Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

I read Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide years ago now, and after all I’ve read in the meantime appreciated it more and more this time around. I love the long view of historical struggle, the historical framework it is set into. The importance of contextualising the massive influence of Alinsky — taking him in the round and not as a kind of straw man — while developing our understanding of how things need to grow and change, and where they have done so. It’s an interesting timeline, there is so so much in here I didn’t know, had not even heard of. I suppose my own research has thrown up other vibrant traditions of grassroots community-based organizing through the 1930s and the war years, primarily in the African American Community that I missed a bit, but this begins to open up the deep histories of struggle we can look to in the US. I particularly love the drawing out of lessons for contemporary struggle…

I’ve based my posts around his periodisations, so we start in the 1880s up through the Great Depression

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

This connects to the Social Settlement movement in the UK — 1884 saw the founding of Toynbee House in East London by two students at Oxford (and still standing as a community space and centre today, though it has changed with the times). It promoted the need for those who wished to work with a community to actually live — usually embracing some level of poverty — within it. Still a problematic and often patronising idea, but a step up from mandating improvements from comfort in stately surroundings miles away. It  inspiring similar settlements across the UK and in the US. Most famous is probably Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. I’ve been meaning to read more about Hull House but not worked myself up to it, precisely because this is my general view of those participating in this movement:

Settlement workers got involved in neighborhood organizations out of a mixed bag of sympathy, fear, guilt, social concern, and a desire to give purpose to their own lives. (8)

And also for this reason:

They sought harmony within an unjust economic framework — liberal reformers not ready to challenge the economic roots of poverty (10)

They still, for the most part, blamed the poor for their own poverty and worked around programmes of skills trainings, moral uplift, birth control in the way that leaves you feeling disgusted because it’s more about preventing mucky poor people from reproducing, rather than supporting capable women to take control of their lives and choices.

Seeing only deficits, such models were often insensitive to existing networks — yet Fisher notes how poor communities continued to be organized outside of these top-down elitist structures.  Churches, synagogues, mutual benefit associations, and ethnic, labor and political organizations continued to thrive alongside informal networks of support. (13)

Out of and in response to the Settlement Movement, which I knew of, came the Community Center Movement, which I did not.  It was driven by people who wanted something more effective and widespread and with more bottom-up from local communities. It reached its peak between 1907-1915, yet still struggled with top-down programming, and it remained primarily managed by the elite. As WWI started, many such community centre’s actually began to drive patriotism and work with the government to track ‘subversives’ among ethnic and radical populations, effectively bringing the whole thing to a halt. (21)

I very much loved the deep look at the Cincinnati Social Unit Plan — a unique community-based child welfare program created by Wilbur and Elsie Phillips under a Socialist mayor (!). It attempted to put real power in the hands of mothers for deciding priorities and support needs, and showed real success in improving health and making concrete changes in people’s lives. However, the fall of the mayor meant the programme was defunded and fell apart.

This happened despite the Phillips’ ongoing attempt to distance themselves from the mayor’s socialism in claiming that that their work was not political. Fisher also notes despite the successes of the programme, they still failed to fully escape elitism, which ensured they were not able to sink deep enough roots in the community they were working in, preventing the community from feeling a full sense of ownership of the programme that could have led to a fight to preserve it under a new mayor.

Lesson, this shit is political and you will need people’s support to keep it going through hard times.

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

Starts with Langston Hughes’ poem to a landlord — few better places to start:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!

Some things never change. But the 1930s were some time to be alive. Fisher writes:

Neighborhood organizing in the 1930s was characterized not only by its radicalism but by this dual concern of building an insurgent movement at both the national and local levels. (38)

I think perhaps we’re approaching this level again. There is a long, very interesting discussion of the radical work of the Communist Party at this time — a small proportion of community organizing but a very visible one, and quite influential in tactics and strategy. But this difference is key between the Party’s organizing of the period and what would come to be known as community organizing:

Most activists now see the primary goal of neighborhood organizing as awakening people to a sense of their own power. the Communists saw neighborhood work as a means of recruiting people into a national organization. (39)

But still, the Unemployed Councils? They would divide up a city or rural area into sections and then send organizers there to get to it, build a council that began to organize and implement direct actions, stop evictions, face down bailiffs, force up relief centres. They did some amazing things. But always controlled by the Comintern. Underground for a long time, the party came out in the open in late 1920s to organize the unemployed and racial minorities until the 1935 switch to popular front. But until then they did some brilliant things. In 1930, they decided on a:

four-pronged “bread and  butter” strategy focused on relief, housing, race, and “translocal” issues…issues outside the community which would concern neighborhood residents. (43)

Key issues basic to life itself, but tied into wider struggle through the ‘translocal’ aspect — in Harlem, for example, support for the Scottsboro boys was just one of these, along with anti-lynching legislation, and opposition to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They had tremendous successes in the early days across the country. Fisher notes that in Detroit, the unemployed councils succeeded in stopping practically all evictions through direct action.

I also love the party’s insistence on complete equality between whites and people of colour in these years, with the party line being:

…the struggle of white workers would never succeed unless workers of all races were included as equal participants (45)

In some ways the shift to the Popular Front strategy and new focus on anti-fascist struggle and union organising was important, but it left hanging all of the work already started. Above all, eradicating racism was left to the side, and members were ordered to abandon work on the councils by 1939. But while it lasted, Fisher argues the CPUSA was successful because it:

emphasized organizational discipline, defined local issues in a national and international context, linked community struggles with those in the workplace, developed alliances between black and white workers, and offered a thorough political analysis of the problems community people faced. Such accomplishments by radicals had rarely been seen before in this country. (49)

Errors? Lots:

political opportunism, its interest in the needs of the Soviet Union over those of American workers, and its autocratic organizational structure, which quashed the type of criticism necessary to prevent ideological and tactical errors… abandonment of African Americans… (49)

There was, however, a developing understanding of organizing and movement. Fisher writes:

There is a complementary relationship between social movement and community organizing. Local organizing oriented to social change can exist without a movement, but it will not thrive for very long. When a movement develops, however, community organizations often ride the wave of mass support. (52)

Out of this ferment Saul Alinsky would emerge, already organising with the CIO through these radical 1930s, already grappling with these connections (more in Alinsky’s own words can be found here). Fisher emphasises the continuities in struggle — Alinsky would apply his work with the CIO to the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a way that Fisher describes as ‘a kind of “trade union in the social factory”‘. While he would later describe himself as an “urban populist”, Alinsky started out in his student days involved in the CP ‘in typical Popular Front terms, as a “professional antifascist.”‘ (56)

As I say, I really like how this contextualises Alinsky’s insights into, and codification of, community organizing. This particularly draws out how the weaknesses of the communist party’s work in its accountability to Moscow rather than to local people almost certainly influenced Alinsky’s move towards a ‘non-ideological’ standpoint which is now where much critique of his methodologies is pointed.

Fisher describes what he believes to be the five essential elements to ‘Alinskyism’, recognizing of course that this simplifies it all a bit, always dangerous:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change. They need to be well-trained, creative, help to make democracy happen.
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization. Democracy as self-determination, people make the decisions about the things that effect them. The organizer is catalyst for this, not the leader.
  3. The goal is to win power. ‘Power is the sine qua non of Alinsky organizing. … Neighborhood organizations are seen as the interest groups of the powerless and unorganized.’ (53) This is ultimately based on self-interest.
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used. I like Fisher’s list: ‘Negotiation, arbitration, protests and demonstrations; boycotts, strikes, and mass meetings; picketing, raising hell, being diplomatic, and being willing to use anything that might work… (54)
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological. Alinsky believed ideological organizations were undermined because ‘their organizers came with preconceived ideals, goals and strategies; they did not let neighborhood people make decisions… Only the progressive ideology that people developed themselves would last.’ (55)

Fisher continues:

Alinsky grounded his pragmatism in the promise of pluralism. He believed that the economic and political system could work for working-class people if they could reach the bargaining-tables of power. (55)

You know that idea’s come in for a lot of critique.

His Back of the Yards campaigning was pretty impressive, and out of it developed some lessons I recognize well: do your homework before the community meeting (you’ll have already talked to everyone to know where they stand, you don’t want no surprises), build the organization by winning victories, use service delivery if you need it but the primary goal is social change.

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

which raised strategy and tactics to paramount importance in community organizing, above and beyond questions of ideology, goals, and even democratic structure. (61)

And beautiful as the Back of the Yards struggle was, it became racist and reactionary, and Alinsky himself came to call this community a hell hole of hate as they fought to keep African Americans out. This perhaps highlights the weaknesses of an organization that puts process over goals, and only discusses tactical questions. Such a strategy only makes sense if the only problem is a lack of power, rather than deeper issues around capitalism itself and how that articulates with race, class, gender and etc. Fisher describes the older Alinsky as essentially cool with liberal capitalism, someone who loved FDR, believed in this ‘interest-group model of democracy’ and did not question capitalism itself. (64) Arguably the lesson here, is that we do need to grapple with ideological understandings, while also some practical focus on building movement and winning things. We can’t forget how important — and how possible — winning things actually is. The struggle is how to tie that into a programme for truly radical transformative social change that can only take place over the long-term.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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Essential Writings from Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.

From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:

If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.

And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)

I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.

She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes

In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)

It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:

There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)

It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:

Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning.  (78)

It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.

“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)

I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:

By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)

And this is, indeed, a very good question:

I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)

I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:

Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)

She returns later to this topic:

Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)

It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.

All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)

There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:

The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)

She describes the two worldviews at play:

The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)

Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.

Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)

Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.

Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)

Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…

One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.

That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)

From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.

Positionality:

As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)

A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:

Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)

The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…

It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)

More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…

Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)

I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.

This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.

I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.

I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)

All of that. We need all of that.

This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.

[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]

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Tories Out: Manchester 2017

It’s been a full-on few days of action hosted by the People’s Assembly, as it should be with the Tories busy sticking knives into each other at their annual party conference as people die from their benefit cuts, sanctions, mental health cuts, NHS cuts, housing sell off and etc. That’s what my sign would have said — or some snappier version of that — had I made one. Danielle and I did a lot, though not even close to all.

Saturday night? The Dancehouse, to see much-loved Maxine Peake (OMG Maxine Peake!) and Mark Serwotka (OMG Mark Serwotka! How much do I want to be able to join PCS? Let me count the ways…), to love for the first time comedian Barbara Nice (OMG Barbara Nice!).

People's Assembly Saturday Night Live

Sunday was the protest of the Tory conference proper. It’s kind of funny, remembering back to the first time I ever visited Manchester, on a bus up from South London to protest Tory Party Conference in 2011. I confess I was a bit unimpressed with everything but the canals and the Peak of Peveril Pub — but I was here. Doesn’t feel it could possibly have been as long as 6 years ago. We could get closer to conference then, but they are still using those silver walls. 2011:

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The anti-Brexit contingent, and ‘Boris’ on a unicorn singing busily, 2016:

Protesting Tories: Manchester 2017

We headed down Castlefields way, heard Mark Serwotka again (OMG Mark Serwotka again!) speak by chance. Then we ran into Jon and the next few speakers were yawny in the way lefty men of a certain generation can be, so we took a short break for art.

Alongside us in the Museum of Science and Industry was Nikhil Chopra in the second half of his 48-hour performance art piece, performed in front of one of the engines built in Manchester, but sent to India and used during the partition. This ink drawing, a re-imagining of passage. This sleeping and camping and being in public for 48 hours — it is what refugees undergo, isn’t it, part of the horror wrapped up in horrors of this thing, being a refugee. Always in public. Always moving. Always somewhere you don’t belong. And it challenged me in watching it, the shame of being comfortable in the face of this discomfort, in the memory of this tragedy. I lowered my eyes to give privacy to this figure on the stage, then took a picture to remember the provocative nature of this intervention because after all it is ‘art’, it is a gift and a challenge thrown at us by someone who is also not here under duress. A challenge I don’t know quite how to live up to, but I hope to. Through my work around homelessness perhaps, through struggle. I don’t know if that is enough.

Nikhil Chopra

That left us pensive, subdued, strange to go back out into a crowd. But it fit. As in all damn marches we stood and we stood and we waited and we waited. I didn’t get many pictures, but a few. The highlights were absolutely the drums, I enjoyed myself, and then…we left them behind.

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It was all right, the march. They always are.

And then we had to find food and drink and wait and wait, because we had been promised Captain Ska and Lokey, and finally they were on and finally we danced. For me this was…amazing. The power and passion and incredible words and beats. Damn.

Amazing night.

I hurt the next morning. First time exercising since holiday, then a march and then dancing? Shit.

Still, I went to work. And then in the evening off to Manchester Cathedral to see John McDonnell speak in conversation with Gary Younge. Because I promised Danielle. To be honest, were it just me, I would have headed straight for bed with some Horlicks. But I went. And I was glad.

First we had some workers… From the strikers at McDonalds! so amazing, I remember my minimum wage fast food /Kmart days, I know just how amazing these folks are for carrying off a strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

RMT! Strike across the North East for passenger safety!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Careworkers! She almost had me in tears.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Communications union — our postal workers! Anxiously awaiting ballot results when he spoke, but today we know the vote is to strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

And then, John McDonnell!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

I’m sad Gary Younge didn’t get to make a speech too. But ah well, McDonnell said Labour was in full support of the workers, they would re-nationalise the trains and the post, they would fully fund the NHS and support careworkers, they would implement the living wage. I never thought, to be honest, I’d ever hear anyone in a position like that of shadow vice-chancellor ever say such things. It solved all the problems expressed earlier in one sentence.

Last time I saw him speak was in 2011 (the parallels between 2011 and 2017 are only now striking me), at the People’s Assembly in Brixton that we organised as Lambeth SOS. He was a little less formal then, but sounded just the same.

John McDonnell

I jotted down a few notes, some sound bites and I don’t even care because they were brilliant, all in response to some really good questions.I can’t swear any of these are exact quotes, so don’t quote me.

We’re not just a party we’re a movement again … if owned by the people change becomes unstoppable…

(I am a bit skeptical about whether the old left can deal with democracy and youth and people of colour and women, but, you know, I have hope).

This is not a free market but a rigged market of the 1%.

We need to wipe out UKIP.

In response to a good question about why this change is so damn long in coming and so resisted (someone yelled out Tony Blair and we all laughed because we knew it was true), he brought it on with Gramsci — the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism (also true).

Never again should we pay for their crisis.

Education is a gift from one generation to another, not a commodity.

Then he went on about a new education service, starting with sure start, a new approach that pays teachers but also respects them, support for apprenticeships, scrap tuition fees, EMA returned, debt forgiven, support for lifelong education.

And the end? I was wondering when this would come up — the focus on climate change, on developing the economy through green tech owned by workers cooperatives, on decarbonising the economy,  ending fracking. It was like the Hallelujah chorus.

A brilliant night. A night of hope. We need those, I feel privileged to have enjoyed one because it has been a very long time…

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On the Tyranny of Participation

Participation: The New Tyranny? was so good. I so rarely find books on international development so good, Hamdi and Kaplan are maybe rare exceptions, but this raised so many of the real issues with participatory  development and action. Above all, the way it has been stripped of its radical, emancipatory content and understandings of structural power (though interwoven here is more discussion of some of the micro-levels of power as well, what we internalize…). I would hope that we could now start discussions of community development with this book in mind and just build on it — whether international or home grown. I am still bemused at how little the two talk to each other, another enduring effect of racism and empire. Sadly, too, I was listening to a panel on international development all about co-production just a few weeks ago, and really ‘co-production’ is just this repackaged. You hear it all over the damn place these days. But no one there really spoke at this level of thinking, I don’t think they could have read it. They stumbled in this direction instead. Rather tragic.

Anyway.

Cooke, Bill and Kothari, Uma ‘The Case for Participation as Tyranny’, 1-15

The editors write:

Our primary aim with this book is to provide a set of more rigorous and critical insights into the participatory development discourse than has hitherto been the case, through a conceptual and ideological examination of its theory, methods and practices. (2)

They identify three sets of tyrannies (their words, my bullet points):

  • Tyranny of decision making and control – does it override existing legitimate decision-making processes?

  • Tyranny of the group – do group dynamics lead to participatory decisions that reinforce the interests of the already powerful?

  • Tyranny of method – Have participatory methods driven out others which have advantages participation cannot provide? (7-8)

These are the questions everyone should be checking their practice with, right? Especially when an ‘expert’ is coming into a new community they don’t perhaps fully understand, and where there is no trust.

Some of the potential overarching problems they identify:

…the naivety of assumptions about the authenticity of motivations and behavior in participatory processes, how the language of empowerment masks a real concern for managerialist effectiveness; the quasi-religious associations of participatory rhetoric and practice; and how an emphasis on the micro level of intervention can obscure, and indeed sustain, broader macro-level inequalities and injustice. (14)

Exactly right. I thought perhaps I might stop here with the intro, that the case studies from around the world wouldn’t be as important. But they are amazing, and I am fascinated with their range, and how each of them illustrates one or another of the basic issues that arose for us working in LA, though of course with a richness all their own and very different specifics around the context and politics and the kind of requirements on funding (though somehow not that different) and the exact brand of prejudices development figures might be starting with. So. The chapters.

David Mosse: ‘People’s Knowledge’, Participation and Patronage: Operations and Representations in Rural Development’, 16-35

I liked the summary from the introduction:

‘local knowledge’, far from determining planning processes and outcomes, is often structured by them. For example, what in one case was expressed as a ‘local need’ was actually shaped by local perceptions of what the agency in question could legitimately and realistically be expected to deliver. Indeed, participatory planning’ may, more accurately, be viewed as the acquisition and manipulation of a new ‘planning knowledge’ rather than the incorporation of ‘people’s knowledge’ by projects. 8

That catches it in a nutshell, but to add some more depth because I loved this interrogation of both knowledge and planning:

The critical point is that what is taken as ‘people’s knowledge’ is itself constructed in the context of planning and reflects the social relationships that planning systems entail. As Long and Villareal point out, knowledge must be looked at relationally, that is, as a product of social relationships and not as a fixed commodity. (17)

Mosse describes participatory processes as particularly ‘subject to the effects of dominance’ because they are public, often with authority figures and outsiders present, and there is a lot at stake in controlling the outcomes. (19) He continues to look at how local hierarchies operate, how communities try to use the language of planning and work within a project framework and their understandings of both its limits (what solutions or resources are available) as well what kinds of action it considers to be legitimate, these can be manipulated to address what they feel are the real needs, though this may not be openly discussed. Because of course people do this, they aren’t stupid.

What Mosse describes is how people manipulate a system to their own ends, but pf course the organizations facilitating that system are doing likewise — this process is used to legitimate and advance their own agenda and of course must quantify its successes, number its activities, justify its spending. It’s complicated. ‘Participatory’ does not always mean better. It can serve to advance technocracy and bureaucracy as much as to combat it.

Cleaver, Frances ‘Institutions, Agency and the Limitations of Participatory Approaches to Development’, 36-55

Cleaver writes of participation as an act of faith with three main tenets:

that participation is intrinsically a ‘good thing’ (especially for the participants); that a focus on ‘getting the techniques right’ is the principal way of ensuring the success of such approaches; and that considerations of power and politics on the whole should be avoided as divisive and obstructive. (36)

Blimey. Not wonder shit is going wrong. She notes how different this is from roots in radical empowerment a la Freire:

associated with both individual and class action, with the transformation of structures of subordination through radical changes…The model of ‘participation’ implied is of development practitioners working with poor people to struggle actively for change.

But she continues:

Sadly, such ideas are ‘rather out of fashion in development’ outside of feminist scholarship and the Latin American participatory tradition. (37)

So sad. I loved too how she lists just how much else is missed, where the focus is misplaced. This is particularly apt for communities I’ve worked in:

‘Participation’ in development activities has been translated into a managerial exercise based on ‘toolboxes’ of procedures and techniques…This limited approach to participation gives rise to a number of critical tensions… While we emphasize the desirability of empowerment, project approaches remain largely concerned with efficiency. While we  recognize the importance of institutions, we focus attention only on the highly visible, formal, local organizations, overlooking the numerous communal activities that occur through daily interactions and socially embedded arrangements. … The time is ripe for a critical re-analysis of ‘participatory approaches’. (53)

Hildyard, Nicholas; Hegde, Pandurang, Wolvekamp, Paul and Reddy, Somasekhare ‘Pluralism, Participation and Power: Joint Forest Management in India’, 56-71

I loved this one, connecting the very different ways people understand both their relationships to their environment and to society. I’m reading a collection of essays by Winona La Duke at the moment, and this rings so true…

For Forest Department officials, forests may be what pass across their desks, for villagers they represent secure water supplies, the availability of fodder for animals, medicines for friends or family, places to play or sources of spiritual power. Similarly, ‘participation’ covers a spectrum of meanings: for many project managers, it may signal a means to cut costs, secure cheap labor or co-opt opposition; for marginalized groups, by contrast, it is a right–both a means to an end and an end in itself. (56)

The authors brilliantly shows how the most ‘participatory’ processes occurred where villagers were already organized and had already ‘taken matters into their own hands’, a kind of after the fact legitimization (62). Part of this victory has involved showing the corruption and inefficiency of the Forest Department, but in turn this has been manipulated by other interests desiring privatization — how the issue ultimately gets framed will be a political battle and determined by power and will…

John Hailey ‘Beyond the Formulaic: Process and Practice in South Asian NGOs’, 88-101

This, to me, is both brilliant and painfully stating the obvious. An obvious thing that can never be stated too often. It points to the way that formulaic use of tools and techniques can result in formulaic responses — that more depends on relationships as well as personalities than the tools in the box. (59)

The case studies presented here show the importance of long-term commitment to communities and to such relationships, the need for years — YEARS — of building trust and ‘walking and talking’ with communities. Of course, I say, of course it takes years. But it just needs to be repeated and repeated and repeated, because funders never like you to work this way.

The article goes on to look at what discourse of participation says about those promoting it and why they might do so — it’s not pretty, because of course it emerges from the cold war, discourses of Western democracy. It is essentially designed to undercut more radical interpretations and participatory action and to wipe out any leanings towards revolt. No wonder a model is promoted that won’t work.

Taylor, Harry ‘Insights into Participation from Critical Management and Labour Process Perspectives’, 122-138

They discuss how the word ‘participatory’ is being used to give:

the “sense” and warm emotional pull of participation without its substance, and thus an attempt to placate those without power and obscure the real levers of power inherent in the social relations of global capitalism. (125)

Instituting participation at a certain, limited level shuts down more radical demands and potential for more radical democratization. They give the example of the move from direct control of Taylorization to more internalised control involved in more participatory post-fordist structures. I liked this:

Participation is only radical if there is a ‘challenge from below’ (136)

Kothari, Uma ‘Power, knowledge and Social Control in Participatory Development’, 139-152

More about the constructions of knowledge, and more in the sense of a warning, how it can all go wrong. Which is needed, and its needed to be mindful of it:

…knowledge is culturally, socially and politically produced and is continuously reformulated as a powerful normative construct. Knowledge is thus an accumulation of social norms, rituals and practices that, far from being constructed in isolation from power relations, is embedded in them (or against them). However, the creation of dichotomies of power within participatory discourse (the haves and the have-nots) allows the revealing of power not as a social and political discourse or as embodied practice, but only as manifest in material realities. Thus participatory approaches can unearth who gets what, when and where, but not necessarily the processes by which this happens or the ways in which the knowledge produced through participatory techniques is a normalized one that reflects and articulates wider power relations in society. (141)

Participation can thus lead to continued dominance, to the

reification of social norms through self-surveillance and consensus building, and that it “purifies” knowledge and the spaces of participation in terms of how it demands certain kinds of performances to be enacted’. (142)

On the other hand, Kothari notes a:

general failing among development practitioners to recognize or acknowledge the capacity of individuals and groups to resist inclusion, resist projections about their lives, retain information, knowledge and values, and act out a performance and in so doing present themselves in a variety of ways. (151)

I think evolving a genuinely emancipatory practice over years in the community can overcome all of this, is in fact the only real way to do so, but that superficial processes run by people with such blindnesses…well. It is hard to find hope in them. This leads us to the penultimate chapter:

Mohan, Giles ‘Beyond Participation: Strategies for Deeper Empowerment’, 153-167

It looks at postcolonial critiques and imagines a new participation:

‘Participatory development could follow these notions of hybridity that acknowledge that inequalities of power exist, but looks at this productively rather than attempting to minimize a differential which cannot be readily removed. the first move is to acknowledge that those we view as powerless are not (cites Rahnema 1992, and Scott 1990) (164)

This helps us move beyond patronizing attitudes, imagining resistance as only a subject outside of and against power structures.

Over all a brilliant volume to return to, because I didn’t even get to everyone in this post…

[Cooke, Bill and Kothari, Uma, eds. (2004) Participation: The New Tyranny. London: Zed Books.]

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Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]

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Reading I, Daniel Blake: Screenplay and Film

I, Daniel Blake was my first screenplay, I found it quite a fascinating read after watching the film and reading lots of interviews and watching lots of Loach’s other films and writing a film review (another thing done! Whew). I might have done all of this in the wrong order, but I liked seeing where things started and comparing that to where things ended up. I liked seeing where they had stuck tightly to the script, and where actors had improvised lines. I liked how Laverty wrote their lines, disjointed, like speech actually comes. I liked seeing the sections cut, and the pieces added. You get a much better sense of the process of making a film, the collaboration involved — the extras in here, interviews and bios, add even more insight. And of course, as I always love most about reading, you can linger, go at your own pace. Sometimes I resent how films hurtle you through space and time, or like this one, drag you towards an ending you know will momentarily blot out your sun.

And of course, it was as powerful, though I didn’t cry quite as much because I find words a kind of buffer between events and my tear ducts though not my emotions. I liked that too. Still, this ending…it gets me.

Katie

They call this a “pauper’s funeral” because it’s the cheapest slot, at 9:00. But Dan wasn’t a pauper to us. He gave us things that money can’t buy. When he died, I found this on him. He always used to write in pencil. And he wanted to read it at his appeal but he never got the chance to. And I swear that this lovely man, had so much more to give, and that the State drove him to an early grave.

And this is what he wrote.

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user…. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief… I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.

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Frank’s Bar Always Did Need a Woman’s Touch

Joe Arpaio’s been in the news so much, finally getting a little bit of what is coming to him I thought I’d share this and got permission. I wrote it for Southwest Noir, edited and with art by Vince Larue, which you should totally buy. When Steven Seagal is in the news I’ll share it again. Not that this is about them. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever written to be honest, though I still don’t like the ending. I should probably let everyone write their own.

Clock said over an hour ‘til dawn. She could feel the light coming, knew that warmth followed. She could feel things waking in the stillness. Sad to break it with footsteps crunching across the gravel, keys jingling in her hand, the roaring of the truck. Excitement walked with her, streaked through her sleepiness. Sat tingling between her ribs. She always forgot just how fine, how very fine the earth felt this early.

The coffee smelled so damn good.

Lena didn’t care for mornings most days, but damn she loved these early starts. Heading out far out into the desert. These mornings that came with extra adrenaline, heightened awareness because water runs weren’t no simple hikes. Never knew what you were going to find, who you were going to see. Made you nervous all this bat-shit crazy militarization of the border. Made you feel righteous too, doing something about it. She smiled at Rosita beside her. Pulled out of the drive. They headed south and west through nearly empty streets towards the border.

She hugged the highway’s curves. Saguaros took form and the world brightened and glowed all along its edge. The sky looked like the inside of their abalone shell, some wisps of cloud like sage smoke. Dolly Parton sang let it shine. They turned off on the dirt track and Lena wrestled with the gears. Rosa opened one gate, and then another. Both now sat closed behind them. Nervousness sang in the air and in their shoulders, but they saw no one. First drop off point, and they loaded up their backpacks with jugs of water. It pulled heavy against their shoulders.

Lista?” she asked.

Rosa nodded, grumbling. “I wish water weren’t so damn heavy. I wish they’d get the tanks up here already.”

“Shit,” Lena said. “Me too. Bill keeps saying soon.”

“Couldn’t be soon enough.”

They walked, came to the place they had been shown months ago and had been returning to regularly since. Dropped off their water for those who were thirsty, sick, lost, dying here in the desert driven by desperation to leave homes and families and everything familiar, driven by walls and drones and agents to avoid safer trails, traditional wells. Driven to carry their dreams in life and death struggle among desert stones.

Lena wondered if this water might have saved Rosa’s brother. She always did as they stood there hand in hand. Her grandmother’s peoples had been massacred for these lands. Her father’s people drowned in sea water or suffocated in containers trying to get to them. Rosa’s dehydrated and mummified in deserts. Now they stood and thought about Hector, the heat already beginning to rise, the cicadas about to begin their chorus. Every time they did this, Lena wished she could believe in God. She knew it would make it easier, most of the people who left water like this did. Her and Rosa though, they just couldn’t manage belief no more. It was like a hole inside them. They turned and walked back to the truck, more drops to make.

But someone waited for them.

Crouched down the other side of their truck. Stepping out as the two women approached, and Lena could see that one of the two had a rifle in his hands. White men. Not border patrol. Standing there between them and the truck. Bandanas over the lower half of their faces because they’d probably seen one too many Westerns.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. Rosita’s hand squeezed hers tight. But they approached with heads held proud, as though masked vigilantes were as smart as dogs in leaving the fearless alone.

“You fellows think we’re the stagecoach carrying payroll to Yuma?” Lena asked them. She stared at the big one, knew she knew him. Didn’t know from where. Those little piggy eyes; that long mullet tied back in a ponytail. Damn. She knew him.

“A fucking comedian,” the man said, rolling his eyes. “Now what’s a fucking pair of comedians doing way out here?”

Lena bit back another wisecrack. “Hiking,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

The silence dragged out a moment or two. The men looked them up and down.

“You wouldn’t have been dropping off water for no illegals now, would you?” the other asked. A gravelly voice, unpleasant, old. Wrinkled around the mean blue eyes. Retired law enforcement she guessed.

“Because why would a nice pair of ladies be doing something like that?” Pig-eye asked. “Why would they betray their country like that? Except maybe it’s not their country. No, maybe it’s not. Maybe they got some kind of allegiances to a foreign power. What do you think, Abe?”

“They might, George, they just might. Though I hate to call any woman a bare-faced liar.”

“I know Abe, but look at ‘em. And this water in the back of the truck here is definitely for some illegals. I bet we’ll find a pile more of it just over this ridge.”

“I wouldn’t take that bet.”

“You never been much of a gambler, Abe.”

Law Enforcement smiled, they could tell from the light in his eyes.
“Only ever bet on a sure thing, George. But I hate to think of what will happen to them if we’re right.”

“I know,” said Pig-eye. He pulled a large knife from some kind of buckskin sheath complete with fringe and beads, tried to nonchalantly pick at his nails. Fucker was playing both cowboy and Indian.

“Are there some hidden cameras round here, or what?” Lena snorted. “If you’re done teaching us a lesson, we’re just going to head on home now.”

Rosa squeezed her hand so hard it hurt as they took a step forward.

“Don’t you bitches move,” said Law Enforcement. His voice cut the morning like barbed wire.

They stopped.

Pig-eye had become even squintier, face like tomato above the bandana.

“Funny, you talking shit like you’re the ones armed.” He pulled a bottle of water out of the back of their truck, ripped his knife up on through it like he was gutting a fish. It looked a hard way to eviscerate a harmless bottle of water. Still, that was a sharp knife.
He pulled out another bottle. Having learned something maybe, he stabbed this one near the top. Water spurted out and he pointed it at them. The thin stream hit Lena before dying away, spent. She worked hard not to flinch. The asshole had aimed at her breasts, and now he smiled.

“Not bad for an old lady,” he said.

Her free hand clenched into a fist. The light in his eyes slimed over and fell as he leaned into their truck, methodically stabbed each bottle of water one by one. Watched their faces. Water sprayed over the edges and dripped from the bed along the tailgate, released the scent of desert rain. Lena’s heart beat uncertain between uplift and rank fear.

Pig-eye straightened

“If you’re done there, George, we got some more wetback supplies to spoil,” said Law Enforcement.

“I’m done here,” said Pig-eye. “But what are we going to do with these two?”

Law Enforcement spat. “Don’t rightly know,” he said. “Maybe they’re illegals too. Can’t take no chances now, can we? We’ll just tie ’em up and leave ’em here while we think on it. Maybe send back the patrol.”
Lena saw now that plastic handcuffs dangled from his belt.

Pig-eye took a deep breath. Leered as his hands moved down past his gut to hook into his belt. He rocked back, looked from handcuffs to women to handcuffs. His aim seemed to be suggestion; Lena’s lip curled as his eyes glinted dark at her over his puffed cheeks. Something about him said money smug, not like the other one who just looked mean and old and boiled down into leather with skin as dark as hers but burned that way by the sun. Unnatural colour. She figured he’d be meeting the cancer soon, if he hadn’t already.

“Move it. Over there.” Law Enforcement snapped. The two women walked to stand beside the truck. Rosa’s hand trembled in hers now.

“Take off your shoes and socks and throw ’em over there.” The women stared at him, and his hands tightened on the rifle. They bent down and did as he said.

“Pat ’em down, George.”

Pig-eye grinned wider, moved over to paw them. Lena drew a breath and tried to hold it until he was done, shoulders squared and head proud and rage boiling in her heart. She had to take a few breaths. He groped and pawed and she bottled down the boiling. Play it smart, girl, play it smart. Her keys now jingled from his finger and he launched them out into the desert. They flashed towards the morning sun, fell out of sight with a jagged sound of metal on metal.

“You’re sure quiet,” Pig-eye said as he came to Rosa. “Bet you don’t speaka-de-English so good”. His hands fumbled at her breasts, and her knee came up square into his balls. Bent over double, he stumbled back to lean against the truck, a thin whine emerging from beneath the handkerchief. Lena smiled even as Law Enforcement cursed them for bitches. Stepped forward and brought the butt-end of the rifle to connect squarely with the side of Rosa’s head. She collapsed in place. Lena stood frozen a moment, smile stuck in rictus to her face. Half turned, fists raised, only to meet Law Enforcement’s rifle butt driven into her stomach, driving breath from her. She fell to her knees beside Rosa, stones cutting deep.

Rosa groaned as consciousness returned, came to hands and knees. Raised a hand to her head.

“On your feet,” rasped Law Enforcement.

Supporting each other, the women stood. Pig-eye had almost recovered, but he waddled not walked. He walked up to Rosa and slapped her hard, deliberate. First across one cheek and then the other. She half fell into Lena as Pig-eye finished his search, slipping her lighter into his pocket.

He cuffed them, then. Standing too close with his smell of sweat and expensive cologne. His fat fingers caressed even as he closed the cuffs meaning to hurt. He cuffed them one to the other, then forced them back to their knees and used the second pair to cuff Rosa’s other hand to the truck. The thick plastic dug into their wrists.

“I wouldn’t struggle too much, ladies,” grated Law Enforcement. “You don’t want those cuffs tightening any more or they could get dangerous.”

Lena stared at the horizon with the fury inside of her, pain radiating from her stomach as she struggled with every breath.

“Now think about what you owe this country, and the sanctity of its borders.” Law Enforcement’s voice had razor edges. “Because it don’t owe you or those wetbacks nothing, and good Americans like us just won’t tolerate your aidin’ and abettin’ those filthy criminals bringing their drugs and their diseases over here.”

Pig-eye traced the line of blood his ring had left across Rosa’s cheek before moving to stand over their shoes. “We won’t take these too far,” he said. The women watched silently as the two men walked away from them, up over the ridge. They clearly knew where the water was stored.

“Fuckers,” spat Lena. She rearranged herself more comfortably, came to a cross-legged position, her free hand holding her stomach. She could hear herself breathe.

Rosa settled down beside her, bloodied lips worked to fluently curse gavachos in a low tone. Both sides of her face was swelling and blood rolled down her right cheek. Blood collected at her hairline. She spat more blood onto the ground.

Lena’s heart broke looking at her, and she held Rosa’s hand tight tight.

“My head is ringing,” Rosa said.

“They hit you hard, those mother fuckers.”

Lena studied the cuffs. Law Enforcement had been right, struggle risked tightening them.

“Why’d they take our goddamn shoes?” Rosa suddenly whispered.

“Fuck if I know,” Lena whispered back. “Pa’ chingar mas.”

“You think those fools are really gone? Where’d they even come from? I didn’t hear no truck.”

“Me neither.” Lena frowned. “They’re smart, looking to catch people up here. It must be back down the road a ways, which means they’ll be back, or maybe they’re walking up to the next drop off. Maybe they’re just getting off watching us from behind some rocks, sadistic mother fuckers. We gotta get out of here.”

“There’s a release mechanism on these chingaderas,” said Rosa. “But we need a pin or something. We don’t got a pin, do we.”

“Nope. You got an extra lighter they didn’t find?”

“Nope. You?”

“Nope. We’re fucked.”

Jodidas.”

Fregadas.”

“Shit.”

“We shouldn’t have left the rifle in the truck, huh.”

“Nope.”

“Still, you don’t expect two crazy vigilante crackers to jump you in the middle of the desert, do you. Even out here.”

“Shit, we got careless. But you recognize that big dude?”

“I think so. If he’s who I think he is, I been wanting to punch that pendejo in the gut for years now. Getting him in the balls was pretty good too.”

“He’s gotten a lot fatter, no? I’m still not sure, you’d think he’d have better things to do.”

“My wrists hurt.”

“I know, mine too.” Lena sighed. Twisted to look up at the sky. “We’re going to be fucked when the sun reaches us.” Her eyes returned to study the plastic bracelets cutting into their skin.

“Won’t be long,” Rosa whispered. Lena laid her head on Rosa’s shoulder, still staring at their hands.

“I know this is all Hollywood and shit, but I bet my glasses would work a little like a magnifying glass.” Lena looked up. “They might melt that way, no? How much shit have we melted in the truck over the years leaving it in the sun?”

“Maybe.” Rosa said. She was crying now, trying hard not to but crying all the same.

Rosa smoothed back her hair with her free hand, tried to smile. “Don’t hurt to try.”

The sun hit them sudden and hard, harsh, unrelenting. Heat rose in waves from the ground, cooked them like an oven, sucked moisture out of skin and breath. Lena chose two little pebbles from the ground.

“Here, suck on this. It will help you feel less thirsty.”

“Oldest trick in the book.”

“Girl, who needs new ones?”

Lena held her glasses over the plastic ring fixing them to the bumper as steady as she could. Heat radiated from the metal, it hurt to be so close. To stay so close.

The sun hurt.

Lena could feel her skin burning.

“I hate the desert,” whispered Rosa. The blood had dried dark and scabby, and her skin was burning around it. “This is what my brother must have felt before he died.”

“I know, baby, I know. But ain’t the desert’s fault. Humans are what’s fucked us.”

“Shit, it’s the vultures will be fucking with us soon. They’re circling already.”

“But not over us.” Lena squinted into the sky. “Hopefully just some road kill. Bet those vigilante motherfuckers swerve to hit ground squirrels might’ve crossed the border by mistake.”

Rosa sighed. “Assholes.”

The sun hurt.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence, and Lena realized it did. Strong. The vultures circled.

“Tell me a story, Lena.”

“Oh man, a story?”

“Anything,” said Rosa. “Any nice happy story.”

“I don’t think I can tell a nice happy story right now.”

“Please?” asked Rosa. “I just got the shit beat out of me by two white dudes. I need a happy story.”

“Shit,” said Lena, eyes shifting. Stayed silent a little while, thinking. Her gaze suddenly landed on her feet, white and smooth and soft, tucked under the truck so they didn’t burn as much as the rest of her.

“All right, I got a happy story.” She took a deep breath, smiled when Rosa smiled back at her and shut her swollen eyes the way a little kid would.

“I’ll tell you about when I was little, well. Tell you about how the rains came once upon a time, the monsoons. Those were different days, magical days, you know? Those days when we were little in the desert. And the biggest storms always started with a tiny little black cloud, like a smudge of charcoal. That cloud had to be sitting over Cat Mountain, or the rain wouldn’t be for us. But when it was our turn that black cloud would sit there in the middle of a great blue sky, so small I could block it out with my little thumb. The sun would be shining like this, hotter and hotter. You feel the sun, Rosa?”

“Mm,” said Rosa. “It’s burning me, this pinche sun.”

“Well, imagine the other clouds, they would come along, from East and North, South and West the other clouds would come. Dark and black they’d come. We’d all be humming like the energy in the air, storm energy. Like the spirits coming up from the earth, coming down from heaven to make our whole sky dark, hide our hills in mist and then all of a sudden the rain came. We’d watch it move across the desert like a curtain. We’d watch it coming like a wall of water. And then it would come. Imagine it Rosita, dark and misty and the air full of rain.”

Rosa licked her cracked lips, her smile grew.

“This rain pounded on the roof until we couldn’t hear talking. It pounded against the sliding glass windows so we couldn’t see outside. Then the sound of it changed, cuz the hail had come, and the winds, so strong they knocked down powerlines. The lights would go out, all at once, and we got to light candles and sit around in the rain dark. The lightening would flash, and we’d count the seconds until the thunder sounded so we’d know where the center was. We counted that storm center moving towards us, moving and moving until the lightening and the thunder came together. Crack!”
Rosa jumped. Laughed and caught her breath with pain at the same time.

“Crack! So loud our ears would ring. We’d sit there in the dark like we’re doing right now, sit there warm and dry listening to that storm blowing outside. To the hail beating against the windows, little balls bouncing across the ground.

“Then we counted the seconds as the storm moved away, counted the seconds until the hail stopped and the rain came less and less, counted the minutes until we were allowed outside. Finally dad would say we could all go out. Then there’d be no time for shoes or coats. We’d run outside barefoot.”

“Shit,” said Rosa. “No shoes? Really? You?”

“Shut up, yes me. All of us. We’d burst out of the sliding glass door, dance out of the sliding glass door and run on bare feet to try and look out and see the wash beneath our house, see how high the water was. Always that wash flooded with that little cloud over Cat Mountain. We’d run down our little path without our shoes, so excited we didn’t care about those sharp desert rocks, walking right over all those spines and thorns the rain’d made all soft. We ran and ran, and the rain made the desert smell like life. Like the creosote was breathing. Breathe deep Rosa, deep. Can you smell it?”

Rosa smiled. “You know I can smell it. All our damn water leaked out under the damn truck.”

Lena squeezed her hand. “We’d run breathing this air in in gulps, and we only stopped when we got to this little grassy bank and we could watch the crashing water. It was taller than we were, that flood. It drowned the acacias that grew on the little island in the middle, it covered the rocks we always used as spaceships. It roared down the wash full of mud and crests of white water that swirled along the banks. It left thick dirty foam behind it. The sound of it filled the whole world. Imagine that much water, Rosita. Can you hear it roaring in your ears?”

Rosa nodded.

“We couldn’t play in it until the next day when there’d be just a trickle left, full of water bugs. There’d be little blue butterflies all along the ground where it was still damp. Like the butterflies here, these ones.”

Rosa opened her eyes again, really saw the butterflies. “They’re beautiful, Lena.”

“I know. We’d walk up the wash to the old dam; the water made pools up there big enough for swimming, us being little and all. Cattails grew there. The desert would fill up with red-spotted and spade-foot toads, climbing out of the earth when the rains came. Had their babies. We’d catch them and hold them squirming in our hands, dry and just cool to the touch, the perfect size to nestle into our palms so we could feel the beating of their hearts against our skin. We once went up to the damn at just at the right time to find hundreds of baby ones, the size of my thumbnail, leaping across the ground to escape our shadows, so that we couldn’t walk all scared we’d crush them.”

“Shit, I’d like to see that.”

“Me too, even just one more time. We’d walk up and down that trickle of water in the wash. Until we were all tuckered out.”

“Poor you.”

“Naw, those were my favourite times. But look at my feet now, dude.

I used to run around barefoot all the time and now they’re all soft and useless like some old city girl. So the moral of the story is, that you’re the one who’s going to have to go look for our shoes.”

“Shit,” said Rosa, laughing. “That was nice, right up to the end. But I didn’t ask for no moral.”

“You get what you get.” Lena smiled.

The sun hurt. Climbed the sky. They curled up small as they could, hid their faces.

Lena still held her glasses steady as she could, arm aching, watched that small point of light from beneath her lids.

“Maybe this is some wishful thinking, but seems like maybe this plastic melting shit is going to work.”

“Oh man, I think you’re right,” said Rosa. They stared anxiously at the spot of light on the white plastic.

“Not for a while though.”

They sat still, quiet. Waiting. Burning.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence.

“I know.”

“You think those two mother fuckers are coming back?”

Lena frowned. “If they do, it better be after we get out of these cuffs.”

The minutes dragged on and on.

The sun rose. It hurt.

Cicada song filled the world. Lena could feel the heat rising from her own skin, radiating out an angry red colour. She could feel her lips cracking and her eyes locking into a squint. Flesh shrivelled as the water was sucked out of it, the sweat drying even as it beaded along her skin. Muscles ached from holding position, and red welts burned along her forearms from touching the metal bumper. She struggled to hold the glasses in place, her arm like lead and her muscles knotted and screaming.

The sun peaked directly above them. Began to fall. She worked at the plastic circle now, almost melted through. It came away and she closed her eyes and breathed and said a prayer in thanks. Opened her eyes to find Rosa still praying.

Slowly they helped each other rise, joints creaking, skin feeling like it would tear as it stretched into new position.

Rosa stumbled, and Lena half caught her. They almost fell. The world dipped around them and Lena saw lights, heard static.

“I don’t feel so good,” Rosa whispered.

“We just need to get to that water in the truck, beautiful. We’ll be all right.”

They hobbled in joyless hurtful dance up the slight trail of burning cutting rocks. Stood at the top and saw a wreckage of water bottles amid blue butterflies. Their shoes and socks thrown up into a mesquite.

“Bastards,” said Rosa viciously.

They awkwardly half-climbed half-waded into the shrubby tree, still connected by the other set of handcuffs. Emerged with footwear and deep bleeding scratches across their forearms and their legs. Pulled socks on over bleeding feet with a gasp, and then shoes. Laced them with difficulty. Made their way back to the truck silent but for their angry breath, cracked and swollen lips in straight lines.

“Right,” said Lena. “Keys.” It hurt to walk. They followed the memorized trajectory, found them glinting beneath a cactus.

Back at the truck Rosa pulled her bag up from under the seat. “You know how we were going to see if there was time to drop by Nana’s this afternoon because she’s been bugging me about those roses?”
Lena suddenly grinned back. “You brought the pruners!”

“I did!”

Cabron, the first bit of luck we’ve had all day! I just hope they work.”

With effort and more pain they did. Lena rubbed the angry ridged line the plastic had left in her skin. They drank silently and with great concentration the two gallons of emergency water stashed behind the seat. Sighed. Leaned against the truck. Smiled. Top of the world for a minute, two. They’d left a little water to wash the blood off of Rosa’s face. It stained the ground but the butterflies didn’t mind.
Rosa grabbed the rifle from behind the seat. Loaded up the clip from the glove box. Smelled the air with an ugly twisting of her face.

“Let’s find whatever’s dead. Dios permite, it’s just a cow.”

They drove slowly a short distance back along the road, hopped out and walked painfully the short distance to where the zopilotes circled.

Found a man. Vultures with wingspans his length watching the women with bright eyes as they hopped deliberately away. Red beaks, red like ocotillo blossoms. He no longer had eyes.

Lena stood, one hand over mouth and nose and the other clutching Rosa’s. Rosa suddenly sagged into her, a great animal cry of rage and grief emerged from her. Grief and rage. It rolled from Rosa in a terrible echoing and fell from Lena’s eyes in great drops of salt. They doubled over around it and let it shake their shoulders, rob them of air. Lena buried her face into Rosa’s mane of graying hair, held her tight. The birds watched them, curious, unable to understand. Hungry.

Y la revolucion?” whispered Rosa.

“I am ready, but I don’t think it is ready for us.”

“I don’t want to die before the border comes down.”

Lena chuckled in spite of herself. Still sad. “Some things you don’t choose, mi reyna.”

They stood, one at his head and one at his feet.

Abuelito,” said Lena. “Forgive us that we will not be moving you with much respect.” Tears dripped from her chin, splashed on what was left of his face.

The nightmare journey back to the truck was not at all respectful. Rosa threw up, and then they drove away, his body in the truck bed staring up at the forbidden sky. His smell covered their hands, their clothes. Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Pictures of children and grandchildren. A few clothes in a backpack. No water left.
They turned a corner and Lena had to hit the brakes, face to face with a massive truck souped up on big wheels. She thought she recognized it from its excessive headlights and small-dick-compensation. Caught proof in fragmentary bandit faces staring down at them before Rosa threw open the door and lifted the rifle to her shoulder. The windshield exploded as the truck swerved and came to a halt beside them.

Rosa ordered them out of the cab and they came. Pig-eye shook, but Law Enforcement looked like a coiled rattlesnake.

“Take off your bandanas, cobardes. Might as well be hoods, no? But I guess those would get too hot during the daytime.”

They removed their bandanas.

“Assume the position,” Rosa said. Her laughter grated. The men turned and put their hands on their truck.

“Not there, go over to our truck pendejos. March.”

She watched them march down the barrel of her rifle. Watched their faces fill with disgust.

“What the fuck is that,” said Pig-Eye, choking on the smell.

“Not what,” corrected Rosa. “Who. The question you should be asking is who did we kill with our borders and our free trade agreements and our targeting of wells and destruction of water and our nasty vigilante ways.”

Lena got Law Enforcement’s rifle from the gun rack, a pistol from the glove compartment, the knife from Pig-eye’s belt. Placed them on the ground at their feet and Law Enforcement cursed bitches under his breath. Patted them down and removed three lighters, two wallets and a Swiss Army knife. She checked the wallets had ID, smiled, and threw them on the front seat of her truck.

“We were coming back for you, we wouldn’t have left you there in the desert,” said Pig Eye, his voice greased. His teeth flashed too white and straight in his face.

Rosa ignored him. “The answer to your question is Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Father of three children, grandfather to five children. A working-man’s hands. You say a prayer for his soul.”

“What shall we do with these vigilantes then, when their prayers are done?” asked Lena.

“Kill ‘em?’ Rosa responded, always the hopeful one. “Break their faces?” Her hand rose to feel the welt across the side of her head.

“Shit,” grinned Lena, “I feel that little bit of Apache in me rising.”

De veras?”

“Yes. But then we’d probably end up in jail and that’d kill me too.”

“Might end up there anyway,” Rosa said. They came closer, thoughtful in the silence. Lena explored the contours of her rage.

“I just want to kill them.” Rosa’s eyes had never left the two men, and her fingers twitched on the rifle.

“Me too,” Lena said.

A shot rang out, splitting the heavy air in two.

“Fuck Rosa, what the…”

“Just scared ‘em a little.” Rosa grinned. Levered in another round. Raised her voice. “That blow to the head’s making me see all double,” she called, firing again. “This is fun, Lena. You’re missing out.”

“At least shoot at their goddamn truck, not ours.”

Rosa ordered them back to their own truck. Lena looked down at the shiny semi-automatic she’d taken from Law Enforcement. Picked it up and sent a dozen bullets into the tail gate. The men fell to their knees, arms protectively over their heads now. Pig-eye had pissed himself.

“Shit, this thing’s a fucking disgrace,” she said with disgust. “No skill required at all.” She laid it back down on the ground. Turned back to Rosa.

“Well, we got two problems,” she said, her voice low. “We got two bad guys need picking up and some retribution, and one good guy needs burying. Third problem is that really, we don’t want anyone in authority to know anything about us. Right?”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Lena whispered her thoughts to Rosa.

Rosa pondered them, fired off another bullet with a chuckle, nodded.

She ordered the two men to remove their shoes and throw them into the desert. Ordered them to move Don Ignacio into the back of their own truck. It was real awkward and took some time. Once Don Ignacio was settled, Lena ordered Pig-eye to lie face down in the back of the truck. She could tell the metal burned his skin. Grabbed his ponytail with distaste but with a joyful light in her eyes. He twitched angrily.

“You got that rifle pointed at his balls?” she called out to Rosa.

“Gift to the world to shoot those off,” Rosa replied.

Pig-eye lay very still as Lena hacked at his hair with the knife. It came away like a greased worm in her hand. Her eyes met Rosa’s and they both looked at it.

Rosa’s lips twisted.

Cabron, now you can say you’ve actually scalped someone,” she said. “All these white European immigrants, done invaded our lands, and you finally get to scalp one.”

Lena threw it onto the floor of their own truck, wiped her hands over and over again on the front of her jeans. Ordered the vigilantes to sit on either side of Don Ignacio, ankle to ankle, hands on their heads. Lena cuffed each of them to the dead man, cuffed their ankles and wrists tight tight. Cuffed Pig Eye’s free wrist to the gun rack, pretending she could smell his nasty urine over the smell of death. Swung down, grabbed the keys from the ignition then returned to Lena’s side. The keys jingled and flashed silver in her hand. She didn’t throw them into the desert.

The women stared at the vigilantes sitting there in the back of the truck with Ignacio Gutierrez between them, his head fallen forward onto his thin chest hiding the wreckage of his face.

“I hope he will be ok,” Rosa said, crossing herself. “I hope he is enjoying just a little this payback. You think he’ll be ok?”

Lena bit her lip. “Maybe we should cuff Law Enforcement to the truck too. I don’t trust him not to disrespect the dead while trying to free himself. You?”

“Hell no. But we need them to keep the vultures away from Don Ignacio.”

She’d never forget the panic on Pig-eye’s face.

“They got their free legs, no?”

Lena nodded, cuffed his other hand, jumped down from the truck bed and put an arm around Rosa’s shoulders. They turned to go.

“You’re just going to leave us here like this?” Pig-eye’s fear made Law Enforcement wince.

“We could kill you instead.” Rosa smiled.

Lena’s lip curled at Pig-eye’s whine. She took a few pictures with her phone. “We’ll let the police know where you are. You say anything and I’m sure our friends at Channel 5 will enjoy this little story, you being who you are, and they’ll have your ID’s as proof of course. We’ll leave it there unless you want to start something. It’d be real embarrassing for you, I’m sure, to drag it on further than that. We can do old and frail real well.”

“Fuck you,” said Law Enforcement.

“No,” said Rosa with a huge smile. “Fuck you.”

Back in the truck, back on the highway, Rosa used her foot to nudge the ponytail on the floor with disgust.

“What the hell are we going to do with that?”

Lena smiled a great golden smile.

It looked real nice, their trophy. Mounted on a piece of painted plywood, hung in legendary ceremony over the back of Frank’s bar.

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Michel de Certeau on Strategy and Tactics

I finally got around to reading all of de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. I had, of course, before read all that stuff about walking, but there is so much more here for the literary and philosophical geographer. I might have liked the chapter on tactics best of all, even if I disagree with it. I have been thinking about strategy and tactics for the past few weeks, it’s one of the things community organizing is all about, but I was reading this particular book for another project entirely. Interesting. I’ve kept some of his headings because I quite love the breadth of what he writes about, and though I’ve found even of interest for two, maybe three blogs here, I am fairly sure there will be more when I read it again. There are some pieces from the intro in this, blog 1, but it is mostly chapter 3.

This is one of my favourite quotes:

As unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality, consumers produce through their signifying practices something that might be considered similar to the “wandering lines” drawn by autistic children…”indirect” or “errant” trajectories obeying their own logic. (xviii)

Though I’d prefer my poetry emerged through something other that my consumption. I kind of like to sit and stare and these sentences that at first sound so good, but then sometimes lose sense as you think about them. Wisps of smoke. The strategy and tactics I found much more clear:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” (xix)

Not entirely sure about the environment, mostly disagree with strategy as belonging only to such subjects of will and power and wonder what it means to place a city itself into that category, but interesting.

Chapter 3 “Making Do”: Uses and Tactics

Thus a North African living in Paris or Roubaix [France] insinuates into the system imposed on him by the construction of a low—income housing development or of the French language the ways of “dwelling” (in a house or in a language) peculiar to his native Kabylia. He superimposes them and, by that combination, creates for himself a space in which he can find ways of using the constraining order of the place or of the language. Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation.

These modes of use–or rather re-use–multiply with the extension of acculturation phenomena…of transiting toward an identification of a person by the place in which he lives or works. That does not prevent them from corresponding to a very ancient art of “making do.” I give them the name of uses, even though the word most often designates stereotyped procedures accepted and reproduced by a group, its “ways and customs.” (30)

I love this, both in how it understands the ways in which we inhabit space by making it our own, the ways that that subverts and transforms space, and that a similar process should happen in language. Because of course, you see it everywhere and most places I have lived, this in-between has become a vibrant new place and new way of speaking both.

But on to a deeper explanation of the already stated view of strategy:

A distinction between strategies and tactics appears to provide a more adequate initial schema. I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) or power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country sur­rounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be man­aged. As in management, every “strategic” rationalization seeks first of all to distinguish its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an “environment.”

I love how this manipulation of power is always in a place, always tied to a geography and a here as opposed to a there. But how does a city exert this? I am still pondering that. I cannot tell where agency lies, and that bothers me. It is too vague. But interesting. De Certeau continues about the difference between the two along different axes: That of time, that of sight, that of knowing:

The establishment of a break between a place appropriated as one’s own and its other is accompanied by important effects, some of which we must immediately note:

(I) The “proper” is a triumph of place over time. It allows one to capitalize acquired advantages, to prepare future expansions, and thus to give oneself a certain independence with respect to the variability of circumstances. It is a mastery of time through the foundation of an autonomous place.

These past few weeks — time has mastered me rather than the other way round. It makes sense to think of power as its master, interesting that it (might be) through place.

(2) It is also a mastery of places through sight. The division of space makes possible a panoptic practice proceeding from a place whence the eye can transform foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured, and thus control and “include” them within its scope of vision. To be able to see (far into the distance) is also to be able to predict, to run ahead of time by reading a space.

The ability to see gives more control over time, more control over space…

(3) It would be legitimate to define the power of knowledge by this ability to transform the uncertainties of history into readable spaces. But it would be more correct to recognize in these “strategies” a specific type of knowledge, one sustained and determined by the power to provide oneself with one’s own place. Thus military or scientific strategies have always been inaugurated through the constitution of their “own” areas (autonomous cities, “neutral” or “independent” institutions, laboratories pursuing “disinterested” research, etc.). In other words, a certain power is the precondition of this knowledge and not merely its effect or its attribute. It makes this knowledge possible and at the same time determines its characteristics. It produces itself in and through this knowledge.

Transforming history into a readable ‘space’…another magician’s trick. I am not sold, but oddly fascinated of this way he has of assuming we create spaces through words. This slippage between physical and abstract space intrigues.

I am troubled by ‘masters’ owning space, thereby strategies, while the rest of us are without center, reduced to tactics.

By contrast with a strategy (whose successive shapes introduce a certain play into this formal schema and whose link with a particular historical configuration of rationality should also be clarified), a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.

I have trouble moving between physical and abstract space here, trouble working out where we actually stand. But stand we do, I will defend our ability to have strategy, even on someone else turf.

It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow put it, and within enemy territory.

Doesn’t it?

It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a district, visible, and objectifiable space.

Really?

It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.

We can keep wins. We can gain ground. It does not mean that we should not search for cracks or go poaching.

In short, a tactic is an art of the weak.

Maybe this is what is wrong with the British left.

Clausewitz noted this fact in discussing deception in his treatise On War. The more a power grows, the less it can allow itself to mobilize part of its means in the service of deception: it is dangerous to deploy large forces for the sake of appearances; this sort of “demonstration” is generally useless and “the gravity of bitter necessity makes direct action so urgent that it leaves no room for this sort of game.” One deploys his forces, one does not take chances with feints. Power is bound by its very visibility. In contrast, trickery is possible for the weak, and often it is his only possibility, as a “last resort”: “The weaker the forces at the disposition of the strategist, the more the strategist will be able to use deception.” I translate: the more the strategy is transformed into tactics. (36-37)

I am strangely drawn to reading Clausewitz, von Bulow. I am all for trickery. But that’s not going to win a fight. Nor will tactics. For all his exploration which at least acknowledges this form of resistance where many do not, de Certeau doesn’t really promise much. He yields a great deal to the enemy from the very beginning.

Lacking its own place, lacking a view of the whole, limited by the blindness (which may lead to perspicacity) resulting from combat at close quarters, limited by the possibilities of the moment, a tactic is determined by the absence of power just as a strategy is organized by the postulation of power. (38)

It’s also a strangely evanescent, individual sort of thing, this tactic. I wonder if it is precisely because he makes this distinction:

strategies pin their hopes on the resistance that the estab­lishment of a place offers to the erosion of time; tactics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundations of power. Even if the methods practiced by the everyday art of war never present themselves in such a clear form, it nevertheless remains the case that the two ways of acting can be distinguished according to whether they bet on place or on time. (38-39)

Many communities are trapped in place, or part of a place and identify with a place and will never leave a place. This collective identity and its connection to a neighborhood or piece of earth is where strength comes from, this is what drives them to make a stand. They cannot not bet on place, they cannot or will not just pick up and move. What then? The difference between Algerian’s ‘making do’ in Paris as opposed to those fighting occupation in Kabylia perhaps.

So given I reject my banishment to the use of tactics only, where does that leave me? Us? Because I am not fighting alone. Turned on its head this means we do need our own places, time and space both to think, to plan. To come together. A place on the heights, to see far. One that draws strength from how this place is transformed by our own culture and value and ways of being in the world. That creates the room for these possibilities, that celebrates hybridity and flexibility while drawing on history and tradition that stand in opposition to capitalism. Somewhere not easily seen (but do those in power ever truly see us?). Somewhere we can move quickly and take advantage of the moment, but in ways that lead us to the transformations we seek. Strategically.

 

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Organizing Manual from Daniel Hunter: A Movement to End the New Jim Crow

The organizing guide to Daniel Hunter’s Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow contains a note on the copyright page that this emerged from conversations with Daryl Atkinson, Chris Moore-Backman, Michelle Alexander and Dr Vincent Harding, makes me so wish I had been a fly on that wall. Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, and James Lawson gives it a brief preface. It is short and sweet and tries to answer the question of what to do with the realities described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, how do we build a movement to end it?

Hunter starts each chapter with a story that holds a lesson. Nice. Every chapter is filled with clear headings and clear points. Every chapter ends with next steps that summarise the main points and gives you the questions you need to be asking yourself. This makes it easy.

I. Roles in Movement Building

It starts out debunking some myths about movement, which I really like.

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

The myth that movements “Suddenly appear” misses the critical process of building up networks ready to act and ways to communicate broadly. The myth ignores the necessary tasks of leadership building and visioning. While sparks are important, without those critical pieces, movements will not tun into a fire. (6)

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders (6)

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

…movements don’t win because of singular actions. Movements need ongoing resistance…require sustained pressure. (7)

I like too the understanding that there are different roles in this great struggle to change the world. It’s good to understand where you fit, to know that might change (I might have added that in there, most of us aren’t organisers for all that long), and to respect the others. He gives this minimum of four: helpers, advocates, organizers and rebels, just as a starting point. I also like that he connects each to structural change — that’s really key, and hard to do for a lot of folks. I don’t know why I liked the warning labels best but I did, there’s lots more description.

Helpers — great, but need to understand structural issues, not just personal ones

Advocates important, sometimes take over and take away ‘clients’ power and agency.

Organizers — awesome, might get stuck in a stuffling organization, only try to get what they think is ‘winnable’ even if people want to try for more. That goes for the others too. I really like this line:

‘Organizers understand that shame festers and breeds when people experience something as a personal failing they cannot overcome. (12)

rebels — can become too attached to marginal identity, reduced to simply tactics without an end game, can become self-righteous.

Just to reemphasise that a Key part of movement building is the moment when pople understand not just through eyes of individual responsibility, but larger structural issues.

2: Building Strong Groups

I like how this chapter unpicks the reality behind Rosa Parks, what really happened the day she refused to change her seat, the role of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the various people involved not all talking to each other, Robinson’s frustrations and her immediate jump to action regardless of what Dixon or others said. I never knew a lot of this until I read Danielle McGuire. The lessons learned:

Prioritize relationship-building in every way you can , organize one-on-one meetings, recruit people outside your circle. Develop a shared power analysis — I really like his triangle model — there’s a very cool worksheet here to help structure a workshop.

Knock out those damn pillars! Analysing them, thinking this way helps us understand what we can do, gives us back our own power. I often don’t like analogies and metaphors, I’m not sure I like this one but appreciate the point:

Elimate the smog inside of us: Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity fo oppression is in each and every one of us. It makes us callous to the oppression of others — and even of our own selves. We must detoxify ourselves…create a culture that stands on higher prinicples. (36)

And finally, empower leadership from the oppressed — I write about that all the time. This decentralised method also allows innovation and experimentation, national groups in the spotlight don’t usually have this ability.

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

I have to say, I have never met anyone in the UK who would consider anything but the first damn drawing. Until recently hopefully.

You pick a goal — Hunter gives a range of campaign goals that could be considered to chip away at the system explored in The New Jim Crow, like stopping prison construction and reducing incarceration rates, improving prison conditions, ending re-entry barriers and increasing direct services, tackling the contributing structural issues, and fighting for alternatives to incarceration. The structural issues are important, especially as they intersect with deportations, or with issues of race, class and gender. This needs ongoing discussion and education — he suggests a ‘newspaper game’ to collectively build knowledge by pooling articles.

He describes the process for collectively choosing the campaign, the importance of having a target:

The people who can make the changes are usually quite happy to avoid doing so….. Change will not happen… unless the target is faced with direct, persistent pressure. It;s therefore crucial to identify the appropriate target … the person or people who could implement a new policy. (51)

You can see the old Alinsky influence in a lot of this despite the total difference in style, God I miss people who understand picking targets.

I like the continued emphasis on the tensions between picking campaigns that are winnable without losing sight of the revolutionary goal of what he calls ‘storming the castle’, achieving the broader structural change we need. There’s also some good stuff in here about thinking about allies, recognizing where they are in relation to your politics. moving people from opposition to at least neutral positions.

I also like the emphasis on thinking about how to create alternative institutions, what do we actually want, rather than just what we are against. We need to do this way more, as well as continuously build towards deeper change. Hunter writes

effective campaigns are ones that promote and instill new values. To do that, we should look for all available opportunities to represent the highest moral values of humanity in our words and actions, and encourage others to do the same. (60)

Some of us might need a little more humour here, perhaps, but it’s a serious thing.

He also describes the need to make sure you are growing as a campaign, moving and recruiting outside your easy, comfortable circles, that you are self-reflective on your own role, where you fit within oppressive systems and contribute to them. It all seems simple, it is still very far from most people’s practice. And finally — another key point, particularly in differentiating this book from much traditional civil rights organizing as Alexander notes, as well as many organizing in the Alinsky tradition:

It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity–especailly poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.” (63)

This is not an easy battle, but it is one we must win.

[Hunter, Daniel (2015) Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. Denver: Veterans of Hope.]

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Mike Miller: community organizing

Mike Miller’s Community Organizing is exactly what it says — a (very) short book, and a good very practical introduction to the updated basic style of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Area Foundation (IAF)’s kind of community organizing that has its roots back in the 1930s. There is, as always, and emphasis on democracy in the preface:

‘Community organizing’ applied democratic ideals and practices to specific contexts… (1)

First line of the book proper though?

‘Power’: the ability to act effectively in the world. (3)

The focus is on the organizer:

The first organizer in one of these organizations is typically an outsider. Because the people inside the community have histories of rivalry, any initiative taken by a local person or group is likely to leave out some people and groups, heightening conflict. (3)

Miller writes the book developing a kind of real-life example of an organizer coming into a community, which gives a good concrete view of the process as it is supposed to work, and also means it is full of practical advice if you are going to do things this way. While Alinsky himself was quite flexible for much of his career (see his own book, and Myles Horton’s description of his strengths) the IAF model has moved to work only through faith organizations (see more below). After being invited (and paid) they start with an initial set of workshops:

participants learned about community organizing and its relationships to the American democratic tradition, to the teachings of their own religious faith, and to the specific problems facing them. their members, their neighbors and their congregations. More than anything else, they learned, at least in the abstract, that building an organization was more important than any particular issue. In fact, they came to realize that this organization-building was the key to an effective struggle for justice… (5)

What follows is key to the methodology: one-to-one meetings. Out of this, leaders are developed

organizers have a core meaning for “leader.” … someone with a following. (6)

That’s not entirely universal, but a good place to start. Miller talks about social capital and the mediating institutions of civil society, why the IAF focused on most deeply rooted institutions — ie churches and other faith based institutions. He quotes extensively from a document called Organizing for Family and Congregation, published by the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1978, and written by then-director Ed Chambers. It gives  for the theoretical ideas and context underpinning the IAF’s approach with great clarity:

Our country is in…crisis…. The intermediate voluntary institutions including churches–are ineffectual in a power relationship with the powerful. As a result, the middle is collapsing, confused. The economic and political middle is being sucked dry by a vacuum — a vacuum of power and values. Into that vacuum have moved the huge corporations, mass media and “benevolent” government… (10)

This is so much about the middle, seems to stop its analysis of what is wrong with the world at a fairly shallow level. PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) is a spin-off on the Alinsky approach also founded in faith-based organizing. Their 2011 statement of vision and purpose goes rather more to the point:

We pledge to teach, preach and organize to unify people of faith around reducing poverty and increasing economic and racial justice. We will challenge our elected leaders from both parties to put the needs of working families, the poor and the common good of our nation ahead of short-term political calculus and special interests. Join us in making America a land of opportunity for all people. (15)

Miller describes why Alinsky-style organization moved towards this exclusive focus on faith-based organizing — he argues that the 1970s saw other voluntary and community organizations ‘atrophied’ or co-opted in search of funding, thus faith-based organizations became seen as the

only value-based, stable organizations in many low- to moderate-income communities.

And of course, in organizing through such stable institution with large membership bases,

The organizer formula, “Organized people plus organized power” was met. (16)

There is some discussion of ACORN here, Miller notes their work as a different model developing out of Alinsky’s associate Fred Ross’s work, a model which builds membership into the organization directly.

So back to IAF model in progress, the organizer has been doing lots and lots of one-ones, over a few months she ‘knows’ the city. She asks the leaders to come together. Together they pick their first issues, which are ‘Immediate, specific and winnable’ (23), Miller adds they are also believable and non-divisive (24). This is because he argues that skepticism is the biggest problem, the organizer needs a win to show people what they are capable of.

So what does it take to move decision makers? First a political understanding of their position and the political moment:

…they must be very secure and very powerful and thus not constrained by the threat of rivals and competitors. Or, they must see that the price paid to maintain the status quo is not worth paying. (29)

One or other of these will define the strategy. Miller’s organizer Jeanne must prepare for the conflict and confrontation (in traditional Alinsky style).

Almost everything Jeanne had to teach came together in the preparation for meetings with ‘decision-makers,’ the meetings themselves, and the post-meeting evaluation. The drama of a three-act play unfolds, with heroes and villains, the uncertainty of how the plot will unfold, the high point of tension, and the final resolution. (31)

This emphasis on narrative is interesting, the technique of role-playing is of course key in preparation for the meeting or action to pressure those in power. From my own experience, this is necessary (if not sufficient) for success. Miller emphasizes that the organizer must ensure that the leaders are not afraid to press the yes or no question, they must cut through the ‘fogging’. I love that word, it’s exactly what politicians and bureaucrats do. Miller writes

Most powerful people know how to deal with conflict. Most are used to dealing with conflict. It is the powerless who see conflict as somehow uncivilized. Decision-makers know this, and often seek to use this sense of misplaced politeness to control. (30)

So true.

He outlines some key tests for good tactics. They:

  • should contribute toward winning

  • …should contribute to building an organization — involve more people in active roles, deepen skills and self-confidence, recruit new allies and members, broaden appeal to wider public (34)

In a nutshell.

Miller briefly talks about role of education, that community organizing can’t simply be about getting more power and resources for one group or victory will simply maintain power relations intact by simply substituting one group for another. He does works through a sample workshop that helps educate more broadly around political issues.

These are the quick and dirty basics, which boiled down to bare essentials as they are, give quite a good idea of what Miller would consider those essentials to be…of course, his analysis goes much deeper elsewhere, given his decades of work in both SNCC and the IAF, and his current position as Executive Director of the ORGANIZE! Training Center, definitely check out their website:

The purpose of the ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC) is to strengthen democracy by supporting strong, participatory, democratic organizations whose principal constituency is people of low- and middle income. OTC is committed to social, environmental, and economic justice for all, to a democracy that is based on the active participation of all its citizens and residents, and to building strong communities based on the ideas of individual responsibility, solidarity, and our interdependence as human beings.

Since “community organizing” is widely used with many meanings, we place our work in what has come to be known as the “Alinsky tradition” and the work done in the Deep South by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”). More broadly, we place our work in the tradition of radical democracy as expressed in American history by the industrial labor movement of the 1930s, the early period of the Populists, the Knights of Labor, the Abolitionists and those American revolutionaries for whom independence from Britain and democracy were equally at the core of their philosophy. We root our work in the social and economic justice, and moral teachings of the world’s great religions, and the small “d” democratic tradition.

[Miller, Mike (2012) Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction. Milwaukee: Euclid Avenue Press.]

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