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Commentary :: Environment : Organizing
Flood the System Report Back: Still Lots of Work To Do
26 Jan 2016
In May of 2015, Rising Tide North America issued a bold and ambitious invitation to organize a flood of actions “washing over, occupying, blockading, shutting down and flooding the institutions that exploit us and threaten our survival” throughout fall of 2015. The invitation recognized a need begin to organize in a way that would allow us to grow and connect social movements at an unprecedented scale and scope in order to respond to the many crises we face and shift power back to our communities. While much of the climate movement was orienting a focus on the COP21 talks in Paris, we argued that governments and corporations would only address the crisis we are facing with negotiations that propose minor changes and sustain capitalism.
The Flood the System invitation envisioned a small start growing into a massive flood of actions over a period of months. “We will build slowly, like a small trickle of a stream. We’ll reach out to allies, new friends and partners. Our trickle will turn into rapids, as more organizations and affinity groups join decentralized direct actions to Flood the System. By November we will engage in a series of coordinated mass direct actions to seriously disrupt the institutions that threaten our collective survival.”

The vision to build to a series of coordinated mass direct actions around the continent in a period of months was ambitious, perhaps overly so. But, that vision recognized a need to begin to change the way that we organize and mobilize to build our movements to a much larger scale. Flood the System was a meaningful step in exploring organizing tools and practices that could facilitate that type of growth. And even though we knew we might fail to reach the scale we were hoping for, we dove in anyway.

Flood the System aspired to push beyond the traditional lenses of climate change and fossil fuel extraction to challenge systems of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism. Around the continent, activists and organizers coming from diverse movements responded to the call signing up online, joining organizing conference calls, and turning out for local organizing meetings. Through Flood, Rising Tide North America and groups in the RTNA network started a much longer process of engaging with groups and networks such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), migrant justice groups, prison abolition groups and community organizations. Flood was part of a long-term, multi-year effort for Rising Tide to push the climate movement to deepen our collective analysis and open doors to other movements.

Throughout the fall, dozens of groups around North America engaged in energetic stream of actions targeting fossil fuel extraction, racist policing, and financial institutions. Climate organizers pushed to expand their collective analysis to understand the struggle for climate justice as a part of a broader struggle against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and colonialism.

But by most accounts the Flood fell far short of its initial ambitious vision.

Across the continent, the program failed to generate the mass direct actions anticipated in the initial call to action. Action councils struggled to engage diverse voices and movements, and actions fell mostly into the “climate box” and didn’t get to mass scale. While Flood the System did generate meaningful action and push our movements to expand our analysis the project was ultimately a failed experiment in building movement momentum (which perhaps some predicted).

Although Flood the System failed in achieving the vision of generating the series of coordinated direct actions and creating serious disruption, we were left with useful lessons in creating structures and relationships for growing resistance. Flood the System also challenged the climate movement to expand its historically narrow and analysis and embrace a deeper and more intersectional lens. In the end, we ended with many more questions than we started, questions around how we structure our movements, how we do truly intersectional organizing, how we balance continental escalation and necessary local organizing and resistance. These are the muddy waters that we want to lean into more. We’ve pulled out some big questions throughout this write up.

Building the Flood

On May 20, 2015, Rising Tide North America launched the Flood the System invitation, culminating a months-long process of visioning, consultation, and engagement. The process started in December of 2014 through conversations within the Rising Tide North America network and allied organizations about what escalation could look like coming off the People’s Climate March and Flood Wall Street in September of 2014. As ideas began to crystallize we began to test the waters to assess interest among the Rising Tide network and among our allies for a coordinated program of escalated action.

We floated the idea to local groups around the network and organizers from other movements. The proposal was workshopped at movement spaces and on a series of open conference calls which brought together hundreds of voices and perspectives. Throughout the process, the vision for the project went through multiple iterations, evolving from a string of weeks of action to a program of actions escalating from smaller rapids to giant floods. The frame of Flood the System shifted as well, away from focusing heavily on the climate negotiation at the COP21 meetings in Paris towards an open-container call around the root causes of the climate crisis.

Because Flood the System was to engage a broad cross section of organizers from diverse movements, we sought to create an autonomous organizing structure to facilitate the organizing work. Throughout the spring and summer, RTNA organizers worked to build local action councils to bring together diverse voices and begin planning actions and continental working groups to facilitate program-wide work and coordination. While these action councils and working groups relied on strong participation from Rising Tide activists, Flood the System’s organizational structure was intended to be an autonomous project.

The Arts and Culture working group developed a narrative graphic, which was presented on webinars and in action summits around the continent and published a 35-page organizing booklet explaining the vision for the project and the organizing process. At the continental level, the work was to be coordinated by a continental “River Council,” with spokespeople from each working group and each action council.

To facilitate such an ambitious project, Rising Tide stipended a team of two organizers (which later grew to four organizers) to work on Flood the System, supporting local organizing work and taking on key coordination tasks. This was the first time that Rising Tide North America -- historically an all-volunteer organization -- had provided financial compensation to organizers. While stipending organizers added some much-needed capacity to the project, paying organizers presents some interesting challenges for a horizontal organization like Rising Tide North America.

In thinking about this stage of Flood, we had a lot of questions on initiating projects. How do horizontal movements build capacity in the face of very busy lifestyles? How do we engage in a process of continental collaborative design with as a decentralized network and with allied groups? How do we do that design in an accountable way?

What Happened?!

Throughout the summer and fall of 2015 Flood the System generated or supported dozens of actions around North America targeting fossil fuel infrastructure, extraction sites, immigration detention centers, and racist police. We supported the network and our allies in expanding our skills and analysis with webinars and trainings on topics ranging from action planning, to racial justice, to corporate research. And we moved forward the very long-term and intentional work of developing relationships between our network and other social movements at the local and the continental level.

Here are eight highlights:

San Francisco: On September 28, over 250 people in the Bay area, anchored by Diablo Rising Tide, marched in through the financial district of San Francisco in a “corporate tour of shame,” stopping at the offices of Chevron, Wells Fargo and Bank of the West. The march occupied a major city intersection and painted a giant mural, while another team of people occupied the lobby of Bank of the West’s corporate headquarters. Bank of the West is a wholly owned subsidiary of French bank BNP-Paribas, a major funder of the global coal sector. A dozen were arrested.

Chicago: Groups, anchored by Rising Tide Chicago, did two actions as part of Flood the System. Working with local residents in Southeast Chicago, five people were arrested blocking trucks from a Koch Industries-owned petcoke facility. Two weeks later, groups fighting climate change, gentrification and prisons came together to “Flood the Banks” and marched to JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo branches in downtown Chicago.

Vermont: In October, hundreds of people, anchored by Rising Tide Vermont, marched in Montpelier against a proposed pipeline being pushed by Vermont Gas. As Indigenous tribes and rural landowners spoke, a few “oil tycoons” scaled a 20-foot oil derrick to block the street.

Seattle: Rising Tide Seattle worked with 350 Seattle and BAYAN, a Filipino organization, to march to declare “Not Another Haiyan,” on the anniversary of the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2013. In September, Rising Tide Seattle also worked in solidarity with Northwest Detention Center Resistance and other groups to prevent the detention of community members by ICE.

Minnesota: On November 2nd, a coalition of Indigenous, student and community groups in Duluth, MN took over the office of Enbridge to ask the corporation to meet with Indigenous tribes regarding the company’s Sandpiper pipeline. Seven people were arrested occupying the Enbridge lobby.

Australia: The call for Flood the System took off in Australia, where groups used the hashtag to link to actions in the United States and to target the failing negotiations at COP in Paris. There were actions in 4 cities on one day. In Melbourne, activists shut down the financial district using a web of blue string while two different team locked themselves to the doors of BHP Billiton and Westpac Bank.

Youth Action Council: Through Flood, a continental Youth Action Council that was anchored by Energy Action Coalition formed to pull together pieces of youth and student organizing happening in the Fall. This included young people working on actions such as the Duluth occupation of Enbridge offices, the Million Student March, Our Generation Our Choice in DC and the Michigan Climate March. The Youth Action Council will be used for youth coordination around Democracy Spring in April.

Analysis-Building: Through Flood the System, we released an infographic around the connections between the climate crisis and prison-industrial complex. This work was held by the Flood the System research group -- a new working group for Rising Tide, that did multiple workshops for Rising Tide groups on how to do community-led research into corporations, politicians and local power structures. We also held webinars with dozens of organizers about climate and racial justice with other groups such as Showing Up for Racial Justice, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter Boston.

Lessons and Challenges

The vision behind Flood the System clearly resonated with organizers around the continent. Within the first week of the launch 1,200 people signed up to receive updates and over 150 signed up to help organize the Flood; the Flood the System Facebook event gained more than 11 thousand RSVP’s and 104 thousand invitations; hundreds of organizers joined conference calls and local meet-ups to find out how to get involved.

The level of interest in Flood the System in the weeks and months following the launch clearly showed enthusiastic support for the Flood’s ambitious vision and the intersectional lens. But the engagement around Flood the System failed to match the energy around the vision. Organizers and supporters around the continent struggled with the open ended vision of the project. The initial call to action presented a vision of mass action around the continent but lacked a clearly articulated call to action with specific targets, tactics, and timeline. This also raised more questions for us, like how does a decentralized movement choose targets, tactics and a timeline that works for a critical mass of groups? Is focusing on centralized targets that create a spark (like Keystone XL for example) a way to create a mass movement? Do we create a spark through investing in a single or a couple of places? If Flood the System had pushed out targets and timelines, this paragraph would probably talk about a totally different set of challenges.

At the local level, without prescriptive action plans--from local organizers or across the Flood the System project, Action Councils struggled to create a space that was relevant to organizers from outside the traditional climate justice movement. The initial call to action for Flood the System came directly from Rising Tide North America--a predominantly white climate justice network--and was not borne out of the broad-based network that the initial call envisioned. Obviously, building relationships with networks and groups outside the climate movement takes time and shared trust. Continentally, Rising Tide North America did not have the requisite relationships with similarly situated networks operating in other social movements. Locally, inviting groups to invest in the Action Council process was a very high bar in the absence of a track record of shared work and trust. Both continentally and locally, we believe that Flood pushed all of us to deepen, strengthen and build new relationships for years to come.

The Action Council model has proven an incredibly effective tool for coordinating among different types of organizations and movements aimed at a common target like a political convention or nuclear power plant. But without alignment around targets or tactics, the Action Councils drifted and struggled to find the type of direction that would have been needed to keep organizers from other movements engaged and invested in the process. We found that Action Councils are an important tool in action coordination, but they are not the right place to plan actions.

We also found that the action council model requires organizations to be the local anchors of work -- not individual activists. While many people signed up online to engage in Flood the System, these were not necessarily people who had the capacity to anchor Action Councils. Without a real plan to engage unaffiliated activists and organizational capacity to support these activists, the continental organizers for Flood failed to engage these people. And at the local level, organizers were engaged in the day to day of trying to get anchor organizations to hold pieces of the Action Council. To use the Action Council model it seems, anchor organizations need to develop local plans and communication structures for unaffiliated activists to plug into (which is a lot of work).

We also worked to form a constituency-oriented Action Council continentally around Youth. Anchored by Energy Action Coalition, the Youth Action Council formed to push student and youth organizing around COP. It had many of the similar challenges as other action councils in terms of lack of targets and more perspective action plans, as well as difficulties moving out of the “climate box.” However, the Youth Action Council pushed youth climate organizers to think about intersectional organizing around root causes and about recruitment and direct action storytelling through 2 different webinars. This also was a first for RTNA -- having a resourced group organization give staff capacity to a RTNA project.

With local action councils struggling to get off the ground the continental River Council never materialized as an engaging decision-making body. Organizers, immersed in important and challenging work in their communities, began to disengage in the broad, continent wide, and often very impersonal conference calls. The River Council via conference call was definitely not the right place for horizontal collective decision making across geography. What is the right container for something like this?

Across the project a lack of clarity about where or how decisions were made led to a level of inertia and inability to pivot to address the changing environment. We determined at some point that we needed to pivot away from the local action council model, identify more prescriptive targets and tactics, and reconstitute decision making spaces but the project was unable to findway to change directions because of the lack of clarity on decision making.

A big piece of this lack of clarity was fundamentally that the project did not have a “bottom-liner” or “project manager” role. We lacked someone who was able to see the whole big picture and make sure that the different working groups and action councils were coordinating appropriately. This is perhaps not an unfamiliar problem for people organizing in radical horizontal movement spaces -- but in the end, it left many of us a little confused about what was going on. Some questions raised here were how does a horizontally-oriented organization like Rising Tide employ a project management system that is not inherently authoritarian?

Flood the System also struggled with developing an orientation to the COP21 talks in Paris. On the one hand, the timeline for the entire project was developed against the backdrop of the COP21 talks with escalation happening in the Fall. The COP21 talks also provided a lens to reject the narrow-focused rhetoric of the predominantly white climate movement and the false solutions put forward in the COP21 talks. But throughout the initial rounds of consultation with organizers from other movements it became clear that a frame involving COP21 would make the entire project seem far too climate-focused and much less relevant to other social movements.

In the end, references to COP21 were largely eliminated from the call to action and dramatically deemphasized in other promotional and educational materials. The timeline, however, remained the same--a series of actions culminating in late November and early December of 2105. Without the reference of the COP21 summit woven through the narrative of Flood the System that timeline seemed relatively arbitrary to some.

What We Learned and What it Means Going Forward

Flood the System was a recognition that in order to fight back against the crises we are facing, we need to go big. Our movements need to build to scale, we need to take bold action, and we need to understand our struggles as deeply interconnected struggles against capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and the institutions that threaten our collective survival.

In crafting the Flood the System call to action, we went big. We envisioned that “By November we will engage in a series of coordinated mass direct actions to seriously disrupt the institutions that threaten our collective survival.” And while the actions did not grow to the scale or the scope that we had initially envisioned we pushed the analysis of the climate justice movement, we started the long-term process of building deep and real relationships with other social movements in our communities, supported dozens of strong actions around the continent, and introduced new buckets of work to Rising Tide such as integrating arts and culture into our organizing and thinking about strategic research as an analysis-building tool.

In the coming months, Rising Tide North America plans to learn from the important, and sometimes hard, lessons we were taught through Flood the System and continue our vision of building to scale for big, bold and intersectional action. We plan to continue to push our movement’s collective analysis with trainings on the intersections of the climate justice movement with other movements, particularly focused on the root causes of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. We are also also exploring doing some large actions in specific geographic areas in support of intersectional struggles that demonstrate what an ideal flood action could be!

And of course we’re committing to continuing the work of supporting a growing and increasingly interconnected Rising Tide North America network by providing resources like mini-grants and trainings to local RTNA groups, using our communications tools to lift up local struggles, and creating spaces for local RTNA groups and allies to get together to develop relationships and find opportunities for shared work.

Going forward, we’ll continue to go big. And we encourage our friends and allies to do the same. With more experiments and more reflection, we hope that together we can build the bold and deeply intersectional movement we need to take on the crises we’re facing. Going big and taking risks are our only chance in building something that can take on the root causes of the climate crisis.

This work is in the public domain.
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Re: Flood the System Report Back: Still Lots of Work To Do
28 Jan 2016
Modified: 12:59:26 PM
Hi, I was very enthusiastic about Flood the System. I participated in the first conference call and sent an email about the possibility of organizing a local group here in Maine. I had people interested in it, just waiting to hear back from me. I did receive something saying to hang tight until after the conference call and then someone would be in touch to let me know what was being planned and what we might be able to do to help or participate. Then I never heard anything else. I kept checking the website frequently, but there were never any updates. Long before September, I concluded that Flood the System had simply fallen apart. Yet I still wondered what had happened, which is why I Googled "what happened to Flood the System" and found this. To my mind, the failure of Flood the System comes down to lack of organization, follow-through or consistent web presence. No one stayed in touch, no one told us what was going on, and the website seemed to have been abandoned. It was a great idea, but if you have enthusiastic volunteers who are under the impression that you have given up, they are going to give up too. I hope it goes better next time, because I really did love the idea.