Trayvon Martin was shot in Florida, but his face quilted downtown Oakland last week, endlessly repeated on paper signs like a rose pattern entwined on wallpaper. As protesters marched through the city's downtown corridor waving Martin's picture and a slew of catchy slogans — "Justice 4 Travon"; "We Are All Trayvon Martin"; "If You Ain't Mad You're Racist" — a small group of organizers sat in an assembly line at Frank Ogawa Plaza, churning out the raw materials. One girl held a stencil and ink, another wrapped tape around the signs. Small, unseen hands were creating the media to convey the message, often adding other subtle messages of their own. Some signs bore another imprimatur, less recognizable than Martin's, but equally potent: the Revolutionary Communist Party.
"You see?" asked a slack-jawed passerby, swatting a hand toward the crowd of Trayvon protesters who had gathered at 14th and Broadway on Sunday afternoon. "This is actually a Communist rally."
Whether or not that's true depends on how much credit you give the organizers. Members of the Berkeley-based Revolutionary Communist Party had, indeed, set the time and date for two consecutive Trayvon Martin rallies in Oakland, as well as the ones in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The Communists didn't work alone — another activist group called the Stop Mass Incarceration Network helped, and protest fliers bore endorsements from a slew of smaller organizations — but they did handle many of the small, perfunctory details, such as making the signs and launching the e-mail blasts. They watched word spread through the magic of viral marketing, which gave each protest the veneer of spontaneity. While outsiders sometimes confuse these gatherings for sudden combustions — as though, by some alchemy, every Trayvon Martin supporter knew to flock to Frank Ogawa Plaza at the exact same time — in reality, a few people do most of the legwork.
Yet Revolutionary Communists have their own political axe to grind, and it doesn't really have much to do with the death of Trayvon Martin — nor, in fact, does it derive from traditional Communism. It spawned from a loose consortium of Marxist-Leninist groups whose members roved around Berkeley in the 1960s and '70s, often getting in ideological spats. Founder and current chairman Bob Avakian, 70, is an acolyte of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin — he praises both of them in his 2005 autobiography — and has his own band of loyal followers, though ultimately the RCP is no more evil than any other eccentric fringe organization. It's known for running a small chain of bookstores in various US cities — there's a Revolution Books in downtown Berkeley, surrounded by frozen yogurt stores and Cal dormitories. Avakian's closest analogue might by L. Ron Hubbard.
To an observer, the party certainly appears to be battling obsolescence, so it's no wonder it would use a youthful, urban rally as a recruitment vehicle. Yet it seems to have a limited set of tools at its disposal. RCP members fluttered around Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza in matching T-shirts on Sunday, handing out copies of the group's newspaper, The Revolutionary Worker, and meekly asking for donations. Although RCP spokeswoman Reiko Redmonde insists that the party includes "people of all races, ages, and genders," most representatives who showed up at the rally were middle-aged and white. Some had clearly spent years anchoring the protest-industrial complex in Berkeley, though none wanted to discuss their individual histories with a reporter. Asked how long he'd been a member, a pamphleteer named Rafael Kadaris recoiled. "Why are you asking personal questions?" he demanded.
It turns out that Revolutionary Communists have coordinated — or perhaps infiltrated — Trayvon Martin protests throughout the country, often with more aggressive sloganeering than in Oakland. In Florida, they didn't shy away from connecting Martin to larger, more abstract causes, such as US imperialism and the war in Afghanistan. A reporter at The Daily Caller took note of a giant banner lying on the ground at one rally in Sanford: "17 Afghans, Trayvon Martin murdered: The System of Capitalism set these crimes in motion."
While some journalists express surprise at seeing such old-school, lefty jargon applied to a mainstream political cause, experts say the Revolutionary Communist Party has a long history of commandeering other people's crusades. It's a tried-and-true technique for any cadre organization with a tightly controlled, central apparatus, and a mission that no one else understands, says Columbia University Professor Todd Gitlin, who has studied social movements for decades.
"It's how they recruit," Gitlin says, explaining that the tactic actually dates back a century, and that it's particularly alluring for Communist organizations whose messages wouldn't otherwise have mass appeal. "They present to the world a face that's attractive, and that makes sense in the moment," he continues. "Their thinking must be that by creating these events, and branding themselves with the name of a martyr, they've got an obvious ticket into the collective consciousness."
Thus, Trayvon Martin is just one face in a hagiography of martyrs that the Revolutionary Communist Party has adopted — for years it also rallied around Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Black Panther journalist who is serving a life sentence for murder in Philadelphia. Revolutionary Communists also dominated the early Iraq War demonstrations, which they organized with an anti-Bush front group called World Can't Wait.
They've judiciously acted behind the scenes, allowing other groups' names to dominate fliers. They arrived to last week's Trayvon Martin rallies equipped with sandwich boards, hammer-and-sickle T-shirts, leaflets advertising a new Bob Avakian DVD, and stacks of Revolutionary Worker broadsides. They supplied all the necessary protest accouterments — the bullhorn, the signage, the paper to make more signs — but then ceded the floor to other speakers. It seems the key to RCP's method is knowing how to evangelize quietly.
Whether that slow courtship actually works is a matter of debate, given that old-school lefties are running up against myriad cultural barriers as they try to penetrate a young, fractured, anarchic, racially diverse population of protesters in Oakland. Many participants at last Monday's rally said they'd never belonged to an activist group, and they'd come out of curiosity and knee-jerk anger, having watched George Zimmerman's trial on TV. A broad-shouldered, 25-year-old protester named Bo said he'd never encountered a social movement until Occupy Oakland set up its tent city outside City Hall. He considers himself a fleeting supporter.
"I'll keep it honest," Bo said, staring absently at the group marching down Broadway. "I'm fresh out of jail. I didn't know this was going on."
That lack of ideological commitment frustrates older organizers like Gerald Smith, a former Black Panther who now steers a small group called the Oscar Grant committee, which serves as an attaché to larger organizations. Smith, who has a shock of white hair and legs too feeble to "march around in circles for hours," says he grudgingly joined forces with the Revolutionary Communists to coordinate the Sunday and Monday protests. (He's not a Communist himself.) But he's frustrated by the way protesters proceeded, particularly after dusk, when participants — none of them affiliated with any particular cause — resorted to smashing windows and spray-painting storefronts.
"As one of the organizers, I have to say this is the opposite of organization," Smith said, holding court at the corner of 14th and Broadway on Monday evening, while the other demonstrators headed toward Lake Merritt. "This is an outpouring of young people," he continued. "But there are certain things that require structure and leadership."
Indeed, the most conspicuous feature of Oakland protests is that they start off with a conventional structure and ultimately devolve into loose, cat-and-mouse-style rioting, at which point the old-school Communists typically leave. They aren't known for inciting violence, but don't condemn it either; asked how she felt about all the dissolute rage over Martin, Redmonde remained coy, saying only that U.S. imperialists are the biggest source of violence in the world today, and black and Latino youth will be crushed if they don't fight back.
Gitlin says there's good reason for Redmonde and other Revolutionary Communists to stay agnostic: If you're a parasite in someone else's movement, you don't want to damage the host.
Yet the violence of Oakland protests puts organizations like the Revolutionary Communist Party — which is disciplined, hierarchical, unfashionable, rigorous, and oriented toward "principled debate" — in an awkward position. In some senses, it's a cost of doing business: Revolutionary Communists want to access Oakland's existing supply line of angry, politically agitated young people who all aspire to be radical. But to do that, they'll have to convert those youth to a different protest methodology — one that's anathema to the anarchic, "leaderless" ethos of the Occupy movement, or the aimless fury in Oakland's recent spate of "Fuck the Police" marches. It would seem counter-intuitive for Bo, or any former Occupier, to suddenly join the cult of Bob Avakian and endorse his cries for "scientific Communist leadership."
Faced with those hurtles, spokeswoman Redmonde and other Revolutionary Communists remain hopeful. "The protests following the Zimmerman verdict were very powerful precisely because a wide range of people and groups were sickened by the verdict," Redmonde says via e-mail. "What they and others need to know is that this is totally unnecessary, and that the world could be radically different through revolution — which IS possible."
But Gitlin says that if Trayvon Martin starts a revolution, Communists won't necessarily be at the helm. "They're gilding a lily," he says. "Trayvon Martin is far more popular than they are."