Submitted on Tue, 12/13/2016 - 5:06pm
By Erik Davis - First of May Anarchist Alliance, December 4, 2016
A PDF of this interview is here.
The General Defense Committee of the Industrial Workers World (IWW) has become an important pole of struggle for pro-working-class revolutionaries in the Twin Cities. While active on a number of different fronts it is the participation of the General Defense Committee (GDC) in the year-long struggle against police killings and brutality in the Twin Cities that has largely led to the significant growth of the organization. The GDC has grown to approximately 90 dues-paying members in Minnesota, and has several active working-groups. In the wake of Trump’s election victory, Wobblies(1) and others across the country have begun establishing their own GDC locals – strongly influenced by the Twin Cities’ model.
First of May Anarchist Alliance spoke to Erik D. secretary of the Twin Cities GDC Local 14 about the history and work of the General Defense Committee there. Erik is a father, husband, education worker, and wobbly, who’s also been involved in the youth-focused intergenerational group, the Junior Wobblies.
Fellow Worker Erik – can you tell us about the origins and history of the General Defense Committee, its relationship to the IWW and how the militants who founded the current Local conceived of it?
As I understand it, the General Defense Committee (GDC) was first founded by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1917, in response to the repression of wobblies and anti-WWI draft protests. I haven’t learned enough about the historic GDC to really speak much about it. I joined the IWW in 2006, and we didn’t formally charter the current local as a GDC until 2011. In 2011, the committee was 13 wobblies. But we had actually started organizing ourselves prior to 2011, calling ourselves the Local Defense Committee.
Are there historical or modern examples or inspirations that influence the way GDC sees itself, its activity and organization?
One of the things I’ve appreciated about the Twin Cities GDC is the very practical intention to learn, with a specific focus on learning in order to act. From the very beginning we engaged in mutual education. Since one of our early orientations was to anti-fascist and anti-racist work, we did a fair bit of reading on the topic of fascism and anti-fascism (Sunday mornings with coffee).
I mention this period of mutual education because we have a lot of inspirations, but none of them have been role models, per se. We have looked to previous movements largely in order to inform our own work and to learn from our elders and the experience of previous generations, but not as Role Models To Be Emulated. That’s been important.
With that caveat, we have a lot of inspiration. I get new inspiration every time I read a book, it seems. Some of the inspiration is local: here, I’d specifically highlight Anti-Racist Action and Teamsters Local 544. Anti-Racist Action (ARA) came out of a Minneapolis-based group of anti-racist skinheads who decided they needed to find a way to kick racist skins and organized fascists out of the Twin Cities. Teamsters Local 544 was the local that organized the 1934 strike that made Minneapolis a union town, innovated new forms of the picket (specifically, the ‘flying picket’), and engaged for a short time in open physical confrontation on the streets.
Beyond the Twin Cities, I think our members have a lot of very different inspirations. One of mine has always been John Brown, but I grew up partly in Kansas. I guess the Black Panther Party would be the most common source of inspiration among early members; our advocacy of Community Self Defense certainly owes a lot to the Panthers, including their Survival Programs. The most recent addition to my ‘Hall of Inspiration’ is Rudy Shields, whom I learned about from Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement.
One of the first projects of the Twin Cities GDC was organizing a “Picket Training”, which seems like a kind of simple project, but you all attached some importance to it. How come?
I think the history of the Picket Training is actually the beginning of the history of the local GDC, so forgive me for a longer answer. The IWW was always heavily involved in local May Day events, naturally. In both 2007 and 2008 we had dispiriting and potentially dangerous experiences in marches that were organized by other groups. These happened when we were ‘out-marshaled’ and ‘peace-policed.’ Folks might remember the 2006 “Day Without An Immigrant.” In 2007 immigrant protection and rights continued to be major issues, and the march was partly centered around pro-immigrant demands.
So it was worrying when wobblies who had been active in local anti-fascist actions saw someone they thought they knew from a fascist rally elsewhere in the state videotaping the crowd (we were never able to confirm the identity because of what happened next). Fascists videotaping an immigrants rights march is extremely concerning; they were likely videotaping either to research immigrants rights’ groups (including antifa groups), or to identify potentially undocumented people.
A few wobblies went to talk to the videotaper and get in the way of the camera. Shouting commenced, and the self-appointed organizers of the march successfully pushed the wobblies back into the crowd, allowing the videotaping to continue.
The May Day parade the next year found wobblies promoting militant chants shut down by the same sort of marshals.
At roughly the same time, the local IWW was doing a lot of organizing. While some of us had prior experience in organizing pickets and direct actions, the Starbucks Workers campaign, the Jimmy John’s campaign, the Sisters Camelot Canvas Union, and the Chicago-Lake Liquors campaigns all provided early experience and training in planning and executing pickets and direct actions, in a context where we were already committed to IWW ideas and practices. Some of these were particularly challenging, such as doing intelligence and the occasional flying picket of scab canvassers in the Sisters Camelot campaign. Since they never stayed put, it felt like a throwback to the 1934 strikes and the flying pickets. It was cold both Winters.
There was one particular occasion at the University of Minnesota AFSCME strike in 2007 where the IWW promoted, and executed, a hard picket line in the early morning hours at a delivery dock. This was going extremely well until a UMN delivery truck driver rammed the picket line. I was in the wrong place at the moment, and ended up on his hood. I found out later I’d crushed three neck vertebrae; it took two surgeries and a lot of physical therapy to get past it. It also gave me a serious motivation for doing pickets and direct actions better. Just a week after a truck hit me, a delivery truck hit another picketer at an IWW picket of D’Amico’s restaurant, thankfully without serious consequences.
Finally, 2008 was the end of an intense two-year process organized at disrupting the Republican National Convention. Most of us already had a critique of ‘summit hopping’ styles of disruption, few of which have been effective since before the FTAA in Miami 2003. But a number of wobblies were serious and on occasion influential participants in (at least the early period of) the two years of planning that ended up calling itself the “Welcoming Committee.” The Welcoming Committee meetings (which were held in the same community space as the early IWW at the time, the Jack Pine Community Center) hammered out some early agreements and principles, including, along with other interested groups, the well-known Saint Paul Principles. This process also gave local wobblies experience in critically thinking through on-the-street tactics and what it would take to actually win goals and actions on those streets, whether in labor pickets or direct actions(2).
All these motivations and experiences were in the forefront of our minds when we thought up the picket training. We knew we had to get better at this, and though we all had some experience, that’s not the same thing as having teachable knowledge. So we researched, wrote, debated, and practiced. We adopted a principle of teaching the tactics quickly rather than perfecting the training first, and encouraged people to think about themselves as the next trainers. In order to keep track of our curriculum and to make it portable, we created a trainer’s manual, a trainee manual, and a setup manual, which we update frequently.
We offer the trainings to non-wobblies, and while we avoid being an on-call security group, we are trusted locally as providing quality security and planning successful actions. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and on-the-streets protest since Ferguson, I think the GDC has earned a bit of respect from other local organizations as a result.