'This Kind of Strike Is Really Something New'

L.A. Kauffman, a historian of radical protest in America, fits the “Day Without a Woman” into history.

Protesters gather at a rally for International Women's Day in Los Angeles.  (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

L.A. Kauffman may have the best-timed book release in years.

For the past quarter century, Kauffman has been researching and writing a chronicle of post-1960s protest on the American left. She has found and interviewed the participants of Mayday 1971, a forgotten D.C. blockade that triggered the largest mass arrest in U.S. history; she has identified the origins of affinity groups and consensus-based decision-making; and she has detailed the actions of ACT UP, the anti-AIDS group that she calls “the most innovative, influential, and effective radical organization of the late-20th century.”

The fruits of that labor—a concise and comprehensive book called Direct Actioncame out late last month. It is her luck that it was released during the most fervent period of progressive mobilization since 1968. Many of the tactics that Kauffman details, previously on the margins, are now being deployed for the first time at a massive, nationwide scale.

Wednesday is one of those deployments. “The Day Without a Woman,” a “general strike” led by the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, calls for American women to give up their labor at work and at home for 24 hours. I was curious: How did Kauffman understand the strike? How does it compare to other major, post-1960s actions? And how should interested Americans think about the efficacy of protest?

I spoke with Kauffman about how protest movements become popular and how she has come to think change actually happens in the United States. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Robinson Meyer: My sense is that general striking is not a tactic that has been successfully executed, really, since the 1960s in the United States. Is that right?

L.A. Kauffman: It has not. There occasionally have been calls issued by small organizations that don’t have any traction. But there really has not been something that looks anything like a general strike in decades.

I’m not really a labor historian, so I can’t answer in detail about some of the earlier attempts at broad general strikes. But those were so long ago, and so different in character from what people are talking about now, that it’s really apples and oranges. In particular, earlier general strikes were an attempt to leverage the power of labor unions and oppositional organizations, and they were met by very violent crackdowns.

The whole dynamic is very different now. The model that’s being used is the “Day Without an Immigrant” model. It’s sectoral—the framing is a “general strike,” but in fact it’s coming from a particular sector and looking to demonstrate a level of collective power through mass noncompliance. It’s an approach that people have not used as much.

People have used various tactics of mass noncompliance; they’ve used boycotts; but this kind of strike is really something new. And it’s particularly new in that it’s redefining the general strike for an era in which organized labor is not going to be front and center. It’s redefining the general strike without the sense of it being led by a labor movement. What I find so compelling about it is that it shows a level of innovation, of people stretching the limits of the question: What can we do in this moment?

Meyer: You’ve written this history of protest tactics after 1970 in Direct Action. Are we seeing some of the largest-ever deployment of those exact tactics right now?

Kauffman: Yes, absolutely. People are trying these tactics in a way, and on a scale, that we simply haven’t seen before. And having that perspective [of the last 40 years] is important because, I think, a lot of people are going to be looking to compare what happens on Wednesday with the numbers on January 21. And that’s not really the point of comparison. The point of comparison is the absence of walkouts and sectoral strikes like this in the past, and that these tactics are being tried on a national scale for the first time.

We’ve had boycotts, we’ve had divestment campaigns, but outside of the immigrant-rights movement—which has been doing these Days Without an Immigrant for a while, this is hearkening back to the extraordinary mobilizations in 2006—[this kind of strike is] a tool that’s been used much more in other countries than here.

And it’s kind of appropriate that they would have this more global perspective on what tactics we might use in this moment. The immigrant-rights movement is composed of many people who had experience responding to authoritarian regimes in their own countries before they came here.

Meyer: What does success look like for those tactics in the United States?

Kauffman: There’s many different kinds of protests and mobilizations, and gauging the success of them is always contextual. It depends on what arena you’re struggling in, and what the objectives are, and what the time frame for evaluating the success is.

At this moment, the first and foremost job of the broad resistance is to continue to keep the Trump administration in a state of crisis, to contribute keeping them off balance and on the defensive. [Day Without a Woman] has the potential to be one of many moves that are contributing to that. I think it’s important—the organizers of the Women’s March have been very thoughtful and intentional trying to harness the incredible energy of January 21 and think about how to move forward and transform that mobilizing work into new kinds of organizing.

Bryan Woolston / Reuters

Meyer: What does that kind of mobilization and organization work entail?

Kauffman: Mobilizing is getting people to show up. Organizing is building groups, amassing collective power within some kind of organizational entity that’s going to follow an agenda over time.

So the “Day Without a Woman” is getting a lot of attention, but there hasn’t been as much attention to the fact that in the wake of January 21, the Women’s March called for—and people organized—5,000 small-group meetings all around the country to talk about this moment, to think about what steps people might take, and to take the self-mobilizing energy that made January 21 so massive and powerful and figure out how to put down deeper roots. You don’t keep it going by just calling for march after march.

Meyer: It was interesting reading about the late 60s in your book, which was another moment of mass mobilization. There, it did get to a point where people were tired of going to protests, and it seemed like that prompted some of the factionalization of the 1970s. People would go to demonstration after demonstration against the Vietnam War, and then they were eventually like, well, what are we demonstrating for?

Kauffman: There’s certain tactics during that specific period, the late 60s, that are pretty much off the table now. People were like, “Well, our marches and our demonstrations aren’t working, so maybe we need to go to street fighting. Or maybe we need to go to armed struggle.” And all those attempts backfired so spectacularly that those tactics are—and I expect will continue to be—off the table.

But this is a moment where people are looking very thoughtfully at what tools we have at our disposal that we haven’t used as much, like going to town-hall meetings. The left hasn’t particularly done that kind of organizing on a large scale, in the way that we saw during the “resistance recess” [last month]. Part of that is people thinking about running for office and engaging with the electoral process in a different way. We’re seeing a lot of interest in engaging with the Democratic party at a grassroots level in a way that… you know, the left has mostly defined itself against that party for decades.

Meyer: Why is that different now?

Kauffman: I think part of [the erosion of that divide] has been the decline of the ideological left and the rise of the many identity and issue-based movements, many of which have understood that they need to engage liberals and progressives in order to push forward their agenda. They may stand in oppostion to the corporate liberalism of the establishment Democratic party, but there’s not that same sense of a big ideological divide that there was for a time [during the ’60s].

Meyer: After surveying the long sweep of post-1960s protest on the left, is there a movement or story in your book that you hope people now would know about?

Kauffman: The one I always cite first and foremost is ACT UP, which managed to accomplish an absolutely staggering amount despite never having had very large numbers compared to, say, the anti-war movement. It’s always much smaller than other movements that we’ve had. It was always socially and culturally on the margins and proud of that. It was disruptive, and rude, and in your face, and very bold and aggressive. And it succeeded—through its persistence, and its willingness to use controversial tactics—in transforming the drug testing and approval process and saving literally millions of lives.

As people are experimenting now with the ways that we can be a check on the Trump administration policies, the lesson there is that we should be willing to be unpopular, to do things that are controversial, to use tactics that are going to be criticized—all within the broad framework of nonviolence. There’s a lot of evidence that when you step outside of strictly nonviolent tactics, the negative reactions outweigh the positive gains.

[People have said,] “Well you’re not going to be reaching Trump voters if you do this, you’re not going to be reaching that broad middle.” I mean, that’s not how change happens in this country. There are kinds of change that happen that way, but the kind of change that has led us to have progress for LGBT folks across a period of mostly conservative governance, for instance, comes from bold, outsider activism that has been sustained and persistent and usually controversial in the moment.

Meyer: There’s been this discussion among writers on The Atlantic: Should protesters be bold and uncompromising and disruptive, or should they be visibly patriotic, and think about how their actions will play on TV in Ohio and Michigan? What’s an example of a disruptive and controversial but ultimately successful tactic like that from, say, ACT UP?

Kauffman: You can go to something that people know better than they know ACT UP, which is the movement to end racial segregation in the South in the Fifties. At the time, if you go back and look at public-opinion data from the period, the Civil Rights Movement was very unpopular. And its actions were consistently criticized as being polarizing and not reaching this mythical person in Ohio. “People are turned off by this. Why do you have to sit at the lunch counters? Isn’t there a way to do this that’s less disruptive? Did you really have to put everybody on that bus together and cross state lines? Look at the violence you provoked!”

There’s a way in which people fail to see that the consensus in favor of the changes that movement wrought—they always come after they’ve won. Nothing makes a movement popular like winning. And to get to winning, you almost always have to do things that are controversial and unpopular. That doesn’t mean you have to be rioting and burning American flags—people will criticize you just for marching on Washington. But particularly when the odds are long, it’s in those stronger tactics that you’re able to create the crisis that forces decision makers to move your way, to accede to your demands.

Meyer: You just alluded to this, but I want to get your I’ve-been-working-on-a-book-for-25-years-and-here’s-the-answer-I-finally-came-up-with answer. How does change happen in this country?

Kauffman: I think, in a way, it’s kind of how Trumpism happened.

Change happens slowly and unevenly over time, but it usually starts at the margins. It usually starts with people who are putting forth a vision that is dramatically at odds with the existing reality, whether their vision is women being able to vote, or black and white folks being able to live together in harmony and share public accommodations and schools. It’s been, time and time again, the actions of unpopular trailblazers that have over time catalyzed change, persuaded many others, rallied them to their pole of action by standing strong with a vision of something different—rather than watering [that vision] down with some idea that you’re going to get more adherents by doing so. That’s the great mistake of neoliberalism and Clintonism and the Democratic Party, and it’s why the Democratic party lost.

A gift of taking 25 years to write a book is that, by the time I finally got around to finishing it, I was able to take a long view of what has worked and what hasn’t worked. [You can] evaluate what movements did on a long horizon, so that you’re not just saying, “Well, the occupation of Seabrook Nuclear Plant [in 1976] kind of fell apart, and the movement dissolved into infighting, and they weren’t able to mount another protest.” Instead, you say, you know what? Not another nuclear plant was built for decades after Seabrook.

You have to have the long view and say, what that [protest] did was that it threw a monkey wrench into a process that was otherwise going to just unfold smoothly. With the longer time frame, you’re able to see that these protest movements—that appear marginal and unpopular in the moment—are often what succeed in catalyzing changes that the broad majority goes on to cherish and value.