Wednesday, March 23, 2016

#GTFOFRSO International Women's Day Action and a Discussion of Left Strategy

#GTFOFRSO: Celebrating International Women's Day the Correct Way 

Freedom Road Socialist Organization - Fight Back (FRSO) recently held an International Women's Day (IWD) event at University of South Florida, under the guise of Students for a Democratic Society - Tampa (SDS). The conference room, which was reserved from 6 to 8pm, contained no signage or other indicators of SDS. A large red FRSO banner was draped across the greeting table, one's first stop. A full-color handout was distributed; it contained three minor references to SDS - one on the bottom of the second page that identified two of the six speakers as SDS members, a small SDS logo on the back cover, and two lines of text on the bottom of the back cover listing SDS's Facebook URL and website. The handout also contained the day's agenda, identified the other four speakers (two FRSO members, one from the Committee to Stop FBI Repression - Tampa, and one from Students for Justice in Palestine), and provided information about FRSO events, goals, causes, and contact information. 

At about 5:50pm roughly a dozen protestors entered the room and stood quietly at the front and along one wall of the room holding signs reading "Rape Apologists OUT of International Women's Day!! #GTFOFRSO," "THE LEFT HAS NO ROOM FOR RAPE APOLOGISTS #GTFOFRSO," "Ask Me About FRSO'S Rape Coverup #GTFOFRSO," and other similar slogans. The event organizers appeared confused and quietly convened behind the greeting table (the back of the room, the opposite end of the podium and screen but by the front door). An organizer approached a protestor and said they could stand on the sides of the room, not at the front. The protestors at the front relocated; both sides of the seated audience of approximately 10 people were flanked by protestors. Protestors confronted Steff Yorek, the keynote speaker, about her participation in a rape coverup; denounced FRSO for perpetuating this rape coverup for "a year or more;" chastised FRSO for holding an IWD event; accused FRSO of harboring "an assaulter, a predator;" demanded said member be kicked out; and demanded that FRSO issue a public statement immediately. Yorek told the protestors she would be willing to discuss the issue with them after the event. 

After a lengthy disruption (transcribed/described in detail below), FRSO had building staff/security remove protestors from the public event, and some of the event's audience left with them. The event eventually commenced. About six of the original protestors returned during the second speaker's presentation. They quietly, quickly distributed pamphlets to the 15-20 member audience without disrupting the speaker and promptly left. Several of the original protestors stood outside and talked to approaching attendees about the FRSO rape coverup while waiting for the promised conversation with Yorek. Protestors encouraged anyone who entered the event to ask FRSO about the coverup. The steward/guard soon returned to lock the door. Two potential attendees left after talking to protestors, two attempted to enter but couldn't due to the locked door, and one entered. After the event, a few attendees exited through the front and many out the back door, which lead to a stairwell that allowed them to bypass protestors. The back door was guarded by three FRSO members after the front door was locked for the duration of the event. After the event around 8pm, four remaining protestors entered the conference room and confronted Yorek at length in front of the remaining crowd, with the victim's advocate leading the way.

Deets and Dirt

• Find a detailed transcription and report of the initial, lengthy disruption at the end of this post. Video exists of all occurrences described in this post.
• Here is the video of the third and final confrontation between the victim's advocate, another protestor, and Steff Yorek. According to its original poster, the video has been edited for time. No crucial content was deleted or altered.
• Leftists Against Predatory Organizations provides background information and documentation, as well as contact information if you'd like to join the struggle against predatory organizations in your city, university, organization, etc.

A Casual Chat

Oblivion: We were able to do something uncommon or even unheard of in Florida, with its transitory population and sectarianism. We effectively organized and mobilized an alliance of loosely and unaffiliated activists against the FRSO IWD event. Typically FRSO prevents this particular type of action by strategically scheduling events so their critics can't attend. They also assume there's an inability on our collective part to unify due to political differences they perceive amongst us. And they hold events that would make any disruption of them suspect as racist, culturally insensitive, "inappropriate," divisive. They hold vigils for police murder victims, anti-racist rallies, national liberation events, immigration marches - these spaces have allowed them to avoid our demands for a public statement about rape coverups and rape apology, removal of predators in their ranks, and an apology for their cruelty to the survivor and the survivor's supporters. But the IWD event was a perfect opportunity to publicly confront them and state our demands while avoiding any false accusations of racism, disruption for its own sake, or self-promotion, whatever the various claims they've made against anyone who's spoken for the survivor and against the coverup. It was on a Sunday, at a public place, and about women. It's interesting and important that feminists, unaffiliated socialists, assorted activists, party-building Reds, so on - all inevitably differing from each other in many ways - came from halfway across the state and surrounding areas to disrupt this event.

Wolfe: Yes. This is the sort of coalition building that should be happening all the time, but is tough to pull off, especially in Florida. The question is whether this kind of thing can be sustained in a state which has a healthy population of activists, who all move somewhere else after just a month. If the video gains traction, it will show that it is increasingly difficult for Leftist organizations to get away with the sort of coverups they have in the past. FRSO, your actions are intolerable and saying they are "for the cause" doesn't make them any less so. What impressed me the most is that you got a major figure in the FRSO hierarchy to effectively admit that they do not care about rape culture--on video no less. It is ironic that the Left, always asking "What is to be done?," seems to have a hard time coming up with effective strategies.

Oblivion: Well, we haven't yet learned how to sustain it here. We've seen some wins in Seattle with its $15/hour minimum wage and Chicago dropping the tampon tax. Say what you will about Sawant, an openly socialist person is on Seattle's city council. Last night you said in reference to the Trump rally-crashers who are being attributed to Bernie Sanders, "liberals are more Leninist than Leninists." How True was something you said off the cuff, talking late into the night over a box of wine looking at the city lights gleaming off the water as the smoke or fog rose, conjuring riots and revolution in my mind. We don't have the cultural benefits of a Seattle, a Chicago, a New York, an Oakland, where there's generational activist knowledge passed from seasoned activists to the next batch and so on. All we've got's the long-timers, the lifers, sometimes Florida natives, other times not, some of whom are entrenched union rank-and-filers, some radical feminists, some Occupy Tampa - the longest running encampment in the country, maybe world, mind you - diehards and some others whose affiliation I don't know offhand to rely on for experience, for connections, for wisdom, for all the things that get passed from activist to activist in other places. 

Geographical separation and a lack of public transit make it difficult for us to convene for reading groups and movie nights, much less direct action and civil disobedience, not to mention every new activist who rolls into town has their own agenda. It's very anti-dialectical, really. We're thinking of the whole over the part while our new prospects for communism-building are thinking part over the whole. They want and often need our kind of cred for their ladder-climbing union jobs, their Planned Parenthood-track jobs, their academic trajectory, their college degrees, their Dem party path, whatever it is... While we need them to focus on the whole over the part, to understand that only then can we have a Real mass movement that Matters. These "elders" and "veterans" and "knowledge holders" are often discounted, too, because we're old, we're young, we're women, we're perceived as tankies or trots or some new/other party formation, we're associated with some interpersonal drama, online incidents, gossip that's transpired with or without us. In essence, we're often discounted for the very reasons that we're the ones to turn to. Don't mistake me: People turn to me, people surely turn to others. With certain mental health crises, about abortion, for security services, for this or that solution to this or that problem. They recognize reliable local resources. But for the initial planning phase of civil disobedience and direct action, they don't look to me or Us. They look to...I don't know. Books, I suppose. Theory that preaches what we've been practicing modified based on our current conditions. This vexes me.

Wolfe: Who are the people turning to? We know of two situations where a known employee of an astroturfing PR firm whose clients include the Florida Democratic Party was able to pose as a superstar activist and recruit young and impressionable activists into their following. This ties into an earlier remark. Anyone who has seen a Dem op in action knows that they take over, manipulate, and use up street level organizations with the skill of a Lenin or a Bakunin. They have the Machiavellian skills that we used to have, but somehow lost. They can build fronts--fronts for electing Democratic candidates--but fronts nonetheless. In addition to this, they're able to exploit the latest demographic technology to calculate which people are most likely to be able to be won over to their side and target them. Modern data allows us to know what people are thinking before they're thinking it. They have that data, slick propaganda, and charismatic operatives. Look at the Left by contrast. Trots still sell newspapers--print newspapers. Our key organizing techniques are mined from texts written in the early 20th century. "What Is to Be Done?" and The Road to Power were written when the telegraph was cutting-edge tech.

Oblivion: Well, that Dem op's workplace is still unverified, but we don't have to get into that right now, and it doesn't detract from your salient point. She's working this town for all it's worth, and the only ones who notice it are all about her strategy, the ones who don't end up...not with Us but with her or disillusioned, from what I've seen from this one specific Dem op's maneuvers. And yes they access VAN and certainly other shiny new demographic toys. So you've hit the who and hinted at the why. The why is what we talk about when we say that "track to activism" - Americorps, SEIU, Planned Parenthood, tenure-track pipedreams. You'll scoff and internally roll your eyes, but I fell in the ditch while you barely cling to the gravel road (hopefully thumbing a ride soon). *Laughter* So what about the how to get them to turn to Us? I mean broadly, to those of Us with experience, narrowing those with experience to those with experience who are Marxists.

Wolfe: Clearly, we need to sell more newspapers. [Laugh track] The how is the question, and one I do not yet have any answer to. We need a serious rethinking of strategy in the 21st century and far, far better propaganda at the very least. This is one reason I am happy that Jacobin now exists. As trendy as it may be to slag them, a gorgeous and explicitly Marxist mag whose design doesn't look like it was put together by the worst of the '80's 'zine crew (or BAMF editorial staff) is at least a start. But this still provides no answer on what to do with the pretty much fucked Tampa activist community. I was really hoping that you had a notion on this fueled by this recent success. Let the practice guide the theory.

Oblivion: But focusing on Tampa Bay is putting the part before the whole. Our entire fucking point of view is that of international socialism. We know localism isn't the answer. But solving this activism problem in Tampa Bay may be useful elsewhere and in and of itself. So don't narrow the field too much. But if you do, then the #GTFOFRSO IWD action should at least be supplemented by looking at the recent Trump rally disruption in Tampa and perhaps those elsewhere. We talked a bit about this last night. Let's look at our notes. *flips to illegible scribbles in notebook* 
1.) Organizers threatened those who dared to be too disruptive with state repression in the form of cops and the secret service.

2.) Activists were motivated to attend in order to defy the organizers' threat. Why? Last night we posited that "fun is an appeal," right? So FOMO is an actual MO. Everybody who's anybody, that is anybody I want in MY hypothetical party, would be intrigued by and find irresistible such a threat, a dare. There's nothing more exciting to young/newcomer activists than playing chicken with local establishment organizers who they perceive as less radical than themselves. So there was a gauntlet thrown down, but it was an illusion. The threat wasn't real; the dare didn't exist. The Dem op we're dancing around naming was the sole exception after numerous online conversations about potential repercussions for breaking the organizers' line in the sand, the line of decency, being well behaved, legality, these bourgeois concepts that the Left cannot afford to abide. She disrupted the thing and nobody called any cops or SS. 

3.) I asked, "Do we even need/want them?" being the discerning disciplinarian to your inclusive populist. However, I agree with your primary response: "We need people." Then I asked what keeps what I labeled "cuspers" from committing to smaller-scale, interpersonal, less dangerous, well-organized, possibly more effective actions. How do we get Dem ops/Clintonite wreckers posing as Sanders supporters in order to discredit him to be actual Leninists, not just liberals who are better at Leninism than We are. There becomes a question of (inter?)national vs. local actions and the benefits thereof. Now, lets exclude party climbers, career politicians, etc. for now. I want to know how to funnel those willing to get arrested at a Trump rally over basically nothing, to communism. If we need these people, as you claim and as I accept, then how do we activate these potential Reds? How do we funnel them? How do we convince them that Our way--collectivism--is best? Whole over part. Use their energy for an Actual mass movement? *closes notebook*

Wolfe: Yes--but thinking too "internationally" can lead to, among other things, being a cheerleader for Putin in the name of anti-imperialism (speaking of FRSO). So, I still think that Tampa is useful as a prism through which to view the problem at local, national, and international levels. We can view the whole through the part. Our long term goal is always democracy in a classless society. Now, you keep pushing me to answer the question I do not have an answer to. How do we get the cuspers? Well--try harder. Since you bring up Sanders, he gives us an opportunity. We now have thousands of newly-minted "socialists." What are we going to do with them? This is not the end. Within a few short years we have seen Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and now Sanders, so many dissenters from the liberal consensus... [bathroom becomes available]

Oblivion: Okay, maybe I'm trying to corner you. That's what I do. That's what we do. It's how we reach our synthesis, our line, our Correctness, which is always already changing, being questioned, under these rapidly changing 21st century conditions. But you're the one who wants and believes in the cuspers, so the onus is on you. And I'm fine with inconclusiveness. Maybe someone will actually think about it and respond. Fingers crossed.

Wolfe: Yes! Agreed. But if anything has become clear to me it is that We need to expose the false radicals, We need to show cuspers when they are being led into a Dem trap. We need to yell this at the top of our lungs. And, to bring this back to the FRSO action, we also need to expose the toxic left organizations. Maybe if we knock out the bad options, the good ones will become obvious.

Oblivion: So let's leave it at that for now. It's loud, it's getting crowded, and there's a long road ahead of you. And me. And Reds. And everyone.

Detailed Account/Transcription of First #GTFOFRSO IWD Disruption

Audience member: "Who's Steff?"
Protestor: "Steff Yorek, featured speaker and the chief person behind FRSO's rape coverup." She was pointed out to the crowd.
Various protestors said, "Oh, the rape coverup, hmmm...""Have you heard about that?," and continued speaking about the safety of women.
The organizer who had previously asked the protestors to stand on the sides stood at the front of the room and loudly proclaimed, interrupting a protestor: "I'm gonna have to say it again. If you speak up, you're disrupting the event, I could have you removed. You are free to protest, but if you speak up, if you speak out, you're disrupting the event."
Protestor: "We've got ten minutes til the event starts, so we have plenty of time."
Organizer: "Technically, technically, the event starts as long as we have the room. We have the room now. I'm just letting you guys know." The protestors agreed.
Protestor: "I don't know, like this is really characteristic of the state of the Left today though because without democracy internal to organizations, without transparency, you're basically gonna end up with these kind of like sects and cults. These groups are like people's private property and some dude who's been around from the 60s goes around collecting rent on people's dues. This is the state of the degradation of the Left today."
During this protestor's even-toned speech from the side of the room, several FRSO members smirked and paced about, and two men at the greeting table sat red-faced and nervously ran their hands through their hair. Yorek convened with FRSO members at the greeting table, and one of the organizers began laughing with Yorek about the disruption.
The laughing organizer stood up and said, "Uh, if you have..."
Another protestor (shouting): "YOU FUCKING COVERED UP RAPE!"
Another protestor: "Yeah, quit covering up rape, and you can have your event."
Same organizer (smiling and standing): "Hey everyone, we're here to celebrate Women's Day. If you wanna talk to us..."
Another protestor: "That's ironic. That's like so ironic. You have so..."
Same organizer: "If you want to talk to us after the event, that is absolutely fine. Until then, we'd like to celebrate Women's Day. We have people here who want to celebrate it."
Audience member: "How can we celebrate it if you guys are rapists?"
Another protestor: "So does FRSO want to use institutional silencing of the people calling out their rape coverup?"
Yorek: "Well, we have the room reserved."
Protestor: "So you want to use institutional silencing of people calling out your rape coverup." 
Audience member: "Are y'all gonna talk about this?"
Several FRSO members laughed, and Yorek crossed the room smiling.
Audience member: "Can like one of the leaders talk about this, please?"
Same organizer, from the podium: "So I know that some of you have grievances and that's understandable. However, right now, this is not going to be handled. We can handle it after the event. You can talk to us. We can handle the event, we can handle what the grievances are."
Yorek (appearing to be having a side conversation with a protestor): "I'm not going to argue with you. If you want to discuss the issue, I will actually discuss it with you after this event."
Another protestor: "I think you should discuss it now."
A couple of seconds of unintelligible dialogue between protestors, Yorek, and FRSO members erupted into a several minutes long chant, with one protestor seizing the microphone on the podium at the front of the room (by the back door, opposite end of the greeting table/front door): "KICK OUT DUSTIN PONDER!" The room fell silent.
Audience member: "How can we celebrate International Women's Day if somebody's telling me that there's a rape coverup happening?"
Another organizer (heatedly): "If you're interested, she just said we could discuss it after the event. Are you interested in disrupting or discussing?"
Audience member: "Both. I wanna discuss but..."
Organizer, on the microphone: "Then we can discuss after the event."
Several minutes of restless awkward silence passed.
Another protestor, to Yorek who had been attempting to pull her aside individually from the collective action throughout the disruption: "That's what Sol told me when I first confronted her about this, and that was over a year ago. Oh, and that was when she lied about Dustin Ponder being in the organization, and that was when people blamed the victim to her face."
Another protestor: "Yeah a year seems like a good amount of time to get this thing dealt with. Waiting another hour seems kinda..."
Another protestor: "Why wouldn't you want to deal with this on International Women's Day?"
Audience member: "Yeah, let's deal with it now."
Yorek: "I will discuss the issue after the event. You all can stay around." During Yorek's previous statement, a Marshall Center steward or security guard (not in a uniform one might typically associate with security guards) entered the room, then proceeded to approach one side of the protestors.
Protestor: "So is FRSO using institutional repression to silence people calling out the rape coverup?" 
Steward/guard: "I just wanted to talk to you." [unintelligible conversation between some protestors and the steward/guard]
Organizer: "We gave you viable options. If you're not going to take them, then..."
Protestor: "Good job, Jessica."
Organizer (Jessica): "Thank you."
Audience member: "This is weird. Like how can I focus on your talk if this is happening?" No response. The hushed conversation between the steward/guard and half of the protestors occurred on one side of the room. FRSO members lined one area closest to the door, arms uniformly folded across their chests looking glum and detached.
Protestor: "Why did Sol and Jared move to LA when they're involved in a rape coverup?"
Another organizer: "Maybe because she wanted to organize in LA."
Audience member to protestors being talked to by steward/guard: "Who is that person?"
Protestor: "I think someone who works for the school."
Audience member: "And you guys aren't with the event?"
Another protestor: "No, we are not with the event."
Audience member: "Okay, so who is the event? And can you start?"
Another protestor: "Yeah, they can go ahead. No one's stopping them."
Audience member: "Who's the first speaker? Can a speaker start?"
Yorek: "We're not gonna start till the disruption is over."
Another protestor (whispering): "No one's disrupting."
Organizer at the podium: "We would like to start our event now. If you wanna talk to us afterwards, we will be here, we will listen to you, but I know right now you're here to disrupt this event and not actually enjoy Women's Day." General uncomfortable laughter.
Another protestor: "I think this is a fine way to enjoy Women's Day."
Yorek: "You're disrupting the event."
Protestor: "Yeah?"
Yorek: "You need to leave."
Another protestor: "But we're celebrating Women's Day."
Another protestor: "Look, if you're addressing us, we can address you back. That's not disrupting the event. If you're going with the charade of us protesting silently while you celebrate Women's Day then at least try to do that sincerely."
Another protestor: "We're celebrating Women's Day by calling out a group who covers up rape. It's been a year since these accusations and no actual statement from FRSO has been made."
Audience member: "Maybe they can make one now. Make a statement now. Can we have a statement now?"
Another protestor: "In the time it would take to address this now, we'd be out of here."
Yorek, on the microphone: "My statement is that I will not discuss this until after the event."
Various protestors: "Right, right," "Yeah, we've heard that before," and "There hasn't been a statement for a long ass time."
Another protestor: "It seems like we've been asking you to discuss it for a year and a half and now that we've finally put a lot of pressure on you and you can't avoid it, you're still trying to delay."
Another protestor: "It's hard to delete people in person."
Another protestor: "Yeah, you can't block someone in real life. Sorry, it doesn't work like that so here we are."
The steward/guard spoke to FRSO members near the greeting table as uncomfortable, restless quiet again settled on the room.
Audience member: "Am I gonna get to hear speakers talk about this [gestures to handout] or anything?"
Protestor: "Every speaker on this panel knows about the coverup. You know that, right? Everybody here knows that? Everyone here knows it and is cool with it?"
Audience member: "I don't even know who the speakers are, I just thought it would be interesting but now this issue has come up and I want to hear a statement today."
Protestors briefly chanted "ISSUE A STATEMENT!"
Protestor: "What are you covering up? Why are you so scared to talk about this?"
Another protestor: "I know. Like if there's nothing, then I don't see the problem."
Audience member: "Why can't y'all just issue a statement, right now, then y'all can talk?"
The steward/guard continued moving from Yorek to other organizers to protestors, as FRSO members smirked and attendees read the flyers protestors had distributed earlier. Finally, protestors were asked to leave by the steward/guard and did, loudly chanting: "KICK OUT DUSTIN PONDER!"