The protest of Tucker Carlson’s house on the evening of November 7th created a sensation throughout the media. It was reported that a gang of anti-fa organizers protested the personal dwelling of the media personality in a manner that more resembled a home invasion than a traditional protest. Carlson’s wife reported an attempt to break into the house and the house was vandalized. Various media personalities across the political spectrum condemned this attack from Fox News to liberal figures such as Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert.
It was only after protestors responded to the media coverage days later that it became apparent how flawed the initial coverage of the protest was. Instead of a home invasion, the protestors were at the house for a matter of ten minutes, briefly knocking on the door, and taking part in a series of ordinary chants. Far from being a danger, the march and protest was substantially monitored by the police and the protestors had no real interest in much other than engaging in conventional protest action. There was an action of vandalism taken on by a masked individual, but that action wasn’t supported by the rest of the group. In effect, Carlson effectively was able to use this event to present himself as a victim, papering over his effective support for white nationalism over the past year.
The question then becomes: how did this happen, and could it have been avoided? An initial criticism might be the chosen venue of the protestors. After all, pro choice activists did a pretty good job of making anti-choice activists look bad by exposing their protests of private homes. But to focus on this angle of the protest ignores some of the productive use of the protest of the private homes of individuals. The Detroit Newspaper strikers took their contract complaints to the Gross Pointe home of the owner of the papers in the mid-90’s and Anti-Racist Action activists successfully targeted a home of fascist activists in Minneapolis around the same time. So, targeting a private home doesn’t itself immediately lead to failure and there are moments where the tactic makes a lot of sense. After all, it makes sense to target the owner of a business to settle a strike and it makes a lot of sense to challenge the effort of Nazis to create a foothold in a neighborhood.
But even more than these aspects, the largest difference between those protests and the Carlson protest was the existence of a set of focused and tangible goals and a real media strategy, both of which seemed to be missing in the Carlson protest. To point to a contrast, the far more militant protests of the Milo Yiannopoulos talk in Berkeley received far more positive attention in the press. Despite literally storming the venue with fireworks, the activists managed to get their point of view expressed across the media. The action itself was guaranteed to be controversial, but the logic of the protest was expressed to the media and there was far more sympathy with those actions despite their obviously controversial nature. In contrast, we only heard about the reality of the Carlson protest several days after the controversy erupted and after a media narrative had taken shape. It was clear that the protestors had not thought about the media.
In a certain sense, the protest should be understood within the context of the series of protests that lead up to the action. For the past few months, individuals associated with the Trump Administration had been targeted for protest as they attended events or went to the restaurant. For the most part, these were protests of opportunity. Somebody saw that an official was at an event or a restaurant and there was an effort to get enough people together to embarrass them. As such, these events were spontaneous and there was little ability to put together a media plan. The Carlson protest felt very similar. However, there are a couple notable distinctions. To begin, almost all the protests were in response to public officials who were directly responsible for very controversial and draconian public policy. In addition, there was no real ability to plan in those situations. Neither point was true in the case of Carlson, who certainly has expounded a white nationalist politic, but is not directly responsible. Also, Carlson’s house wasn’t in danger of moving any time soon.
In effect, the protestors took a set of tactics that were applicable to a political conjuncture and applied them to one that did not fit the same criteria. By doing so, they allowed a political demagogue to define the narrative of the protest, a demagogue who was being protested for his manipulation of the news. They did so in a context where real planning was entirely possible. The results were unfortunately predictable and, to an extent, closed real possibilities of protest. To be clear, these mistakes are not unique to the activists behind this protest. We have seen similar mistakes made frequently in the name of a ‘spontaneous’ framework protest, and to be clear, I have certainly been involved in some of those protests. Some of the choices to target the chancellor’s house in Berkeley during the tuition protests in 2009 and 2010 had a similar effect, for instance, and our protest of our own Chancellor at the UCI radio station had a similar backlash effect.
My point isn’t that any of those events were irredeemable failures or that they fully destroyed the ability for movements to flourish, but that they were avoidable. Confrontational politics are both necessary and productive, but they also required some basic planning, most notably to challenge the inevitable narratives created by the dominant media and to plan for likely contingencies. I really don’t get the sense that the organizers took the time to think through the goals of the protest or the possible problems that could have occurred as a result of such a protest. To be clear, I don’t think that the protestors could have planned in a manner that could have stopped the act of vandalism, but they could have planned in a manner that got their point of view across to the media, even if it was the alternative media. They could have provided a real dossier of the affect of the kind of journalism embodied by Carlson and they could have provided a narrative of the event that was playful and joyful, rather than confrontational, a frankly more accurate portrayal of the event.
I’m not interested in condemning the activists who organized the failed Carlson protest. I respect and admire the effort despite the problems. Instead, I want to use the moment to reflect on the practices of organizing and more significantly our efforts to critically assess our own actions. Organizers and activists inevitably fail. We fail a lot. Some of those failures have little to no impact. Some of those failures are immensely destructive. It would be a mistake to try to create organizing efforts without failure because it would result in no action at all, but we can do a lot more to identify and learn from our failures. More significantly, to treat those failures as an ordinary part of discussion. We should do so not to avoid failure per se, but to avoid falling into precisely the same kind of failures and to fail in more interesting and productive ways.