Left-wing activists smash windows with bats to protest conservative speakers. They burn property and threaten opponents in public, violently lashing out at individuals for holding conservative views.
It’s 2019 but could be mistaken for 1969. That’s no accident, observers of history say. The roots of disorder go back to a style of agitation and organization made famous half a century ago by left-wing activists. Because it so often worked for the left, it has become common in mainstream politics today, and has even been copied recently by a few on the right.
Kenneth Starr, the former federal judge and solicitor general, discussed one of the most notorious cases in which radicalization moved out of the realm of theory into practical, aggressive politics. Addressing the Washington Examiner’s first political summit, at Sea Island, Ga., in November, Starr recalled the 1969 college graduation of Hillary Clinton and her affection for the philosophy of community organizer Saul Alinsky, who advocated personal targeting by radical activists in the 1960s and ’70s.
Alinsky was unhappy with what he saw as left-wing academics’ and politicians’ timidity and acceptance of political norms. He tried to organize businesses, labor unions, churches, and neighborhoods into radical activists who could force swift change with direct action that circumvented the traditional political process.
Starr recalled Clinton, who went on to be first lady, senator, and secretary of state, giving the first student speech at her commencement in 1969. The former “Goldwater Girl” was student body president at Wellesley College and had just finished her senior thesis about Alinsky, who two years later would release his most enduring work, “Rules for Radicals: A Political Primer for Realistic Radicals.”
Clinton, who entered the White House 23 years later with her husband, President Bill Clinton, spoke just after commencement speaker Sen. Edward Brooke. A moderate Massachusetts Republican, Brooke was the first African-American elected to the Senate. He died in 2015.
Brooke believed in achieving incremental social improvements through collaboration, cooperation and established civil processes. In his address, the senator explained how “coercive protest is wrong and one reason it is wrong is because it is unnecessary.” The system works, he explained, if people use it peaceably and deliberately.
Brooke’s advice was the antithesis of Hillary Clinton’s thesis on Alinsky. She approached the lectern and went off script to counter Brooke.
“We’re not interested in social reconstruction,” she said in defiance of Brooke’s advice. “It’s human reconstruction.”
She told Brooke powerful men for too long misrepresented politics as “the art of the possible.” She advocated a “more human, more progressive perspective” than what he stood for. “Every protest, every dissent … is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age,” she said in a 15-minute speech that repeatedly quarreled with Brooke.
News media responded with a mix of positive and negative commentary, but either way, national attention for Hillary Clinton’s tirade buried Brooke’s message. Life Magazine sent a photographer to shadow Hillary Clinton at her family’s home in Illinois and wrote a story that concluded, “through their scathing words and clenched fists, the Class of ‘69 made clear that the protest will go on.”
Time magazine followed, featuring excerpts of Hillary Clinton’s speech in a roundup of select commencement messages.
“The nonsense did not start with Occupy Wall Street,” Starr pointed out. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s speech was a sign of things to come. A spirit of Alinsky-style activism ebbed and flowed for the next half-century.
Alinsky had bold and clear advice for the left, long before Hillary Clinton interviewed him for her thesis and 25 years before publication of the now-famous “Rules for Radicals.” His suggested method was to attack opponents personally, intimidate them, disorient them, dissuade them, throw them off their game, and consider breaking their necks.
“Conservative interests know that while liberals are most adept at breaking their own necks with their tongues, radicals are most adept at breaking the necks of conservatives,” Alinsky wrote in his 1946 book “Reveille for Radicals.” “The radical may resort to the sword. … He hates these individuals not as persons but as symbols representing ideas or interests which he believes to be inimical to the welfare of the people.”
The obscure Reveille book ushered in the classic 1971 “Rules for Radicals,” which has become increasingly consequential.
Alinsky’s 13 rules include tactics to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty in opponents.
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize, and polarize it,” he advocated in rule 13.
To give radicals a cause worth fighting for, Alinsky based grievance on a zero-sum game view of economics. Nothing was written or said about a lower-class kid from Cleveland learning guitar and making millions on stage, a once-poor inventor’s work improving the world, or a worker saving and investing his way to a better life.
Alinsky spoke only of the poor and middle class — the “have nots” — taking from the “haves.” Even the rich ultimately must take from each other to maintain their lifestyles. In Alinsky’s Marxist paradigm, wealth and power are neither earned nor created. They must be taken.
Alinsky coursework is now common in many disciplines at universities and colleges across America. The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald says most students know little of Alinsky, but his views commingle with similar left-wing doctrines in a pervasive academic culture of grievance and resistance.
Academics neither hide their use of Alinsky’s work, nor apologize for it. By influencing millions of children and young adults for the past 50 years, say Alinsky supporters and critics alike, educators have made radicalization a central component of political activism.
I reached out to three acclaimed university professors, who each defended Alinsky and their use of his books in their classrooms. My search of course curriculum found everything from semester-long Alinsky courses, to lectures, to reading assignments at Ivy League schools and all other variety of universities from coast to coast.
In 2009, the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest teachers union, recommended that teachers read Alinsky’s books, calling him “an inspiration to anyone contemplating action in their community! And to every organizer!”
The NEA praised union organizer Paul Booth a day after his death in 2018 for his ties to Alinsky.
“Paul was a contemporary and protege of Saul Alinsky, with whom he worked to fight for social, economic and environmental justice for urban communities,” explains a letter on the NEA website by NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Executive Director John Stocks.
In a 1985 interview with Insider’s Report, a publication of “concerned educators against forced unionism,” former NEA leader John Lloyd minced no words in describing the close relationship between the teachers union, Alinsky, and the union organizer’s work.
“To understand the NEA — to understand the union — read Saul Alinsky,” said Lloyd, former president of the Kansas NEA, a chapter in Massachusetts, and director of the NEA’s Uniserv. “If you read ‘Rules for Radicals,’ you will understand the NEA more profoundly than reading anything else. Because the whole organization was modeled on that kind of behavior which was really begun when the NEA used Saul Alinsky as a consultant to train their own staff.”
A 2014 article in the journal Jesuit Higher Education spends 18 pages urging faculty nationwide to include Alinsky’s books and thinking as a central feature of the curriculum at the country’s 221 Catholic colleges and universities.
Eric J. Fretz, associate professor of peace and justice studies at Denver’s Regis University, explains in the journal how he taught a course called “Stand Up and Fight: Saul Alinsky and the Community Organizing Tradition” at Regis University and two other colleges over the past decade.
Fretz describes the Jesuit community’s “political turn to the left” in the mid-20th century and Pedro Arrupe’s call for “collectively entering upon a more severe way of the cross.”
“We should go back and revisit that bifurcation we have created between academics and activists,” Fretz wrote, adding, “We are all, in varying degrees, both academics and activists, and those two things can live together in harmony in one being.”
History professor Michael Kazin, of the Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington, defends Alinsky while speaking of him alongside “a community organizer from Calcutta named Mother Teresa.”
“Alinsky frequently spoke at Catholic venues and regularly advised young seminarians who were eager to improve the well-being of the men and women they would soon be serving, many of whom were poor and needed help organizing themselves to demand jobs and better services from local authorities,” Kazin wrote in the New Republic in 2012.
The FBI described Alinsky’s ties to Catholic organizations in the narrative of a 1972 investigation in Baltimore. The agency found Alinsky working with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide network of faith-based community organizing groups, and Baltimore’s North East Community Organization.
Alinsky’s mentors included labor leader John Llewellyn Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and even Chicago mob boss Al Capone.
The FBI’s Baltimore report includes a copy of Alinsky’s 1972 interview with Playboy magazine, in which he describes his connection with Capone and the status he earned as the Chicago mob’s college-boy “mascot.”
He worked his way into Capone’s circle by kissing up to Big Ed Stash, “a professional assassin who was the Capone mob’s top executioner.” Alinsky described befriending Stash by listening to boring stories about women few others had time for. By his account, Alinsky worked within the mob for two years to hone his skills at organizing for outcomes.
“I learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob, lessons that stood me in good stead later on, when I was organizing,” he told the magazine.
Playboy asked if Alinsky had “any compunction about consorting with — if not actually assisting — murderers?”
“None at all,” Alinsky said, “since there was nothing I could do to stop them from murdering.”
Alinsky described his association with Capone as “heaven” and called the boss a public “benefactor.”
“The Capone gang was actually a public utility; it supplied what the people wanted and demanded,” Alinsky said. “The man in the street wanted girls: Capone gave him girls. He wanted booze during Prohibition: Capone gave him booze.”
An essay by Brooklyn-based, self-described socialist Aaron Petcoff explains the relevance of Alinky’s relationship with organized labor.
“Alinsky’s experience with the CIO profoundly shaped him. Communist and socialist influence was rising in the labor movement,” Petcoff explains in the May 2017 issue of the socialist quarterly Jacobin.
Gerald Rosenberg, an attorney and associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, does not trace the left’s original widespread embrace of radical protest to anything Alinsky wrote. Alinksy’s actions and antics, not his precise written words, captivated the left before he wrote “Rules for Radicals.”
Rosenberg points to a protest Alinsky organized to counter objections to neighborhoods developing around Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Alinsky and other opponents claimed the airport and surrounding developments benefited affluent white travelers at the expense of blacks, who were increasingly relegated to the city’s deteriorating core.
“He organized a ‘shit-in’ at O’Hare, with protesters occupying all of the bathrooms,” Rosenberg recalls with admiration. “This stuff works. The left discovered him right away after that.”
Alinsky and his followers “understood that when flights arrive at airports people flock to bathrooms,” explained Andrew F. Kaufman in the journal Society and Space. “And they understood that the inability to conduct basic bodily functions could disrupt Mayor [Richard J.] Daley’s dream of airports, infrastructure, modernization, and the cosmopolitan specter of unencumbered circulation.”
Rosenberg, an Alinsky enthusiast, hopes the 20- and 30-something millennial generation will increasingly embrace the spirit of “Rules for Radicals,” whether they read it. Rosenberg insists violence was not Alinsky’s intent.
Yet it’s hard to see why violence isn’t a predictable outcome.
Democratic California Rep. Maxine Waters publicly called on supporters to use tactics strikingly similar to those of rule 13, saying last June: “If you see anybody from [President Trump’s] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Three months later, a group of protesters chased Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his wife out of a Washington restaurant, shouting, “We believe survivors! We believe survivors!” They opposed the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
After Waters advocated personal intimidation and social isolation, other leading Democrats chimed in with additional appeals for radical activism that conforms with Alinsky’s instruction to “go after people.”
“That’s my call to action, here,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker at a speech to supporters in July. Booker, who seems sure to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, added, “Go to the Hill [Capitol Hill] today. Get up and, please, get up in the face of some congresspeople.”
Clinton followed Waters and Booker, nearly 50 years after confronting Brooke’s promotion of change through civilized process.
“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about,” she declared in an October interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
Her party would be civil upon return to power, she continued.
Former Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder followed Clinton in October. “When they go low, we kick ’em,” Holder declared.
Or mess with their food. That was the mid-October advice of James Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi.
“Don’t just interrupt a senator’s meal, y’all,” tweeted Thomas. “Put your whole damn fingers in their salads. Take their apps and distribute them to the other diners. Bring boxes and take their food home with you on the way out. They don’t deserve your civility.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, subsequently endured an attack that appeared to follow Thomas’ prescription. An activist verbally abused them and threw their food on the floor in a Kentucky restaurant on Oct. 19. About 10 protesters chased McConnell out of a Kentucky restaurant on another such occasion, following him to his car and threatening him with the chant, “We know where you live.”
Whatever Alinsky’s intent, it is perhaps disingenuous to posit that he didn’t know where it would lead. Republican state representative candidate Shane Mekeland was dining at a restaurant on a late fall Sunday in Minnesota, where he lives. As he sat at a high-top table, a left-wing attacker sucker-punched him. Mekeland fell to the floor and suffered a serious concussion, including memory loss. Physicians diagnosed six weeks of recovery when they released him from the hospital.
The crime against Mekeland came just after an assault on Minnesota Republican State Rep. Sarah Anderson after she confronted a left-wing activist for destroying Republican yard signs. The man punched Anderson, bruising her arm before she ran to her car and fled for safety.
Before the October confirmation of Kavanaugh, suspects sent a text to moderate Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s wife containing a gruesome video of a human beheading. The text contained addresses that ensured the sender knew how to find Gardner family members and other loved ones.
“It makes you worry about your wife and kids,” Gardner told the Washington Examiner. “You worry what people will do to them, constantly.”
Alinsky-style activists seldom give Gardner and other Republican politicians a break, and most incidents don’t make the news. Protesters surrounded the senator’s Colorado home on New Year’s Eve in 2017, destroying outdoor Christmas decorations in protest of his opposition to Obamacare.
“There are efforts by radicals to get teachers to do bad things to our children at school. The school calls and reports these to us,” Gardner said. “We often have the police calling and telling us there is reason to step up patrols near our home.”
Gardner has said he won’t be bullied and nothing protesters do alters what he says or does in the Senate.
“Smash Racism DC,” a militant Alinsky-style Antifa group, converged on the home of Fox News host Tucker Carlson Nov. 7 to terrorize his wife with threatening chants and pounding on the front door.
“Tucker Carlson, we will fight! We know where you sleep at night!” they chanted, along with other threats.
Despite the more recent widespread torrent of left-wing protests and intimidation events, news media downplay the trend.
“Right now conservative speech is considered violence and liberal violence is considered speech,” said 2018 Michigan Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James in a TV interview. “It’s an attack on what we hold dear and fundamental, and that message is getting out.”
Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty minimized recent left-wing tumult by comparing it to right-wing tea party assemblies during former President Barack Obama’s first term.
“There were plenty of shoving matches, and Democratic lawmakers were burned in effigy,” Tumulty insists.
Evidence to support her claim is scant, at best. Tea party activists mostly gathered in parks and on courthouse lawns with municipal permits to oppose high taxes, new regulations and the costs of the Affordable Care Act. Small-business owners comprised disproportionately high percentages of tea party crowds.
Typical tea party events consisted of scheduled speakers, usually candidates, at gatherings that more resembled church picnics than protests.
Tea party activists didn’t smash windows with bats. They did not bully couples on dates, or mess with their food. They did not silence campus speakers with whom they disagreed. Political leaders and academics did not advocate incivility by conservatives to target the left.
“Alinsky was clearly on the left,” says the University of Chicago’s Rosenberg. “But his work can be used in a nonpartisan way. Anyone can use these tactics. I think in the last decade or so the right has discovered Alinsky, but only after pillorying him for decades.”
As Rosenberg spoke to the Washington Examiner, 25-year-old conservative activist Laura Loomer provided him an example of radical, albeit peaceable, right-wing activism the professor perceived as something straight out of Alinsky’s playbook. She handcuffed herself to the New York City headquarters of Twitter in protest of the company’s suspension of her account, over a tweet critical of incoming Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. Such tactics, though, preceded Alinsky by decades, having been used by suffragettes in the early 20th century. Chaining oneself is not a threat to others.
“Alinsky would approve of her protest,” Rosenberg speculates, to emphasize his belief conservatives can, do, and will use Alinsky’s tactics to their advantages.
He’s not wrong, though. There are groups on the right that are now catching on to the left’s tactics. In October, members of the right-wing self-described “Western chauvinist” group Proud Boys got into a violent altercation with left-wing protesters at a New York speech by founder Gavin McInnes (who has since officially distanced himself from the group). McInnes in 2017 told Mother Jones he considered himself a student of the “immoral” Alinsky: “This isn’t us taking on a brilliant book because we admire the guy. It’s us seeing what your tactics are and using them against you.”
Months earlier, conservative Town Hall columnist Kurt Schlichter crowed, “Finally, the right has taken Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ and shoved it up where #TheResistance don’t shine.”
Right-wing provocateurs had been calling for such a table-turning: A FreedomWorks press secretary told Politico in 2009 he was given “Rules for Radicals” upon his hire at the free-market group. Around that same time, activist-filmmaker James O’Keefe told the New York Post he was inspired in part by Alinsky. In 2012, John Hawkins implored his Town Hall readers to not “become an evil person like Alinsky, but learn from what he wrote and give the left a taste of its own medicine.”
Rosenberg believes anyone employing Alinsky’s advice to justify violence has mistaken the author’s philosophy.
“He was about shit-ins, not Antifa,” Rosenberg said.
Clark McPhail, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, taught courses on social movements and collective behavior and used “Rules for Radicals” as a requisite textbook.
“Alinsky favored strikes, nonparticipation, or anything social psychologists call power-dependence conduct,” McPhail said. “You engage in activity that makes your opponent dependent on you until the opponent sits down and negotiates.”
Today, McPhail said, “there’s no question” some take Alinsky’s rules out of context and misuse them.
The targets of Alinskyite provocation would like organizers to find a new hero.
“Alinsky is a radical of radicals,” Gardner warns. “It is dangerous for everyone when any party or political movement takes up his torch and follows his advice.”
Wayne Laugesen is The Gazette’s editorial page editor. This article originally ran in the Jan. 8 edition of the Washington Examiner Magazine.