, here is a brief history of organizing Unemployment Day coupled with some positive and negative lessons.
To Strike a Contrast
Miguel A of Chicago Boricua Resistance (CBR) and I bottom-lined Unemployment Day in the hopes we could win people to a particular model of organizing protests.
- We did not want to plan an entire protest and then ask other organizations for their endorsement.
- We also did not want to call for a “decentralized” protest with no organization in control and no one responsible for the outcome.
- Instead, we did want to invite as many organizations as possible to a planning call to figure out what the action should be and get maximum buy-in for building it.
The idea would be that together, any organizations that asked to join the call would democratically plan what the event would be, when and where it would be, and how it would be executed. The goal was to have different groups take on the various responsibilities needed to bring the event together. The hope was that this would both make the action as large as possible, while also giving the collaborating organizations a chance to build trust with one another.
March Separately but Strike Together
The only commitment that everyone shared was that everyone had to build the event within their membership and base. Outside of that, groups were free to take on whichever tasks they liked. They were all invited to every organizing call leading up to the event. Finally, everyone was given complete freedom of speech. Every organization was encouraged to bring their own banners, signs, slogans, chants, and demands. No one was to be censored. Hypothetically, if any organization committed to the event had decided to publicly criticize Unemployment Day or any of the organizing that led to it, that would have been fair game.
To be clear, we were not a coalition, with permanent meetings into the indefinite future. We did not come together to form a new organization. We were separate groups with various different political goals and perspectives. But we all agreed on the goal of organizing Unemployment Day and imbuing it with our specific perspectives while working together. We operated like a united front: a temporary and democratic collaboration of organizations to achieve a concrete goal.
For more on the political background and inspiration of the event, Miguel and I wrote up a type of manifesto for Midwest Socialist. For more on my personal inspiration for this, please see this article by Leon Trotsky on The United Front.
Invites and Organizing Calls
Miguel and I decided to host the first planning call on Sept 10th. We began sending out emails and other invitations the week before to see who might join. The first call was full of political discussion regarding the political moment, the excitement at the idea of Unemployment Day, and excitement at the possibilities of what we could organize for the event.
We agreed to have a rally, tabling with mutual aid groups, a speaker’s list, and a march: all to be executed on Saturday, Oct 3rd. We had weekly calls to iron out the details. As more people heard about the event, they signed on and began to join the planning calls.
On the day of the event, things went off without any problems. Event organizers arrived early at Union Park, tables were set up. Groups like Chicago Afro-socialists and Socialists of Color (AfroSOC), Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), mutual aid groups like Humboldt Park Mutual Aid (HPMA) and Logan Square Mutual Aid (LSMA) all set up tables with their banners and literature.
We had an amazing list of speakers that delivered both personal and collective stories and perspectives about the crisis we’ve been facing and the solutions we need. Comrades that had heard of each other and organized over Zoom were finally able to connect in person, share contact information, and consolidate their trust.
Finally, we were able to kick off our march with the aid of Chicago DSA’s Red Rabbits as our marshals. We took the streets, marching from Union Park, through upscale brunch areas of Fulton Market, Randolph Street, and Madison Street, ending back at the park for closing remarks and a safe dispersal. We had somewhere between 150–250 people march with us as we chanted “fuck 12”, “out of your houses, into the streets”, and “eat the rich” on some of Chicago’s ritziest streets.
A hypothesis and experiment are only as good as the seriousness that is applied to the results. Serious analysis means we have to honestly confront what we did right and what we did wrong in order to try and improve the results for future experiments.
Points for Improvement
Turnout — The hope had been that we could rekindle the mass actions of the uprising. At the height of the uprising, it was possible to get thousands of people to hit the streets, even if the people calling the event were just anonymous individuals calling a protest via social media. In practice, we only got 250 people (at most) to attend the event: all of us were members of the organizations that collaborated on the event.
We were slow to put out social media graphics to promote the event and we only put up posters on two separate occasions.
I also attribute some of this to the general lull in the protests as the uprising fizzled out. The explosion to the specific police-murder of George Floyd could not be predicted. Similarly, it could not be predicted if there would be an explosion of protests when the Kentucky Grand Jury let Breonna Taylor’s murderers off the hook. When there were no major protests, I assumed our protest would also be small from collective exhaustion combined with a collective eye toward the upcoming presidential election.
Invites — We started off sending invitations based on two factors: which organizations did we know and which did we think would resonate with the general concept of Unemployment Day. As the organizing took off, more organizations heard of it and signed on. If we could do it over again, it would also have been useful to power-map what organizations we had no connection to, but we aspired to work with. We could have invited them, regardless of whether or not the concept of the event was an “obvious” fit for them, in order to systematically expand our network.
Demands — As we marched, it became clear that we did not have clearly articulated demands. For example, most of the chants at the start of the march were simply recycling the Defund chants we had used during the uprising. That was excellent and entirely appropriate, but it lacked a vision of what we wanted to do after defunding the police. We lacked chants and slogans that clearly explained what the social safety net would look like.
We attempted to incorporate chants about “tear down the wall, build up the safety net”, and some similar slogans. But these were thought of in the moment and exposed our blind spots.
To be clear, I’m not sure if this means the event needed more concrete demands, or if the organizations needed more concrete demands of their own. In either case, it was clear that those of us in Chicago DSA were not prepared to explain what we wanted. This is an open question for me.
Assignments — All organizations performed wonderfully in the organizing and execution of the event. However, there were definitely a handful of people that took on the bulk of the tasks. My sense is that this was because of the typical reasons: we were all over-stretched as it is, we were all exhausted by the uprising and still recovering from it, and we were all feeling each other out and some groups may have been hesitant to bottom-line some work while collaborating with folks they’d just met.
If I could do it over again, I would have hopped on a call with each organization that agreed to join the planning calls. The goal of the calls would have been to identify what they specifically thought they might be able to bring to the organizing and get some pre-commitments. That way, planning calls wouldn’t lead to awkward moments where someone asks “who is willing to bottom-line this-or-that?” only for no one step up.
The phone calls would have added a lot of work, up front. But it would have helped delegate the work and prevented a few people from taking on a majority of the tasks, saving time and energy in the long run.
Points of Celebration
Comrades of Color at the Front — Groups like CBR, AfroSOC, CAARPR, and comrades of color, in general, felt like a predominant presence. This may have just been my read (as a Latinx person), but it really felt like the event itself was very clearly led by comrades of color and that felt uniquely beautiful. Especially since the event was clearly of a socialist theme and socialist politics are largely considered to be “white” territory.
Collective Stress Test — As I mentioned, between the George Taylor murder and Breonna Taylor verdict: it was difficult to tell what the energy and mood of the masses would be. Organizing the protest gave us a concrete sense of the mood of the masses: exhaustion. Without sacrificing anything, we were able to execute a collective stress test.
Organizational Stress Test — Specifically regarding Chicago DSA, I felt that it gave me a better sense of how we operate, our ability to coordinate within the organization, and who we are able to turnout.
It showed how many of our own members we could reach to mobilize for the event, as well as what organizations we could help bring to the table and that was a major benefit.
Both the collective and organizational stress tests will be necessary for the coming weeks, to help instigate and prepare for any new uprisings. By being the organization that initiates these actions, we position ourselves as a leadership organization, not just an organization that “uplifts” the actions of others. In this way, we better position ourselves to be the ones to call for the united front, collaborative actions in the future.
An Event of Our Own — So many events during the uprising were planned last minute, and either by anonymous individuals or by individual organizations. There was a real sense at Unemployment Day that the groups that worked together to plan and execute this needed this moment for themselves. We needed a moment to collectively be our radical selves and shout “eat the rich, feed the poor” in the streets of Chicago. We needed the pressure release and we decided to create the space for that on our own terms. All of that was “spiritually” necessary (so to speak), even if the turnout was mainly the organizers ourselves and our own members. This aspect of it can’t be discounted.
Events like this keep our spirits up during the lulls of class struggle, as we organize to instigate, and prepare for, the next social explosions.
Networking and Trust — The day or two after the event, I was getting messages from comrades asking me to connect them with each other after meeting at the event. That is exactly the foundational purpose of all political action: to introduce organizers to each other. All politics is about who you know. The only way to know people is to meet them via organizing and struggle. This is also the only way to build trust for future joint-struggle. In that regard, Unemployment Day fulfilled the goal of getting members of various groups together to meet in person and connect with one another.
Unemployment Day had its fair share of successes and failures. But overall, I see the model of calling events collaboratively as the best way forward while we navigate the period between the November 3rd election and the presidential inauguration on January 20th.
For CDSA, it gives us a chance to provide leadership after an entire summer where we mainly provided support and uplifted the protests of other organizations. For Chicago’s broad Left, it gives us a chance to learn to work together without the constraints of coalitions where there is a demand for uniformity and silence of criticism. Using collaborative planning for distant events also helps us get used to working together so that we can more easily collaborate on emergency events as well.
Lastly, organizing collaborative events like this helps us create low-investment stress tests to continuously gauge both the mood of our membership and the mood of the masses.
This is a model we should apply more regularly to explore and normalize united front tactics and bind Chicago’s Left more tightly so that we’re better prepared to help lead the next uprising rather than primarily reacting to it.
Special thanks to Miguel A for proposing Unemployment Day, to Sarah R and Brian B for debriefing and extracting lessons, and to Sarah-Ji Rhee for photographing the event.