Summation of the Experience of the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition (GSNAC)
(Written in October 2017)
Purpose of this document
- Over the last year, the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition (GSNAC) has emerged and quickly become a major presence in Seattle’s activist subculture. So, the events of its formation and development are worth studying. It began as a left/liberal coalition and eventually resolved that tension by adopting liberal ideology and practice. So, the experience of revolutionaries’ involvement in GSNAC and of everything that led to the current liberal domination can help us understand the dynamics of left/liberal coalition work and, through negative example, engage with liberals more effectively in the future.
- This document will not refer to individuals by name or focus on personality conflict. Rather, it will provide a critical history of the political dynamics during the first 8 months of GSNAC’s existence, including both good and bad decisions made by revolutionaries during each phase of that time period.
What is GSNAC?
- GSNAC is an organization founded in the Seattle metro area in the week following Trump’s election. It’s made up of Neighborhood Action Councils (NACs) in each city council district, plus a central body, the Delegates Council (initially called the Spokes-Council). It emerged in tandem with two community forums intended to provide a venue for people to express their feelings about the election result and encourage them to get involved in some type of activism, through GSNAC and/or other organizations. Especially at first, GSNAC characterized itself as inspired by Murray Bookchin’s theory of municipalism and cited the revolution in Rojava as a reference point. It has maintained a policy of not explicitly endorsing specific candidates for office and, although it currently has no paid staff, it is an incorporated, IRS-registered nonprofit.
Who am I? What qualifies me to write this summation?
- I’m a member of Seattle Communists and a co-founder of GSNAC. I was active with GSNAC until July.
- At a protest the day after the election, I was approached by a friend of a friend who was heavily involved in the activist subculture who told me about a Facebook group (Trump-Free Community) and an event that was being planned by that group’s creators: the Post-Election Community Forum, to be held that coming weekend. Through the Facebook group, I found out about a postering run scheduled for the next evening to promote the forum. So, another Seattle Communists member and I showed up with the intention of helping put up flyers.
- When we arrived at the office space listed on Facebook, we were among what became a group of 12 people. Instead of simply going out and postering, the group spent a couple of hours talking about a shared sense that the forum shouldn’t be a one-off event, but should lead to a lasting organization. An anarchist present mentioned the democratic confederalist system being implemented in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava). To my surprise, even the liberals in the room were receptive to creating a Bookchin-inspired municipalist organization, based on neighborhood councils that would be committed to direct action and mutual aid and would send delegates to a Spokes-Council to coordinate them (the Spokes-Council was later renamed as the Delegates Council). The aforementioned anarchist and I co-wrote documents outlining the intention for the organization-to-be that were distributed at the forum.
- Of the 12 initial founders, 2 were Seattle Communists members, at least 2 were anarchists, and 2 or 3 had no prior political experience. The remainder were SEIU staffers, liberal-oriented NGO staffers, and/or active members of local Democratic Party district organizations. Most of the staffers and Democrats already knew each other, and had been involved in creating Trump-Free Community and coming up with the idea for the forum.
- I helped with the logistics of setting up the forum that weekend. I was among the speakers scheduled at both that initial forum and the follow-up a few weeks later.
- I remained heavily involved in both my neighborhood NAC and in central-level activities until early July 2017, roughly 8 months after helping found GSNAC. I was in the committee that drafted the bylaws currently in effect, and I was present at the meeting with a lawyer in which the logistics of incorporation were discussed (despite my opposition to incorporated nonprofits on political grounds and my belief that any decision about incorporation should be made by a democratically-constituted central body, which at the time did not exist).
Timeline of events:
- Trump is elected. Trump-Free Community is created on Facebook. The Post-Election Community Forum is held a few days later, at which the establishment of GSNAC and a follow-up event in January are announced. ~1000 people attend the forum.
- Private listservs are created that include the individuals involved in planning the forum and who want to be involved with GSNAC. The domain name neighborhoodaction.info is registered.
- Two main political documents are produced and distributed, one describing Bookchin-type municipalism with an explicitly revolutionary lens and the other outlining a “pledge” for individuals to take, with far less revolutionary content.
- The follow-up event, along with a Community Action Fair at which many activist groups table, is held. The ~200–300 people who attend are divided into breakout groups by neighborhood, each of which is facilitated by someone selected beforehand by the event planners. The breakout groups are tasked with picking initial projects for that neighborhood’s NAC, as well as setting up an initial meeting.
- The first Spokes-Council meeting is held. Very little is decided, either about substantive political issues or about procedural/organizational issues. Most of the time is spent arguing about what color t-shirts people should wear on J20 (orange is ultimately picked).
- GSNAC participates in the counter-inaugural, anti-Milo Yiannopoulos, Womxn’s March on Seattle, and airport/anti-Muslim-ban protests.
- At least one NAC in each city council district and several in surrounding suburbs are active.
- Individual NACS began participating in anti-sweeps direct action, obstructing SPD’s practice of destroying unhoused people’s encampments.
- A non-elected informal central body, mostly composed of individuals on the private listservs created in November and distinct from the Spokes-Council delegates who met in January, begins regularly meeting and making both organizational (i.e. creating standing committees) and political (i.e. telling those committees what kind of work to do) decisions in the name of GSNAC as a whole.
- GSNAC begins work on the Trump-Proof Seattle campaign, launched by the Transit Riders Union and other groups, to create a city-level capital gains tax. That becomes GSNAC’s biggest project for the next several months.
- GSNAC reaches its peak membership, with ~1000–2500 people at least marginally active in a NAC.
- Debates within individual NACs and the self-appointed central body begin to hinge on the relative roles of the central body and the individual NACs. Much debate also occurs on whether or not GSNAC should incorporate as a Section 501 nonprofit.
- A few liberal-aligned individuals within the informal central body meet with Seattle Weekly and commit, on behalf of GSNAC, to co-host a mayoral candidate forum. After the fact, approval is sought and received from each NAC.
- A committee is formed by the informal central body to draft bylaws for GSNAC, which would have to be approved separetely by every NAC after being amended at meetings of the informal central body. This committee does not largely overlap with the people who committed to the candidate forum. Most of its participants are revolutionary-aligned.
- Anti-sweeps activity continues.
- NACs organize district-by-district Trump-Proof Seattle Town Halls with city councilors.
- A few individuals within the informal central body meet with a lawyer to learn about the logistics of nonprofit incorporation. Some of those individuals (overlapping heavily with those who made the commitment to do the candidate forum) unilaterally, without prior approval from any GSNAC body, file incorporation papers naming themselves as the corporate officers. They claim that that’s because it is illegal to raise funds without incorporation; that claim is factually untrue.
- A fundraiser party happens at Hillman City Collaboratory.
- GSNAC participates in Black Dot/UmojaFest anti-eviction activities.
- GSNAC contingents are present at most protests.
- The informal central body begins amending the bylaws draft created by the committee formed in February. Individual NACs discuss the draft and suggest amendments.
- Trump-Proof Seattle Town Halls continue, along with anti-sweeps and general protest activity.
- Activities against I-1552 (the anti-trans bathroom bill initiative) begin; GSNAC provides boots on the ground for Washington Won’t Discriminate’s events.
- Bylaws amending continues.
- Participant attrition becomes noticeable. Revolutionary-aligned members in particular begin to drift away.
- The mayoral candidate forum happens.
- The same campaigns and protest activities continue, although anti-sweeps activity starts to slow.
- Bylaws amending concludes.
- Attrition continues.
- The Trump-Proof Seattle campaign succeeds with a city council vote.
- I-1552 fails to get enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
- The first General Assembly is held. The amended bylaws are ratified and an elected Delegates Council begins meeting.
- The same general protest activities continue.
- Membership numbers begin to stabilize.
- Anti-sweeps activity picks up again.
- General protest/electoral activities continue.
- Membership remains stable. Virtually all revolutionaries have left.
3 distinct periods:
Creation period (approx. Nov-Jan)
- The initial assembly of the GSNAC infrastructure. Most activities are oriented around the nuts and bolts of individual NACs and participation in protests that attract strong support from both revolutionaries and liberals.
- A subjective sense of unity runs strong and growth, particularly after J20, is rapid.
Semi-open faction fight (approx. Feb-early Apr)
- As the question of electorally-oriented work becomes a live issue, disagreements between liberals and revolutionaries become harder to ignore. However, few on either side openly acknowledge that an ideological conflict is happening. Open disagreement mostly involves procedural and organizational issues — how strong should the Spokes-Council/Delegates Council be relative to individual NACs? Should the self-appointed central body make substantive political decisions? Should GSNAC legally incorporate? This often pitted Marxist and anarchist revolutionaries against each other around issues like consensus vs. voting, despite the fact that both ultimately shared a much stronger interest in supporting revolutionary politics against liberalism.
- Meanwhile, GSNAC activities become more and more electoral/”conventional activism”-oriented as participation, especially from revolutionaries, declines.
Liberal triumph (approx. late Apr-present)
- A few liberals resolve the faction fight through unilateral nonprofit incorporation. GSNAC’s practice is now fully “conventional activist” liberalism.
- Membership stabilizes. Virtually no revolutionaries remain.
What went right?
- Holding an event immediately after the election that focused on people expressing their concerns to each other, rather than activists or politicians lecturing them.
- Channeling post-election protest energy into a democratic mass organization.
- Creating a structure based on participatory-democratic neighborhood councils and bottom-up central coordination.
- Emphasizing direct action and mutual aid rather than narrow opposition to Trump the individual politician.
- Obtaining a commitment not to endorse or campaign for any candidate or allow politicians to join GSNAC.
- Establishing a mass organization autonomous of any given leftist party, rather than a front group.
What went wrong?
- Not participating as revolutionary groups (rather than individuals) in an open, explicit, and organized way.
- Not openly acknowledging ideological differences between liberals and revolutionaries.
- Acquiescing to liberal talk of “values we all already share” and allowing that perception to quietly get “baked into” GSNAC’s organizational culture.
- Acquiescing to the liberal line of “supporting all the people who have already been doing all this work” (by which they meant liberal nonprofits and Democratic Party activists within the protest subculture, rather than people engaged in authentic, community-based mass work). Not taking an explicit stance against the nonprofit-industrial complex and the activist subculture in general.
- Overall, this was probably GSNAC’s healthiest period and also the time when revolutionaries participated the most, especially around the end of January.
- However, revolutionaries can’t afford to let ourselves be cast as just another species of (implicitly liberal) activist. We have to be open about not just revolutionary ideas, but about the differences between revolutionary practice (base-building) and liberal practice (catharsis politics, sign-waving demos).
- While avoiding even the potential appearance of front group-ism is admirable in theory, liberals had no such scruples. Outright collaboration with Democratic Party front groups was explicit from early on while implicit hostility towards organized leftism grew (for instance the lead organizer of the Community Action Fair enthusiastically reached out to Democratic Party fronts, but initially balked at allowing revolutionary groups to table at all). Revolutionaries should have joined in an organized, collective way rather than attempting to participate as individuals.
Semi-open faction fight
What went right?
- Advocating for a stronger democratic process and a weaker informal central body.
- Explicitly opposing legal incorporation as a nonprofit.
- Engaging in at least a small amount of base-building through some of the individual NACs.
What went wrong?
- Not making the political content of the fight open, instead of continuing to accept liberal “shared values” rhetoric.
- Allowing ultimately-less-important procedural issues to pit revolutionaries against each other, even as the liberals solidified their control.
- Not openly and strongly opposing the unilateral actions of certain liberals (i.e. around the candidate forum and, eventually, legal incorporation).
- Not engaging in base-building work in a concerted, organized way within as many local NACs as possible.
- Allowing what base-building work was undertaken to wither on the vine through inattention, inconsistency, and not following through.
- Acquiescing to the social pressure created by liberal “shared values” talk, therefore choosing not to rock the boat by criticizing what needed to be criticized.
- Fights about procedure are almost always actually about substance. By trying to fight the liberals procedurally, we engaged on their turf — who’s better suited to procedural arguing than a liberal centrist technocrat? Further, avoiding substance allowed revolutionaries who disagreed about particular aspects of process to fight each other rather than uniting around shared political content.
- When we let the liberal illusion of pan-progressive unity stand, we allow liberals to make that unity real by driving us out.
- Ideological struggle should have happened openly and procedural struggle should have happened in more specific ways. A better target for criticism than revolutionaries who disagreed about consensus vs. voting would have been the liberals who disregarded both consensus and voting to make electoralist commitments and file incorporation papers in GSNAC’s name.
- However, ideological and procedural issues should both have been secondary to ground-level practice. Revolutionary participation in base-building work through NACs would have created a much stronger position against the liberals. We didn’t do so in a consistent or well-thought-out way, and we certainly didn’t do so while openly declaring our goals. In the end, that failure of practice paved the way for the liberals to win. GSNAC’s practice was liberal before its ideology was. Had we worked to make its practice revolutionary, a liberal takeover would have been much more difficult.
What went right?
- Jumping ship when it became clear that the liberals had won and that it was too late to reverse that, rather than engaging in liberal practice with the false hope that GSNAC might eventually become radical.
What went wrong?
- Not publicly denouncing the anti-democratic, unilateral filing of incorporation papers as illegitimate.
- Not actively pushing back at the individual NAC level against the behavior of the liberals engaged in the bureaucratic coup.
- Leaving as individuals as we came to recognize our own marginalization within GSNAC rather than having prioritized base-building all along.
- The proximate cause of liberal victory was a few individual liberals in the informal central body ignoring even nominal democracy to do what they wanted. However, they’d already won on the ground level. Revolutionaries failed to offer an alternative to liberal practice within each NAC. We didn’t engage in revolutionary work, so how could we have expected a strong position for revolutionary ideas?
- The way that incorporation happened was certainly ethically outrageous. But we can’t let ourselves off the hook by observing that the liberals didn’t play fair. When do liberals ever play fair? When does any serious political actor do so? Politics is war by other means; there is no referee, and appealing to “fair play” is pointless. We failed to create any basis from which to resist the bureaucratic coup. Besides, when some of the same individuals committed GSNAC to the mayoral candidate forum in a similarly unilateral way, none of us raised a stink.
- While it’s better for revolutionaries not to participate in a liberal NGO than participate in one, nothing about the outcome was inevitable. We have to reckon with our failure in frank terms — it is our failure, not simply liberals doing liberal nonsense.
What went right?
- While GSNAC as a mass organization emerged out of the protest subculture, it did so at a time when the shock of Trump was bringing many people into that subculture for the firs time. Diverting some of them into what GSNAC could have been was exactly the right thing to do.
- There was at least a rhetorical commitment to mutual aid and direct action (if not instead of “conventional activism,” at least alongside it) from the get-go, and even a few examples of it in practice.
- No revolutionary group attempted to reduce it to a front.
- By and large, revolutionaries consistently pushed for meaningful internal democracy, and got to learn firsthand how “tyranny of structurelessness” situations can play out on a much larger scale than most radicals are used to.
- During the J20 and the airport protests, GSNAC offered a clear and attractive approach of militancy, goal-focus, and independence, in contrast to both liberal groups and socialist sects.
- Revolutionaries who participated have gotten to learn firsthand what it’s like to go from 12 people to thousands very quickly and form a durable, workable structure out of them. For most on the Left, such opportunities are vanishingly rare, and some of Occupy’s structural problems (extreme formlessness, lack of focus) were successfully avoided.
What went wrong?
- We let the faction fight happen on terms completely dictated by the liberals. We could have made it open and substantive, but we didn’t.
- We let conflicts ostensibly be about procedure in ways that pitted revolutionaries against each other.
- We didn’t challenge it when liberal practice was implicitly treated as the default definition of political activity.
- We didn’t engage with GSNAC in an organized way. Liberals did; the approach of open coalition with Democratic Party fronts gave them a degree of organization and focus as a faction that we lacked. We could have evened that playing field, though, had we not misguidedly kept revolutionary organizations away from the same type of collaboration that liberals pursued with their organizations. There’s no point to not looking like a socialist front group if that means actually being a Democratic one.
- We didn’t engage in meaningful and consistent base-building work at the ground level. When thousands of people came in during the first few months, had we thrown ourselves into base-building projects, we could have consolidated many of those recruits into revolutionary mass work. Instead, we let GSNAC follow a more typical liberal trajectory, in which most people dropped out fairly quickly and only those with an interest in “conventional activism” remained.
- We never outright opposed the informal central body as illegitimate, even though a few of us raised concerns about its undemocratic nature within that body’s listservs and at some of its meetings.
- We never named the anti-democratic unilateral actions of a few liberals as what they were, and therefore simply left GSNAC rather than fight for it while we still could.
- Coalition work with liberals is like hiking through a bog. It’s easy to get stuck and it’s often hard to see where, exactly, the greatest danger is. However, there are many unusual features of the GSNAC experience that allow us to draw lessons that we rarely have the opportunity to draw.
- Often, revolutionaries assume that revolutionary ideas are our distinctive contribution and that featuring them prominently reduces the danger of being co-opted by liberals. GSNAC, though, began by explicitly invoking the revolution in Rojava and articulating an explicitly leftist, not reformist, vision. That didn’t ultimately make a difference.
- The sheer, smothering force of the activist subculture is difficult to overstate. The power of Democratic Party fronts, including the moral authority they wield within the subculture (“the people who have been doing this great work all along,” etc.), massively stacks the deck against radicals in any type of subculture-connected work, especially when it involves forming coalitions.
- Forthrightness about the contradiction between liberal and revolutionary politics should never be hidden. When liberals say they share values with us, we should say that no, actually we don’t share their values. It’s impossible for us to win a substantive fight that we don’t openly have. The lack of open disagreement disadvantages us in a way that it does not disadvantage liberals, since their hegemony within the activist subculture means that liberal ideology will always be implicitly assumed unless it’s explicitly rejected.
- Ideas are not enough. NACs lacked revolutionary practice on the ground. So, the formal allegiance to revolutionary ideas that GSNAC started out with (and, to an extent, still maintains, especially given its self-designation as a leading light of the US municipalist movement) meant exactly nothing. Liberal ideas won even while liberals paid lip service to leftism. That was possible because GSNAC’s political practice was liberal even before the revolutionary exodus. We should have offered an ideological alternative, sure. But our ability to do so depended more on our ability to offer a practical alternative than we realized.
- Liberal practice is inherently subcultural. Thousands of people joined GSNAC. The large majority of them quit within a month or two. GSNAC’s electoral and “conventional activist” orientation didn’t give them a reason to stay involved, so they didn’t. However, it’s reasonable to believe that many more of them would had they found in GSNAC what GSNAC’s self-description promised them: mutual aid to meet people’s needs and direct action to resist oppression, instead of run-of-the-mill reform and protest work. People are hungry for what base-building can provide. We should step back from “conventional activism” and give it to them.
- Revolutionaries should think very carefully about engaging in “conventional activism.” It does not generally further our goals, and the subculture through which it happens is very hard to escape (in part because it so greatly inhibits useful base-building).
- Coalitions for the sake of coalitions, or for the appearance of legitimacy, are worse than useless. They simply incorporate us yet more deeply into the nonprofit-industrial complex and the Democratic Party’s network of front groups.
- Content and structure both matter. The unilateralism of certain liberals notwithstanding, overall GSNAC had a strong level of democracy from early on. However, for revolutionary purposes that was necessary but not adequate. We can’t afford to push for organizational democracy without also pushing for revolutionary theory and practice at the same time.
- Liberal practice with revolutionary ideas is just liberalism.