how to be an affinity group

an affinity group generally consists of like minded people who have come together to get something done. If you already are part of an activist community, an affinity group can be put together by finding those people who are interested in working on an issue, getting together and talking. affinity groups establish their own goals, structure and group culture.

if our goal is to challenge undemocratic institutions/structures, the affinity group model provides us the opportunity to operate more democratically, which is a direct confrontation to the structures we are challenging. this means that the process that your affinity group uses is as important as the end product. if you think the world should be more democratic, why not make sure that your affinity group is as democratic as possible. an affinity group provides you the opportunity to create something that you feel is a good operating model for how the future could function. this means many things and can be very challenging. how does hierarchy effect your affinity group? does it allow for group inclusivity? what about accountabilty to the group? these are all questions your affinity group will have to deal with. what follows is how our affintiy groups have dealt with some of these issues.

What is an affinity group? (from Anarchism in Action)

An affinity group is a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together autonomously on direct actions or other projects. You can form an affinity group with your friends, people from your community, workplace, or organization. Affinity groups challenge top-down decision-making and organizing, and empower those involved to take creative direct action. Affinity groups allow people to "be" the action they want to see by giving complete freedom and decision-making power to the affinity group. Affinity groups by nature are decentralized and non-hierarchical, two important principles of anarchist organizing and action. The affinity group model was first used by anarchists in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was re-introduced to radical direct action by anti-nuclear activists during the 1970s, who used decentralized non-violent direct action to blockade roads, occupy spaces and disrupt "business as usual" for the nuclear and war makers of the US. Affinity groups have a long and interesting past, owing much to the anarchists and workers of Spain and the anarchists and radicals today who use affinity groups, non-hierarchical structures, and consensus decision making in direct action and organizing.

hierarchy: although efficient, hierarchy no way challenges the current structure. we all have skills that we can share with each other as well as to teach each other. if we embody this principle, we cannot rely on one person to have the final say in any decision, instead all voices become important in making a final decision. affinity groups not only serve as a place in which we can learn and teach new skills but also as a place that all of our voices are important and can be heard. hierarchy does not allow this to happen, and for that reason becomes useless.

inclusive group interaction: each and every voice within the affinity group has something meaningful to say, to add to the conversation. the process of how a meeting works is as important as what is accomplished. remember why you are preparing to travel thousands of miles? to confront some institution or group of people that holds sway over our lives in an undemocratic process. the powerful have their voice heard while the less powerful struggle to be heard. and the marginalized? we are stuck outside fucking shit up trying our hardest to be heard while the powerful pay us no heed. if our meetings and organizing replicate this structure, have we accomplished much of anything?

accountability: working together takes on a new meaning when you are using it as a means to restructure the world. this means that it is difficult and can be hard to struggle through without an understanding between you and your fellow affinity group members. our experience has been that accountabilty allows for trust which will allow you to struggle together rather than alone. although non-hierarchical democracy is how we try to function, we do have some ground-rules that are more about accountabilty. such things as meetings and wake-up times become non-negotiable when you are participating in a mass mobilization. this is about accountability to the group, and although it may not be the most democratic thing, it allows a certain level of equality as well as trust. watching out for your buddy is another important way that you are accountable to the group. if you lose her, other people will feel abandoned too!


history of affinity groups (from Anarchism in Action)

The idea of affinity groups comes out of the anarchist and workers movement that was created in the late 19th century and fought fascism in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Anarchist movement provides an exhilarating example of a movement, and the actual possibility of a society based on decentralized organization, direct democracy and the principles behind them.

Small circles of good friends, called "tertulias" would meet at cafes to discuss ideas and plan actions. In 1888, a period of intense class conflict in Europe and of local insurrection and struggle in Spain, the Anarchist Organization of the Spanish Region made this traditional form (tertulias) the basis of its organization.

Decades later, the Iberian Anarchist Federation, which contained 50,000 activists, organized into affinity groups and confederated into local, regional, and national councils. Wherever several FAI affinity groups existed, they formed a local federation. Local federations were coordinated by committees were made up of one mandated delegate from each affinity group. Mandated delegates were sent from local federations to regional committees and finally to the Peninsular Committee. Affinity groups remained autonomous as they carried out education, organized and supported local struggles. The intimacy of the groups made police infiltration difficult.

The idea of large-scale affinity group based organization was planted in the United States on April 30, 1977 when 2,500 people, organized into affinity groups, occupied the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear power plant. The growing anti-nuclear power and disarmament movements adopted this mode, and used it in many successful actions throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Since then, it has been used by the Central America solidarity movement, lesbian/gay liberation movement, Earth First and earth liberation movement, and many others.

Most recently, affinity groups have been used in the mass actions in Seattle for the WTO and Washington DC for the IMF and World Bank, as well as Philadelphia and Los Angles around the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

What is a Cluster and a Spokescouncil?

A cluster is a grouping of affinity groups that come together to work on a certain task or part of a larger action. Thus, a cluster might be responsible for blockading an area, organizing one day of a multi-day action, or putting together and performing a mass street theater performance. Clusters could be organized around where affinity groups are from (example: Texas cluster), an issue or identity (examples: student cluster or anti-sweatshop cluster), or action interest (examples: street theater or [black bloc]).

A spokescouncil is the larger organizing structure used in the affinity group model to coordinate a mass action. Each affinity group (or cluster) empowers a spoke (representative) to go to a spokescouncil meeting to decide on important issues for the action. For instance, affinity groups need to decide on a legal/jail strategy, possible tactical issues, meeting places, and many other logistics. A spokescouncil does not take away an individual affinity group's autonomy within an action; affinity groups make there own decisions about what they want to do on the streets.

How to start an affinity group

An affinity group could be a relationship among people that lasts for years among a group of friends and activists, or it could be a week long relationship based around a single action. Either way, it is important to join an affinity group that is best suited to you and your interests.

If you are forming an affinity group in your city or town, find friends or fellow activists who have similar issue interests, and thus would want to go to similar actions. Also, look for people who would be willing to use similar tactics - if you want to do relatively high risk lockdowns, someone who does not want to be in that situation may not want to be in the affinity group. That person could do media or medic work, but it may not be best if they are completely uncomfortable around certain tactics of direct action.

If you are looking to join an affinity group at a mass action, first find out what affinity groups open to new members and which ones are closed. For many people, affinity groups are based on trusting relationships based around years of friendship and work, thus they might not want people they don't know in their affinity group. Once you find which affinity groups are open, look for ones that have an issue interest or action tactic that you are drawn to.

What can an affinity group do?

Anything!!! They can be used for mass or smaller scale actions. Affinity groups can be used to drop a banner, blockade a road, provide back-up for other affinity groups, do street theater, block traffic riding bikes, organize a tree sit, [confront the police, strategic property destruction], change the message on a massive billboard, play music in a radical marching band or sing in a revolutionary choir, etc. There can even be affinity groups who take on certain tasks in an action. For instance, there could be a roving affinity group made up of street medics, or an affinity group who brings food and water to people on the streets.

What makes affinity groups so effective for actions is that they can remain creative and independent and plan out their own action without an organization or person dictating to them what can and can't be done. Thus, there are an endless amount of possibilities for what affinity groups can do. Be creative and remember: direct action gets the goods!


also check out: "the inefficient utopia or how consensus will change the world"