Born in 1961, Lisa Fithian is a longtime community organizer who specializes in aggressive “direct action” tactics and, as journalist Byron York puts it, “operates in the world of anti-globalism anarchists, antiwar protesters, and union activists.” York notes, further, that Fithian’s status as an organizer of the Left is “legendary.”
After attending Skidmore College, Fithian in 1983 began working with “Yippie” movement co-founder Abbie Hoffman at the environmental organization Save the River. Also during the eighties, Fithian actively protested against American aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and worked with Pledge of Resistance, an organization that used civil disobedience to register its opposition to U.S. military intervention in Central America.
In 1987 Fithian was the national coordinator of a large demonstration aimed at shutting down the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. That same year, she served on the national coordinating group for a gay-and-lesbian-rights rally outside of the Supreme Court building—a protest sparked by the Court’s 1986 decision to uphold anti-sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick.
During her seven years as coordinator of the Washington Peace Center in the 1980s, Fithian organized hundreds of demonstrations on a wide range of issues—including support for the Palestinian Intifada of 1987. In 1991, Fithian protested against America’s involvement in the first Gulf War.
In 1993 Fithian joined the labor movement through the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute. During the ensuing years, she helped lead direct-action protests on behalf of workers in the nursing, farming, automobile, hospital, hotel, security, janitorial, laundry, and newspaper industries in cities across the United States. Hallmarks of those protests included displays of civil disobedience whose aim was to provoke police into arresting hundreds or even thousands of people. Fithian also served as the mobilization coordinator for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, an 800,000-member entity.
In 1999 Fithian was a key organizer of the chaotic anti-globalization demonstrations which devolved into violent riots and caused the shutdown of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle. At one Seattle demonstration, Fithian proudly and publicly enumerated a list of cities where she had previously organized “Occupy” movements in which protesters had seized control of key locations: Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Denver, and Holonulu. Added Fithian ominously: “St. Louis is going down, too.” Years afterward, Fithian would say, reflectively, that she and her fellow Seattle protesters had “[gone] after the capitalist system, the neo-liberal system.”
After the Seattle protests were over, Fithian helped found the Continental Direct Action Network, a confederation of anarchist groups. In 2003 she organized against yet another WTO conference—in Cancun, Mexico—where the talks similarly collapsed.
In 2001 (Quebec) and 2003 (Miami), Fithian organized against Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summits. In Fithian’s view, the FTAA, which sought to expand the 1993 NAFTA agreement to include also all of South America, amounted to a corporate land grab that threatened not only to stamp out indigenous cultures but also to ravage the environment. In Miami, her goal was to “create enough brouhaha”—by such strategies as blocking delegates’ access to the local airport and the conference center—to “undermine that city’s ability to host” the event; i.e., to “shut it down.”
Since 2000, Fithian has also led direct-action trainings and helped facilitate street protests at IMF/World Bank meetings in the U.S., the Czech Republic, and Canada; she has organized against G8 Summits in Italy, Canada, Switzerland, the U.S., Scotland, Germany, and Japan; she helped organize against a World Economic Forum in New York; and she was a key planner of protests at the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 2000 and 2004.
In 2003, Fithian spent several weeks working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) — which actively cooperates with such terrorist entities as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — in the Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus. There, she acted as a human shield abetting ISM’s effort to prevent Israel from razing the homes of Palestinian extremists and terrorists.
Fithian has revealed her antipathy for Israel on other occasions as well. A supporter of the pro-Hamas Free Gaza Movement, she was slated to be a passenger in a June 2011 flotilla to Gaza, but the voyage was ultimately cancelled. At a May 31, 2010 protest in Texas, Fithian publicly accused the Jewish state of “slaughter[ing] Palestinians every single day in Gaza and the Occupied territories,” and called for “an end” to “the U.S. tax dollars that fund that [Israeli] occupation.” During the same event, fellow demonstrators chanted such slogans as “Long live Intifada!” and “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!”—unambiguous calls for the dissolution of Israel.
Since 2003, Fithian has served on the national steering committee of United for Peace and Justice. In 2005, she provided direct support and guidance for anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas. Thereafter, Fithian coordinated the Bring Them Home Now tour, which featured more than 200 anti-war events in 28 states during a 25-day period. After the tour, Fithian went to New Orleans and spent a year working with Common Ground Relief on projects designed to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Fithian says that she and others “who are trying to create a new world … have to dismantle or transform the old order” which is dominated by “the corporations [and] the big banks [that] have been destroying this country.” “I just fundamentally don’t believe it will ever serve our interests as it’s currently constructed,” says Fithian.
Citing the late-19th and early-20th century anarchist movement in Spain as her inspiration, Fithian refuses to limit her activism strictly to methods of nonviolent civil disobedience. “I am not a pacifist,” she says, explaining that “I was raised in this culture, which is a very violent culture and I understand that I have some violence in who I am.” In a similar vein, Fithian once told the Internationalist Socialist Review:
“I have no issue with property destruction. I think sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it’s not. Again, I look at it strategically. Does this help us or does it hurt us? Does it help us achieve our goal, or does it not? We’re in a society where property is idolized, so a lot of people don’t get it yet that it doesn’t really matter. It’s just glass or products.”
In an effort to fulfill her moral “obligation” to “undo all the oppression” that exists in American society, Fithian seeks to “create crisis, because crisis is that edge where change is possible.” “Every choice you make,” she says, “is choosing to liberate something or oppress something.”
In the spring of 2010, Fithian led members of the United Auto Workers union in a rowdy protest designed to “close” a branch of the Bank of America for allegedly paying too little in taxes, handing out too many subprime loans, and refusing to renegotiate mortgages for homeowners facing foreclosure. In October 2010, Fithian led activists from the Service Employees International Union in a similar demonstration at the American Bankers Association’s Business Expo in Boston.
Beginning in the fall of 2011, Fithian became the top street-level organizer of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its various urban chapters. Charging that “the corporations [and] the big banks in this country have been destroying this country,” Fithian seeks to “make sure that the most impacted people, the undocumented folks, the poor people, the students in debt are able to have their voices heard.”
Fithian’s influence is felt wherever OWS protests are held. So closely does she identify herself with the movement, that she invariably uses the collective pronoun “we” when referring to the goals and activities of the Occupiers. While busily organizing events for Occupy Chicago in October 2011, for instance, Fithian said: “We’re here in Chicago getting ready to take it back and make the big banks pay their fair share…. We’re exercising our constitutional rights, that’s all we’re doing.” And because Fithian played such a central role in determining how Occupy Chicago could make its presence felt, she was thoroughly familiar with the movement’s every tactic and agenda. As she told a reporter one October 2011 day:
“We have Robin Hoods in the river right now. We’ve got banner drops, we’ve got people marching from five different locations on core issues. And some people are willing to put their bodies on the line today, to say we need a fair future …”
On November 2, 2011, Fithian was 800 miles further east, helping to organize OWS in New York. While there, she made an appearance on The Occupy Wall Street Show, a video program designed to disseminate OWS’s message as widely as possible. Telling interviewer and fellow OWS activist Daniel Thorson that “there’s never [before] been a movement like this”—i.e., one with such “tremendous potential” to achieve “mass transformation”—Fithian again identified herself personally with the OWS cause:
“[W]e have tens of thousands of people being active, occupying, if you added us all up [in all the various cities with active Occupy movements]. You have maybe 100,000 or so that support us, and maybe even more. But how do we get those numbers, of 100,000, half a million, millions, actually out and engaged, in action?… [A]s we are organizing we have to think what is it that’s going to enable millions of people to step into the streets, which takes organizing.”
Looking toward the future, Fithian expressed her determination to help the Occupy movement remain viable in the face of any challenge:
“We obviously have to get through winter. We obviously have to learn how to defend the spaces that we’re holding, and how to do it effectively…. We have to begin thinking, if we do have to take it [the campsite] down physically for people’s own physical safety in the winter, how are we coming back in the spring?”
Exhorting her fellow Occupiers to “Let’s go, team!” Fithian also floated the idea of using the upcoming winter as an opportunity for “taking the halls of power, because they’re inside and they’re everywhere, which might be great around the Martin Luther King holiday.”
In 2014 Fithian was a leading organizer of the protest movement that followed an August 9th incident in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black male who had perpetrated a strong-armed robbery of a convenience store just minutes prior to his death. Initial reports falsely stated that Brown was shot in the back while his hands were raised in surrender. When compelling ballistic, eyewitness, and forensic evidence eventually (in late October 2014) indicated that Brown in fact had assaulted the officer and had tried to steal his gun just prior to the fatal shooting, the indignation of Fithian and her fellow protesters—who continued to decry police racism as a widespread, nationwide phenomenon—was undiminished. While the nation waited for a grand jury to determine whether or not criminal charges would be brought against the offficer who shot Brown, Fithian spent a number of weeks in Ferguson training protesters in the art of “simulat[ing] chaos.” When the grand jury eventually announced (on November 24, 2014) that it would not indict the officer—because of overwhelming evidence indicating that the shooting was done in self-defense—violent riots broke out in Ferguson.
In late 2014 and into early 2015, the Internet homepage of Justice League NYC—a key participant in anti-police demonstrations in New York City—featured a photo of Fithian (along with photos of a few other left-wing activists) below a caption stating that the Justice League was “Powered By People Like You.”