Organizing Disunity

Aaron Yarmel
12 min readDec 5, 2017

in three parts*

Part 1: A Story of Disunity

butting heads

On a bright Monday morning you arrive in Big City: your new home. Although this is your third year as a vegan, you have only recently talked yourself into becoming an activist. You are particularly interested in nonviolent direct action, so you are thrilled to learn that Animal Liberationists Everywhere (ALE), Friends Fighting Speciesism (FFS), and Masked Voices for Animals (MVA) have local chapters in Big City.

A Facebook search reveals that the ALE chapter holds a regular Thursday-night potluck. You click, “going.” As it happens, you have been eager for quite some time to debut your new eggless quiche.

When you arrive you are dazzled by a multiplicity of marvelous offerings: everything from the heartiest blintz to the freshest raw berry. For the first time since you foreswore animal products three years ago, there is so much amazing food and you can eat everything.

After circulating through the room and making the introductions required of a first-time attendee, you settle into a smallish group. You remember reading that the FFS chapter will hold a vigil at a slaughterhouse the following morning, so you ask your new acquaintances whether they are planning to attend it. You are surprised to find that none are. What’s more, there is something unexpected in the tenor of their responses. They are slow, deliberate, and even… uncomfortable?

On Friday morning, you and 20 others wait beside a road adjacent to a small slaughterhouse. Suddenly, a truck transporting terrified pigs appears. You look on with increasing nervousness — and eventually outright terror — as five activists march deliberately out into its path. At first the truck ignores the activists, but at the last second it stops: inches away.

The activists in the street negotiate with the truck’s driver. They would like to spend five minutes with the pigs. The driver acquiesces. You join them in offering water and what little comfort you can through small ventilation holes.

Five minutes later, you watch, through tears, as the pigs are driven towards the loading bay of the slaughterhouse. No other trucks will arrive that day, so the activists debrief. This has been a transformative experience for you, and you share with the others that, while you have been vegan for several years, something within you has now changed. For the first time in your life, you see yourself as an activist; the exploitation of animals is a profound social injustice, and you are ready to stand and fight in solidarity with others. In your heart, you now identify as part of the FFS activist team. Your declaration is greeted with applause.

After the debriefing, you volunteer to drive a small group of FFS activists back to their apartments. On the way, they invite you to attend an FFS potluck that happens to conflict with the weekly ALE potluck time. You are understandably ambivalent, so you respond that you will let them know. You receive a notification on your phone that an ALE action — a restaurant disruption —will take place the following Wednesday, so you ask whether your new comrades are planning to go.

The car is silent. You have erred. The feeling of solidarity dies a swift death.

On Saturday evening, you attend an MVA street demonstration. You and three others don masks and are stationed in a cube formation. You hold laptops that display footage of standard industry practices in animal agriculture. Two other activists engage with passersby and gently — though firmly — nudge them to towards the vegan conclusion.

The demonstration concludes two hours later and is followed by a brisk debriefing. You are a reflective person, and two social gaffes have been sufficient for you to discern a pattern: you mention neither ALE nor FFS. You step into your car, drive home, prepare for bed, and fall asleep.

Deep into the night, the leaders of the local ALE, FFS, and MVA chapters meet in three separate locations and ask three nearly identical sets of questions: how can they increase participation in their actions, workshops, and social events, how can they become the dominant animal rights group in Big City, how can they become more inclusive, and how can they end infighting? A variety of solutions is proposed: they can hold more events, become more social-media-savvy, become better at networking with other individuals from other social movements, or maybe even excommunicate people who disagree with their political commitments or values.

Decisions are made. Policies are implemented. Nothing changes.

Part 2: Lessons from History

Reverend T. J. Jemison: one of the most brilliant organizational tacticians of the civil rights movement.

To be a seasoned activist is to have, at one time or another, lived through events similar to ones described in the above story. It is to know the distress of infighting and the torture of having to pick a side between groups of people whom one respects. It is to experience the sadness of looking at the forces one has mobilized for an action while realizing that they would be three times as large if only the community were united. And it is to have lived through these experiences with the knowledge that the lack of unity is often substantive. Infighting is often the result of legitimate differences in opinion about power, strategy, tactics, and conflict resolution.

In other words, to be a seasoned activist is to understand that some amount of disunity is inevitable and that the infighting and lack of collaboration caused by it is often lamentable. Any solution to infighting must be responsive to both of these facts. One’s efforts would be undermined if disunity were allowed to flourish unchecked. But, on the other hand, it would be hubris to try to force divergent groups to assimilate under a banner that they do not all accept. Activists find themselves between Scylla and Charybdis: between the two unsustainable options of unchecked disunity and false unity.

This is an old problem, and it is worth looking to the past for solutions. Consider the Baton Rouge bus boycott campaign of 1953. As Aldon D. Morris notes in his (1996) The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, “the various organizations in the black community of Baton Rouge were divided prior to the movement” (44). This problem was solved in June of 1953 when Reverend T. J. Jemison worked to found the United Defense League (UDL). The UDL was not simply another social movement organization, but an organization of organizations. Jemison is worth quoting at length:

all of the other organizations within the community — there were about five or six — came together and united. They didn’t lose their individual identity. But for the overall purpose of the whole community we formed what we call a United Defense League… We brought all of [the leaders of the other community organizations] in, and recognized them as leaders, so that they would feel a part of the movement, and that it wasn’t just my movement because there were many in the downtown power structure who would say to them that I was stealing their thunder, and they were all under me. But I tried to put them on the par, on the Board of Directors that would do the governing of this organization. And that was the one thing that kept us together. No matter how the power structure and splinter white groups tried to tear us apart, we were able to maintain a united front (22).

The UDL was wildly successful, and it “promoted creativity, discouraged jealousies and rivalries, eliminated needless duplication of effort, and maximized group cohesiveness” (22). The organization of organizations model was later replicated in Montgomery, Tallahassee, and Birmingham (44). In all cases, there was a united front that allowed for effective mobilization as well as a collection of different organizations with unique identities and leadership structures.

Importantly, the organizations of organizations were very different from bureaucratic organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Montgomery’s organization of organizations, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), was formed partly because the NAACP’s decision-making apparatus was too inefficient to help Jo Ann Robinson, of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), E. D. Nixon, and other local leaders plan the famous bus boycott of 1955 inspired by Rosa Parks’s arrest. When Nixon reached out to the NAACP to ask for help, the response was as follows: “Bro. Nixon, I’ll have to wait until I talk to New York to find out what they think about it.” Nixon’s replied, “man, we ain’t got time for that.” In response, the MIA was formed and Nixon became its first president (54). An organization that requires all proposals to be run through an inefficient bureaucratic mechanism will be unable to keep up with the fast-paced world of activist mobilization.

No one person can discharge all of the essential functions of a social movement organization, and one of the benefits of a bureaucratic structure is that there is a division of labor. The organizations of organizations of the civil rights movement incorporated this feature too, but there was a difference: the presidents of the organizations of organizations “had the power to operate outside of procedures that hampered mass action. By directing the movement organizations in the way churches were run, the ministers and other leaders were able to act quickly and decisively” (47). This is not to say that the presidents were dictators with unchecked power: they were appointed through elections and could be removed. But when necessary, they were able to ignore administrative hurdles and take action.

Another characteristic of organizations of organizations is that they relied on “charisma, mass emotionalism, and mass enthusiasm” (46). In the context of the civil rights movement, this amounted to two things: (1) appointing charismatic leaders to the heads of the organizations and (2) incorporating elements from the black church cultural tradition into mass meetings (47). Charismatic leaders were important for obvious reasons. The inclusion of prayers, hymns, and sermons in meetings allowed people to overlook class distinctions and feel at home in an environment that resembled one that they were used to experiencing every Sunday (47–48).

A final characteristic is the use of disruptive tactics and economic boycotts. Groups like the NAACP were well-suited to fight for legislative changes, and it is important to appreciate the importance of that tactic. Nevertheless, organizing militant nonviolent direct action requires the ability to make quick decisions and use charisma to mobilize large groups of activists. Organizations of organizations were better equipped than the NAACP in this arena (48–49).

Part 3: Madison’s Organization of Organizations

Activists from Madison’s Anonymous for the Voiceless Chapter hold a Cube of Truth.

The first two sections were presented impersonally, but I need to switch to the first-person point of view in order to talk about my own experiences. At the start of the summer of 2017, there were no abolitionist animal rights organizations regularly planning disruptive nonviolent direct action events in Madison, Wisconsin. At that time, the only regularly occuring opportunities for activism involved tabling at events and farmers markets, and were organized by groups like Mercy for Animals. In a period of just a few months, the community underwent a radical transformation. By the end of November, Madison had seen four disruptions (two at grocery stores, one at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in collaboration with PETA, and one at the World Dairy Expo in collaboration with FARM), five vigils at slaughterhouses, six cubes of truth (one of which was chosen as Anonymous for the Voiceless’ Cube of the Week), seven activist training sessions, two letters to the editor, one op-ed, one chalk challenge, and too many potlucks and social events to keep track. During that period, activists from Madison collaborated with, and provided technical support (in the form of video/photographic, tactical, and strategic skills) to, activists in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

My assessment is that two early events were responsible for kicking this transformation into motion. The first took place on July 3, which was the date of the first meeting of Madison’s Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) chapter. Up until that point, DxE events in Wisconsin had taken place almost exclusively in Milwaukee. I founded Madison’s chapter because I believed that the only way to mobilize activists here would be to form a local chapter responsive to the unique concerns and circumstances of Madisonians.

The second important early event occurred on August 4, when Emma Marie organized an event called “Vegan Pizza and Nonviolent Resistance.” It began with a variety of fantastic vegan pizzas cooked by chef Devon Wells, after which I gave a presentation on nonviolent resistance based on my piece, What’s the Point of Disturbing the Peace? Two of the attendees were Jen Birstler and John Babich, who would soon become organizers for Madison’s Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV) Chapter. Emma would go on to found a Madison chapter of the Save Movement. The importance of this event was twofold: (1) it brought together a group of vegans who would transform the activist scene in Madison, and (2) it gave them a common language with which to conceptualize their activism based on the tradition of nonviolent direct action.

In the span of less than a month and a half, three new local chapters had emerged in Madison: DxE, AV, and Save. This proliferation of groups led to confusion. Is a meeting where both disruptions and Cubes of Truth are discussed still a DxE meeting? What about when Save vigils are mentioned? Is a potluck a DxE potluck if it takes place at the house of a DxE organizer? Do we need three different Facebook groups, and, if so, which groups should new activists join and how can we make sure that we aren’t scheduling competing events? Given that DxE, Save, and AV have different organizational structures and strategies, to what extent should we all work together?

Into this confusion, I offered the following solution: we should start an organization of organizations, Friends of Animal Liberation (FOAL). FOAL would be organized in the model of the UDL. The local chapters of DxE, AV, and Save would each schedule their own events based on their parent organization’s strategic vision and decision-making processes, and they would retain their unique identities and power structures. FOAL, in contrast, would be a thin infrastructure for helping the members of these local chapters work together for common goals.

In practice, FOAL helps local organizations plan and promote their events and creates a common identity that can be shared by all abolitionist animal rights activists in Madison — regardless of what local chapters they identify with. Unlike Big City’s three fictional local chapters from Part 1, each of which held their own training sessions and potlucks, Madison’s DxE, Save, and AV chapters do not needlessly duplicate their efforts. FOAL allows for overarching potlucks, social gatherings, and training sessions in which activists associated with all, some, or none of these organizations can participate. Instead of three separate pools of activists, FOAL creates a large pool of activists from which all three local chapters can draw. When it comes to public relations and marketing, FOAL is better equipped to advertise and seek media attention for events than any particular local chapter. In addition to having a Facebook page, a Facebook group, and a PR team with media contacts and expertise, members of FOAL now run the 435-member Vegan On The Rocks group. For this reason, it is advantageous for local chapters to advertise through FOAL.

Like the UDL, FOAL’s leadership is composed of the organizers from the local chapters of organizations already in existence (in this case, the DxE, AV, and Save chapters). It has a streamlined process for approving events and supports disruptive nonviolent direct action. It is not hampered by an inefficient bureaucracy, which, as we saw in the case of Montgomery in 1955, can be detrimental for quick mobilization. While FOAL cannot draw from a cultural tradition that matches the power of the black church tradition in the 1950s, its potlucks and celebration of the vegan food tradition create an environment that makes its meetings more engaging than one characterized by the dry formalism of a bureaucracy. Finally, FOAL’s events and training sessions typically involve charismatic and engaging performances that often elicit strong emotional responses in audiences and participants. In this way, FOAL relies on charisma as opposed to mere bureaucratic formality.

I want to conclude by noting that social movement organizations are collaborations between movement entrepreneurs and movement innovators. Entrepreneurs come up with new ideas and get other people excited enough to want to implement them. Many people do not find this role rewarding, as the early stages of promoting a new idea involve hard work, public displays of unwavering confidence and enthusiasm, and the acceptance of full responsibility for anything that goes wrong. In the earliest stages of Madison’s DxE chapter and FOAL, that is the role I played.

Entrepreneurs are necessary in the beginning, but they accomplish nothing without innovators: the people who can perfect ideas and figure out how to implement them. What’s more, entrepreneurs becomes less important as an organization develops and they can even impede progress. This is why many social movement organizations eventually fire their founders. In order to stay relevant, movement entrepreneurs should transform themselves into innovators once the initial entrepreneurial task has been completed.

FOAL is what happens when a team of innovators works on an inchoate idea in order to turn it into something with flesh and blood. In addition to Jen, John, Emma, and myself, this team includes Katherine Beaton, Lawrence Cuneaz, Rebekah Klemm, Ronak Mehta, Francesca Pessarelli, Holly Pfaff, Jeff Stanek, Gina Stuessy, and Heather Yarmel. Our current project is to describe FOAL in a formal constitution. When our constitution is completed, we will publish it on GitHub, where we hope it will then be downloaded and adapted by any activist community that would benefit from an organization of organizations.

*Thanks to Rebecca Anne, Katherine Beaton, Jen Birstler, Robert Grillo, Ronak Mehta, Jeff Stanek, and Heather Yarmel for helpful feedback.



Aaron Yarmel

PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Violinist. Activist.