Back in April, organizers spoke out in support of No New SF Jail’s campaign to close the seismically unsafe 850 Bryant Street jail in San Francisco, a building that’s been marked for demolition since 1996. With sewage floods, noxious fumes, and overcrowding, the jail has posed severe dangers to the people kept within it — whose lives have been ever more threatened during COVID-19. As the date approached for SF’s Board of Supervisors to vote on the jail’s closure, supporters from across the country stepped in to put pressure on council members. Organizers with groups like the SF Youth Commission and the Arab Resource and Organizing Center held signs demanding that the jail be closed and that the nearly 800 people inside be released without transfer. The action drew support from hundreds of protesters — and all of it was on Twitter.
Like many other grassroots groups organizing during the pandemic, the No New SF Jail coalition has been forced to expand its use of virtual tactics. According to Mohamed Shehk, national media and communications director for Critical Resistance and key organizer with ShutDown850, the shelter-in-place order drove him and his colleagues to get creative with tools for action and engagement.
When the order came down, the coalition used virtual tactics to amplify existing campaign efforts, which started in 2015. ShutDown850 provided email scripts to decision-makers and templates for social media, encouraging supporters to tag council members directly. Protesters posted images of themselves online holding signs in support of the jail’s closure — an action that gave the “#ShutDown850” hashtag enough support to trend on Twitter, bringing public attention to the campaign. Alongside the photo action, the coalition organized “call-in days” and had people “give public comment during city meetings over the phone,” Shehk says.
With the help of the virtual actions, the No New SF Jail coalition won the support of Supervisors Dean Preston, Aaron Peskin, and Gordon Mar, and secured the victory its organizers had long fought for. On May 12, SF’s Board of Supervisors approved the jail’s closure, passing the ordinance with a vote of 10-1.
During the shelter-in-place, grassroots organizations have expanded their internal infrastructures for communication and broadened the scope of their tactics, seemingly for good. Across the left, activists like Shehk have doubled-down on virtual campaigns, using online tools to increase access and opportunities for at-home engagement. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have propelled new modes of action; Zoom has supported communications and coalition-building; livestreams and webinars have offered ways of “gathering” collectively. By embracing these virtual tools, grassroots organizations have created new opportunities to participate in their movements and built structures that will change active engagement moving forward.
“People are realizing that there’s more ways of participating, that there’s more ways of being present, that there’s more ways of connecting,” says Jay Salazar, organizer with the Disability Justice Culture Club — “and that changes the game.”
In an email exchange with trans activist and academic Dean Spade, he enumerated for me some of the many modes of online participation taking form in grassroots work. Emergent practices range from “people using Google Forms to sign up volunteers and get requests for aid,” to crowd-funding initiatives for bail or housing costs, to “people linking up to prison pen pals through online lists coordinated by groups like Black & Pink.” Spade also noted the use of webinars to “share information, analysis, and skills,” and the organization of “mass call-ins for clemency petitions or to get charges dropped against folks.”
Yet as protests surge over the police killings of Black Americans across the country — including George Floyd, Erik Salgado, Tony McDade, Italia Kelly, Marrero Desto, Breonna Taylor, and so many others — organizers on the left are seeing a renewed need for in-person action. The irreconcilable tragedies of police violence have catalyzed public protests nationwide, forwarding demands to defund police departments and build localized alternatives. As organizers wrestle with competing needs for public protest and public health precautions during the pandemic, virtual accessibility tools have become a crucial part of the movement.
On June 3, the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project organized a “Fuck Your Curfew” rally in downtown Oakland, which joined virtual and in-person protesters in defiance of the East Bay curfew order. The event drew thousands of demonstrators to the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway, where they deliberately broke the 8pm Alameda County curfew, which had been issued to restrict the protests that erupted after Floyd was killed on May 25.
The Senior and Disability Action organization had supporters at home post photos of themselves with #FuckYourCurfew and #SitInForOurYouth hashtags — allowing disabled, senior, and immunocompromised people uncomfortable attending to show solidarity with others downtown. Images on social media show protesters taking a knee or holding their fists up outside their houses, and displaying signs in support of Black lives and the movements against state violence. Those protesting at home could participate in the event through the Facebook livestream, which was captioned in real-time with American Sign Language interpreters.
As organizers expand their use of online tools, many are realizing broader needs for accessibility. At DJCC, members “understand that I am standing right next to you, and I am fighting with you and for you, even if I can’t physically be there,” Salazar says. The use of Zoom and livestreams — and the need for them — “is not something new,” he adds. People who have immunosuppression, chemical sensitivities, and physical or mental disabilities have been using virtual tools like Zoom, and arguing for online accessibility, for a long time.
These online tools provide more “options to participate,” says Salazar, ‘to be part of the communities and the spaces that are affecting us or benefiting us or part of our lives.”
“Activists as a whole are catching up with the disability rights and disability activists,” says Piper Wheeler, co-founder of Rad Mission Neighbors, an organization devoted to prison abolition and decriminalizing sex work in SF.
Using virtual access measures has helped accommodate those systemically vulnerable to violence, as well. Virtual actions have provided “an opportunity for people that are at high risk being on the streets to participate,” says Janetta Johnson, executive director of Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), an abolitionist group supporting Black trans women inside and outside of prisons across California.
As movements against police violence power ahead, groups like the Bay Area Anti-Repression Committee have used their social media accounts to garner donations for bail and legal support, share resources, promote text actions, and organize call-ins to legislators. The new crowd-sourced initiative Defund12 provides pre-written email scripts online, organized by state, which demand legislative officials reallocate police budgets to “education, social services, and dismantling racial injustice.” Webinars like Justice Teams Network’s “We Take Care of Us” series have gained ground, as well, amplifying transformative justice work and community-led alternatives to policing.
Online, “it seems like people hear you better,” says Johnson, whose staff members at TGIJP juggle administrative tasks with their work on the front lines of the movement. Since the stay-at-home order, the organization has had more time to promote TGIJP and get the support they need. “This virtual outlet has been a good tool to use your voice and to express yourself in a way,” she says. Though the initial transition to remote communications was “very uncomfortable,” virtual tools have since helped TGIJP collaborate with other organizers and put energy toward elements of the work they didn’t have the time to before.
“It’s one of those things where the more you put into it, the more you get out of it,” says Wheeler of social media organizing. Since the shelter-in-place orders were issued, Rad Mission Neighbors has ramped up their presence online and seen a lot more support on their platforms. Last month, Rad Mission Neighbors held a virtual panel with the Tenderloin Museum on the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers — an event promoted widely on social platforms in the weeks leading up to it.
“I think people who are engaged in local politics and following local news largely kind of live on Twitter,” Wheeler says — “especially in San Francisco.”
Holding events online seems to encourage more people to participate, too. “It’s easier for people,” says Wheeler, noting that she’s seen an array of new faces at monthly meetings for Rad Mission Neighbors since the organization went virtual.
In the past few months, East Oakland Collective has seen a surge of engagement, with over 200 applications from new volunteers. Founder and Executive Director Candice Elder attributes much of the organization’s recent “traction” to the success of its virtual platforms.
“We’ve always used social media as one of our largest tools,” Elder says. “That’s how we do calls to action and mobilize people.” During shelter-in-place, the organization has extended existing support of Oakland’s unhoused people to supply hot meals, hygiene kits, PPE, and sanitization products to up to 30 local curbside communities.
With the help of promotion on Instagram and Facebook, EOC organized call-ins to persuade Oakland city council members to secure a moratorium on encampment sweeps. In work with “No Vacancy! California,” the Collective fought to provide hotel stays for the unhoused and predominantly Black communities who have been structurally endangered in the crisis. EOC’s GoFundMe campaign to provide hotel support for unhoused communities in Oakland has so far raised over $90,000.
For organizers like Elder and Johnson, communicating remotely has allowed them to give more to the work. “I actually love the Zoom life,” Elder says. Now that she can take calls on-the-go, Elder can multi-task and focus more of her time on distributing resources. Working remotely has expedited EOC’s internal communications and supported their coalitions with Oakland Frontline Healers and Black Cultural Zone, as well.
“I don’t think that this virtual thing has pulled us apart,” Johnson says. “I think it has pulled us closer.” In fact, making some of the administrative work remote has worked so well that she might want to “keep it up” once the shelter-in-place is lifted.
While communicating online has made some things easier, however, it’s also increased threats to security. On third-party platforms, organizers on the left have seen a recent surge in doxing and security breach attempts. “Like all the other stuff we use — cars, stores, all forms of technology — we have to be critical and thoughtful because these things were designed by/for systems of extraction,” Spade wrote in an email. As online tools take hold in organizing work, we have to be “cautious about surveillance and other tendencies within those forms.”
And even as they embrace virtual tactics, organizers remain unshaken about the primacy of in-person action. While they have their place in campaign strategy, virtual tactics will never “replace doing things in person or developing relationships in person,” Shehk says. Real relationship-building is simply “more difficult virtually,” says Wheeler, whose connections on-the-ground have been a vital part of her work in the Mission.
It’s not that virtual tools are going to become “the ‘new way’ to do things,” says Salazar — they’re just another way for “additional people to participate in the movement.”
And despite the surge of online engagement seen during the pandemic, organizers are ever wary of shifting public attention and the need for sustained support. “As organizers, we’re keenly aware that the attention that is currently on our movement can shift at any moment,” Burch says. Though people can participate with virtual tactics and one-off actions, grassroots movements need sustained engagement to have impact.
“We still have to maintain that this is a long-term project,” says Shehk. As the long-sought closure of the 850 Bryant Street jail demonstrates, meaningful change happens on broader scales — and it “takes organizations,” Shehk says, “not just individuals.”
Moving forward, the challenge will be “whether we can translate virtual meetings and social media organizing into relationships that are durable and close and ongoing,” says Wheeler. “That’s an open question.”
Yet the tools used for online access in this time — and the voices they’ve helped to empower — are sure to remain a part of organizing in the future. In Salazar’s vision for public engagement moving forward, in-person events will meet the needs of those at home, in and beyond organizing spheres. At public gatherings, people will livestream with laptops and phones — “not only representing themselves, but representing another person that couldn’t be there.”
Even if the pandemic ends today, “there will still be a need for virtual communication,” says Salazar — something organizers on the left have begun to recognize. As the Anti Police-Terror Project looks to a post-COVID era in organizing, Burch is certain that APTP will “always have an online component” to their work. Now that they’ve seen how it’s possible, Rad Mission Neighbors plans to “continue to use online meetings” and “encourage people to call in” to in-person events to increase accessibility.
In San Francisco, grassroots groups on the left are working to better align their agendas with the “larger picture of the Black Lives Matter movement and police and prison abolition,” says Wheeler. As organizers move for unified action, tools for online access become all the more important. “This is a moment where we’re trying to make sure that we don’t invisibilize any groups of people,” Burch says. “That the most vulnerable among us, and the most repressed among us, are lifted up to the forefront of our movement so they can make their demands heard.”
As modes of virtual access continue to expand during COVID-19, and uplift those who’ve been barred from participating, organizers are charting a new era in public action. “There’s no going back” to the engagement we’ve seen as “normal,” Salazar says. “There’s no going back.”