Back in 1995, when the University of California Regents voted to end affirmative action in the university system, an incredibly vibrant, multiracial student-led group emerged called Diversity in Action. For the first time in a number of years, Berkeley would see mass political mobilization from across the campus, including eventually a 5,000-person rally on Sproul Plaza.
Thuggish Sectarians: However, within weeks of forming, that broad-based student affirmative action group was under assault, not by the cops or the administration, but by a thuggish and violent band called By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a grouplet created by a Detroit-based sect called the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL). The RWL had sent out a number of their leaders to create their BAMN front group, whose members proceeded not just to disrupt the student-led coalition meetings, but to physically assault the students, snatch the microphone from them at rallies, and bring their own megaphones to drown out their speakers.
In 20 years of political organizing, I have never seen such violent and thuggish behavior, a step beyond the worst sectarian acts I had ever imagined. The student coalition leaders pushed on gamely for a few years, but it was obvious that the young students were traumatized by these attacks, and many left off organizing, a bit bitter and disillusioned by these physical assaults that had undermined their work. Across the country, in southern California, Michigan, and other areas, this group By Any Means Necessary would disrupt student-led organizing around affirmative action, claiming it was the true civil rights leader and that all alternatives had to be destroyed or subordinated to BAMN.
Fast forward to 2003 and I was horrified to recently hear that By Any Means Necessary, having attacked and destroyed other affirmative action groups in the 1990s, had "mainstreamed" themselves in the last couple of years and gotten broad-based endorsements for an April 1 march in Washington, D.C., tied to the upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. Suddenly you have groups ranging from the National Organization for Women to major unions endorsing a rally led by thugs who had committed violent assaults against teenagers.
How had this happened?
Unfortunately, after talking with leaders at a number of the endorsing organizations, most of them hadn't bothered to even research the group they were endorsing, even though the simplest Google search would have yielded up much of this violent history. A number were horrified but also seemed to feel in the short-term, with the Bush and Supreme Court assault on affirmative action, they just had to grab at the mobilization that was available.
Which is what sectarian thugs like BAMN and the RWL count on in their violent strategies. If they can destroy alternative coalitions at the grassroots, they can count on lazy or ignorant national leaders to endorse them as the only available game in town. There is a bit of Hamlet in this sectarian story, as violence is used to kill off a rival leader, just so the killer can step into their place, and the watching population, either ignorant or swallowing their suspicions, allow it to happen for fear that the kingdom will be left leaderless with enemy troops at the border.
A History of Violence: But the mainstream groups are to blame for this situation, both for their own failures to support stronger independent grassroots student organizing on campuses, and for their failures to do even the most minimal research that is easily available in the electronic age. Even as recently as 2001, the national progressive newspaper In These Times reported that in Oakland, "[BAMN] organized a rally at Berkeley to protest university affirmative action policy which ended in a melee of fistfights and looting."
And a 2001 article in the East Bay Express, a progressive weekly based in Oakland, detailed the divisive intervention of BAMN into the local teachers union and how their violence on campus had alienated a whole range of students from activism. AsianWeek, in a 2001 profile of BAMN, quoted the pro-affirmative action student regent, Justin Fong, on the group: "[BAMN] have been a disruptive voice in terms of student activism. They have been a source of frustration for a whole generation of student activists."
Other articles readily available detail violent assaults by BAMN leaders on police in southern California and an even longer history of violence by their parent sect, the RWL, during the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike and other venues around the country.
Repeating a Pattern: What is most frustrating is that major progressive groups seem continually to fall into this pattern of endorsing thuggish sectarian groups, instead of building real democratic coalitions of their own. It was only recently, with the major Feb. 15 mass marches against war in Iraq, that mainstream peace organizations formed a strong national alternative to the Workers World Party front group, ANSWER, which had seized leadership of peace rallies for nearly a year.
Hopefully, just as ANSWER is being marginalized by new democratic antiwar coalitions, BAMN will be marginalized in the affirmative action movement as mainstream civil rights groups realize what a thuggish organization they have gotten into bed with.
See www.nathannewman.org/bamn/ for more info on BAMN and its history.
Nathan Newman is a long-time activist on community and union issues and a vice president of the NYC National Lawyers Guild. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the NLG's national or local leadership's view. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.nathannewman.org.