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Choose your target wisely

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“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Frederick Douglass
In Sum

We increase our chances of victory when our actions target the person or entity with the institutional power to meet our demands.

Since the early 2000s, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), a radical anti-poverty organization based in Toronto, Canada, has organized under the slogan “Fight to Win.” It’s a simple slogan packed with meaning: to win, you’ve got to fight. But the point isn’t to fight; the point is to win.

An organization run by and for the poor, OCAP has proven extremely effective in compelling politicians, welfare workers and employers to grant the concrete gains they seek. In one of many successful actions, for example, OCAP prevented a gas station from pumping gas until the employer came out with money owed to a former employee. Similarly, mass delegations by OCAP to welfare offices have led to the reinstatement of benefits for low-income members. OCAP has been effective because it recognizes that social change comes through struggle, which involves articulating clear demands and applying targeted pressure on those in power to comply with those demands.

Nothing is more demoralizing to folks who have put many long hours into a fun and creative action than to hear the target of the action say: “I don’t have the power to do that for you, even if I wanted to. The guy you want is next door.” (And actually have that be a true statement rather than a blow-off line.) When we plan our actions and campaigns, we have to understand our targets and what makes them tick, taking care to focus on the person with the power to meet our demands: to sign the check, to introduce the legislation or to cancel the contract.

Not every target is vulnerable in the same way. A blockade, occupation or creative disruption may be effective against one target but not against another. What works once may not work a second time. We need to figure out where our target is weakest, and where we are strongest. What actions can we take that are outside their experience? Nothing rattles a target more than something they aren’t prepared to deal with.

You might not have enough power to push your primary target at first, but your actions may help you identify a secondary target — an individual or group that can be pressured to leverage their influence on the primary target. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for instance, won their battle by identifying and pressuring a secondary target (fast-food corporations) when their primary target (tomato growers) proved immovable see CASE: Taco Bell boycott.

We are creative folks. If we’re smart about where and how we apply pressure, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.


Yutaka Dirks is a tenant and community organizer and writer living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He has been active in anti-poverty, workers rights and international solidarity movements, as well as offering legal support to social justice movements through the Movement Defence Committee of the Law Union of Ontario. His writing has appeared in Upping the Anti and Briarpatch Magazine as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.


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