It was only 7:30 a.m. on an overcast, drizzling day in the heart of Alexandria, Virginia, when the cries of children’s voices, in sobs and bits of Spanish, first started to ring out. The sound bounced down the narrow street, bordered by neat brick-and-white townhomes. Nearly 30 people added to the noise, stomping their feet and chanting in unison. “How do you sleep at night?!?” the crew cried.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, may have slept that night. But it’s a good bet that she was wide awake in the morning light, wondering what the hell was going on. Appointed by President Donald Trump and an advocate for hardline immigration rules, Nielsen was accused of pushing inhumane family separations for undocumented migrants detained in the U.S, which included putting children into holding camps in the desert. Now, the people outside wanted her to answer for it.
“There’s a child snatcher living in Alexandria, Virginia,” Heidi Hess, co-director of CREDO Mobile and the organizer of the June 22 protest, said in a statement. “Rightfully so, there’s a huge amount of attention focused on the border and the detention centers. But the people who are making the decisions are here in D.C., so it’s important to shine a spotlight on them as well.”
It wasn’t the first time Nielsen had become the subject of protest. Just days prior, she was spotted eating dinner at the Mexican restaurant MXDC, a mere block from the White House. A friend of legal advocacy organizer Amanda Werner, a trans activist (who uses they/them pronouns), texted them after spotting Nielsen in the restaurant with a colleague. Werner jumped on the phone and within 15 minutes had people en route to MXDC. The group huddled and decided to confront Nielsen inside, yelling “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
“This administration just rises to a whole new level where we need to break the rules of etiquette,” Werner told The Washingtonian afterward. “People are more willing to reconsider our old social constructs of respect and politeness and realizing there are more important things that are at stake.”
2018 has been rife for such public confrontation of political figures. A few days before Nielsen’s dinner, for example, Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller was called a “fascist” at another D.C. Mexican restaurant, and in July, he had to toss a $80 takeout sushi order after fears a bartender, who ruthlessly heckled him as he was departing, had messed with his food. Similarly, in June, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders got the boot from protesters in a Lexington, Virginia restaurant. Former EPA head Scott Pruitt, meanwhile, heard protesters screaming at him to resign while eating in a D.C. spot in July and decided to follow their advice. Last month, we saw Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell get confronted by four men at a Cuban restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, who yelled at him to “leave the county” — the third such confronting of McConnell this year.
This kind of “direct action,” or activism that relies on public disruption rather than traditional negotiation to advance a goal, has become increasingly common in the Trump era, whether it’s an LGBTQ dance party outside of Vice President Mike Pence’s house or people relentlessly taunting white nationalist Richard Spencer by calling him a Nazi while he tried to work out at his Virginia gym. It’s also been the source of a lot of hand-wringing by swaths of conservative pundits, who say these incidents are symptoms of a troubling degradation of respect and civility in the U.S.
That, of course, ignores the fact that xenophobic members of the right, namely the Tea Party, have long used noisy and aggressive protesting as a political weapon. But more importantly, it raises the question of whether this type of direct action works to create positive change.
It’s a big question for young progressives in a frustrating time where the deck seems stacked against them: whether it’s America’s broken electoral process (as we’ve discussed before) or the openness with which racist nationalists command stages around the country. Much has been written about how non-violent activism is, on the whole, more effective for achieving sustainable change than violent means. Yet many argue that an aggressive, in-your-face approach to political accountability doesn’t amount to any kind of actual violence, and instead has a role in how the public communicates to influential people in power.
“This kind of respectability politics, that you have to be nice to people regardless of their actions, well, look — I don’t happen to think that family separation is very respectable or nice,” says Josh Goodman, a political consultant based in California who has worked with progressive groups. “So approaching someone who engages in those things, you believe they don’t need that same level of polite treatment, because they’re not going to extend it to our fellow citizens. And it does motivate people, it does have an impact, to say, ‘I’m willing to do something uncomfortable because I stand with your cause.’”
There are, however, key things to consider about when and how to pull this off, whether your target is a senator or a white nationalist organizer. Here’s our guide to harassing a political figure, the right way…
Why Disruptive Direct Action Matters
Unlike voting, donating or calling representatives about an issue, direct-action tactics often rely on a bit of a shock factor to shake up both the target individual and the public discussion around their behavior. This is especially true when the incidents go viral. “You should never underestimate the power behind political spectacle, and how moving it is to see your neighbors and fellow citizens in the streets,” notes Max Belasco, a representative of the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Direct-action events like Occupy Wall Street and the protest at the Dakota Access Pipeline also shape our political narratives and help us retain information about critical issues in America, Belasco argues. “A lot of people, if you ask them individually, know what they don’t like about the country — I.C.E. kidnappings, losing their health care, losing their rights. But they might stumble on what exactly they should do, or who is exactly to blame,” Belasco explains. “Picking out a public official and targeting them for a direct action helps hone the message and gives the public someone to rally around to fight.”
While Rose City Antifa (RCA), an anti-fascist group based in Portland, doesn’t focus its efforts on elected officials, its continued confrontation of white nationalists has provided some good takeaways. Going face-to-face (and sometimes fist-to-fist) with Neo-Nazis is an active defense of the community itself, RCA argues, and in a recent tweet, the group urged Portlanders to harass white nationalists in whatever way they can.
“Direct action is, and has been, a cornerstone of radical leftist politics, because it empowers people to decide for themselves and their communities what they’re willing to accept,” an RCA representative writes over email. “These tasks are effective because they allow us to reclaim spaces that are supposed to be safe for marginalized groups, many of which we’re a part of.”
Consider the Short-Term and Long-Term Outcomes
That said, the criticism of Antifa groups being aggressive or violent (often with the much-maligned label of “anarchy”) misses a key component of what they do: prepare in advance. The worst direct actions tend to be ones with “little forethought or planning, where the participants don’t know the goal or the reason they are there,” RCA adds.
This can be tricky in the moment when you spot a public official or political speaker you truly despise. But fight the urge to yell in the moment. Instead, take a few minutes to formulate some kind of plan. Will you record the incident on your phone, or will you have someone else do it? What will you say if a restaurant’s management arrives to kick you out? Do you have a political cause to throw in their face, or just two middle fingers and a lot of nasty adjectives? Is the target a polarizing private figure that can be knocked back into the shadows, or an incumbent public official with cushy job security?
It’s worth mulling what the long game is with each target. David Faris, a political science expert at Roosevelt University and the author of the progressive politics guide It’s Time to Fight Dirty, points out that while confrontations can shine a needed spotlight on issues or convince an official to consider changing policy, it can also backfire. “I’m agnostic on the concept of protesting someone at a dinner and similar things. There are upsides and downsides. There’s always a risk that confronting an elected official will cause them to dig in their heels,” he says. “It’s really just a matter of whether you achieve your goal or whether it’s going to end up as a leaked story on Fox News about angry mobs coming after people.”
The size of that risk is up for debate. Goodman is a stronger advocate for confrontations, pointing to the Tea Party’s similar tactics as influencing the way the GOP, and its constituency, thinks and operates. “What did it get them? Just control of Congress,” he says. “Visible direct action helps other people see that they’re not alone in feeling the way that they feel, and it motivates them to turn out.”
Belasco of DSA-LA builds on that idea, explaining that such confrontations can push more moderate/centrist Democrats, whether it be an official or a voter, to take a side on a matter — usually in favor of the progressive activist, even if they’re turned off by aggressive protesting at first. “Trump’s refusal to abide by norms of civility has created an interesting window that direct action organizers can exploit,” he says. “So many moderate Democrats subscribe to the idea that they will ‘resist’ this administration, and it can be a really useful rhetorical tool.”
Make Your Move
If there’s a lesson from the confrontations of 2018, it’s that the more people you can round up before heading toward a political figure, the better. This is especially true if you’re in a city or state where other citizens might turn against you, and potentially create a violent altercation. Generally, all forms of direct action benefit from a team around it, Belasco says.
“Every successful direct action I’ve been a part of involved a crew instead of just one individual. Even direct actions that appear to be the act of a single person often involve having many people working behind the scenes — figuring out logistics, doing media outreach, liaising with the police, so on,” he says. “These are also the people who will look out for you, and do jail support if you get arrested.”
Admittedly, there’s a limit to the planning, assuming that the person you want to approach won’t be there for long (as at a bar or restaurant). Goodman says that it’s important to take the chance while you have it. Or as he puts it, “Many of these people go so far out of their way to not be accessible or findable in person.”
As with the gentleman who harassed Stephen Miller at the D.C. Mexican restaurant, sometimes one voice isn’t enough to make a person leave (Miller apparently scuttled away to a different part of the eatery). That’s why activists note it may be wise to speak your initial message in a clear, loud voice so that others know what’s happening, whom they’re dining with, and can make a clear decision on whether to back your stance.
Also, note that confrontations don’t have to take place in a restaurant or at a politician’s house. Activist tools like the Town Hall Project help you see when politicians have public events in your area, which they often keep on the down-low to avoid negative attention. “Probably the most important and most prominent victory for the left in recent memory was using activism and direct action in showing up at town halls to change public opinion about the repeal of Obamacare,” Faris says. “It played a role in a small number of Republican senators who decided to vote against it.”
Follow Up With Other Forms of Advocacy
Keep in mind that protest and confrontations are one part of the “activist diet,” not the main course, and other kinds of direct action can have an equal or bigger impact on the future. You can “confront” people with organizations like Swing Left, which takes deep-blue volunteers and deploys them door to door in red-leaning districts to have civil but real conversations with voters. These types of activities can help people who feel frustrated and sidelined in the national fight, while also pushing quantifiable change in the way communities vote and engage in politics.
“This is technically campaign work, but it’s also a form of activism to raise awareness of these races and raise money. Activism has to be credited, at least partially, with the enormous Democrat fundraising advantage in the midterms,” Faris says. “And you look at ballot initiatives in Michigan, in Florida, and you see they were all created by activist campaigns. You can see the changes.”
Not to mention, says Goodman, “It’s remarkably easy to take over your local Democratic Party and shape the direction of the party as an activist. Anyone can do it. I lived in Burbank for eight months before becoming president of the Burbank Democrats. You don’t need to take a ‘burn it down, fuck it all’ attitude, as tempting as it is. All you have to do is show up and put in the work.”