Walk, Rabbit, Walk: Protecting the Left nonviolently

At a 2018 May Day march in lower Manhattan, Red Rabbit marshals face a line of police. [Photo by William Matelski]


In the United States, class war has long been more than a metaphor. Government agents and capitalist hirelings regularly assaulted striking workers and broke up left-wing meetings (such as at Homestead, Ludlow, or Haymarket). Threats have come from the Left as well as the Right, such as “lefter-than-thou” groups rushing a stage to beat up other leftists or interrupting meetings and attempting to humiliate our comrades. In October, a comrade in the Kansas City DSA chapter was assaulted by members of the Red Guard who attempted to disrupt a meeting and instigate a violent altercation. The attack sent the comrade who stood up to them to the hospital. 

With a resurgence of interest in democratic socialism, we are seeing a resurgence of right-wing and left-wing provocations, and we will never know for sure how much of it is fueled by the state. What we do know is that we can resist nonviolently and help protect each other and our comrades in various movements.

Modern-day assaults on leftists range from actual physical violence (think Charlottesville) to doxxing, meeting disruption, or harassment from armed and unarmed counter-protesters. Often the goal of an aggressor is to cause their target to “throw the first punch,” in an attempt to paint leftists as violent or bellicose. DSA has responded to such threats by forming a nonviolent resistance team called the Red Rabbits to train DSA members in de-escalation tactics and to provide marshals for public events. 

The Red Rabbits was formed in 2017 when several comrades in New York City saw that we needed a trained team of protest marshals with a clear communication structure to ensure that event attendees and organizers could make decisions and quickly transmit information to keep one another safe and out of the hands of the police in emergent situations. Two former members of ACT-UP (an activist group working to end the AIDS pandemic) trained a large group of NYC-DSA members, and we took what we learned from this training (as well as several other sources) to develop our own curriculum.

We focused on info security, meeting security, and jail support. We recruited members from working groups and branches across the chapter, conducted monthly trainings, and worked with any groups in NYC-DSA that needed marshals for meetings or street actions.  The name Red Rabbits builds on a reference in the allegorical Watership Down by Richard Adams, in which the creator of the world says to the rabbit leader, “Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Our goal was to outsmart and outmaneuver opposition from all quarters, to pay attention and recognize threats early so that we would have time to react. Red Rabbits helps keep our spaces safe and accessible and helps comrades carry off successful street actions and events. We use de-escalation as a means to prevent violence, harassment, or unwanted disruption, and we use structured communication between members of the security team and event organizers and participants to make sure that all goes smoothly.

Often, we put ourselves between participants in actions or marches and the police, so that our membership can avoid interacting with them and neither side can escalate the situation. We make an effort to know the laws around public assembly in our specific municipalities or states so that we can best inform our membership of what risks they are taking during civil disobedience or street actions. We try to help our comrades with mobility issues or with children participate in rallies and marches, as well as look out for possible accessibility issues in case of emergencies in our meeting spaces. Our role is not to enforce rules or laws but to communicate with our members so that they can make the best decisions for themselves as members of a collective.  For example, when we learned of a right-wing rally being held outside the 2019 DSA National Convention, the Red Rabbits asked convention delegates to avoid engaging with the Trump-supporting protesters. The protesters became frustrated that no one was confronting them and left without incident.

A training by the Red Rabbits National Working Group covers the following points for any meeting or action:

  • De-escalation
  • Preparatory scouting of the site (Where will the banner drop take place? Is there cell phone service? Can people be boxed in or “kettled”?)
  • Contingency planning
  • Determining a threat matrix (what are possible threats, and how bad would they be if they were to occur?)
  • Creating systems so that participants can get to or from an event or action safely (the buddy system or leaving in pairs, organizing escorts to get groups to or from an action or event)
  • How to interact with police, if necessary (minimize communication, de-escalate and avoid arrests of vulnerable individuals)
  • What to do in the event of an unwanted disruption
  • Jail support (have information on emergency contacts before an action for those who may face an arrest risk, know who needs medication or pet care, organize a group to wait at the location where comrades are being detained to meet them and get them home when they are released, create a bail fund)

We are constantly revising and expanding our trainings and hope to increase the number of comrades who participate in the national Red Rabbits Working Group. We offer basic as well as more advanced training depending on the needs of chapters requesting the trainings.

Many smaller chapters do not have the capacity to have a separate team solely devoted to security, and so having a handful of active members who can play a dual role may be the best option in some areas. On the other hand, some larger chapters may be able to use their marshal team to give security support to actions organized by coalition partners, in order to build solidarity across the left in a given community. For example, the Red Rabbits team in New York works frequently with immigration-justice-focused groups in our community to help marshal direct actions or street actions that may include undocumented participants. Through de-escalation and other means we can decrease the number of interactions these participants have with the police. 

If a chapter does not have the numbers or resources to set up a designated security team, individual members of chapters or working groups can benefit from training in de-escalation techniques and basic physical and info security practices and protocols.

All of us have been shaped by the oppression of capitalism as well as other oppressions related to race, class, and gender. It is no surprise, then, that every social change movement has people in it with differing beliefs about tactics and strategies. These beliefs can lead to high emotions and conflict within our own spaces in DSA and between DSA and other groups on the Left. Because capitalism aims to divide us, we need to work together and stay in dialogue. Having comrades who are trained in de-escalation in our spaces can help keep things comradely.

Red Rabbits does not claim to have answers to all security issues or concerns. What we hope to do is share our knowledge with other chapters or members. The more information we can gather on what works for certain chapters and not for others or how chapters or groups are managing risks and threats, the stronger we can be as an organization, both online and off. The more comrades who are aware of security and have an eye out to protect one another, the stronger we will be in the fight for socialism and for a future that is led by the working class.

To start a Red Rabbits team in your chapter or area or to get information about upcoming trainings, please email [email protected]