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Organizing on the DL

If you're worried about exposing friends and family to ridicule—or worse—work behind the scenes

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

I don’t know who is the best person to ask about this. I asked at a DSA meeting (my first and only) and sounded like a paranoid, self-involved weirdo (well, that’s how I feel I came off). My therapist and my best friend (both white like me) say I am being paranoid and self-involved.

Is it paranoid or wrong to think the Trump administration will target people in my life?

I want to protest ICE. I want to do whatever I can to help destroy it and change the minds of everyone who is on the fence about it. I feel like putting pressure on them, and keeping what they do in the public’s mind and in the news can only help.

But is it paranoid or wrong to think that by showing my face at these protests, I will go on some kind of list, and the Trump administration will target people in my life who may not have been born here? I use Facebook and Gmail, have a smartphone, sign online petitions, am registered to vote, am easy to find. And I don’t think the members of this administration have very stringent requirements for targeting people: brown skin plus Spanish surname = person of interest. I don’t put anything past this administration. They are petty and cruel beyond belief. I care about everyone who is being targeted by our government, but I care most of all about my partner—who is pretty ambivalent/uncomfortable over the idea of me protesting—and everyone in my life who is not as safe as me.

What should I do to fight ICE? How cautious should I be?


Anonymous Reader


Dear Anonymous,

What’s known as “security culture” is a tricky topic. On the one hand, you have a lot of role-players engaging in a lot of wishful thinking: they act as if someone is watching because they really, really hope that someone—anyone—is paying attention to their activities. On the other hand, you have a well-documented history of American surveillance by forces of state and capital alike, which is not only real, but also so verifiably outlandish that merely acquainting yourself with this history leaves you feeling enormously paranoid. And I’m not kidding when I say they have done some insane shit to the people they consider threatening, no matter how committed they might say they are to nonviolent conduct.  (For the record, I have submitted an FOIPA request for myself, so clearly I’m not above a little paranoia myself.)

So the short answer here is this: if your partner or his family are not in fact citizens, or live in a state or region subject to exceptional racial profiling, there might be some risk. You are safer in New York City than you are in Arizona, but this is still America, for better or for worse.

But regardless of such marginal risk-calulations, I would defer to your partner on this. If they feel uncomfortable with you protesting, they probably have good reason to feel that way.  And even if they’re not at risk, there’s no reason to put undue stress on the relationship over protests.

What interests me most though is your comment here: “I want to do whatever I can to help destroy [ICE] and change the minds of everyone who is on the fence about it.”

We currently inhabit a left political culture of spectacle and limited imagination. There are so many things that need doing, and not all of them involve marches and demonstrations—those are just the sexy bits. No one wants to do the quiet, less visible, more intimate, or less glamorous work, but it is so essential.

There are a lot of things you can do to fight ICE that would be less likely to expose you or your loved ones to surveillance. If you speak Spanish (or a few other languages), you can join up with a whole range of organizations to work with the public—check around locally first. There are also a ton of legal programs for migrants and refugees that often need administrative help.  The Immigrant Defense Project and the ACLU (try your local chapter if the national organization is swamped) are just two. You can always find and support candidates who include the abolition of ICE as a part of their platform—not to mention pressure those candidates who haven’t yet taken a stand.

As for changing hearts and minds; may I suggest the path of the humble propagandist? (It’s treated me well enough.) You can write op-eds, host public film screenings, do targeted promotion, lit-drops and flyering (even for events you yourself don’t feel comfortable attending), and a lot more. If you’re good at talking to people, you’ll enjoy it a lot. If you’re not good at talking to people, you’ll get better at it as you go along.

Do your research on who is already doing the best work near you and reach out. Assess your own skills and get ready to learn new ones. Public protest is reassuring because when it’s good, it builds morale, and assures you that you’re actually accomplishing something—even when, as is often the case, that impression proves wildly misleading. That’s because it’s not just you—you’re a part of a collective. So don’t just look for the spectacle; seek out the movement.