Safety in Small Numbers: Affinity Groups for Direct Action

#ShutDownDC is taking part in the uprising for Black lives sweeping the United States because racial justice and climate justice are inextricably linked. Our best hope for a livable future depends on rallying behind frontline communities and ending state-sanctioned violence.

Recent events show that police threaten public safety and our first amendment rights. To some extent, there’s nothing we can do to stop the police from brutalizing demonstrators. But we can organize our communities to keep ourselves safer in the streets. By forming affinity groups we can protect our movements from infiltration and more effectively show up for Black lives. We put together this resource for folks who are heading into the streets.

What is an affinity group?

Affinity groups are small, autonomous groups of people who come together to organize or participate in actions as a collective unit. Affinity group members share a common interest or purpose. #ShutDownDC is based on affinity groups. Some of ours have been formed by members of a pre-existing organization (like 350DC). We’ve also had affinity groups of healthcare workers, college students, interfaith activists, and many more.

What do affinity groups do?

They organize their own actions, like a street blockade or an occupation of a bank branch. They can also participate in actions organized by other groups. Some affinity groups come together for one action only, and some last for decades.

How big is an affinity group?

They’re small. There’s no hard rule, but in #ShutDownDC we’ve had affinity groups ranging in size from five to fifty people.

Why do we need affinity groups?

Affinity groups protect our movements from infiltration because they’re small and made up of people who know each other or share a common purpose. Members usually have predetermined roles so that when things get dicey in the streets, you know who should do what.

What are the roles of affinity group members?

It depends on the action. Here are some examples:

  • Communications: Does photography, social media, live-streaming

  • Media liaison: Develops the message of an action and does outreach to the press (See note on considering the messenger, below)

  • Police liaison: Responsible for interacting with the police on behalf of the affinity group

  • Peacekeepers: De-escalate tense encounters

  • Offsite support: Stays home on the action day; reaches emergency contacts if anyone from the affinity group gets arrested; deals with whatever problems come up

  • Carebear: Provides food and water, checks in with affinity group members, monitors the vibe and mood of the affinity group

  • Visual artists: Make banners, signs, visual props

  • Scouts: Visit action sites to develop a plan; monitors police movements during the action

  • Jail support: Help people who get arrested at the action

  • Chant/song leaders: A critical role for keeping the energy up during a long protest!

Who can be in an affinity group?

Anyone! You could form an affinity group with your friends, schoolmates, coworkers, coreligionists, union members, or anyone else. The important thing is that you trust each other. The longer you’ve known each other, the better--but it’s great to form affinity groups with new, trusted acquaintances as well.

How can we prepare our affinity group for action?

  • Know your role. If your affinity group is joining an action organized by someone else, read up on the action guidelines and follow them. You’re there in solidarity with your allies--don’t let them down or get in the way. If you have a question, ask the organizers.

  • Be sensitive to risk. Remember that risk varies dramatically by race, gender, immigration status, and economic status, among other factors. What’s safe for white folks might be dangerous for black folks. Never do anything that will expose others to unwanted risk.

  • Think through with your group what kind of risk you are willing to take together. If things escalate, will you stay or try to leave? Getting a sense of this beforehand will give you decision-making power in the moment.

  • Reach consensus on action guidelines for your group. Possible examples: This is/is not an arrestable action; we will not bring drugs or alcohol to the action; we will be accountable to action organizers; we will not use physical violence or verbal abuse; we will not intentionally damage any property. It’s vital to discuss these things before the action, not when things get stressful in the streets.

How should we communicate?

It’s best to use encrypted tools like Signal or Keybase.

Should I talk to the police?

Only if you’re a trained and prepared police liaison.

Should I talk to the media?

Only if you’re a trained and prepared media liaison. Remember that provocateurs often pose as journalists to capture information about activists. Something else to consider: Are you the best messenger in this moment? Consider giving the spotlight to someone whose voice is often missing from the media, like a young person, person of color, or a member of a frontline community.

I need help with my affinity group!

The #ShutDownDC Training Working Group would be glad to assist! Email us for more information and look at the additional resources section below.

My affinity group wants to join #ShutDownDC, what should we do?

Awesome! Send us an email.

Additional resources