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4
Nov

LeftRoots Strongly Condemns the Rightwing Attack and Police Raid on the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) School

On the morning on November 4, 2016 police and military forces raided the National School Florestan Fernandes (ENFF), which is the leadership development school of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), where social movement leaders from around the world are currently gathered to study and build together.

Three community organizers who are members of LeftRoots are currently studying with the MST at the ENFF, and we have received word from them that they are okay and were not injured in the attack.

According to reports, police raided the school at 9:25 am local time and fired live ammunition into the air. At the time of the release of this statement, police had withdrawn from the school and were posted in front of the ENFF waiting for warrants to be issued.

LeftRoots condemns this attack on the MST, which is clearly part of a growing assault on social movements and the Left by the rightwing government which took power in a coup earlier this year.

The MST plays a vital role in not only building powerful grassroots organizing for indigenous, afro-descendant, women’s and poor people’s land rights in Brazil, but also plays a critical role in building a strong and vibrant Social Movement Left around the world, in part by bringing together cadre in their political education school, which was the subject of this raid. We call on all progressive forces to stand with the MST and Brazilian social movements.

While we standby for more information and direction from the MST as to how they would like international allies to respond, in the meantime we are asking folks to IMMEDIATELY call the US State Department and the Brazilian Embassy to demand that the police and military stand down, stop their attack on the MST and ENFF, release any activists who have been arrested, and cease intimidation tactics against social movements and human rights activists. It is helpful to note that there are U.S. citizens studying at the ENFF, which is currently under siege, and to demand the US pressure Brazilian officials to end the repression against the MST.

Brazilian Embassy: (202) 238-2700

U.S. State Department: (202) 647-6575

30
Aug

‘Ideas for the Struggle’: required reading for activists in these challenging times

By Steve Williams, co-founder and National Secretary of LeftRoots.

Ideas for the Struggle should be required reading for all organizers, political activists and would-be revolutionaries in these troubling and challenging times.

Knocking on doors of people we don’t know. Facilitating meetings where strangers gather to share their problems and find solutions together. Crafting campaigns and taking action with others to demand change. Helping people find their own power. Evaluating all of that work, and doing it all again. This is the work of an organizer, and that’s what I’ve done for more than 20 years in the city of San Francisco.

Day and night, I have worked to bring working class people, people of color, women, and immigrants together to fight for their liberation, the liberation of others and of myself. I’ve done so in the service of a vision, a dream that everyday people can lead in the construction of an alternative to the tyranny of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and U.S. imperialism.

Along the way, I have worked with and learned from many amazingly talented and committed comrades, and our efforts have won many important victories— like free public transportation for young people, labor protections for domestic workers, and increased wages for welfare recipients and low-wage workers. None of these victories came easily. The opposition fought us at every turn, and we won only because brave and audacious people took action together. Over the last two decades, there have been similar organizing efforts fighting and winning all over the globe.

It is vital that we recognize and celebrate victories like these that a generation of organizers and political activists helped to make real. But the last several years have made clear once again that local fights for justice and accountability are only one small part of a vast, global struggle against the neoliberal onslaught. Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have taken part in popular uprisings that have shifted the terrain on which we live and struggle. From the Middle East to the streets and squares of Europe to the barrios and favelas of Latin America, everyday people have seized their rightful place on the stage of history. Even inside the imperial center of the United States, people have taken to the streets and inspired others around the world. Most recently, the Movement for Black Lives has unapologetically declared that #BlackLivesMatter. These upsurges have transformed the political landscape and have activated a new generation of political activists.

All of these developments are most welcome, and have generated a great deal of excitement among those of us who still long for a world rooted in solidarity, justice, and love. But we must be careful to avoid triumphalism, the unfounded idea that our success is right around the corner, that the future has been written and we are to be the winners. Whatever our victories, no clear-eyed assessment can help but see that the tide of political change over the past twenty years has been moving swiftly and relentlessly against us. Our defeats and setbacks—far too numerous to list in this short introduction—have imposed constraints on the nature of resistance everywhere. We have all had to fight against not just the ascendency of the neoliberal bloc and the reactionary right, but we have also had to push back also our own pessimism, a pessimism that capitalist hegemony is all too happy to nurture and feed.

It doesn’t help that, with the defeat of the socialist experiments of the 20th century, two generations of organizers and activists have now come of age politically with few visible and viable alternatives to imperialism and neoliberalism. The fight against the enemy, as trying as it has been, has been no more difficult than our internal struggle with the troubling idea that noble, doomed resistance may be all that is left to us. I’ve spent too many sleepless hours haunted by the fear that victory may be nothing more than an unattainable dream.

The danger in this insidious notion is profound. Without a clear conviction that another world is indeed possible, we resign ourselves all too easily to the idea that simply “putting up a good fight” is enough. We absolve ourselves of the responsibility of finding ways forward. We forgive our own shoddy, sloppy practice, just as we forgive our comrades’. We quickly lose all incentive for rigorous reflection on and evaluation of our work. We stop striving for improvement and excellence. The doubt takes control: what’s the point, anyway?

Ideas for the Struggle is a much-needed antidote to this pessimism. Marta Harnecker insists that victory is possible—but only if social movement organizers and activists sharpen the revolutionary edge of our work through rigorous reflection and evaluation. Paulo Freire called this combination of theory and practice, of learning and doing, praxis. He argued that it is instrumental to any successful revolutionary movement. As he observed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, that is, with reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”

Too often, movement organizers and activists carry out their work with an unexamined faith about what the outcomes will be. We pledge blind fealty to our imagined conceptions of how past generations of activists have operated. By failing to assess the nature of our actual conditions or measure our outcomes against our predictions, we leave learning and improvement to chance and weaken our ability to seize upon the opportunities that this conjuncture holds. Ideas for the Struggle demands that we return practice-based learning to the center of our approach. It is a serious challenge that grows from Harnecker’s respect for movement activists as the generators of new ideas. She demolishes the walls of the ivory tower and looks to movement organizers as intellectuals as well as activists.

One especially provocative notion that Harnecker draws from her engagement with movements in Latin America is the relationship between political instruments and “protagonism”— a practice-based conception of democracy that asserts that all people can and should be the protagonists in their own life stories, actively creating their own destinies and, along with the rest of their communities, shaping the world around them. Harnecker’s emphasis on and exploration of the role of political instruments in promoting protagonism has pushed me and many of my comrades to re-examine and refine both our practice and our notions of politics and political action.

Ideas for the Struggle, like the best of our movements, breaks out of the narrow confines of national borders and represents a compilation of the best practices and most promising experiments of social movements around the globe. It helps us break out of a dangerous parochialism that can rob us of the wisdom of activists in different communities. The text does not provide deep historical examinations of where and when certain ideas or practices emerged. Instead, Harnecker tries to make Ideas as useful as possible for frontline organizers and activists, systematizing the experiences and lessons of various movements and presenting them as a compelling and coherent set of considerations and recommendations suited to our times. But the breadcrumbs are there for organizers and activists to explore the organizations and movements from which these ideas derive.

In Ideas for the Struggle, Harnecker tackles key questions that have generated decades, even centuries, of debate, but she does so with new insights that lead one to consider new practices. For example, by emphasizing both the importance of popular protagonism and the necessity of political leadership, Harnecker begins to build a bridge between activists who identify more with the communist tradition from those who place themselves in the anti-authoritarian or anarchist tendencies.

Not everyone will agree with all everything Harnecker puts forward. Universal consensus is not her goal. Instead, she offers key ideas about the common features and needs of movements and then invites organizers and activists— young and old—to generate and offer their own assessments and prescriptions by combining a self-propelling circuit of action, reflection and sharing within and between movements. This type of critical reflection and sharing will be essential if we are to move our work from resistance at the margins to building a revolutionary movement capable of transforming the world we share.

We are at a critical point in history. With the dire condition of people and of the planet, the stakes are high and rising. Opportunities for socialist liberation are emerging as are opportunities for reactionary barbarism. Harnecker insists that the quality of our organizing and movement-building work matters. The opposition is constantly revamping and refining, improving and innovating. Our success demands excellence. It is not enough for us to simply try; as Mao once warned, we have to dare to win.

Victory on that scale will require many ideas for the struggle. Those that Marta Harnecker shares here are a great place to start.

I hope that Ideas for the Struggle sparks reading groups and online discussions and new on-the-ground experiments. The pamphlet in your hands (or on your screen) is only a starting point. I’m hungry for the new media—articles, books, songs, posters, videos—that movements and organizations will create to give voice to their ideas for the struggle. Because those ideas, forged in the fires of collective practice and reflection, will be the tools with which we build the world of tomorrow, the world we are all fighting for every day.

———-

Steve Williams is the co-founder and National Secretary of LeftRoots.

14
Jul

Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas

by Linda Burnham

July 11, 2016

A thick strand in the history of U.S. policing is rooted back in the slave patrols of the 19th century. Patty rollers were authorized to stop, question, search, harass and summarily punish any Black person they encountered. The five- and six-pointed badges many of them wore to symbolize their authority were predecessors to those of today’s sheriffs and patrolmen. They regularly entered the plantation living quarters of enslaved people, leaving terror and grief in their wake. Together with the hunters of runaways, these patrols had a crystal clear mandate: to constrain the enslaved population to its role as the embodiment and producer of massive wealth for whites and to forestall the possibility that labor subordinated to the lash might rebel at the cost of white lives.

How far have we come, really? Having extricated ourselves from a system of bottomless and blatant cruelty we have evolved a system that depends on the patty rollers of today to constrain and contain a population that, while no longer enslaved, is ruthlessly exploited, criminally neglected and justifiably aggrieved. Ruthlessly exploited by the low-wage industries that depend on ample supplies of cheap labor, by the bottom feeders of capital – pay-day loan companies and slumlords come to mind –­ by the incarceration-for-profit industry, by the municipalities that meet their budgets by preying on poor people, generating revenue by way of broken taillights, lapsed vehicle registrations and failures to signal.

Criminally neglected by policy makers – 152 years’ worth and counting – at every level of government. And so our education policy appears to be: starve the public system until it collapses and to hell with the children whose parents have no alternative. Housing policy stubbornly stacked against the development and maintenance of low-income housing. Jobs policy that, against an ideological backdrop that touts personal fulfillment and prosperity through honest effort, reduces grown men to selling loosies and cd’s on street corners to provide for their families.

Justifiably aggrieved because we still must assert, against the relentless accumulation of evidence to the contrary, that Black lives matter.

And all this on top of the foundational failure to financially repair or compensate the formerly enslaved or their descendants.

So today’s patty rollers are expected to contain any overflow of bitterness and anger on the part of the exploited, neglected and aggrieved, maintaining order in a fundamentally – and racially – disordered system. Their mandate is as clear as that of their forefathers: to constrain a population whose designated role is to absorb absurdly high rates of unemployment and make itself available for low-wage, low-status work without complaint, much less rebellion. Those who fear a spiraling descent into disorder, know this: we are merely witnessing the periodic, explosive surfacing of entrenched disorders we have refused to face or fix.

Our narratives and debates about good cops and rogue cops, better training and community policing are important but entirely insufficient. No doubt the patty rollers of the 1850s could have been trained to reign in their brutality. Given the gloriously diverse dispositions of our human family, patrollers likely ranged from the breathtakingly cruel to the queasily reluctant enforcers of patent injustice. All that is, at bottom, beside the point. Whether cruel or kind, restrained or rogue, their job was to police – and by policing, maintain – a barbaric system.

Today’s police can be better trained to recognize implicit bias, to dial back on aggression and deescalate tense encounters. All to the good, as far as it goes. But none of it changes their core mandate in poor Black communities: to control and contain, by any means necessary, a population that has every reason to be restive and rebellious.

*                                  *                                  *

“Was he colored?” That’s what my grandmother would say whenever she heard news about a criminal act. She knew that if the alleged perpetrator were “colored” his criminality would be read not simply as the act of an individual, but as an expression of an ingrained racial tendency. Somehow being Black meant that the actions of every random thief, rapist or murderer who was also Black redounded to you and your people. I imagine most Black families had a version of “Was he colored?” And I wouldn’t be surprised if Muslim American families have an equivalent expression today. Untying the knot of individual culpability and the consequences of racial belonging is nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem.

I was on a dance floor on Thursday night, desperately trying to shake off the news from Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. My phone was in my back pocket and, like an idiot, when it buzzed with an incoming text, I left the dance floor and stepped outside to the news from Dallas. Though the action was still unfolding, I immediately surmised that the shooter was “colored,” and that he had been trained by the U.S. military.

It has fallen to President Obama, time and again, to make sense out of the incomprehensible and bind the wounds of a nation apparently bent on self-destruction. In the aftermath of Dallas, Obama quickly condemned the despicable violence of a demented, troubled individual. The president’s intent was clear and laudable. He sought to defuse tensions by definitively asserting that the shooter’s action was not associated with a political movement or a particular organization, that his murderous deeds should in no way be linked to African Americans in general. He struggled to shift the focus from “Was he colored?” to “Clearly he was crazy, right?”

But before boxing Micah Johnson up and setting him aside as deranged and demented it’s worth asking a few questions. Honestly, good people, did anybody in their right mind – that is, not troubled or demented – think that the police could continue to pick off Black people at will and on camera without producing a Micah Johnson? And is troubled and demented shorthand for “traumatized by repeated exposure to the graphic depiction of the murder of people who look just like me?” Or for “agonized by the fact that the officers of the law who placed a handcuffed man in the back of a van and snapped his spine in an intentionally “rough ride” were neither held criminally accountable nor labeled troubled and demented?” Or for “depressed beyond imagining and haunted by the ghosts of the men and women whose lives were snatched by the side of the road, down back alleyways, and in precinct stations from one end of the country to the other before the era of cell phone video?” Or for “pierced through the heart by the voice of four-year-old Dae’Anna, comforting her mama?” Because if demented and troubled is shorthand for any of that, then Micah Johnson may have been a lone gunman, but he is far from alone.

That whoosh you heard on Friday morning was the sound of people rushing to condemn the Dallas shootings, or to extract condemnations from others. There is, of course, no moral justification for gunning down police officers. And, retaliatory violence aimed at the armed representatives of the state, beyond being a suicidal provocation, also shuts down all avenues for advancing the cause of racial justice.  But there is a lot of room for reflection between the cheap polarities of condemn or condone.

So here we are, once again, with calls from all quarters for dialogue across the racial divide. But if the long years before the emergence of the various movements for Black lives have taught us anything, it is this: our purported partners in dialogue simply turn their backs and leave the table as soon as the pressure is off. This moment calls for the vigorous defense of our right to continued protest and the intensification and elaboration of multiple movements for Black lives – for the sake of our ancestors and the generations to come. And for the sake of this country that is our home.

 

Linda Burnham has worked for decades as an activist, writer and strategist focused on women’s rights, racial justice and national politics.

18
Apr

Five Things Leftists Should Know About Bernie Sanders

LeftRoots member, Jonathan Kissam, from Vermont, weighs in on the Bernie Sanders debate.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has provoked widespread interest and debate on the U.S. Left, such as it is. This article is a contribution to that debate from the perspective of a left organizer who has been active in trade union and community organizing in Sanders’ home state of Vermont for the better part of two decades.

This article is not directed at progressives, but at leftists – those who identify as socialists, communists, and/or anarchists, those who want to replace capitalism with a different system, not simply reign in its most atrocious features. In short, those whose vision of liberation goes far beyond what Sanders has articulated in his political program.

The purpose of this article is not to convince individuals to vote for or against Sanders, or to give money or time to his campaign.  Rather, the purpose is to help leftists assess how the Sanders campaign impacts our strategies (or attempts to formulate strategies) to build a social force that is strong enough to dismantle and replace capitalism.

1. BERNIE IS, IN FACT, DIFFERENT FROM OTHER POLITICIANS

The summer that I moved to Vermont, before I acquired gainful employment, I went out canvassing for Sanders a couple of times – he was still in Congress, and still had to run for re-election every two years. Of the maybe twenty people I spoke to, two of them had been personally helped by Sanders’ office when he was mayor of Burlington. And one told me that he didn’t agree with Sanders on a single issue, but always voted for him, because Sanders was always honest about what he believed.

This is not to argue that Sanders is uniquely principled in his politics – clearly he will give in to pressure in some situations. In 2000, in the wake of Vermont’s at-the-time groundbreaking Civil Union law for same-sex couples, Sanders was the last statewide politician to make a statement on it (though his positions have evolved). However he is, in my experience, uniquely committed to using his position to serve the interests of the people. Until recently, he lived in a modest split-level in Burlington (and his new house is not much bigger), and he displays no interest in trading on his position to achieve personal gain. While he has been criticized for being tough – perhaps even abusive – to employees, as a former staffer says, “he is a very hard worker himself. I mean, he is at it 24-7 — and that’s really no exaggeration. He works really, really hard, and he expects the people who work for him to work really, really hard.”

Perhaps the clearest example of this is how willing he is to take on the most powerful corporations in the world. It is hard to think of another politician who would be willing to anger General Electric while running for president.

2. BERNIE IS A TRUE BELIEVER IN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY

Many of us on the Left are skeptical of, or at least highly aware of the limitations of, what we often refer to as “bourgeois democracy” – voting for one or another candidate to manage the capitalist state. This skepticism is mirrored in the attitude of many liberal politicians (such as President Obama), who may genuinely want to use the political process such as it is to improve people’s lives, but who accept that they must operate only in the narrow constraints of what powerful institutions deem “politically possible.”

Sanders, for better or for worse, genuinely believes that the institutions of American democracy can be used to bring about deep, structural political changes that will improve the lives of millions of people in real ways. And this belief leads him to attempt things that most of us on the Left think impossible – such as running for President as a socialist.

3. BERNIE GIVES ACTIVE SUPPORT TO TRADE UNIONS AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS

Unlike most Democratic Party politicians, who will only support trade union and social movement struggles when asked or pressured to, and only after making political calculations, Sanders takes an active interest in the organizational health of the trade union movement and other popular organizations.

For several years I served as the highest-ranking elected official of the United Electrical Workers union (UE) in Vermont. As such – since we are independent of the AFL-CIO – I was regularly invited to meet with Sanders, along with the presidents of the AFL-CIO, Vermont NEA (teachers’ union), and the independent Vermont State Employees Association. Sanders, in effect, convened the trade union movement in a way that its official representatives were too short-sighted or fragmented to do on our own. He has sponsored labor conferences that bring together hundreds of union members to discuss the political issues of the day and promote a working-class political vision. The first of these that I attended was led by labor leftist Bill Fletcher, in 1999, as Fletcher was being eased out of the AFL-CIO for his radicalism.

In addition to convening trade unionists, Sanders has been instrumental in supporting, and on occasion leading, countless workers’ struggles in Vermont. His support was crucial to the nearly 2000 nurses at the state’s largest hospital winning union recognition, and to hundreds of federal contract workers winning millions in back pay after being systematically underpaid in violation of the federal Service Contract Act. In 2000, when IBM initiated drastic changes to its pension plan, Sanders essentially served as shop-steward-at-large for the thousands of workers at IBM’s non-union plant in Vermont (and, indeed, for IBM workers nationally), helping to win significant modifications to the draconian take-backs.

Sanders has done similar organizational work with the environmental and women’s movements, among others. Most strikingly, he has invited the Vermont Workers’ Center to directly recruit at his campaign events. Unlike the vast majority of politicians, even those on the left, Sanders does not see non-electoral organizing as in competition with electoral strategies, but as a crucial complement to them.

4. BERNIE IS A POLITICAL REALIST, AND IS IN THIS TO WIN

In his Atlantic piece, “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?” Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that “Sometimes the moral course lies within the politically possible, and sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible. One of the great functions of radical candidates is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.”

While true, I think this represents a fundamental misreading of Sanders. He does not see himself as a radical candidate. He is not a Ralph Nader or a Jill Stein. He is not so much interested in expanding the political imagination as in winning actual changes in the way society is governed.

While Sanders’ statement on reparations having no chance of passage was, like many things he says about race, tone-deaf, it was not wrong. Coates asserts that Sanders’ single-payer proposal is equally unlikely to pass Congress – but there is a significant difference: single-payer has widespread public support, in a way that reparations do not.

This is not to say that those of us who believe in reparations should not criticize Sanders, only that we have a job to do – convincing more white folks (and more non-Black people of color, and to be honest more Black folks as well) that reparations is not only the right thing to do, but in our long-term interests. And, for better or for worse, we need to be realistic that Sanders is not going to do that job for us.

The bottom line is: Sanders would not be running if he did not honestly believe that he has a chance of winning, and that he would be able to – over time – pass significant parts of his agenda. He has won elections for over three decades, has experience governing, and has more than two and a half decades’ experience moving both small and large agendas through Congress. While we may not agree with every decision he has made, is making, or will make, we need to understand that fundamentally what he is doing is looking for the most achievable radical change, and the most radical achievable change (within his own political framework of social democracy).

5. BERNIE HAS A TRACK RECORD OF TAKING ON ENTRENCHED POWER BY ENCOURAGING POPULAR MOBILIZATION

While this is, understandably, not part of the Sanders campaign’s public history, when Bernie was first elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, he was faced with an extremely hostile city council – having only two allies out of 14 city councillors.  Burlington’s city government is run on a commission system, meaning the mayor’s power is significantly checked by commissions, appointed by the city council, who oversee almost all city departments.  When Sanders was first elected, Burlington was in many ways a traditional Democratic Party one-party machine fiefdom – and the machine wasn’t about to let some upstart “socialist” actually run the city.

In response, Bernie and his supporters took the one small city department the mayor had direct control over, the office of economic development, renamed it the “Community and Economic Development Office,” and began to use it to facilitate organization and mobilization in the city’s neighborhoods. Most significantly, they established “Neighborhood Planning Assemblies” in each of the city’s seven wards. The assemblies met monthly, and CEDO turned over a certain portion of the federal block grants that they administered to the assemblies to fund neighborhood improvements (not unlike the “Participatory Budgeting” that the Brazilian Workers’ Party would establish in Porto Alegre later in the decade). This institution continues to this day, and has provided a crucial space for popular mobilization on issues both local – such as fighting proposed closings of schools in working-class neighborhoods – and national and international – such as pressing the city council to take progressive stands against the war in Iraq, or for immigrants’ rights.

In addition to the NPAs, Sanders and his allies established a women’s council, an arts council, a sister city program with Puerto Cabezas in Sandanista Nicaragua, and a robust community-access television network. The Clerk’s office and the Board for Registration of Voters made it easier to register to vote and easier to vote. Over time, popular involvement in these progressive, participatory initiatives sponsored and supported by the mayor’s office led to political change.  More Sanders allies were elected to the City Council under the banner of the loose “Progressive Coalition” (which eventually formally formed the statewide Vermont Progressive Party in the late 1990s), as were more independents and Republicans, breaking the Democratic party machine stranglehold on city government.  Eventually, even Democrats on the council began to see the light and work with Sanders.

This track record is an important counterpoint to those who argue that Sanders, if elected, would be unable to move his agenda through a Congress dominated by Republicans and conservative Democrats. And it is also important to think about how, if he is elected, leftists and popular organizations can make use of such openings that a Sanders presidency would provide.

* * *

As stated above, I am not writing this article to argue that individual leftists should vote for or against Bernie (although I voted for him, as I always have), or give time or money to his campaign (although I have done both). Nor am I going to argue that grassroots organizations should divert limited resources from organizing into involvement in Bernie’s campaign. Those decisions have to be made based on the time, place and conditions that individuals and organizations are working in.

However, I am going to tell a cautionary tale from 1990, the year that Sanders first got elected to Congress.

Bennington County, in the southwest corner of Vermont, is one of the more conservative parts of the state – in fact, it was the only county that Sanders did not carry in 1990. The Sanders campaign in Bennington was run out of the offices of UE Local 295, which represented hundreds of manufacturing workers at Bijur Lubrication. Years later, the UE staff representative who had been working with Local 295 at the time told me about the victory party, how the middle-class peace and environmental activists and working-class trade unionists looked at each other and said, “hey, we did this amazing thing together!”  And how she never saw that happen again, because no durable political organization was built.

Unlike the cities of Burlington, Montpelier and Brattleboro – liberal enclaves which do, in fact, resemble the stereotype of Vermont held by many outside the state – Bennington is a rural, working-class, conservative area, and one that has been hit hard by globalization and deindustrialization. Bijur Lubrication moved most of its production to Mexico and China in the 90s, and closed its doors for good in the early 2000s. It is the county that Trump won most decisively in Vermont’s primary in March.

One of the notable – though not often-enough noted by people who think of politics as a linear spectrum – aspects of the Sanders campaign is his ability to attract “independents.” White working-class voters in rural states who do not identify with the Democratic Party are turning out to vote for a self-proclaimed socialist. If the issue of organizing working class white folks is important to the Left (as I would argue that it should be), then we should be looking closely at Sanders’ message, and how it centers working-class experience and economic pain – something that too often becomes secondary in the rhetoric of the Left.

We also need to be thinking about the question of what happens – politically but more importantly organizationally – to the millions of people excited by the Sanders campaign after the Democratic Party convention this summer when, in all likelihood, Clinton will be nominated. The Sanders campaign is unlikely to build a durable political organization – electoral campaigns simply do not do that. Electoral campaigns are a sprint, and durable political organizations have always been built by committed activists whose vision of transforming society makes them long-distance runners. However, the Sanders campaign has reached and mobilized more working-class people, with a basic anti-corporate message and an identity as a “socialist,” than the Left has in decades. Perhaps we have an opportunity to find new comrades in unexpected places.

16
Oct

Fighting Class War While ‘Walking on Two Legs’

by Cynthia Peters, LeftRoots Cadre Member

Much of the organizing in the U.S. is guilty of focusing on short-term outcomes, not thinking about how the work is developing the people who are doing it.

There’s an apartment building in Dorchester that used to be a safe and affordable place to live for working-class families in Boston. But after a corporate landlord bought it in 2013, it has become a case study in how displacement happens. First, he allowed it to fall into extreme disrepair. As the building deteriorated, leaks developed, mold started growing, and people started moving out. After they left, the landlord cleaned up their units and rented them at significantly higher rates.

When City Life/Vida Urbana volunteers (of which I am one) started organizing in the building, people were scared and alienated from each other. As we started holding meetings, tenants began to connect with each other and learn their rights. After they pressured the landlord to make some minimal changes (which barely got the building up to code), the landlord raised their rent. For five months, the tenants have remained united in their refusal to pay the rent increase. They are paying the old rent and pressuring the landlord to meet with them as a tenants’ association and negotiate a fair rent increase.

The point of our organizing, however, is never solely to prevent displacement or improve conditions or negotiate fair rent increases. Although those wins are important and obviously do real good in real people’s lives, they are just one of the “legs” we should be walking on as we organize. What is the second “leg”? It is how all those involved in the organizing evolve and change over time through their engagement in the struggle.

This concept of “walking on two legs” was a key point made by Michael Lebowitz and Marta Harnecker, who traveled through several U.S. cities recently as part of a LeftRoots-organized tour, and spoke with organizers about the concept of not just fighting for change but also “producing ourselves differently” in the process of that fight. “In revolutionary practice,” according to Lebowitz, there is “simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change. We change ourselves through our activity. We have to struggle not just to save the world but to save ourselves.”

Fighting to stop displacement, fighting to make housing a human right, fighting for an economic system that puts “people before profit” – that fight is one of the legs we walk on through the housing justice work we do at City Life. But how are we doing with the second leg – the fight to save ourselves, to be connected, to be fully human, to see ourselves as interdependent and capable of joining with others to creatively solve our problems?

At the building in Dorchester where long-time Boston residents are fighting for the right to remain in their communities, here are some of the ways we have strengthened the second leg:

1. We notice our importance.

The kind of systemic change that we are striving for will not be underwritten by funders and organized by paid staff working out of non-profits. Massive, grassroots-based organizing that drives the kind of change we want to see must ultimately involve thousands and thousands of volunteers touching the lives of millions of people and bringing them into the movement. At our building in Dorchester, we’ve gotten a glimpse of what this could look like. Our team – almost all of whom have been directly affected by displacement and have fought it – acts like a structural reminder that we are all needed for the struggle. L and R have formed tenant associations in their own buildings and can speak first-hand about the process, the intimidation tactics the landlord uses, and the benefits of sticking together. P and J fought home foreclosure and can share with others the power of solidarity in fighting the worst excesses of the for-profit housing system. C and J have the capacity to make phone calls, develop flyers, and do the clerical tasks that help keep the wheels turning. These collective offerings, with support from the paid staff, have kept the organizing going for almost a year. We have backed each other, role-played with each other, stepped in for each other, debated each other, gone to the funerals of each other’s loved ones, and celebrated successes together. Oppression isolates us. Working together as a team does the opposite.

2. We develop.

When we started organizing in this building as City Life volunteers, we came in with a perspective that the tenants should unite to fight the corporate landlord, and that indeed has happened. However, there were other struggles in the building, including tensions around drug-use and prostitution, and we didn’t have a ready response for these tensions. Inspectional Services suggested calling the police, but tenants rolled their eyes at this idea. They’ve had too much experience with police not coming, coming too late, or coming and being unhelpful (to put it mildly). What has happened organically is that residents have noticed the emerging leaders in the Tenants Association and have sought them out for advice and support in dealing with this community tension. What are they doing about it? For now, they are simply trying to get those affected by the situation together to talk it over – a modest but potentially effective way forward that sidesteps the criminalization of more people of color and that exercises that second leg! In the process of fighting displacement, these tenants have further developed and refined the capacity to look to each other to solve problems.

3. We experience solidarity.

Perhaps the key transformation that has happened over time in this organizing effort is the realization that we are not alone. The tenants in the building now have each other’s phone numbers, know each other’s names, and confide and build with each other. But more than that, they have had the experience of “complete strangers” (i.e., other City Life members) showing up at a Speak-Out in front of their building. And they, in turn, are joining with other grassroots organizations in the fight for a citywide ordinance for Just Cause Eviction, which provides important protections for renters throughout the city.

4. We build a political home.

With City Life, activists and tenants have an organizing home – a place where we can take lessons back to others doing similar work, where we can be held accountable for our work, where we can learn skills and contribute to strategic decisions about how to fight for housing justice in our city. In addition, through City Life, we have access to opportunities to study, to learn theories of change, to develop our worldview. But we need more than this. To further strengthen the second leg, we need a political home. We need to see ourselves as members of a larger movement, joining with others across various struggles to develop a strategy for how to be greater than the sum of our parts.

Much of our organizing in the U.S. is guilty of having an over-developed first leg, which we use to hop and lurch toward our goals. We are doing the work with more attention to immediate outcomes than to the way it is developing us in the process. “Walking on two legs,” we stride forward in a more balanced way – changing the world while we change ourselves so that we are better able to change the world.

This content was published by TeleSUR here and ZNet here.

1
Jul

Revolutionary Black Nationalism for the Twenty-First Century: Interview with Kali Akuno

by Riad Azar and Saulo Colón

Originally published in New Politics, summer of 2015.

Kali Akuno served as the coordinator of special projects and external funding for Jackson Mississippi’s late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. He is co-founder and director of Cooperation Jackson as well as an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He was interviewed by email by Riad Azar and Saulo Colón, both members of the New Politics editorial board. Saulo Colón is also a member of LeftRoots.

New Politics: Kali, part of your work and that of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) has been strategically and organizationally focused on the South. Can you explain the thinking behind this and also how it connects to your understanding of the specificity of the South (especially due to its changing demographics because of the recent migrations of Latino workers) in terms of capitalist power and racism?

Kali Akuno: First and foremost, it is critical to understand that the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is a revolutionary nationalist organization that is part of the New Afrikan Independence Movement. Revolutionary nationalism is a left-wing variant of nationalism, practiced by colonized and oppressed peoples, that seeks to liberate them from the yoke of their colonizers and oppressors and replace the capitalist-imperialist social order imposed upon them with a socialist social system. The New Afrikan Independence Movement is a multi-tendency movement struggling to liberate the southeastern portion of the so-called mainland territories now colonized by the United States government. The New Afrikan Independence Movement recognizes that territories it is claiming for its national territory rightfully belong to the indigenous nations of Turtle Island, and makes no claims that supersede their just claims. However, our aim is to unite with indigenous peoples and with other oppressed peoples throughout the United States empire and break the back of white supremacy and the settler-colonial project through a unified anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist struggle. So, it is critical to understand MXGM, and its parent organization, the New Afrikan People’s Organization, and their commitment to the South in this context.

It is also critical to understand the economic and political role of the South within the colonial-imperial framework of the United States government. Since the defeat of the Confederacy, the South has largely operated as an internal colony from which cheap natural resources and labor could be readily drawn. This strategic site of super-exploitation provided critical capital accumulation and other developmental competitive advantages to the U.S. settler-colonial project in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that played a critical role in the ascendency of U.S. imperialism on a global scale later in the twentieth century. And given the structural acknowledgement of colonialism and slavery within the U.S. political framework—specifically the creation of the electoral college, the unrepresentative Senate, and the limited number of congressional districts—the South has always played a disproportionate role in determining the overall politics of the empire. The South typically plays a decisive role in deciding the presidency and the makeup of the Congress, bending both toward right-wing settler-colonialism. This historic reality is what gives rise to the phrase, “as the South goes, so goes the nation.”

The changing demographics of the South, from our point of view, are a welcome phenomenon, in that they offer an opportunity to radically transform the South and the United States overall. In some respects, part of the rapid growth in the Latino population can be viewed as a re-indigenization of the Southeast and U.S.-held portions of North America. Overall this growth potentially weakens the base of white supremacy in the South. We say “potentially” because there is no guarantee that large numbers of Latinos won’t seek to be assimilated and incorporated into the white population, following patterns pursued by southern European immigrant communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There have to be a lot of mutual and intentional unity-building efforts between Blacks and Latinos in order for the transformative potential of this historical development to be realized. Revolutionaries of all nationalities, races, and ethnicities in the South have a decisive role to play in calling for and forging this unity.

NP: A founder and leading member of MXGM, Chokwe Lumumba (who unfortunately and unexpectedly passed away in 2014) was elected Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. Part of his political work and the organizing behind his campaign was the Peoples Assemblies. Can you explain what they are, where the idea came from, and how they are functioning now?

KA: I would refer people to three works that tackle this question more deeply, these include the “Jackson-Kush Plan” (see navigatingthestorm.blogspot.com/2012/05/the-jackson-kush-plan-and-struggle-for.html), the “People’s Assembly Overview” (see navigatingthestorm.blogspot.com/2014/11/peoples-assemblys-overview-jackson.html), and “Casting Shadows” (see ww.rosalux-nyc.org/en/casting-shadows).

But, in brief, the People’s Assembly is a form of democratic social organization that allows people to exercise their agency, exert their power, and practice democracy in its broadest terms, entailing making direct decisions about the economic, social, and cultural operations of our community, and not just the contractual or electoral and legislative aspects of the social order. The germinating source of the Assembly comes, in the final analysis, from our people’s desire to exercise self-determination.

The People’s Assembly draws from many sources and traditions, going back to the Negro Conventions of thenineteenth century, which were very influential in Mississippi in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the mass meetings of the 1950s and 1960s that fueled the civil rights movement in the state. They also draw heavily on international experiences that include everything from the Paris Commune to the People’s Assemblies in Guinea-Bissau in the 1960s and 1970s, to the Zapatista Assemblies of the 1990s on.

The People’s Assembly is starting to regroup and expand its horizons since the electoral defeat of the deceased mayor’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, in April 2014. It is still debating and assimilating the critical lessons from the last three years and is consciously working to incorporate these into its work to be a more effective instrument of dual power in Jackson going forward. The primary thing the Assembly is working on now is defeating the effort being led by white reactionary forces in the metropolitan region to seize control of Jackson’s water system, either by regionalizing its control board or privatizing it.

NP: The People’s Assembly seems to intentionally encourage, and build upon, an anti-racist consciousness that can arise through participatory practices and the building of solidarity between diverse communities. Can you explain the political strategy of people’s assemblies and your evaluation of them as mechanisms of popular democracy? Also, how would you compare them to the General Assembly that was part of Occupy?

KA: This is an excellent, but complex question. First, it should be known that national/racial diversity is rather limited in Jackson. Jackson is 80 percent Black, and more than 90 percent of the participants in our Assembly are Black. The greatest expression of diversity in the Assembly is class diversity. The overwhelming number of participants is drawn from the various sectors of the working class. But, there are a fair number of participants that hail from the Black petit bourgeoisie, namely small business owners and professionals (lawyers, doctors, and so on).

By weight of its membership, the Assembly has a working-class character, but it does strategically try to represent a broad multi-class people’s front. The reason is that its power is ultimately constrained by the forces of white supremacy that control the economy of Jackson and the statewide political apparatus. White supremacy is still very visceral and apparent in this state, and that creates the imperative for multi-class political forces amongst the Black community in Mississippi.

There are more differences than similarities between the General Assembly of Occupy and the People’s Assembly of Jackson. Occupy, at its best, was a classic example of a mass assembly. These types of assemblies are normally short-lived phenomena that emerge during times of acute crisis. Occupy was a product of the acute crisis of 2008, prompted by the bursting of the housing bubble that shook Wall Street and international financial markets. The Jackson Assembly, on the other hand, was intentionally built to last and to address the long-term systemic crisis of white supremacy, colonial subjugation, and capitalist exploitation that confronts Black people in the city of Jackson. As such, it is more of a representational assembly at this point in time, and its leadership, the People’s Task Force, is clear that the participation of the masses can and will fluctuate over time. But, the commitment to direct democracy, I believe, is ultimately shared by both.

NP: The assemblies also foster alternative economic models outside the logic of capital, specifically Cooperation Jackson where you currently work. Could you discuss how this model of cooperative economics has been practiced in Black communities and how they connect to your vision of Black Liberation and economic emancipation?

KA: To gain a deeper knowledge of how cooperative economics has been employed in Black communities, I would encourage everyone to read Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Action. It’s a must read.

Cooperation Jackson is a vehicle to advance and execute the vision of economic democracy and transformation contained within the Jackson-Kush Plan. Cooperation Jackson is an emerging vehicle for sustainable community development, economic democracy, and community ownership. Cooperation Jackson is working to develop a cooperative network in Jackson that will consist of four interconnected and interdependent institutions: an emerging federation of local worker cooperatives, a developing-cooperative incubator, a cooperative education and training center (called the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development), and a cooperative financial institution. To learn more about Cooperation Jackson visit www.CooperationJackson.org.

Now, it is critical to note that while cooperatives have a long history within the Black community, particularly in Mississippi, there are two things that make Cooperation Jackson’s experiment unique. First, it is largely an operation to start a network of predominantly worker cooperatives, and, second, it is in an urban setting. Working in urban environments has been limited in the South, and worker cooperatives have been very limited in the South. So, we are treading on some new ground and there will be a great deal of experimentation over the course of the coming years and decades in our work.

The drive to build cooperatives is first and foremost driven by the need to break the back of the white-controlled paternalistic capitalism that exists in Mississippi. On a deeper level, however, it is an effort to create economic democracy in our city and the state and to facilitate a just transition from the agricultural, extractive economy that dominates our local economy (and that of the world). Our people are clear that they no longer want to be the “speaking tools” of capitalist exploitation and are seeking creative ways to end this psychotic system.

NP: Could you talk about the role of MXGM and other similar organizations in supporting and helping to build the movement that has developed since Ferguson? Please also discuss the impact of the report Operation Ghetto Stormthat your organization released in 2012 and 2013.

KA: There is a spontaneous side and a historic buildup side to the current reawakening of the Black Liberation Movement that has emerged in the wake of the Ferguson rebellion.

MXGM without question has played a central role in the historic buildup over the past twenty years, but particularly the past ten years. I think we have to look at the current reawakening as a response to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. The disaster in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina exposed that the U.S. government was politically willing to discard Black people en masse, particularly those sectors of the Black working class that have largely become surplus and superfluous to the cycle of capitalist production in the United States. Black radical consciousness, I argue, has been gradually transforming and advancing in the wake of this catastrophe in qualitative ways. If we look back critically, we see a pattern of Black mass resistance that emerged in 2006 – 2007 and that started with the movement to defend the Jena 6. This pattern of mass outrage and mobilization continued and advanced after the extrajudicial killing of Oscar Grant in 2009 and has remained consistent in various ways since (Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, on down).

Operation Ghetto Storm (better known as the Every 28 Hours Report), I believe, laid a solid foundation for the reawakening that we are experiencing now. It revealed the extent to which Black people are considered disposable by the state and started a dialogue regarding what we can and must do about it. Unfortunately, most of the analyses, demands, and program that were contained in that work and its supporting works, including “Let Your Motto Be Resistance” (see mxgm.org/let-your-motto-be-resistance-a-handbook-on-organizing-new-afrikan-and-oppressed-communities-for-self-defense/) and “We Charge Genocide Again” (see mxgm.org/we-charge-genocide-again-new-curriculum-on-every-28-hours-report/), have not yet been fully digested by the movement. But this is part and parcel of the ideological and political struggle that takes place within any mass movement. Going forward, it is critical that MXGM and organizations like it struggle with the masses to get them to understand that the U.S. settler-colonial project is beyond reform and that the capitalist-imperialist world system must be transformed and overcome and replaced by an new social system that respects the limits of the Earth’s productive capacities if our species is going to survive.

NP: The most well-known expression coming out of this movement has been “Black Lives Matter,” which shares an acronym with the Black Liberation Movement. How would you describe this movement in terms of civil and human rights versus revolutionary Black Nationalism? What does Black Nationalism mean in the context of neoliberal capitalism and the fact that the United States will be majority minority at some point?

KA: Black Lives Matter must be understood as a multi-tendency formation and budding movement. In my opinion it should be contrasted with the Black Liberation Movement, but must be seen as an expression of this long movement. Black Lives Matter, as both organization and movement, is still growing and still defining itself. It has developed some demands, but these are still very much in flux and advancing (or contracting, depending on chapter and context, as I understand it) with each passing day, and each emerging location of struggle—as can be seen from its recent responses to the Baltimore rebellion. Its most distinguishing feature and contribution to date, I think, has been an elevation and highlighting of women’s and queer struggles within the Black community. In this regard it is simultaneously an internal challenge to the community itself as well as an external challenge to the society at large, both of which are needed.

Now, Black Lives Matter as an organization has radical leadership, who I know are all committed anti-capitalists and anti-imperialists. However, moving the organization and the movement in this direction is going to be a struggle and it is going to take some time. The overall weakness of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements in the United States means that the broad base that the organization is drawing from has little experience with these radical ideologies and social systems. We’ve confronted this limitation within MXGM for over 25 years, so we know the challenges. But, this is a new moment where folks are learning more in a few days then most typically learn in decades. So, one shouldn’t discount where this movement might land in terms of its politics and ideology. It’s too premature to do that.

That said, the movement is contending with the dominant accommodationist tendency that exists within Black politics. The organization and the movement have had to contend with efforts to distort and water down the meaning of the slogan and with its appropriation to advance narrow demands by many of the established civil rights groups. How the organization and the movement deals with this struggle will be telling, because the pull of the accommodationist forces and the capitalist and Democratic Party forces that back them is very, very strong. All I can say is that for my part, I’m going to continue engaging and encouraging this organization, and the many organizations that developed since the Ferguson rebellion, to adopt revolutionary ideology and politics and not become appendages of the Democratic Party.

Now, on the second part of your question, I think it should be made clear that it is the revolutionary nationalist tradition that has carried the banner of human rights within the long Black Liberation Movement. The civil rights and accommodationist tendencies fundamentally jettisoned the struggle for human rights in the early 1950s, when they succumbed to anti-Communist “red-scare” politics and made a Faustian bargain with the United States government for the limited degree of civil and political rights the settler-ruling class was prepared to offer. This narrowed the struggles for self-determination and economic, social, and cultural rights, and we are living with and trying to overcome the horrible outcomes of this bargain now.

Now, the question regarding the relationship between Black Nationalism and neoliberalism is complex, one that would take several volumes to satisfactorily address. But, let me say this, that as with all nationalist movements, there are left, right, and center tendencies. Some of the more right-leaning nationalist tendencies have accommodated themselves to the logic and imperatives of neoliberalism quite comfortably. In fact, it supports certain long-standing but narrow calls for Black capitalism, in the form of promoting types of Black ownership and businesses that only foster and create capitalist formations. It also expresses itself socially, for example, in calls for things, like private schools and even charter schools, that don’t seek to serve an anti-colonial or anti-imperialist agenda, but merely a variant ethnic or racial self-interest.

The revolutionary nationalist tradition understands neoliberalism to be another form of capitalist accumulation and imperialist domination and vehemently opposes it. But, the ascendancy of neoliberalism has seriously undermined the revolutionary nationalist movement in a number of ways, and the movement still has not adequately addressed its weaknesses in the face of this ideological, political, and social onslaught. And if we don’t get a grip on this, the changing demographics will count for nothing transformative, as the system will adeptly pit one people against another people, one working class sector against another, and each individual against all. So, we have some major, major work to do on this front.

NP: Could you discuss the impact of past World and U.S. Social forums on the development of current movement work, as well as give an update on the upcoming social forum in the summer of 2015 and its people’s movement assembly?

KA: To be honest, at first the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was not too excited by the World Social Forum (WSF). We thought it was too liberal and possibly a distraction from the growing anti-globalization movement that was emerging on the scene when the WSF first got started in 2000. Initially we were much more invested in more explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist international movements and convergences like the International League of People’s Struggles, which emerged slightly before it.

Overall, our assessment of the WSF being very liberal hasn’t changed, but our stance on engagement has. The shift for us was Hurricane Katrina and the recognition that our people and our movement had entered into a new historic phase relative to the systems of white supremacy, U.S. colonial subjugation, and imperialism: a phase of disposal. To try and counter this we figured that we needed to galvanize the broadest possible level of support for our people and our movement, and the WSF was one of many venues to do that.

Now, overall, I think the WSF played a tremendous role in facilitating linkages between social movements throughout the world in the 2000s, particularly in the absence of radical international forces such as the Communist International and the demise of the movements linking the radical national liberation and socialist movements that existed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with formations like the non-aligned movement, the tri-continental movement, the movement for a new international economic order, and so on. This contribution cannot be discounted or diminished.

But, there are many questions as to whether the convergence model employed by the WSF and its regional and national expressions, like the U.S. Social Forum, can lead to the necessary movement coherence that is needed to eliminate capitalism and the ever-growing threat of climate change and ecocide. The 2015 U.S. Social Forum is an effort to change the model to facilitate concentrated dialogue about movement coherence. But, the organizing process for this forum has confronted many challenges, some due to perceived sectarianism (real or imagined), more drawn from concerns about what premature notions of coherence might mean (or damage), and some drawn from the fear of funders about what a genuine left force in the United States might foster. Time will tell.

In Jackson, Cooperation Jackson is engaging the 2015 U.S. Social Forum by hosting a Southern-oriented People’s Movement Assembly focused on a just transition. This Assembly is part of the Climate Justice Alliance’s Our Power Campaign’s “Summer of Our Power” (see www.ourpowercampaign.org). The People’s Movement Assembly is going to be held on Friday, June 26 through Sunday, June 28, 2015, at the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development, located at 939 W. Capitol Street, Jackson, Mississippi 39203.

NP: Could you introduce Grassroots Global Justice Alliance? What’s does GGJ do and why? 

KA: MXGM is a proud member of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and has been a member since 2006. GGJ is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year (2015).

GGJ was initially born to facilitate the participation of U.S.-based grassroots organizations with the WSF. Its aim was to further the development of grassroots internationalism between forces in the United States and those in the global South. It has remained true to this mission, but has steadily enhanced the mission—and its vision—since 2005. There are now nearly 70 organizations in the alliance, and it is now key to the grassroots struggle against climate change in the U.S. and recently facilitated the start of the first U.S.-based chapter of the World March of Women. So, GGJ is on the move. For more information about GGJ visit ggjalliance.org.

NP: What’s your view of the politics of solidarity in the United States in light of these assemblies and forums, as well as the increase in direct action protests by diverse allies responding to their understanding of their role in, and critiques by, Black-led movements?

KA: In short, the growth of these activities is good, and the politics of solidarity is advancing by leaps and bounds. But by no means has it grown deep or broad enough for it to be transformative yet. We still have a long way to go to build the strength needed to transform the United States, meaning the end of its colonial domination of North America and its imperialist grip on the rest of the world and ending the capitalist system and the threat of climate change. We can’t settle for easy victories where we know there is far more work to be done.

1
May

Organizing Transformation: Best Practices in the Transformative Organizing Model

By Steve Williams.

Published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office, May 2015.

Download the PDF here »


With corporate profits rising along with the number of children living in poverty, the state-sanctioned killings of Black civilians, the record-number of deportations of undocumented immigrants and the irrefutable evidence coming crisis caused by capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels, the need for systematic change is more and more urgent everyday. But as the great Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary Amílcar Cabral once cautioned, “We are not going to eliminate imperialism by shouting insults against it.”[1] Toppling the old order requires building broad, radical and confident social movements that grow out of the social sectors whose interests lie in a future based on justice and solidarity.

To talk of movement building rightly leads one to the challenge of workplace and community organizing. In the United States (and some other parts of the Western world), this often leads to the books of Saul Alinsky. While celebrating collective action, the model described in Alinsky’s books discourages organizers and organizations to take up the ideological tasks necessary to analyze and undermine long-lasting systems of exploitation and oppression. In recent years, a model of organizing has been emerging in communities and workplaces across the United States with efforts to build power amongst domestic workers, residents facing eviction, queer young people and people fighting climate change. This model attempts to link democratic efforts to build the collective power while also challenging the deeply rooted systems of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. Many have referred to this emerging model as transformative organizing.

While the model of transformative organizing is new and still in development, it is also rooted in a rich historical tradition. Many of the organizers who use the term ‘transformative organizing’ acknowledge that their approach draws from the practices and the lessons drawn from past efforts in the United States and around the globe to build popular power to challenge and change the systems of oppression and exploitation that degrade the quality of life for people, communities and the planet. Drawing from the experiences of organizations like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the Wobblies, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the women of color feminism of the 1970s, many of these efforts are trying to weave together the work of individual organizations with the goal of building a broad and united social movement capable of confronting and ending the systems of oppression and exploitation.

What is Transformative Organizing

There is also something innovative about the practices transformative organizing. When asked to define transformative organizing, Hashim Benford for Power U Center for Social Change in Miami offered this: “These systems of oppression that we interface with on a daily basis— white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy— they’re not just abstract concepts, and they don’t just shape unequal material conditions, but they also impact us as human beings… Transformative organizing seeks to transform people and society. It unpacks the interpersonal and individual effects of oppression and trauma in our lives as part of the process of doing societal, social, community-level change work. When I think of transformative that’s the ultimate vision.”[2] His definition brings together two strands that are central to all of the organizations’ approaches to the emerging model— commitment to changing social systems while supporting people’s individual and collective ability to learn and put into practice different ways of relating to the world, to their communities, to their families (however those are defined) and to themselves.

This study aims to explore the components of this transformative organizing model through a study of four different organizations’ work. An earlier article entitled “Demand Everything” offered an examination of the transformative organizing model which drew from the author’s experience of more than twenty years as a community organizer in San Francisco with the Coalition on Homelessness and POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights).[3] That article identified nine components of the transformative organizing model:

  1. Walk with Vision;
  2. Reach Out to Listen and Learn;
  3. Revolutionary Edge of Reform;
  4. Democracy is Power;
  5. Cultivate Leaders;
  6. Build Strategic Alliances;
  7. Commit to Movement;
  8. Extract Every Lesson; and
  9. Personal is Political.

Recognizing that the power of the transformative organizing model comes from its application of certain over-arching principles in a very specific context with a particular set of social forces, this article examines how distinct organizations are applying aspects of the transformative organizing model. It examines the work of four organizations whose work is breaking new ground and helping to shape the definition of the term. Those organizations include Causa Justa :: Just Cause in the San Francisco Bay Area; Power U Center for Social Change in Miami, FL; National People’s Action, a network of almost than thirty affiliated grassroots organizations; and the Vermont Workers Center, a statewide grassroots organization. Whether these organizations use the term ‘transformative organizing’ or not, their practice offers a compelling example of organizations attempting to embody a commitment to transforming systems and transforming ourselves.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause

Causa Justa :: Just Cause (CJJC) is a grassroots organization which organizes working class tenants to fight for housing rights in the real estate-dominated context of the San Francisco Bay Area. In a region where tenants rights laws protect long-term tenants from market-rate rent increases, landlords have taken to bullying and harassing their tenants in hopes that those tenants will move out thereby making room for tenants willing to pay higher rent. Today, the Oakland rent board receives as many as two-hundred calls per month from tenants complaining of landlord harassment.[4]

In the fall of 2014, CJJC led a coalition calling on the Oakland City Council to pass legislation to stop landlords from bullying and harassing their tenants in hopes that those tenants will move out thereby making room for tenants willing to pay higher rent. As one woman testified to Council members, “[My landlord] has failed to provide basic services. He did not pay (the gas and electricity bill) so we were without heat and hot water for a week in the winter.”[5] In October, CJJC won some relief for the City’s tenants when the Oakland City Council passed the Tenant Protection Ordinance, making it easier for renters to stand up against landlord harassment. The story of CJJC and its path to building a united base of African American and Latino tenants is a study of transformative organizing.

All transformative organizing begins with a collective intention— the intention to struggle against a cultural, economic and political hegemony that perpetrates and reproduces capitalism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. There is no singular path to this intention. Different organizations take different routes to arrive at such an intention. The clarity of the intention, as well as the integrity of the organization, can guide the organization’s practice and compel the group to experiment with approaches that might otherwise seem uncommon and superfluous.

In the case of CJJC, their practice has been driven by an intention to forge working class unity. However, building working class unity is no small under-taking in twenty-first century United States where the Marxist concept of class has been so bastardized to be seen as synonymous with level of income. In this neoliberal empire where class consciousness amongst working people is extremely low, the leadership of CJJC knew that it would need to find a round-about route to the concept of class. They looked to the incisive vision of Stuart Hall who famously wrote that “Race is, in short, the modality in which class is lived, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and fought through.”[6] The insights of this maxim unlocked the potential of CJJC’s organizational intention.

CJJC’s looked upon racial identities as the critical entry point towards building class consciousness and working class unity, and this led to CJJC’s decision to take up an intentional focus on building Black-and-Brown unity. CJJC is the product of a 2010 merger between a Black organization based in Oakland, Just Cause Oakland, and a Latino immigrant organization based in San Francisco called St. Peter’s Housing Committee.[7] The decision to merge was significant. Both organizations recognized that such a consolidation would require substantial shifts in each organization’s culture, practice and structures. Nevertheless, the leadership of each organization decided to move forward with the merger based on a shared analysis of the larger conditions in which they operated. Today, the organization has twenty-six staff and more than 3,000 members in San Francisco, Oakland and the surrounding region.

At the national level, Black and Latino families have been hit hard by the economic crisis. In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that median wealth in white households is 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Latino households. Their report continued to note that from 2005 to 2009, wealth fell by 66% among Latino households, and by 53% among black households, compared to 16% among white households.[8] The similarity of conditions holds true in the Bay Area for low-income and working class African American and Latino households. Although the communities face similar issues of unsafe, inadequate and excessively expensive housing, alliances are rare between these communities. As the organization’s leadership observed:

Living in the same neighborhood, having the same landlord, or going to the same polls does not itself create solidarity. Even when people have the same material interests, there is no guarantee that they will identify those interests, or see themselves as tied to others with the same interests. And, while Black and Latino communities have the same interests in the long term, in the short term our interests do sometimes come into conflict. In fact, we often come into contact with each other most significantly only once when we have been pitted against each other, in a competition for employment opportunities, affordable housing, or basic services.[9]

Talking about difference did not heighten conflict; rather it forged basis of solidarity.

The starting-point for CJJC’s work, as it should be for any grassroots organization, is building strong and organic connections to the constituency. As María Poblet, one of the organization’s co-founders and its current Executive Director once said, “The grassroots foundation of our work is something that we must constantly be building. There are millions of people who should be involved in the project of black and brown unity. We must constantly be bringing working-class people into community organizing fights for reforms that affect their lives and give them the opportunity to develop themselves as fighters and as thinkers. Building and sustaining community-based organizations is the core of this work.”[10] In addition to traditional door-to-door organizing, CJJC staff provide counseling and advocacy services every month to hundreds of low-income tenants in San Francisco and Oakland. CJJC also anchors coalitional efforts to build national and international movement infrastructure and to mobilize working class people in the Bay Area to vote in local and national elections. CJJC is in position to build, listen and work in and with the community.

CJJC has instituted a number of practices that have facilitated their intention of building class unity through Black-and-Brown unity. The first has been creating multiple spaces for organizers and member-leaders to integrate the principle of Black-and-Brown unity into the organization’s ongoing work. One example of this is that every three months, CJJC runs an internal think tank which is a one- or two-day long meeting in which staff and member leaders explore the relationship between different aspects of the group’s work to Black-and-Brown unity. One past think tank connected the group’s participation in a national anti-gentrification network in a session entitled Black-and-Brown unity in the Right to the City. A different space, the Assata Shakur University, a three-month series of weekly two-hour sessions, allows members to engage with the organization’s goals, work and structure. In addition, the organization publishes a quarterly newsletter. Each newsletter features at least one article written by a rotating pair of staff and members. All of these spaces serve to further strengthen the leadership of staff and member leaders as well as allow the leadership to refine the organization’s understanding and application of the concept of Black-and-Brown unity.

By creating a broad base of staff and members who are familiar with and actively engaging with the implications of the organization’s focus on Black-and-Brown unity, CCJC is better able to carry out the second best practice— introducing the organizational intention in multiple ways. All new members, upon joining CJJC, are required to participate in a new member orientation session. Along with introducing new members to the group’s history, current work and structures, this session Introduces all members to the concept of Black-and-Brown unity. This is especially important since most members are recruited from spaces that are not multi-racial. The new member orientation helps to facilitate new members’ entry into a space of racial and language diversity that is unfamiliar to most working class people of color in the Bay Area. CJJC provides simultaneous interpretation at all of its meetings. At these meetings, members hear unfamiliar names and historical references. The orientation ensures the focus of Black-and-Brown unity is nothing that will come as a surprise to new members. In addition to the new member orientation, CJJC uses its quarterly newsletter and website to shine a consistent light on this aspect of the organization’s work.

A fourth aspect of building Black-and-Brown unity within CJJC has been waging organizing campaigns that address the unique issues impacting the African American and Latino communities. As stated earlier, CJJC’s approach to building working class unity has been stressed the importance of acknowledging and confronting the differences in the communities, rather than turning a blind-eye towards those differences to focus only on the similarities. In this vein, CJJC has been an active participant in the national campaign fighting for the rights of immigrants in the United States. CJJC’s organizational objective in this work was to create a space for its Latino members to strengthen the unity in the Latino community. As María Poblet said, “The goal was not to get Black members to support a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants… The goal was to create a space where Latino members could organize in their own interests. Our work is premised on the idea that you also need to understand your own experience, and that will make it possible to make alliances.”[11] It has been a positive by-product that many of CJJC’s African American members have become strong and active supporters of just immigration reform, and that unity has been built on the basis of the demands that the Latino members themselves identified. Along with the staff and members of POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), CJJC is currently developing a similar organizing project to create a space for African American members to identify for themselves the demands that will advance their community’s interests. CJJC’s practice operates from the understanding that unity which ignores difference is fragile. Only by acknowledging differences can unity take the qualitative leap to becoming solidarity. Creating these organizing efforts that focus on the interests identified by each community makes multi-racial unity more concrete. As one of CJJC’s organizational reflections asserts, “Unity can’t be built in the abstract.”[12]

Finally, CJJC has invested in connecting organizational work to the objective of building a transformative movement that is rooted in grassroots, working class struggles. CJJC has been one of the anchor organizations within a number of national networks of grassroots organizations including Grassroots Global Justice and the Right to the City. Participation in these spaces pulls scarce resources away from the immediate work of local and regional campaigns, but the organization’s leadership has seen the way that allowing staff and member leaders to engage in spaces that transcend the local and organizational contexts in which CJJC operates. As María Poblet wrote about her experience at the 2013 World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunisia, “My experience at the WSF gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges looming for the progressive movement, and for feminists in particular, in Tunisia and in the whole region… Our movements need to reach towards international scale and impact, so these connections and solidarity can take organizational form. The world’s 1% have their World Trade Organization, their World Bank, their agreements and coordinated plans. We, the global 99%, need that scale of functioning too. It’s the only way we can win the internationalist feminist change we need.”[13] This commitment to exposing staff and members leaders to movement spaces— such as national networks, international gatherings and political training opportunities— has contributed to the organization’s willingness to experiment with unique and non-traditional tactics and has helped it become a strong and vibrant force in the social justice movement in the Bay Area and beyond.

All of these structures and practices are informed by the organization’s approach to building black-and-brown unity which is shaped by three key conditions which CJJC believes either need to be in place or which need to be cultivated. These three conditions are Black unity; Latino unity; and an Internationalist vision.

The success of CJJC’s efforts to build multi-racial working class unity were evident at the culmination of the campaign to pass the Tenant Protection Ordinance. As Oakland’s City Council voted to pass the new legislation, dozens of CJJC members stood proudly by, African Americans and Latinos who had built a new bridge of solidarity together.

Poblet acknowledges the difficulty of building Black-and-Brown unity. “Uniting these two sectors of society could re-invigorate the Left because uniting these two communities brings you to a conversation about class in a way that has truly transformative potential… We can see the transformative potential when Black and Latino people start to see themselves on the same team. It changes everything for the movement. That’s not where we’re at right now in the United States, or even in the Bay Area; but when we do it, so much more becomes possible.”[14] There is no road-map, but building multi-racial unity amongst the working class is an essential task for activists hoping to revitalize the movement in the United States.

Power U Center for Social Change

The Power U Center for Social Change was founded in 1998 to build an organizing base around issues in low-income communities in Miami, Florida. Much of the organization’s work has centered around a comprehensive approach towards education justice issues, and they have developed a strong base of members and leaders in that time. In 2001, these members and leaders forced local officials to invest more than $1 million to improve inner city schools. The organization has also conducted campaigns on housing and development issues as well as a call for birth justice to combat the growing disparity in infant morality rates between Black and White communities. This intersectional analysis has driven Power U’s recent campaign to end the School to Jailhouse Pipeline.[15]

All of the organizations highlighted in this study are structured as non-profits organizations which allows them to subsidize their operations with state-sanctioned, tax-deductible donations. All of the organizational representatives interviewed made mention of the challenges that come from trying to conduct transformative organizing work while relying on donations from institutions that distribute funds from various sections of the bourgeoisie.[16] One specific aspect of these challenges is the geographic disparity in funding. In particular, the few charitable foundations in the United States that fund organizing efforts rarely fund organizations in the Southern part of the country despite the inspiring work taking place throughout this region by organizations like Southern Echo, Cooperation Jackson, Project South, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Black Workers for Justice and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights among many, many others. As a result, most organizations in the South, especially those that attempt to employ the transformative organizing model, struggle with a chronic lack of financial resources. This has pushed many organizations to make important adaptations. Power U’s example highlights an important aspect of transformative organizing.

Recognizing that they would never have the financial resources to employ a vast team of paid organizers, Power U has placed a strong emphasis on developing the leadership capacity of rank-and-file community members. In particular, Power U has placed a central focus on developing the leadership of young people in their community because, “We’re reproducing leaders for the movement,” observed Power U Executive Director Hashim Benford. “We’re not just developing leaders for Power U. Our goal is to produce leaders that are going to be social justice movement leaders for the rest of their lives.”[17] He then went on to cite the example of a young person who joined the organization while in middle school. This person joined Power U’s staff after completing her studies at an Ivy League university and recently joined the Board of Directors of a Southern social justice network. The potential power of developing young people as leaders was a point echoed by CJJC’s Executive Director María Poblet who herself joined the movement as a young person. “Transformative organizing allows us to contend with the reality that human beings are always in the process of development. Youth organizing is especially strong in recognizing this. Somebody who is 16-years old; you don’t know who they’ll be when they’re twenty-five. What you do know is that this experience (of joining an organizing campaign) is something that could shape who they become. That’s also true when you’re forty or sixty-five years old too. Certainly if you’re facing a crisis like a deportation or an incarceration of a family member or loosing your home, those are crisis moments when people transform themselves. in the context of collective action, they can transform others.”[18]

Too often, movement institutions regard leadership as an inevitable outcome of organizing; or it’s seen as something that is not worth the investment. In either case, the result is that the people from affected communities are not given the opportunity to take agency and shape the direction of a group’s efforts. As Power U member leader Keno Walker observed, “Organizing is not simple. You have to know the terrain. You have to know who’s the target. You have to know your people…” Power U has organized it work around the intention to help members and staff develop these capacities, and this intention shapes the organization’s transformative approach.

First, leadership development begins at Power U by seeing recruitment and retention of members as the irreplaceable first step towards cultivating new leaders. As Walker noted, “People are in the process of becoming leaders as soon as they join.”[19] If someone does not get involved in Power U, all of the organization’s leadership development work would be in vain. Like many other base-building organizations, Power U puts a premium on first getting potential members through the organization’s door. Staff organizers conduct door-to-door outreach and organizing at key locations in the community. They also do outreach at schools and host open mic cultural events, but Benford observed that most of Power U’s members first got involved because they were recruited by someone they knew. “The most effective outreach comes from people tapping into their own social networks… You’re leveraging existing bases of trust. Many organizations have under-estimated this approach to recruitment.”[20] Recruitment can take many forms, but it is always the first step to developing leadership.

Power U has committed to systematizing the on-going development of leadership capacities amongst its members. The process cannot end once someone joins an organization. Deciding to get involved is just the first step. There must be “a deliberate and intentional process. It doesn’t just happen by being part of an organization or being part of a movement. You can be part of an organization for many, many years without developing your leadership,” said Benford.[21] Addressing this, Power U developed a framework which they refer to as the Leadership Circles to facilitate members’ development from general members to core members to organizational members and to movement leaders. Each of these circles has a defined set of responsibilities and characteristics of what leadership looks like at each stage. Developing such a framework has helped Power U to make transparent the organization’s emphasis on developing the leadership capacity of members and staff. In these descriptions, Power U is intentional about avoiding a one-dimensional perspective of leadership. While very aware of the pitfalls of only acknowledging the leadership of charismatic orators, Power U operates from the perspective that “different kinds of leadership is a good thing and makes for a strong organization and a strong movement.”[22]

Inside the organization, Power U takes an effective approach towards developing leadership development plans by engaging members in discussions with the organizing staff to identify the areas that they would like to develop their leadership capacities. Organizers meet with leaders to develop individualized leadership development plans and objectives. As a result, members are more invested in the work necessary to develop in these areas, and the organization, then commits to supporting that member in her process. This approach is rooted in the perspective that leadership is a collective project, not solitary quest. “Developing leadership often means people working with you to identify where you want to develop, what are the benchmarks for that development and what needs to happen in order for you to get to where you’re trying to go.”[23] POWER U’s collective approach towards developing leadership involves tactics like ongoing political training sessions as well as workshops that address current issues. For example, Power U quickly organized a workshop on gender justice after President Barack Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper imitative. Exploring the need to address patriarchy, Power U’s series, entitled My Sister’s Keeper Too, created a space within the organization to promote the leadership of young women in the organization. These sessions are often interactive and grow from the members lived experiences. But workshops are not the end.

These political training sessions represent a core aspect of the organization’s approach to developing leadership capacities, but as member leader Keno Walker pointed out, workshops are not the only part of the approach. They are only one part of a larger effort. Another piece is devoting time and energy to draw out the lessons from the experience of joining together with others to take collective action. All organizing efforts look to mobilize people to take collective action, but without taking the time to analyze the context and events of those actions, organizations loose a valuable opportunity to draw out meaningful lessons that can deepen a member’s commitment and leadership. Reflecting on his own experience with Power U, Walker remembered that he got involved with Power U in 2008 as the organization was preparing to testify before the Miami School Board calling for an overhaul of the district’s disciplinary policies and practices. Walker said he wasn’t especially political and he didn’t know a lot about Power U, but his best friend recruited him so Walker started coming to the planning meetings. He said, “I didn’t think that what we were calling for was such a big deal. I didn’t think it would be controversial. What shocked me was how disrespectful (the members of the School Board) were to us. They were on their phones. They were eating and sleeping. When the group de-briefed the hearing, I saw even more clearly how this is how the system treats us. It wasn’t just the School Board. It was the whole system, and I saw that we had a group so I decided that I was going to stick with it.”[24] After that action, Walker met with Power U organizers who helped him draw the lessons from that experience which, in turn, deepened his commitment to the organization.

From a certain perspective, Power U’s focus on developing leadership seems innocuous and almost obvious, but in recent years, the very question of leadership has become controversial in movement discussions. Some movement activists have gone so far as to explain the effectiveness of recent popular mobilizations around the world as being a result of their being ‘leaderless.’ Power U takes issue with such claims. To say that there is a “Leaderless movement is inauthentic because there are always leadership dynamics. It is possible to have movements that are more horizontal where leadership is shared, but leadership happens. If it’s not named, then it can’t be held accountable. At Power U, we don’t have a single leader. We want to develop everyone’s leadership.”[25] POWER U provides an important example of the transformative potential of leaderful movements.

Nevertheless, Power U’s leadership acknowledges the trade-offs. While their approach has demonstrated the ability to develop a new rank of movement leaders, especially amongst women, young people and people of color, this labor-intensive approach means that it is unlikely that Power U will ever be an organization of hundreds of thousands, much less millions, of members. “Power U has gone through a series of organizational visioning processes, and we have doubled down on the mission of developing leadership as a central component of who we are. This means that with our limited resources and capacity, the time and energy that we’re spending with individuals means that we’re not out there trying to reach thousands of people at any given time. The strategic question for us becomes, then: How is our work of leadership development and developing a community cadre connected to the institutions that have a broader reach?”[26] As the Power U’s leadership noted, this decision assumes the existence of other organizations playing different, albeit coordinated, roles. Developing leadership, especially amongst constituencies that have been under-valued and under-represented as leaders, is an investment to building the type of broader movement that we want and need.

National People’s Action

All of the organizations profiled so far have focused their work at a local level. There are strengths that this form of organization is able to leverage. The organizations are able to focus their resources and attention to a very specific community or workplace over a prolonged period of time which can foster a higher level of trust with the constituency. Locally-based organizing also facilitates grassroots members’ having more direct engagement with the organization’s decision-making apparatus. But transformative organizing is not the exclusive domain of local-based organizations. Regional and national organizations and networks are experimenting with the transformative organizing model too. The scope of these organizations’ work provides their own advantages including allowing organizations to engage and confront political and economic actors who shape national and regional policy but who often do not operate within a local organization’s jurisdiction.

National People’s Action (NPA) offers an interesting perspective on the emerging model of transformative organization because they are a national network of grassroots organizations in 14 different states across the United States. Today, NPA has over 200 organizers working to build the collective power of working class people in cities, towns and rural communities across the country, from family farmers in rural Iowa to young people in New York’s South Bronx. Organizations affiliated with NPA do community organizing, hold house meetings and engage in direct actions. Nationally, NPA coordinates three local, state and national campaigns to advance economic and racial justice: Bank Accountability, Housing Justice and Immigrant and Worker’s Rights.[27]

They are also interesting because they were not founded in the transformative organizing tradition. NPA was founded in 1972 by organizers in Chicago as a network of grassroots organizations across the country fighting to fighting to reclaim democracy and advance racial and economic justice. During its early years, much of NPA’s work was aimed towards holding banks and corporations accountable to the communities they claimed to serve. Their organizing efforts helped pass the Federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act in 1975 which exposed banks’ red-lining and denying loans to people based on their race and where they lived, regardless of their credit worthiness as well as to the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977.

As NPA Executive Director George Goehl said, “Most of us have spent most of our political lives in oppositional struggle. It was never with the vision to be in power or to have power but to have enough power to contest with somebody bigger than us. That’s how so many of us were developed and all that we had ever experienced. Operating from what’s the best thing possible in the current ideological and political landscape was where most of us sat versus being powerful and thoughtful actors shifting the landscape to our benefit.”[28] All of this changed with the financial crisis of 2007-08. Although NPA was not born out of the transformative organizing model, their practice has drawn heavily from the this emerging model, especially in the last seven years, and has made important contributions that deepen and expand the transformative organizing model.

When the financial titans of the world crashed the economy causing the Great Recession of 2007-08, NPA, like many other organizations across the United States, found itself struggling with existential questions about how best to move forward— questions like: “What are the kinds of structural reforms NPA wants to be part of bringing about? What campaigns should we be building in the next five years that take advantage of current opportunities but also allow us to move in the direction of realizing a long-term agenda? What kinds of alliances do we need and with whom?”[29] Despite having staged several actions which directly challenged the CEOs of some of the nation’s largest predatory financial institutions, NPA’s leadership recognized that the organization was ill-prepared to confront the scale of the challenges facing working class people throughout the country. Simply doing more of the same would not be sufficient. Inspired by the scale and audacity of what had happened with the Occupy encampments, NPA made a bold decision to go back to the drawing board. The process that the organization undertook has many lessons for transformative organizing efforts.

Conducting ongoing and sober assessments of the shifting terrain is the first of the best practices demonstrated in the strategic inquiry process which NPA undertook after the crash. Ultimately, NPA staff, members and affiliates went through an extensive process to assess the strategy of corporate forces, to envision the political and economic system that would produce justice and to identify the fights that would enable the organization to move towards its vision. Each affiliate organization which participated in the process was required to involve at least twenty-five staff and member leaders in a year-long process of study, discussion and visioning. This was a significant re-allocation of resources at a time when it must have been tempting to continue relying on tried and true attempts to turn up street heat. The participants in this reflective process included family farmers, trailer park residents, clergy, unemployed workers, public housing residents from across the country. Allocating the resources necessary to conduct such a process, especially as it represented a departure from the organization’s previous practice, was only possible because there was a shared assessment that the severity of the crisis demanded that NPA adopt new practices.

Given the novelty of the strategic inquiry process, NPA recognized that it the process would be strengthened by drawing on the support of allies outside the organization. Early on, NPA sought the assistance of the Grassroots Policy Project (GPP), an initiative which provides consulting and training assistance to social movement organizations. NPA’s training staff, most notably Bree Carlson, led the process with ongoing support from GPP staff who brought a wide range of skills and experiences to the process that grew from their own diverse experiences in different social movements, electoral initiatives and Left party-building efforts. This process ultimately produced an eight-page agenda, “National People’s Action: Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy” which calls for transforming economic and political systems.[30] This agenda is more comprehensive and far-reaching and that was possible because of the allies’ support throughout the process. Points in the agenda include: democratic control of capital, racial justice, corporations serve the common good; real democracy; and ecological sustainability.

All national organization must find an appropriate balance between the need for unified direction and local autonomy. This is especially true for national network of grassroots organizations like NPA. The group is choosing to navigate this contradiction by providing space for local experimentation while ensuring organizational coherence and strategic direction for those experiments through the collective ownership of the long-term agenda that emerged from this process. This allows the affiliates to exert tactical independence based on the local conditions while allowing those local actions to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Clearly, this approach is only feasible because the process was engaged members at all levels of the network and encouraged the participants to take genuine ownership over its development. As NPA Executive Director George Goehl recounted, “This was the most democratic process that NPA has ever gone through. This was not a matter of the staff merely bringing proposals to the members for ratification. Members grappled with big questions. I was getting calls from members asking: ‘What do we mean by democratic control of capital?’ or ‘What will be the role of the state?’ That’s when I knew this was something different.”[31] With the content having been debated and the agenda drafted, the document has become a consistent reference point for the affiliates. Most use the agenda to begin their process of developing campaign plans and demands. In addition, the agenda’s content was translated into various multimedia presentations.[32] It has helped to foster a situation in which the affiliates see one another as partners in a common struggle.

The final practice that NPA’s process of strategic inquiry offers is perhaps the most important for any organization attempting to do transformative work from within the constraints of the non-profit industrial complex. It is a practice exemplified by all of the organizations included this case study, and this is being wiling to undertake work deemed to be important— even if it’s not funded. As Goehl said, “No foundation gave us money to do this work. We just did it because we were committed to how important it was.”[33] One of the central dangers of operating a project whose aim it is to build the power of working and popular classes to challenge the systems of capitalism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy is that few institutions within the capitalist economy are eager to fund such projects. If the leadership of a transformative organizing project is unwilling to venture outside of what is fund-able, the revolutionary potential of that project will inevitably wither and poison the ground for future efforts. As all of the representatives noted, transformative organizing must in the long run develop new sources of funding that are not tied to the logic of capitalist hegemony if it hopes to expand, but in the short-run this model insists that organizations be willing to carry out strategically important work even if there is no funding. There are now foundations that are interested in funding the campaigns that emerge from this process, but none seem interested in the process that gave birth to these campaigns. According to Goehl, “In the end, NPA’s strategic inquiry process has provided the clarity that the organization was looking for when the financial crisis first broke. It has transformed the organization. It’s one of the main reasons that people are in NPA and one of the main reasons that groups affiliate with NPA. It’s not for any particular transaction. It’s for being a part of that— being part of a group that wants to do that and think like that! It’s a loving place to be but it’s not a comfortable place to be because we’re all challenging each other to think differently and bigger. We’re acting like we want the movement to become.”[34]

Vermont Workers’ Center

The Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) was founded in 1998 as a workers’ rights organization. In its first years, the organization’s work centered on maintaining a workers’ rights hotline which received phone calls from thousands of workers throughout the state whose rights had been violated. The sheer number of the calls convinced the organization’s leadership that “the only real way for working people to improve workplace conditions was to get together to form unions to bargain a contract with their employer or demand elected officials change the laws.”[35] As a result, the organization began partnering with different trade union locals and community organizations to support different worker struggles. In 1999, the VWC joined the Vermonters for a Living Wage Campaign which successfully raised the state’s minimum wage. Coming out of these campaigns and a separate effort to build a downtown workers union in Montpelier with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), the VWC staff and leadership increasingly realized that the problems workers face are not limited to the workplace. One issue that came up frequently and forcibly from members was the failure of the employer-based healthcare system and its organization as a market-based commodity. VWC’s leadership saw that the healthcare crisis was the primary issue driving workers in factories and staff in schools to decide to go on strike.

Recognizing their still limited capacity (at the time, the VWC had only one staff person and a small membership centered around Burlington), the VWC decided to partner with other organizations and unions and to enter into a series of statewide coalitions fighting for a universal healthcare system. In deciding to enter into these coalitions, the VWC members identified three principles that they wanted to see reflected in the coalitions’ demands: 1. Healthcare must be framed as a human right; 2. The provision of healthcare must be de-coupled from whether or not a person has employment; and 3. The healthcare system must be publicly funded. These principles continue to frame the VWC’s engagement on healthcare issues. The other coalition partners at least tentatively agreed to these three points although some of the larger partner organizations attempted to water down some of these demands. With this agreement in hand, the VWC staff and members participated in various healthcare coalitions from 2003 to 2006.[36]

The decision to focus on the healthcare crisis was pivotal for the VWC. They came to see that this was an issue that a wide range of people across the state cared about, and it was an issue around which people were prepared to take action with others. Quickly, the organization’s work was gaining momentum, and they were able to expand the number of organizers on staff from one to twelve in just a few of years. This campaign had a lot of potential, but it was also clear that waging the campaign through coalitions was not unleashing the full potential of this issue. Although several coalitional partners had larger membership bases and staffs, it was the VWC who was the prime mover of much of the coalition’s work. As the VWC Executive Director recalled, “That’s when we re-envisioned VWC as a grassroots base-building organization that includes everyone in every region of the state… VWC wanted to use the healthcare campaign to build a state-wide organization around where communities would be permanently on a year-round basis. It was hard to imagine any issue would do that better.”[37]

For the next five years, the members and staff of the VWC waged an important struggle to address the healthcare crisis in a way that acknowledges healthcare as a basic human right. They were eventually successful in pushing the state legislature to pass ground-breaking legislation in 2011 “which commits Vermont to creating a healthcare system providing healthcare as a public good and ensuring everyone can get the healthcare they need, when they need it.”[38] It is important to note that although this campaign was well underway by the time the federal government launched its reform of the national healthcare system, the VWC had to display incredible tactical flexibility and tenaciousness in order to avoid being trapped by the worst aspects of the federal framework which relies on a market-based solution. The approach and tactical decisions that the VWC made throughout the healthcare is a human right campaign provide important glimpses at some of the best practices emerging from the transformative organizing model.

The first best practice that the VWC’s Healthcare is a Human Right campaign demonstrates is the commitment to incorporating the insights and experiences of the constituency and membership when developing the organization’s campaign and demands. The founding purpose of the VWC was to address bosses’ mistreatment of workers in the workplace. Some might have disregarded as peripheral workers’ frequent complaints about the dysfunctional healthcare system, and others might have rationalized that once the workers organized and won contracts that provided higher wages that those workers would be able to navigate the healthcare bureaucracy on their own. Both of these responses would have undermined the organization’s potential to embolden people to take collective action, but it also required an important level of humility for the organization’s membership and leadership to be willing to shift its organizing focus. It was also important that the VWC was not listening only to its membership. They also took into account the voices and perspectives of the larger working class, including people who had not yet joined the VWC or the larger movement. Although the VWC did not give them decision-making authority within the organization’s structures, by accounting for the perspectives of their constituency, the organization positioned itself to wage a campaign on terms that synthesized what they’d heard into a campaign and demands that both reflected popular sentiments and pointed towards an alternative to the dominant system.

Opportunities to hear the perspectives of members and constituents rarely present themselves, so the VWC has been intention in creating spaces for members to participate in developing major initiatives. To strengthen member involvement in the next phase of the healthcare campaign, the organization launched an extensive, internal campaign from December 2012 to December 2013 to clarify expectations of VWC members. The process began with discussion at the annual statewide membership assembly at the end of 2012. A team of staff and member leaders then took the main points from that discussion and drafted a survey which was used by organizing committees throughout the state. This survey also served as the basis for more than 100 one-on-one meetings with members that took place in the spring and summer of 2013. The committee re-convened in late summer to collect the input from all of these meetings, and they developed a proposal to clarify the definition of membership and the membership dues. In September and October of 2013, this proposal was brought back out to the statewide organizing committees for feedback. In November, the committee revised its initial proposal, and that proposal became the proposal which the members ultimately adopted at the membership assembly in December 2013, a full year after this process had begun. At several points throughout this process, the organization held leadership retreats where organizational staff and leaders came together to study how organizations like the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil make large decisions. Haslam points out that the VWC does not use this model for every decision the organization makes, but for major initiatives, they find that extensive processes like these ultimately ensure that the organization makes better decisions in ways that strengthens the members’ connection to one another and to the organization; “other times we do the best that we can to make good and sound decisions.”[39]

A second best practice exemplified by the VWC’s healthcare campaign is using political education to insulate against the possible attacks of the opposition. As noted earlier, one of the principles guiding the organization’s campaign was that healthcare must be universal, that “everyone can get the healthcare they need, when they need it.”[40] The organization recognized that their opponents might attempt to attack this component of their proposal, in particular the calls to cover undocumented immigrants and women’s reproductive services. Taking into account the fact the VWC’s membership is predominantly White, the organization decided to conduct a series of workshops throughout the campaign about racism and racial justice for leaders as well as interested supporters. Allies from the Bay Area-based Catalyst Project came in to help with the seven workshops which eventually involved more than 170 VWC members. The workshops covered, among other themes, why the proposal’s call for universal coverage was so critical to the such of the program and to building a larger movement. This move proved to be prescient, because just as the proposed legislation was going before the State Senate for its final vote, the body passed an amendment 22 to 8 to exclude undocumented immigrants from coverage. Pundits told the VWC that there was nothing that could be done. The VWC responded by helping to organize two massive rallies on the steps of the state building that in the end forced the legislature to withdrawal the amendment. As Haslam reflected, this victory “would not have been possible if we had not done a lot of that work with the members from the get-go preparing people to take on that issue.”[41]

A third practice that is important to understand from the VWC’s campaign for healthcare is their speaking to the needs and interests of a broad section of the community without sacrificing their constituencies’ interests. Many transformative organizations have rooted themselves amongst constituencies that have historically been some of the most exploited, oppressed and marginalized social sectors. One danger that can stem from this decision is voicing the interests of only a small section of society and discounting the possibility to make alliances with other social actors who might be impacted by the same issues. Doing so, squanders the opportunity to show how the interests of the organization’s constituency are in fact the in line with the interests of society at large. Another error on the other end is watering down the demands which would provide relief to those social sectors that are most politically vulnerable in an effort to broaden the base of support. Doing so trades public relations spin for concrete campaigns that can embolden a movement— win or loose. The VWC was able to navigate this contradiction by organizing public forums around the state that allowed a wide array of people to share their healthcare stories and conducting deliberate political training to underscore the strategic importance of their principle of universality amongst key staff, leaders and supporters. Our movement’s ability to navigate this contradiction more effectively could spark the emergence of an unstoppable movement.

The VWC success in passing the healthcare is a human right legislation is important not only because it represents a popular movement’s victory during a period when those have been hard to come by. It is certainly important for this reason. This is undeniable, but it is also important because it provides features locally-based organizers intentionally seeking out openings for social movements to push the largely disappointing federal healthcare overhaul in a more left and progressive direction. This is the fourth best practice that grows from the VWC’s campaign. The organization was clear about this from the beginning, and it represents another best practice, that of seeking out political openings in the local context that might serve as precedents which open space for social movement organizers in other parts of the country. Before 2008, a number of elected officials in Vermont had stated publicly that they supported a single-payer healthcare system, but that such a program was impossible given the political climate in Washington, DC. The VWC launched their healthcare is a human right to take advantage of this somewhat favorable context and “to build a strong enough statewide grassroots people’s movement to change what is politically possible.”[42] Their success can be judged by the fact that social movement organizations in Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states are all now organizing their own healthcare Is a human right campaigns.

Summation

As these profiles reveal, there are a lot of commonalities between the approach and practice of these four organizations as well as differences. These differences grow from two important points. First, each of these transformative organizing efforts are taking place in different conditions with distinct constituencies, and the organizing is shaped by those conditions. As a result, transformative organizing in different contexts will inevitably and appropriately look different from one place to another.

Another important reason for the differences in approach and practice of the organizations profiled is because the transformative organizing model is still emerging as a model. All of these organizations are experimenting in their own rights. It is only recently that many of these organizations have begun to articulate and share with one another their own experiences in trying to forge new approaches to making transformative change. Organizers are developing the model as they try to resolve particular challenges in their work and contradictions in society. It is an unfolding process, but it is one that is increasingly becoming a process that organizers are taking up.

Sadly, there are few resources which comprehensively document the transformative organizing model. This is sorely needed in order to provide a space for organizers to reflect and refine their own practices and to provide guidance for up-and-coming organizers. This article does not offer such a comprehensive instruction of the transformative organizing model. Hopefully, it can be a small step towards bringing together such a resource.

All of the experiments profiled are ongoing, and one can see important commonalities emerging through the differences. As the article “Demand Everything” and this case study demonstrate, transformative organizations often incorporate a firm commitment to developing the capacity of members to take on genuine and authentic leadership in their organizations and the larger movement while struggling to make fundamental transformations in the social, economic and political systems that perpetuate exploitation, oppression and ecological degradation. This connection grows from an acknowledgement that in addition to creating conditions of war, poverty and climate catastrophe, the dominant systems stunt the full development of all people. The attention paid to leadership development is a part of what Amílcar Cabral referred to as the “struggle against our own weakness.”[43] It must be a central part of any attempt to realize dreams of liberation, justice and dignity. As Cuban philosophy professor Georgina Alfonso explained at the 2013 World Social Forum, “Personal development can’t occur without the opportunity for collective development… Our task, then, is to build relationships that break the logic reproducing discrimination and patriarchy within the struggle for a better world.”[44]

Possibly the most telling statement that a number of the interviewed organizers offered is that their organization’s approach to transformative organizing is a integrated model. It’s not a mix-and-match approach in which an organizer can take one piece and disregard the others. Organizations eager to develop the type of leaders from the profiled organizations must understand that those leaders do not simply emerge because of workshops. Leadership is cultivated in all aspects of these organizations work— in developing counter-hegemonic demands, in taking responsibility for crafting campaign plans and forging relationships with potential allies. Transformative organizing demands a comprehensive and integrated approach that aims to transform society’s structures as well as how communities relate to one another and how we see ourselves.

However, the transformative organizing approach is not without it’s own challenges. All of the organizers interviewed made a point of acknowledging the challenges of building organization and struggling for justice for people and the planet during an era of neoliberal austerity. As María Poblet observed, “It’s challenging work. Even when you have the people power to do it, it’s challenging work. There are breakthrough moments that make you think that all change is possible, and there are a lot of moments that are not that. There are countless instances of trying to convince someone to come the meeting, cajoling somebody to talk more in a meeting or to listen a little more…. The story of organizing often glosses over those early moments of trying to build trust, failing and trying again.”[45]

There are indeed many challenges to the transformative organizing model, just as there is promise. This case study continues what should be a more prolonged and extensive examination of the implementation of this old and emergent approach to building organizations designed to confront and change the world. During an era which is seeing people taking to the streets in resistance to war, austerity and the tyranny of the 1%, the transformative organizing model stands as an important contribution to the construction of popular movements able to confronting old systems and establishing the building blocks for a more liberatory, equitable and just future.

 

Notes:

[1] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966. p. 1.

[2] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[3] Steve Williams, “Demand Everything: Lessons of the Transformative Organizing Model.” March 2013, http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/demand-everything/.

[4] “Oakland tenants say bully landlords taking advantage of market,” Will Kane. 2014 October 21. San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Oakland-tenants-say-bully-landlords-taking-5835867.php.

[5] “Oakland City Council Approves Tenant Protection Ordinance After Increasing Complaints About Landlord Harassment,” Chris Fillippi. 2014 October 22. KCBS, http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/10/22/oakland-city-council-approves-tenant-protection-ordinance-after-increasing-complaints-against-landlords/.

[6] Stuart Hall, “Race Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, ed. UNESCO (Paris: UNESCO, 1980), p. 342.

[7] Causa Justa :: Just Cause is currently undergoing a merger with POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), another San Francisco organization that has focused on building unity between working class African American and Latino tenants and workers. In 1997, the author was one of the co-founders of POWER.

[8] “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Heights Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics,” Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends, PEW Research Center Publications, 2011.

[9]“Towards Black and Brown Unity: A Grassroots Perspective— Reflections on the experience of Causa Justa :: Just Cause.” Causa Justa :: Just Cause, page. 3.

[10] Ibid, page. 7.

[11] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[12] “Towards Black and Brown Unity: A Grassroots Perspective— Reflections on the experience of Causa Justa :: Just Cause.” Causa Justa :: Just Cause, page. 1.

[13] María Poblet, “Reflections on the World Social Forum,” http://www.cjjc.org/en/publications/María-poblets-blog/529-reflections-on-the-world-social-forum.

[14] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[15] Power U Center for Social Change website, http://www.poweru.org/index.php?page=about-us.

[16] The Revolution Will Not be Funded by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (South End Press, 2007) places many of these challenges within a broader historical context within the development of the capitalist political economy.

[17] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[18] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[19] Keno Walker. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[20] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Keno Walker. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[25] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[26] Ibid.

[27] National People’s Action website, http://npa-us.org/about-us.

[28] National People’s Action website, http://npa-us.org/victories.

[29] National People’s Action, “Guiding Questions for NPA Strategic Inquiry,” 2012.

[30] The entire agenda, “National People’s Action: Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy,” can be found on the NPA website, http://npa-us.org/files/long_term_agenda_0.pdf.

[31] George Goehl. Interview with the author, November 3, 2014.

[32] Among the various presentations of the agenda is a Prezi presentation, https://prezi.com/p5gr7aiwr0ht/npa-long-term-agenda/

[33] George Goehl. Interview with the author, November 3, 2014.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Vermont Workers’ Center website, http://www.workerscenter.org/about-vermont-workers-center/history

[36] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Vermont Workers’ Center website, http://www.workerscenter.org/healthcare.

[39] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[40] Vermont Workers’ Center website, http://www.workerscenter.org/healthcare.

[41] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[42] Vermont Workers’ Center website, http://www.workerscenter.org/healthcare.

[43] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966. p. 1.

[44] María Poblet, “Until Every One of Us is Free,” http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/component/k2/item/1008-reclaiming-feminism.

[45] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

2
Dec

Towards a Transformational Strategy

by N’Tanya Lee, Cinthya Muñoz, Maria Poblet, Josh Warren-White, and Steve Williams on behalf of the LeftRoots Coordinating Committee

We are living in times of great instability and crisis. Everywhere there are troubling signs of collapse: mass shootings; widespread unemployment; potentially irreversible ecological devastation; and the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. The interpenetrating crises within the economic system, the ecological system, and the system of empire are pushing the 1% to implement massive austerity programs, militarization, and further disenfranchisement of oppressed communities. But not everything is gloom and doom. In the face of the ruling class’ savage attacks, heroic struggles are breaking out around the world against the manifestations of imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Details

14
Oct

As Ferguson ‘Weekend of Resistance’ Begins, Organizers Weigh How to Turn a Moment into a Movement

With thousands descending on Ferguson today to demand justice for Michael Brown, a creator of #BlackLivesMatter thinks now may be the time to win long-term victories.

BY JULIA WONG

Originally published in In These Times

Thousands of activists are expected to converge on Ferguson, Missouri starting Friday, October 10, for a “Weekend of Resistance” to support the ongoing protest movement that arose in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown on August 9. Ferguson October, as the initiative is called, was organized by a coalition of recently formed and longstanding community organizations in the St. Louis area, including Hands Up United, The Organization for Black Struggle and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).

Beginning Friday with a march to the office of Bob McCulloch, the attorney charged with prosecuting the police officer who shot and killed Brown, the weekend will include numerous rallies, protests, political forums, and teach-ins, and will culminate with planned civil disobedience actions on October 13.

Alicia Garza is one of the organizers working on the ground in Ferguson with the wave of new activists who have taken to the streets in the wake of Brown’s killing. Based in Oakland, California, Garza is the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance (NDWA). Garza is a co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter, a “political project” and online platform that aims to confront anti-black racism and reaffirm black humanity. Garza is also a member of LeftRoots, a “national formation of Left social movement organizers and activists” seeking to build socialism in the 21st century.

In the aftermath of Brown’s killing, Garza recalls feeling “not only completely horrified, but completely rageful.” She says, “Just like when any member of your family is hurt in any way, there’s a real urge to be there.” She responded to a “call coming from folks on the ground … for black folks in particular who were organizers and medics and attorneys and healers to come and support the community of Ferguson and the St. Louis community more broadly.”

With the backing of the NDWA, Garza traveled to Ferguson about three weeks after Brown’s death, and spent two weeks working “to help support capacity building on the ground.” During that time, the Black Lives Matter team organized a Freedom Ride that Garza says “mobilized more than 500 black people from all over the country to come to Ferguson, to not only stand in solidarity but to lend concrete and material support to organizers who work on the front lines of the Ferguson rebellion.”

Garza says her work in Ferguson was to “make sure the organizations and activists on the ground had the capacity to really hold this moment and extend it into a movement.”

After returning to the Bay Area, Garza received a call from the coalition organizing Ferguson October asking for support. On September 28, she returned to Ferguson, where she spoke with In These Times.

Read the full article on In These Times »

12
Aug

Why LeftRoots?

We need a radical and grounded Left

LeftRoots is a national formation of social movement organizers and activists who want to connect grassroots struggles to a strategy that can win liberation for all people and the planet. Mass organizations must be central features of strong and vibrant social movements, and Left cadre formations are as well. The U.S. Left, due in part to external assaults and in part from internal weaknesses, is at this point unable to cohere these mass struggles into an effective force for revolution. This must change if humanity has any hope of surviving, much less thriving. This is a central task of a rekindled Left, and Leftists engaged in mass organizations and social movements have a unique, yet unfulfilled, role to play in helping to reimagine and give life to a Left that is as radical as it is grounded in mass struggles. Details