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In Defense of Paid Protesters

Amid right-wing hysteria over paid protesters, let’s remember: Some protesters are paid, and we’re going to need more of them.

By Malcolm Harris


Activists with One Pennsylvania at an anti-Trump protest in Philadelphia. (Photo: Joe Piette/Flickr)

All around the country, Republican officials are getting jeered whenever they show up in public. Even in deep-red Utah, Congressman Jason Chaffetz was booed off the stage in his own district. While Americans have long hated congress generally, people have still tended to approve of their own representatives. But now, just as a hard-right administration takes power, the GOP is canceling town halls as fast as they can. What gives?

The simple answer is that Donald Trump’s ascendance has radicalized everyday people (from the far-left to a principled few on the moderate right) who are no longer content to confine their objections to the ballot box or Facebook. Americans are fed up with the reckless Trump agenda, and they want to be heard. The simple answer, however, is not the explanation that the Republicans themselves have accepted. The GOP — as led by Trump — has been remarkably consistent: What we’re seeing isn’t grassroots outrage — it’s “paid protesters.”

The alliterative phrase has a nice ring to it, which seems to be more important these days than having an actual basis in fact. It’s an easy epithet to remember, and just as easy to throw at any group of demonstrators. And “paid protesters” is not even close to the most ridiculous lie that Republicans as a group have told under Trump; “Rick Perry is qualified,” “Jeff Sessions is not racist,” and “Donald Trump is a good president” come to mind. “Paid protesters” at least gives them something to say when they’re asked why Americans hate them so much.

Compared to the way corporations influence American politics, paid protesters are aggressively transparent.

When liberals, progressives, and leftists try to refute the lie that they are being paid to jeer at Trump, they get stuck in the rhetorical quicksand arguing against something no one really believes in the first place. At, say, $10 each an hour, a substantial-sized protest of 500 would cost $10,000 minimum, and that’s just labor. Never mind the costs of management, transportation, and a secure hiring process that has so far kept out James O’Keefe. It’s all absurd. But with the use of a bafflingly obvious falsehood, the Trumpists have made it harder to defend the important kernel of truth at the center of their lies: Some protesters are paid, and we’re going to need more of them.

It’s nice to think that protests just happen when enough individual people are commonly aggrieved past a certain level. For most people, that’s all we have to do: Show up. But that’s not really how protests come to be. Almost any demonstration of over 50 people requires some serious coordination, which means people putting in time. If it’s a larger protest with high-risk actions, that means a lot more planning and logistics. Some of the people doing that organizing work support themselves by doing apolitical jobs with flexible hours. Others write or film or draw or take pictures or record podcasts related to their activism, hopefully using the former to support the latter more than the other way around. And still others are professionals paid by advocacy groups in part to organize protests.

Compared to the way corporations influence American politics, paid protesters are aggressively transparent. They almost always carry banners and signs emblazoned with their organizational affiliations; sometimes they wear T-shirts. Whether they’re with labor unions or non-profits, no one is keeping it secret. Protests are rather a nice opportunity for advertising. Paid organizers often serve as media liaisons; they have time to practice being clear, concise, and staying on message. There are critiques to be made of the official labor movement and the non-profit-industrial complex, but excluding paid organizers means relying exclusively on unpaid organizers. The left has many hard-working volunteers, but it’s hard to build a movement on moonlighting alone. But making it hard to build a movement is exactly what the Trumpists are after.

Well-organized demonstrators are the first obstacle — sometimes a literal one, when it comes to pipeline construction or deportation raids — to the Trump agenda.

The right-wing attack on paid protesters is nothing new, at least when you think about whom they’re attacking. Conservatives have gone after organized labor at the local and national levels for longer than anyone reading this has been alive, and progressive and radical groups have to be on constant alert for right-wing infiltrators. “Paid protesters” is a rebranding of a line from the early Barack Obama years: Remember how Republicans tarred “community organizers”? The Breitbart flank of the Republican Party spun so many elaborate lies about an unscrupulous and positively evil network of community organizers — of which the president himself was a central node! — that by the time they picked an actual target and went in for the kill, the fog was so thick that Democrats weren’t prepared to put up a fight. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now did important work (especially when it came to low-income voter registration), but it’s dead now because Steve Bannon’s employees convinced the Republican Party to kill it. If ACORN had been around in 2016, maybe the GOP’s white-nationalist wing wouldn’t be running the country. Maybe that’s a problem they saw coming.

Now Bannon and his employees are federal workers, but his enemies have stayed more or less the same. Community organizers and paid protesters have led the anti-Trump resistance, whether against the immigration executive order, the recent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or threats to reproductive freedom. Groups like Make the Road in New York and the By Any Means Necessary Coalition in California were prepared to hit the ground running while national Democrats are still showing up to the protests late, looking for leadership when they’re not staring at their shoes. Well-organized demonstrators are the first obstacle — sometimes a literal one, when it comes to pipeline construction or deportation raids — to the Trump agenda.

The right’s anti-ACORN operation worked so well the first time around, there’s no reason to think they won’t try it again. In January, the Intercept reported that lawmakers in 10 states had introduced bills to criminalize protests. Breitbarters have called Black Lives Matter protesters “terrorists” since the beginning; now that Bannon is in the White House, how long before the designation gets written into law? If they create a dense enough miasma of criminality around protesters, no one will be surprised when protesters are treated like criminals. And many Americans already don’t much care what happens to criminals.

It’s easy to see how this plan could play out. The latest right-wing state-level pet policy shields drivers who “accidentally” hit protesters with their cars. We know who will be blamed for any violence, and it’s not the troopers in riot gear holding guns. Demonstrators will be classified as terrorists for forcing cars to run them over, and then the Sessions Department of Justice will start the investigations. They won’t have any trouble finding the left’s paid protesters because — unlike their counterparts on the right — they don’t skulk in the shadows. Our full-time organizers (at least the ones earning their checks) are on the front lines, where they need to be. But if progressives keep insisting paid protesters don’t exist, then when Breitbart finally tracks down the mythical creature who will be prepared to have their back? All they have to do is find three different pictures of someone leading actions, circle their face in red, match them up with some employment records, and voila: The scapegoat unicorn appears.

The “paid protester” label is part of an ongoing effort to undermine left-wing infrastructure, and we should recognize it by now. Organizing for social justice is not a path to wealth accumulation; we don’t need to make excuses for ensuring as many organizers as possible have the resources to get by and continue their important work despite living in capitalist America. If we’re not ready to defend them, we won’t have them for long.