Tag Archives: organising

In Defense of Housing: Madden & Marcuse

Madden and Marcuse have written a great book here  in In Defense of Housing — concise, clear, and challenging to the status quo. It is a great outline of some of the key structural challenges we face, and ways forward to short and long-term transformation of how we deal with housing.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is only one in a long line of tragedies caused by putting profit over human life. These moments of spectacular violence shock and enrage — hopefully driving a will to change. But there is a slow violence at work here too, the way high rents drive anxiety and force families to make hard choices every day of every month, and the way poor housing conditions destroy both physical and mental health every minutes spent inside which add up to a life damaged and often death at a younger age.

In thinking about housing  in the US, there is a key fact to start: There is no state in the US where someone working full time on minimum wage can afford to rent a one-bedroom apt paying what is ‘affordable’.

That generally means paying no more than one third of your income. That is fucking crazy, right? Forget about trying to have any kind of family on that income. Forget about living life well on that income. Leaving two choices, which should probably go together — raise minimum wage, and lower what people must pay for a home.

These are eminently political questions. We go back to good old Engels.

We take from Engels the idea that the housing question is embedded within the structures of class society. Posing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means asking who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses. It means questioning the function of housing within globalized neoliberal capitalism. (6)

Like Harvey and Lefebvre, Marcuse and Madden emphasise:

Housing and urban development today are not secondary phenomena. Rather, they are becoming some of the main processes driving contemporary capitalism. (8)

Thus it is real estate and housing development that is soaking up investment and driving the accumulation of wealth. The other end of the spectrum?

for poor and working class communities, housing crisis is the norm. (9)

You been there, you don’t need anyone to tell you what that’s like. All because someone’s making money off your housing.

I found the distinctions between the US and the UK useful to think about, I am still getting my head round them.

In the United States, the discourse of housing crisis is often used to condemn state “interference” in housing markets. In the UK, the crisis frame is invoked in support of granting new legal powers to developers in order to override local planning guidelines. (10)

Above all I appreciate Marcuse’s point that the housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down, but of the system working as it is intended.

Just let that sit a while. Writing this in the aftermath of the horror and death in Grenfell Tower, there could be no better way to capture just how capital and government collude to maximize profit on real estate, cutting corners, silencing complaint, and in the end killing children.

Thinking about this really comes home, when they write:

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. (12)

We can see what our current system has brought us in the flames exploding up to engulf that building. Time to imagine something better. Still, there’s not much behind that sentence in the book itself.  There is so much more to explore there, but at least it is signaled here. Also the importance of land in defining identity

…struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy. … No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics. (12)

But what is missing here is mortality, morbity, life chances and particularly how this ties to segregation and racism. of course, this is where my own work focuses, so I’m bound to be critical. They have a section for intersectionality, that always drives me a little crazy, because there is a lot more going on there and it weaves through everything. My principal critique I think.

Against the commodification of housing

This is key, well-argued, everyone involved in housing should be working to this end and that means a substantial shift in some of the strategies used by both charities and advocates. There was a time in the UK when most land wasn’t actually a commodity — more acts of violence were needed to make that happen, through the privatization of the commons. This was still in process in the 1840s:

when Engels was surveying the dwelling conditions of the great towns of industrial Britain, he was in part describing the emerging impact of the commodification of housing. (22)

Through this period, housing became

ever less an infrastructure for living, and evermore an instrument for financial accumulation. (26)

The problem in a nice nutshell there. I think there’s more to tease out about how housing and neighbourhood remain part of the social reproduction of power and wealth, with segregation/enclaves occurring globally now. Still, it’s very true that real estate is increasingly the driver of the economy per Harvey and Lefebvre, they look at three other trends leading to hyper-commodification of housing:

  1. removal of restrictions on real estate as a commodity
  2. financialisation — ‘a generic term to describe the increasing power and prominence of actors and firms that engage in profit accumulation through the servicing and exchanging of money and financial instruments.’ (31)
  3. globalization — housing market now dominated by economic networks global in scope

These ensure housing has become a commodity as never before — and easily converted to investment capital, the heart of the present crisis.

The value of super-prime real estate is secure because of the ease with which it can be converted into money through loans, debentures, mortgages (37)

Full deregulation and building new housing cannot be the answers to the crisis. First, because the

State has always been central to the process of making housing a commodity…Government sets the rules of the game. It enforces the sanctity of contracts, establishes and defends regimes of property rights…[connects] the financial system to the bricks and mortar… (46-47)

Second because of issues around power — housing is a domain of struggle.

The commodification of housing is a political project that refuses to acknowledge itself as such. (47)

Opposed to people’s needs for a home, the real estate industry does anything possible to raise prices within a market now moved by global investment forces, not local demand for somewhere to live. Marcuse and Madden write:

The solution to the housing problem, then, is not moralism, but the creation of an alternative residential logic. Exhorting for-profit real estate companies to act differently in the name of creating a less vicious housing system is pointless. Housing problems are not the result of greed or dishonesty. They result from the structural logical of the current housing system. Alternative, decommodified models of residential development must therefore be created. (52)

Residential Alienation

Like Lefebvre, they apply the idea of alienation to housing in addition to more traditional Marxist uses of alienation in labour.

Alienation means estrangement, objectification, or othering. The idea is rarely applied to housing, but it should be. (56)

They begin to get at the meaning of home (see Dovey or Cooper-Marcus for much deeper examinations of this…)

Home is an extension and expression of our capacity to create. It takes an infinite variety of forms, but making a home for ourselves is an essential and universal activity. Residential alienation is what happens when a capitalist class captures the housing process and exploits it for its own ends. (58-59)

They summarise experience of today’s housing market in three words: precarity, insecurity, disempowerment. (59) They write ‘In America, the narrative that housing is the key to dignity and stability is deeply ingrained…’ (74) but this is only true for elites. We need a new definition for a successful society, and that is one where ‘the residential good life is provided to everyone’ (82)

Disalienation would mean reorganizing the housing system around the goal of providing residential stability and ontological security for all. (83)

Oppression and Liberation in Housing

In all social settings, dwelling space structures power relations. It can be used to maintain the social order, or to support challenges to it… housing is part and parcel of social and political struggles. (86)

Yep. Housing is worth fighting for. I can never quite believe that this has been a struggle for so many marxists.

I confess hadn’t thought much before of the additional benefits of emptying the discontent from the city centre.

The zones of empty luxury housing at the center of global cities are as peaceful as cemeteries. Commodification is not only a strategy for capital accumulation. It is also a technique of governance, a political process as much as an economic one. (94)

After nodding my head through all of this,  I then found here a subtitle — the intersectionality of residential oppression. The nodding stopped, I must confess that I don’t really like that this isn’t woven through, that it is a section apart, contained.  It kept bugging me. But there’s some good stuff here. I like bell hooks’s idea of the ‘homeplace’

“where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship and deprivation.” from Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. NY:Routledge 2015, p 42

I think this is so important to recognise, home is a place of strength. We don’t just need affordable housing, but housing that enables its residents to ‘confront power, social inequality, and structural violence…’ (117)

The Myths of Housing Policy

I always enjoy some myth debunking. These two are doozies.

  • The myth of the benevolent state — that the government has tried to solve the housing crsis, acting for the benefit of the majority. Nope.

all based on controlling the poor, preventing revolution and worst infectious diseases. Actions like slum clearence, despite all claims to the contrary, were always prey to real estate and development interests from the beginning. Then there’s idea of ‘Affordable’, an ideological term, and one that helps legitimize the building of luxury housing if it ensures provision of a little ‘affordable’ housing as a result. Rather vomitous

  • The myth of the meddling state — one that just gets in the way arising through the 1980s. But this ignores the need for the state to guarantee the conditions for the housing market to exist, so the state is always involved, it just depends on which side.

The question will always be how the state should act towards housing, not whether it should do so. (142)

This narrative of the meddling state prevents an open view of the services the state renders to housing markets. A useful obfuscation.

Housing Movements of New York

I’m glad this was in here.

Conclusion: For A Radical Right to Housing

They argue for struggle to ensure housing as a right, and look to steps that are small enough to be doable, but that point towards much deeper structural change towards a true right to the city. Useful thinking for housing organisers. There three main areas of suggested action are:

  • To decommodify and de-financialize the housing system (as an overarching goal) — public control, rent control, secure tenancies, public ownership of land, public financing, limits on speculation, regulation of home-finance mechanisms (201)
  • To expand, defend and improve public housing (203)
  • To let a thousand housing alternatives bloom — cooperatives, mutuals, communes, limited equity co-ownership, land trusts (209)

A good place to start.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Ella Baker — a biography from J. Todd Moye

17846757It was good to carve out the time to read two books on Ella Baker, I don’t think I do this enough really. Moye focused much on her role as an organizer than Barbara Ransby did, and quoted her directly a little more often, which I really liked.

[Y]ou didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders. (2)

It’s nice to see the whole of that quote, not just the last line. I loved this one as well:

The problem in the South is not radical thought. The problem is not even conservative thought. The problem in the South is not enough thought. (5)

Ella Baker was born in 1903, the year that W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. I like how Moye connects those two things. There are more stories of her family here, her grandmother conceived out of rape, the politics of the plantation and her battle to marry the man she wanted. Baker told these stories as:

a certain kind of commitment or resentment. It is not the kind of thing we would advocate at this point, but it shows that the drive for full dignity as human beings goes very deep in the struggle. (12)

Moye in many ways emphasises what Ransby also emphasised — Baker’s closeness to women’s organising as she grew up, being able to see just how well women could run meetings, set policy, manage finances. (20)

There is more on Harlem, too, from Baker herself once more:

the hotbed of–let’s call it radical thinking. You had every spectrum of radical thinking. . . . the ignorant ones, like me, we had lots of opportunity to hear and to evaluate whether or not this was the kind of thing you wanted to get into. Boy, it was good, stimulating! (31)

Moye emphasises she was reading Marx, discussing it in these radical circles, but that she could separate these ideas on social and economic organisation from the party itself, to which she never was committed. She worked very closely, of course, with George Schuyler on cooperatives (the YNCL goal – ‘to gain economic power through consumer cooperation’ (34)), and this book made me want to map out all of these connections because I keep finding new ones the more I read. I didn’t know that Schuyler had spent 1920s working for The Messenger, socialist magazine run by A. Philip Randolph, moved on to Pittsburgh Courier and the Negro National News.

Baker also formed the 135th St Library’s first Negro History Club with librarian Ernestine Rose. In 1933 she joined the branch’s Adult Education Committee, where she sponsored speakers and programs. In 1934 she was hired part time to coordinate community outreach programs. I hadn’t realised how connected she was to the library, quite how pivotal they were.

She was friends with Lester Granger, and he is the one who helped her get on the WPA’s Worker Education Project. She was always looking for work. That was brought home harder here I think, or perhaps I just noticed more the very precarious position she seemed to live through most of her life, looking for ways to work in the movement. On the WPA, Baker describes their connections they made:

We’d go around to settlement houses and conduct classes. For instance, those who were very knowledgeable about the history of working class organizations all the way back to the guild… (40)

They did union halls as well.

Moving to the NAACP years — there is more here on the many conflicts with director Walter White, his clashes with former director of branches William Pickens — the only other NAACP person from national office who had visited branches in South. Baker had a bruising schedule:

In 1942, between February and early July addressed 178 different groups, visited 38 branches in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia (51)

She encouraged branches to organise around problems they had identified, helped them develop campaigns as bottom up not top down. Saw her role when forced into accepting the position as Director of Branches:

To increase the extent to which the present membership participates in national and local activities…. To extend the membership base so as to have local branches include a larger proportion fo people in any given community….To transform the local branches from being centers of sporadic activity to becoming centers of sustained and dynamic community leadership. (59-60)

She held a leadership conference in NY December of 1944, then others in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta in first half of 1945. Look at this amazing picture:

IMG_5594

The 1946 conference in Atlanta called ‘Give Light and the People Will find a Way’, was attended by representatives for Montgomery branch (a branch which Ella had ‘nurtured’ as field secretary), E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks (62). More connections.

In 1946 she worked with CORE and FOR to plan the Journey of Reconciliation — the integrated ride through the South that she and Pauli Murray were prevented from going on as they were women. This became the blueprint for the later Freedom Rides. (67) More connections.

At the same time (how she had time, I do not know) Baker was also doing a lot of work with the NY branch of NAACP, particularly with the branch’s education committee, and serving as an advisor to youth council.

There is a little more information on ‘In Friendship’, the organisation she helped found and run to support the movement in the South, which in addition to fundraising:

also provided technical assistance to southern civil rights campaigns, organized conferences that brought together activists from throughout the region, and embarked on public relations campaigns that publicized conditions in the South to the rest of the country. (80)

Moye explores a little further the relationships between Ella Baker and both Septima Clark and Myles Horton, notes that she had participated in dozens of workshops at Highlander — I thought it must be so. She also worked with the Bradens from SCEF from early on:

IMG_5592

In Friendship raised $2,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and another $4,000 to send ML King to Africa and India to study Ghana’s independence movement and Gandhi’s philosophy. I find this quite extraordinary, partly in that I hadn’t heard it before, partly in the importance placed on education and building international solidarity.

The In Friendship trio (Baker, Rustin, Levinson) were continuing to look for what came next after the Montgomery movement — this is Baker on the SCLC:

We began to talk about the need for developing in the South a mass force that would . . . become a counterbalance, let’s call it, to the NAACP. (89)

There is more on how frustrated she was at the lack of momentum after Montgomery. Looking back it doesn’t feel that way until you take more note of the time between the boycott and those first sit-ins. There was a tentative step, though, towards the voter registration campaigns that would follow in the Crusade for Citizenship — only meant to be a one day action (!). SCLC had done none of the planning when they brought Baker on, yet she still pulled off some success. She continued to organise in support of mass movement and building a strong grassroots base, with a focus on MIA and the United Christian Movement (UCM) in Shreveport.

Moye writes that Baker pushed SCLC to partner with Highlander, stating that:

Bringing Clark from Highlander to SCLC may have been Baker’s greatest contribution to the organization. (102)

While I don’t know if this is true, amazing as Clark was, this becomes an even more curious omission for me in Ransby’s work.

There are more connections made here between Baker and some of the key figures and events — things that give me hope. The 4 students who lead the Greensboro sit in were part of NAACP youth group started by Randolph Bakewell — at the suggestion of field secretary Ella Baker. Bob Moses? His family had been members of one of the Harlem cooperatives that Baker organized in the 1930s, he and his brothers had delivered their milk (119). These are such wonderful examples of the effects that ripple outwards from positive action and that only come to fruition over a long period of time.

A few more quotes on Ella Baker’s leadership style, the kind of leadership that created so many leaders. This is from an (unnamed)  SNCC member:

Usually she preferred to answer [a question] with another question and then another, forcing us to refine our thinking and to struggle toward  an answer for ourselves. (123)

From Mary King:

At a very important period in my life, Miss Baker tempered my natural tenacity and determination with flexibility and made me suspicious of dogmatism… She taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned in life: There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way. She helped me see that the profound changes we were seeking in the social order could not be won without multiple strategies. She encouraged me to avoid being doctrinaire. “Ask questions, Mary,” she would say. (124)

Baker’s philosophy and SNCC’s slogan? Now so widely used I never knew where it came from: ‘Let the People Decide’ (126)

IMG_5591

Always she worked to support the capacity of groups to make their own strategic decisions. When CORE called off the freedom rides and SNCC decided to continue them under the leadership of Diane Nash, Baker wrote them a three-page analysis of what she believed had been done wrong so far and needed to be improved on — media strategy for example (128).

A final aside on the importance of women to this movement despite the ways they were often sidelined as Baker’s biography and Danielle McGuire’s work make clear among others. Womanpower Unlimited — a group formed by local women in Jackson to collect money, clothing etc for the freedom riders, then further developed into conducting voter registration, education and peace activism (133). More ripples, more connections.

Baker became openly socialist at the end of her life, I’ll end on this 1969 address to Spelman College, which I love.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. (166)

[Moye, J. Todd (2013) Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.]

Save

Save

Save

Save

Eyes on the Prize: a history of struggle

Eyes on the PrizeIt was quite amazing to sit and read through this tremendous book… a little a day, a little at a time. You know. Immense as it is, I think what surprised me most was just how much couldn’t be packed in here, so much that was missing despite over 700 pages, but that is no critique. I loved it for the broad sense it gave of movement, for giving a more settled sense of what happened when, how things developed. I can fit everything else I’ve been reading into that. Though it’s not the same as living through it, it’s as close as I can get. Its focus is mostly on the South, with a little from Chicago and Detroit and Oakland, so you can easily guess where it’s strengths lie. I still haven’t watched the 14 hours of documentary it serves as a companion to.

This is a whirlwind tour, a potpourri of insights and quotations. My favourite things at this moment in time. I’m still not quite sure why it seemed a good idea to read it cover to cover, but I’m glad I did.

I really loved the framing of it from Vincent Harding’s prologue: We the People. Here are some quotes from that, starting with Harding’s view on the importance of institutions (interesting thinking about social movement theory, so much of which frustrates me exceedingly for not quite thinking about things like this for the most part):

One of the most fascinating element of the post-Reconstruction black movement toward new freedom and extended equality was the continuing work of creating independent and semi-independent black institutions. Without them the black community would have been lost. In addition to the central institution of the family, they included schools at every level, churches and other religious institutions, newspapers and other journals, fraternal and sororal organizations, mutual aid societies, women’s clubs, banks, insurance companies, unions, farmers’ alliances, and emancipation societies.

These were only a portion of the internal, self-claiming self-defining work that was constantly re-creating the black community. (9)

This white privileged attitude hasn’t changed enough either, I am sorry to say:

Almost without exception, the critical issues–sometimes issues of life and death–centered on the willingness of white people to treat black women and men as allies and equals, rather than as wards, pawns, or tools… (9)

On the transformation of self as well as the transformation of society, so key to the work of Horton, Freire, Nyerere

Perhaps all of this was really the willingness of black and white justice-seekers to recognize their own need to become new people in order to create a new society. (10)

the central tasks of the twentieth century black freedom movement were defined at their best not only as the achievement of rights and justice, but also as transformation of the spirit, consciousness, and heart of a people who had been developed and nurtured on the poisons of white supremacist politics, social philosophy, theology and history.

I also like this formulation of what the struggle has been for — Fighting for the ‘Six Claims’, this is to think more about as well:

  1. Claiming the right to the land, to full unhindered participation in the life of the nation and in the reshaping of that life

  2. Claiming the right and responsibility to speak the truth from black perspectives and to insist that those truths become part of a new American reality

  3. Claiming the right to possess themselves, their heritage, their Africanness, their souls

  4. Claiming the necessity of building black institutions, as ends in themselves, and as bases for the creation of the women and men who would eventually join others to develop a more perfect union in America

  5. Claiming the right of self-defense against the intrusive and arrogantly destructive forces of white power

  6. Claiming the same right of principled emigration to Africa or elsewhere that brought the pilgrims and subsequent generations of immigrants to these shores

But one thing is clear. It happened with such momentum because a people had kept their eyes on the prize, had persisted in a vision of a more perfect union, had waded through rivers of blood to keep promises to their foreparents and to their children. Such unyielding commitment and action eventually builds its own momentum, creates new, surprising realities, beginning deep within individual lives, opening up to the re-creation of a society. (34)

It’s divided up into chapters, themed but also chronological — I can’t even imagine the difficulties of creating such divisions that are bound to be somewhat arbitrary. They work fairly well. Each is introduced, with solid text painting the broader picture. But from here I’ll just focus on these amazing source documents. One of the most devastating and powerful was from Anne Moody’s autobiography. At 14 she was already a servant in a white woman’s house:

For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.

Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the dear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was black. (43)

More connections in here I didn’t know — Martin Luther King, describing in Stride Towards Freedom how Rev. Glenn Smiley of FOR (the Fellowship of Reconciliation) worked with them through the Montgomery Bus Boycott to write Suggestions for Integrating Buses.

From the 1954 Opinion in Brown v Board:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (71)

Ah, the ideals of education. My cynical self disbelieves it was ever quite like this or ever will be, but good to hear it from the Supreme Court. I looked more in depth at the violence of the white reaction/freak out here. And now we jump ahead a few years to the beginning of the sit-ins.

From Franklin McCain, who was part of sit-in in Greensboro, South Carolina on 1 February 1960, an excerpt from interview in My Soul is Rested by Howell Raines:

If it’s possible to know what it means to have your soul cleansed–I felt pretty clean at that time. I probably felt better on that day than I’ve ever felt in my life. Seems like a lot of feelings of guilt or what-have-you suddenly left me, and I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak, and not only gained it, but had developed quite a lot of respect for it. Not Franklin McCain only as an individual, but I felt as though the manhood of a number of other black persons had been restored and had gotten some respect from just that one day. (115)

We are back to the ways that this struggle transformed people from the inside out.

From SNCC’s Statement of purpose, drafted by Rev James Lawson on May 14, 1960 after the founding conference in April at Shaw University (connecting this up to Ella Baker of course, who made that conference happen. One of her pieces is in here, ‘Bigger than a Hamburger’ but despite how that quote caught on, it isn’t my favourite piece from her):

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society.

Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.

By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities. (119-120)

There’s the interview with Bernice Reagon that I loved immensely and quoted elsewhere.

Birmingham in MotionFrom Birmingham: People in Motion (the whole pamphlet can be found here, and it is pretty awesome):

In May, 1956 Alabama politicians “stood on the beach of history and tried to hold back the tide.” They outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a desperate attempt to halt the movement for Negro equality. But their action had precisely the opposite effect. For almost immediately the Negroes of Birmingham came together to form a movement which during the last ten years has transformed life in Birmingham — which has shaken America.

“They could outlaw an organization, but they couldn’t outlaw the movement of a people determined to be free,” said the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, president of the new group. And at a mass meeting called by a committee of Negro ministers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was born. Many Negroes in “the Johannesburg of North America “were afraid to join. But many others echoed the sentiments of Mrs. Rosa Walker, one of the first members: “I was frightened , but I figured we needed help to get us more jobs and better education. And we had the man here to help us.” (147)

In its first year, the movement also filed suit in federal court on behalf of a Milwaukee couple arrested because they sat in the “white” waiting room in the city’s railway station. Both these actions followed the pattern of court action established by the NAACP, and in deed, suits have always been one of the ACMHR’s most effective weapons. But in December 1956 the movement entered a new phase, and took on the character it was to retain– of a movement of people putting their bodies into a challenge to the system. (148)

There is Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail — such a powerful thing, one I have written about before here.

Here is Bob Moses on Freedom Schools — there is an hour long interview with him you can listen to here:

We finally decided to set make-shift classes for them. We opened up Nonviolent High in McComb.That was pretty funny. We had about fifty to seventy-five kids in a large room trying to break them down with the elements of algebra and geometry, a little English, and even a little French, a little history, I think Deon taught physics and chemistry, and [Charles] McDrew took charge of history, and I did something with math . . . (175)

Of course we have Fannie Lou Hamer — here is an excerpt from her 1967 autobiography. It was taped and edited by Julius Lester (dude who wrote about how Whitey, Black Power’s gonna get yo mamma) and Maria Varela of SNCC. That alone makes me happy.

I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? the only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember. (177)

There are quotes from SNCC trip to Guinea, following in Malcolm X’s footsteps, and being told Malcolm had a lot more resonance there — though they had to explain the multiple viewpoints between King and Malcolm. Quotes from local histories show earlier efforts toward full freedom that I had never heard of — 1920s saw formation of the Dallas County Voters’ League to win right of Blacks to vote. The 1920s. In Dallas. Shit.

A quote from Martin Luther King’s speech ‘Our God is Marching On!’, given 25th March, 1965 at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, after bloody Sunday:

They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. (225-226)

A quote from Malcolm X’s speech ‘Message to the Grassroots’, from 10th November, 1963. The whole thing can be read here:

The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.

The white man knows what a revolution is. He knows that the black revolution is world-wide in scope and in nature. The black revolution is sweeping Asia, sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution — that’s a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia. Revolution is in Africa. And the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he’ll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is? You don’t know what a revolution is. If you did, you wouldn’t use that word. (253)

A lot from Lowndes Country, struggling with political process, role of patronage and taking care of their own.

From Stokely Carmichael — excerpts from ‘What We Want’ (full article here) and building power across class and race:

SNCC has tried several times to organize poor whites; we are trying again now, with an initial training program in Tennessee. It is purely academic today to talk about bringing poor blacks and whites together, but the job of creating a poor-white power bloc must be attempted.

Between 1965-1968, SCLC started moving away from single-issue campaigns, started to tie everything together. ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ from 5 January, 1966 is covered in its own post.

This is also the period of urban uprisings — there is this, from the Report of the National Advsiory Commission on Civil Disorders, or the Kerner Comission, on Detroit:

During five days in the city, 2,700 Army troops expended only 201 rounds of ammunition, almost all during teh first few hours, after which even stricter fire discipline was enforced. (In contrast, New Jersey National Guardsmen and State police expended 13,326 rounds of ammunition in three days in Newark.) . . . (321)

Another powerful account of uprising from Roger Wilkins, director of the U.S.Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. This is an excerpt from his autobiography:

“What is it that they want?”

I looked at her for a long time. This was the kind of middle-class Negro that I’d been running from all my life….

“Jobs and dignity, I guess,” I replied.

“Well, there’s not much dignity in burning and looting,” she replied haughtily. I closed my eyes. I had to go through this with white people all the time.

“No, I suppose not,” I said without opening my eyes, “but I guess there’s also not much dignity in sitting there quietly while the society chokes the life out of you and your children.” (332)

There was an equally powerful piece called ‘Death Watch’ by Marvin Dunn on the 1980 riots in Miami, a history of Liberty City and the changes in the city and the black community. There is a growing northern ‘urban’ focus — it is interesting to me that the struggle in Birmingham, in Montgomery and other places aren’t really thought of as ‘urban’. To be explored later. Here’s Bobby Seale, from Seize the Time on the writing of the executive mandate of the Black Panthers:

Eldridge and Huey and all of us sat down, and it didn’t take us long. We weren’t jiving. No time at all, not like some of the intellectuals and punks that have to take ten days before they can write an executive mandate to put things together. I don’t think it was fifteen minutes before we whipped that executive mandate out… (349-350)

As long as it takes me to write articles, I have surely joined the intellectuals and punks.

There are a whole slew of documents on the controversy over Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration school district, and the fight for community control over public education along with a new kind of teaching. This was all new to me, I learned much.

From “A Time to Break Silence”, Martin Luther King on 4 April 1967 in NY’s Riverside Church, his famous anti-war speech:

–what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its own problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that i could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government (389)

An awesome section written by Mohammed Ali on refusing to go fight in Vietnam. Students organizing at Howard — the umbrella organization for their student activist groups called Ujamaa. Women fighting old ideals of straight hair and beauty. More on Fred Hampton and the growth of the Black Panthers and their destruction, Cointelpro, Angela Davis’s autobiography, George Jackson’s letter, Attica. Increasing efforts in electoral politics.

Maynard JacksonSo a section on new Black mayors — like Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, inaugurated January 1974:

So, we must be a City of love and our definition of love must be a definition of action. Love must be strong economic growth and prosperity for
all.

Love must be giving the young a voice in City Government and restoring their faith in the electoral process. Love must be concern for the welfare of our senior citizens and a renewed commitment to make their years productive and rewarding for all of us. Love must be a balanced diet for all of our children. Love must be decent, safe and sanitary housing for all Atlantans. Love must be working to rid a community of the rats that attack babies while they sleep. Love must be a good education available to all who wish to learn. Love must be an open door to opportunity instead of a closed door of despair. Love must be good jobs, equal treatment and fair wages for all working people. Love must be safe streets and homes where our families can be secure from the threat of violence. Love must be a decision to care for the sick, the infirm and the handicapped. Love must be a city filled with people working together to improve the quality of all our lives. Love must be the absence of racism and sexism. Love must be a chance for everybody to be somebody.

To insure a clear reflection of this essential ethic, this administration must place priority upon serving the needs of the masses as well as the classes. The pending reorganization of our City Government will be designed to open wide the doors of City Hall to all Atlantans and make our City Government more responsive to “people needs” and “people problems.” (615)

One hell of an elected representative, right? That is a high, then off to the low of the battles against Affirmative Action and the Bakke case.

This really is a potpourri and probably won’t make much sense to anyone else, but what else do you do with such a book? I’m not quite sure why I tried, but it seemed worthwhile. I’ll end with Harold Washington’s inaugural speech on becoming mayor of Chicago, 12 April, 1983 (and what a poem on his death from Gwendolyn Brooks, but I won’t quote that here)

Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains and some of them will take patience, but all of them will have to be wrestled with like an alligator in the swamp. (701)

Save

Save

Save

SCLC’s 1966 Plan for Organizing Chicago

Eyes on the PrizeIt gave me chills to find the SCLC’s plan for organizing Chicago in Eyes on the Prize. Chills to read it, think about just how much resonated with the organizing work we were doing in LA at SAJE. I look back and honestly have no idea how much was influenced by the kind of thinking embodied in this document by the SCLC, passed down through generations of movement people to us, and how much we come up with on our own because it’s only common sense once you have some experience fighting and share similar outlook and goals. I think we probably inherited more than we ever knew consciously, soaking up wisdom and workshops and for myself at least, not paying enough attention to  this incredible history. Our luck at being woven into this long history of struggle and sacrifice and incredible human beings.

The document is entitled ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ It was put forward on 5th January, 1966, and was to be conducted together with Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). You can read the full text online here.

It opens with their analysis of the city of Chicago, and this political and economic moment of 1966:

Chicago is a city of more than a million Negroes. For almost a century now it has been the northern landing place for southern migrants journeying up from the Mississippi Delta. It was the Promised Land for thousand who sought to escape the cruelties of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee; yet, now in the year 1966, the cycle has almost reversed. Factories moving South, employment and opportunities on the increase, and recent civil rights legislation are rapidly disintegrating the cruelties of segregation. The South is now a land of opportunity, while those who generations ago sang, “Going to Chicago, sorry but I can’t take you,” now sink into the depths of despair. (291)

Their articulation of their own strategy and philosophy, rooting their projected plan of action in their philosophy and what they believe is the strength that has previously brought them to victory:

THE SCLC PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL CHANGE

In our work in the South two principles have emerged. One, the crystallization of issues, and two, the concentration of action.

In Birmingham we confronted the citadel of southern segregation. In 1963 not one aspect of Birmingham community life was desegregated. In approaching this complex segregated society, the issue was simplified deliberately to: Segregation. Early newspaper critiques challenged the simplification and offered a thousand rationalizations as to why such complex problems could not be dealt with so simply and suggested a hundred more “moderate, responsible” methods of dealing with our grievances. Yet it was the simplification of the issue to the point where every citizen of good will, black and white, north and south, could respond and identify that ultimately made Birmingham the watershed movement in the history of the civil rights struggle.

The second point was the concentration of action, and we chose lunch counters, a target which seemed to most social analysts the least significant but one to which most people could rally. It was a target wherein one might achieve some measure of change yet which sufficiently involved the lines of economic and social power to a point beyond itself – to the larger problem. (293-294)

Back to the concrete nature of what they face in Chicago (and what we faced in LA, and what communities of the poor and people of colour face across the country…interesting that they felt they could separate out the issues in the South.

THE PROBLEM IN CHICAGO

The Chicago problem is simply a matter of economic exploitation. Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the SLUM.

Look at this analysis of slum housing in 1966, ain’t nothing changed at all.

A slum is any area which is exploited by the community at large or an area where free trade and exchange of culture and resources is not allowed to exist. In a slum, people do not receive comparable care and services for the amount of rent paid on a dwelling. They are forced to purchase property at inflated real estate value. They pay taxes, but their children do not receive an equitable share of those taxes in educational, recreational and civic services. They may leave the community and acquire professional training, skills or crafts, but seldom are they able to find employment opportunities commensurate with these skills. And in rare occasions when they do, opportunities for advancement and promotion are restricted. The means that in proportion to the labor, money and intellect which the slum pours into the community at large, only a small portion is received in return benefits. [James] Bevel and our Chicago stall have come to see this as a system of internal colonialism, not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium. (294)

But I wish I had read this before, this is such a smart, comprehensive way of analysing the problem from some of the best minds in the country — why did we go reinventing this wheel? It never occurred to me when we were working on the issue of slum housing for so many years that it would be well worth my while to do more research on earlier battles to end it. I did a little, but not enough to find this. Not that I had time for research, and perhaps still might never have found this without knowing where to look. It’s why continuity in movement and halfway houses are so important I think… and better ways of making accessible information:

As we define and interpret the dynamics of the slum, we see the total pattern of economic exploitation under which Negroes suffer in Chicago and in other northern cities.

1. Education: … slum education is designed to perpetuate the inferior status of slum children and prepare them only for menial jobs in much the same way that the South African apartheid education philosophy does for the African.

2. Building Trade Unions: Building trade unions bar Negroes from many employment opportunities which could easily be learned by persons with limited academic training.

3. Real Estate: Real Estate Boards restrict the supply of housing available to Negroes to the result that Negro families pay an average $20 per month more in rent and receive fewer services that persons in other neighborhoods.

4. Banks and Mortgage Companies: Banks and mortgage companies charge higher interest rates and in many instances even refuse to finance real estate in slum communities and transitional communities, making the area easy prey for loan sharks.

5. Slum Landlords: Slum landlords find a most lucrative return on a minimum investment due to inefficient enforcement of city building codes as well as inadequate building codes, overcrowding of living space, and a tax structure on slum property which means the more you let the building run down, the less you pay in taxes.

6. The Welfare System: The welfare system contributes to the breakdown of family life by making it more difficult to obtain money if the father is in the household and subjects families to a dehumanized existence at the hand of impersonal self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

7. Federal Housing Agencies: Federal housing agencies will not insure loans for purchasing real estate in Negro communities and make little money available for financing any low-cost housing or renovation of present housing.

8. The Courts: The courts are organized as a tool of the economic structure and political machine. Judges are political appointees and subject to political influence.

9. The Police: The police are little more than “enforcers” of the present system of exploitation and often demonstrate particular contempt for poor Negroes, so that they are deprived of any sense of human dignity and the status of citizenship in order that they may be controlled and “kept in line.”

10. The Political System: The established political system deprives Negroes of political power and, through patronage and pressure, robs the community of its democratic voice in the name of a Democratic Machine.

11. The City Administration: The city administration refuses to render adequate services to the Negro community. Street cleaning, garbage collection and police protection are offered menially, if at all.

12. The Federal Government: The federal government has yet to initiate a creative attempt to deal with the problems of megalopolitan life and the results of the past three centuries of slavery and segregation on Negroes. (295-96)

Tackling all this was no small task, even in contemplation. They knew they were confronting something a bit different, and that required a change in strategy:

In the South concentration on one issue proved feasible because of a general pattern of state and local resistance. However, in Chicago we are faced with the probability of a ready accommodation to many of the issues in some token manner, merely to curtail the massing for forces and public opinion around those issues. Therefore, we must be prepared to concentrate all of our forces around any and all issues. (296-97)

Mobilization is always key seems like, another main section:

MOBILIZATION OF FORCES

Though we always fought hard that more was going on. You can do a lot just moving people to one meeting and then another, but we never thought that changed enough either in terms of consciousness or lasting change.

The SCLC saw their main targets as members of churches, students, and the unemployed. Like we did at SAJE, they thought about how to create small groups that could themselves deal with smaller issues but come together in a larger force, and they came up with the same idea decades before we did — someone there agreed with us that mobilization wasn’t enough:

In two or three selected neighborhoods, household units must be organized into some type of union to end slums (or householders union, tenant union, or community union). These neighborhoods would be organized on a door-to-door basis to bargain collectively with landlords and the city in an effort to change the conditions which create slums. It would provide protection against eviction and exploitation and help resolve many immediate problems, but its main function would be to band together to demand that the conditions which create slums be ended. This would be a tremendous power in dealing with both political and economic factors which affect life in the slums.

Some explorations are under way in Longdale, East Garfield Park, Kenwood and Englewood. (298)

We too thought in terms of stages, always moving from one to the next, escalating, getting bigger, being strategic about that. That, I am sure, was a direct result of the ways that this kind of strategic thinking continued through various groups in the movement, even if some of the details that would have been so useful to us were lost:

DEVELOPMENTAL APPROACH TO ACTION

During the first phase of the movement organization and education are the primary purposes. This will be done largely through mass meetings, neighborhood rallies and work shops and should continue through the month of February. Demonstrations must also be thought of as educational and organizational tools, and there may be some occasions which call for demonstrations. When this is the case, it must be clear that the purpose of the demonstration is to dramatize and so define this incident as one link in the chain of economic exploitation which occurs in slum life.

Phase 2: By the first of March, community response and live issues should have evolved to the point where some consensus has been reached around specific targets. At this point we should be able to develop the detailed day-by-day strategy which would seek to demonstrate the total chain which enslaves us. Demonstrations should be scheduled at points which should reveal the agents of exploitation and paint a portrait of the evils which beset us in such a manner that it is clear the world over what makes up a slum and what it is that destroys the people who are forced to live in a slum.

Phase 3: By the first of May we should be ready to launch the phases of massive action, but just as no one knew on January 2, 1965, that there would be a march from Selma to Montgomery by March of that year, so now we are in no position to know what form massive action might take in Chicago. However, as we begin to dramatize the situation, we will be led into forms of demonstration which will create the kind of coalition of conscience which is necessary to produce change in this country. (298-99)

And of course, every campaign needs its goals and objectives, and they looked to change both individual consciousness as well as policy and external structures.

OBJECTIVES

Our objectives in this movement are federal, state and local. On the federal level we would hope to get the kind of comprehensive legislation which would meet the problems of slum life across this nation. At the state level, we should expect the kinds of tax reforms, updating of building codes, open occupancy legislation and enforcement of existing statutes for the protection of our citizens. On the local level we would hope to create the kind of awareness in people that would make it impossible for them to [be] enslaved or abused and create for them the kind of democratic structures which will enable them to continually deal with the problems of slum life. Among these would be active community organizations, a coordinated and powerful civil rights movement, religious institutions which are prepared to minister to persons in urban society as well as to the structures of that society. We would also hope that from this would emerge several pilot projects and institutions which might be of some permanent significance. (299)

Sadly, that list of objectives that Martin Luther King nailed to the door of city hall like Luther himself didn’t quite seem to live up to all of that. But I don’t know enough to quibble with the actually policy changes proposed, all I can say is I think established organizations often don’t ask for enough, putting a small win above getting anything close to what people really need in a campaign big enough to inspire people. But that’s an aside.

Following this document comes an interview with Linda Bryant Hall, member of CORE in 1966 and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations – I love that they contrasted these two things. It raises all the key issues about the importance of local organisation and power, and how that connects to national organisations who have their own agendas. She talks about King’s presence in Chicago, how happy everyone was that he was coming — because how could you not be? But that despite their own organising proposal, he hadn’t thought enough about the differences, and seems like as well, he hadn’t expected a full working partnership.

After he came here, it was quite obvious–at least to me–that this was a more diversified community and the tactics were going to have to be a little different here. What happened is that when he came in, I think what he tried to do was to try and take that kind of style he had operated with in the South and just plant it down here in Chicago, as if it worked there it would work here, too. Not taking into consideration the difference that would be here. (311)

In Chicago they had already brought community organizations together to work under in a group called the triple CO, an umbrella group. In the words of Bryant:

We needed him to lend us his strength, to lend us his name. And we wanted him to come and join our movement–not come in and lead it, because we already had leaders. So when he came in to try and discount what was already here, I think, he offended quite a few people. (312)

She goes on to talk about the march to Cicero (one of those all-white no-go-or-you-will-be-hurt-real-bad neighbourhoods for people of colour, I am finding every single city had a number of those) and the drama and confusion around that, how the CCCO decided to go through with it but they hadn’t done the leafletting, knocking on doors, all the things to get people to the march. There is so much work involved in pulling off a good march most of the time, but people came anyway, they just put down what they were doing and joined up.

This march was community people. These people had not attended any workshops on nonviolence; they had not listened to any lectures on love and loving your fellow man at all; they were just people who were angry about what was happening and wanted to do something. (315)

I dream of marches like that.

Chicago…SCLC’s campaign didn’t meet it’s own goals. It was a bit of a shock to their system. I feel like this city was a turning point, a Northern city but one where residential segregation was deeply entrenched and very violently defended (see Arnold Hirsch’s work, or Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis–a book I absolutely love and am in some awe of intellectually, yet still haven’t quite managed to blog in all its massiveness). It definitely seemed at the time to highlight differences between north and south, rural and urban, fall into that gap between Martin and Malcolm. With calm hindsight, I don’t feel those as opposing things so much and even at the time I know they weren’t experienced as complete binaries by folks in the movement the way press portrayed them. But now I’m writing about things I might not know enough about. In terms of the nitty gritty on analysis and strategy though, as well as the insight into what role a national organisation should play when there is plenty of local organisation, this little section was awesome.

For more on organizing…

Save

Save

Ransby on Ella Baker — SCLC, SNCC, SCEF

200217Part 2 on Ella Baker’s biography by Barbara Ransby (part 1 is here) — and the more exciting part really, because in the SCLC and SNCC and SCEF Baker was able to do more of what she wanted to do. I’m reading J. Todd Moye’s biography of Ella Baker as well just now, and it cleared up one point of my confusion — the way that everyone respectfully called her Miss Baker even though she was married. That is what felt right to me earlier because I must have read it elsewhere, but I questioned myself and wrote something different. so I’m going to have to go back and take out the references to Mrs Baker.

Anyway,  in 1957, Ella Baker traveled south with Bayard Rustin as a representative of In Friendship to become part of the founding of the SCLC. There she saw the Women’s Political Council in action, who had helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and she applauded the formation of MIA, Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the struggle outside the structures of NAACP.

While Rustin and Levinson both became part of King’s inner circle, Miss Baker was left out. She later said:

After all, who was I? I was female, I was old. I didn’t have any PhD.” (173)

And she questioned everything, especially King.

She describes the boycott, and the hope and excitement it raised among movement folks, as:

unpredicted, where thousands of individuals, just black ordinary people, subjected themselves to inconveniences that were certainly beyond the thinking of most folk. . . . This meant you had a momentum that had not been seen, even in the work of the NAACP. And it was something that suggested the potential for widespread action throughout the South. (162)

SCLC was founded to provide an institutional framework to connect and strengthen struggle beyond Montgomery. It also made a strategic decision to stay away from a too-left politics — interesting that ‘Christian’ was at least partially included in the name to help distance it from any association with communism. It emphasized in these stages that it was only demanding the same rights as everyone else.

Once it was decided that the new coalition would be an extension of the church, a patriarchal ethos took over. (175) Women like Rosa Parks and Joanne Gibson Robinson were pushed out of leadership positions, Daisy Bates remained the only woman with a nominal seat on the board, but no power.  In 1958, Miss Baker was drafted as full time staff into SCLC — as with the NAACP she was not properly asked, more put into a position where her refusal would hurt the cause. Still, she accepted, and moved down to Atlanta. She knew what she was in for, though:

Baker was well aware that the SCLC ministers were not ready to welcome her into the organization on an equal footing. That would be to go too far afield from the gender relations they were used to in the church. Baker observed that “the role of women in the southern the church. . . was that of doing the things that the minister said he wanted to have done. It was not one in which they were credited with having creativity and initiative and capacity to carry out things.”

Ministers ‘most comfortable talking to women about “how well they cooked, and how beautiful they looked.”‘ (184)

She remained active in Parents in Action, NAACP, SCLC, In Friendship — for her it was always about building movement rather than organization. In this she was very similar to a number of local NAACP officers who were willing to work with anyone on the ground towards change. All of her work was concretely connected to people’s lives and needs. For example, Baker’s reconnaissance trip in Mississippi for In Friendship after the SCLC’s founding:

Baker soon realized that In Friendship would be hard pressed to make a real distinction between families who were victims of political reprisals and those who were victims of economic violence, pure and simple, since such violence saturated the social and political landscape of the rural South.  (176)

I wanted to hear more about her views on economic violence. She often disagreed with those she worked closely with, able to hold to her own beliefs while continuing to work with others. For example here is Miss Baker on nonviolence, contrasting herself with Rustin:

He had a history of dedication to the concept of nonviolence. I have no such history; I have no such commitment. Not historically or even now can I claim that because that’s not my way of functioning. (193)

This was clear in her rather famous 1959 speech in Pilgrim Chruch, Monroe calling for self-defense. Further in the biography, Ransby writes:

Ella Baker’s ability to sustain long-term friendships with other activists when particular circumstances put them in adversarial positions was one of her most important gifts. (284)

She also disagreed with many in the NAACP — for example, the kinds of attitudes expressed by Roy Wilkins:

“We must clean up and educate and organize our own people, not because they must be perfect in order to be accorded their rights, but they cannot be first-class citizens in truth until they appreciate the responsibilities of that station.” Baker’s view was quite different. Poor people would not have to be made deserving of their citizenship or their economic claims; such rights were fundamental. (226)

She could be quite critical of class judgments:

There’s always a problem in the minority group that’s escalating up the ladder in this culture . . . it’s a problem of their not understanding the possibility of being divorced from those who are not in their social classification.

Thus

I believe firmly in the right of the people who were under the heel to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get [out] from under their oppression. (195)

More from Miss Baker on exactly why the middle classes could not be depended upon to bring about real change:

those who are well-heeled don’t want to get un-well-heeled….If they are acceptable to the Establishment and they’re wielding power which serves their interest, they can assume too readily that that also serves the interest of everybody. (305-306)

Along these same lines, she was also fierce proponent of decentralization, local control over campaigns and power and responsibility in people’s own hands. Ransby writes:

Her main contribution to the civil rights movement during her years with SCLC was not the building of a solid regional coalition, which was what King had hired her to do, but rather the strengthening of several semi-independent local struggles, which were more connected to one another and to itinerant organizers like Baker than they were to the official SCLC leadership in Atlanta. (209)

On leadership, here is Ransby quoting Baker:

Instead of the leader as a person who was supposed to be a magic man, you could develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited the larger number of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying out a program.

to follow on from that, one of her most famous lines I think:

Strong people don’t need strong leaders. (188)

This, of course, put her into conflict with King and the men who dominated the movement at this time.

What I love most are the moments you get to see Ella Baker relaxing with the other women who formed the backbone of this movement, like on this visit to Azalea Johnson in Monroe (and always the reminder just how brave they all were):

The three women sat at Azalea Johnson’s kitchen table, Dorothy remembered, drinking Jim Beam bourbon, discussing the political situation in the South and remembering Raymond. Even more memorable than the conversation was the image of black men sitting in the front room and on the front porch with loaded pistols at their sides… (215)

Baker kept her maiden name after her marriage, kept her rpivate life private, and did all she did while also helping raise her niece, as well as taking over the guardianship of Brenda Travis, who had lied about her age to join SNCC sit-in. She was detained, sent to Colored Girls Industrial School after another protest, did not have support of strong family. Baker managed all of these roles in ways that I find rather jaw-dropping, but it was accomplished through the strong community that she created around herself.

SNCC

Ella Baker’s legacy can perhaps best be seen through SNCC —  I appreciated this insight from Ransby:

Since Baker never wrote an organizing manual or an ideological treatise, her theory was literally inscribed in her daily work–her practice. Some of the most powerful political lessons that she taught were through example, which represented an articulation of her unwritten theory in a conscious set of actions and practices. (271)

Also as an organiser, it is clear that almost a lifetime of experience and huge amounts of work and thought lay behind that first conference at Shaw to support the founding of SNCC, the orchestration of talks and workshops, and the creation of plenty of time and space for private brainstorms, the meeting of small groups and etc. I feel like no one really gets how much creative work and hard grind lies in that until they part of something similar. Creating such spaces is hard, but she was instrumental to SNCC in other ways, ensuring that problems of justice were never narrowed to a simple issue of race and that the leading roles of women, and youth and the poor in the struggle be respected:

She was instrumental in SNCC’s rejection of bourgeois respectability as a defensive political strategy, a rejection that opened the organization up to historically marginalized sectors of the black community. When SNCC broke with the largely middle-class, male-centered leadership of existing  civil rights organizations, it stripped away the class-based and gender-biased notions of who should and could give leadership to the movement and the black community. (259)

She also insisted on movement as being about relationships, connections, not mobilisation and dues and top-down battles on the lines of the NAACP.

The shift from transitory, high-profile events like the sit-ins and freedom rides to protracted day-to-day grassroots organizing in local communities was a significant turning point. Baker insisted that a movement was a web of social relationships…In order to be effective organizers in a particular community, Baker argued, activists had to form relationships, build trust, and engage in a democratic process of decision making together with community members. The goal was to politicize the community and empower ordinary people. this was Baker’s model, and in 1961 it became SNCC’s model.

This is the community organising model in a nutshell. Bottom up. Respectful. I like the acknowledgement that such respect isn’t always easy to embody either, and how she pushed SNCC through dialogue:

She urged SNCC organizers to suppress their own egos and personal and organizational ambitions as much as possible and to approach local communities with deference and humility. She stressed the need to resist organizational chauvinism or any attempts to make proprietary claims on political campaigns that might emerge from their efforts. Finally, she rejected the notion that the black middle class had special claims on leadership of the black community. …. she urged SNCC organizers to look first to the bottom of the class hierarchy in the black community, not to the top, for their inspiration, insights, and constituency…. people who would demonstrate to the first-hand the willingness, ability, and determination of oppressed people to resist and overcome their oppression while speaking for themselves… (274)

Thus SNCC attempted to organise the whole community, not just the middle classes. When they first went into a community, they started by talking to clergy and any others who had claims on being  representatives of community, but they knocked on everyone’s doors.

Bob Moses said “We did for the people of Mississippi what Ella Baker did for us.” … he meant … absorb the wisdom of indigenous leaders, to build respectfully on the preexisting strength within the communities where they organized, and to provide whatever was lacking–funds, time, youthful energy, and certain skills. (303)

Ransby gives a wonderful quote from SNCC organiser Jane Stembridge:

The field staff saw itself as playing a very crucial but temporary role in this whole thing. Go into a community. As soon as local leadership begins to emerge, get out of the community, so that the leadership will take hold and people will not continue to turn to you for guidance. You work yourself out of a job rather than trying to maintain yourself in a position or your organization. It doesn’t matter if you go in and call yourself a SNCC worker or a CORE worker or just a person who is there. (280)

And of course Baker’s own motto:

I was never working for an organization. I always tried to work for a cause. And that cause was bigger than any organization. (281)

She remained pragmatic though, supporting the influx of white privileged students in order to highlight what was happening in the South, to expose the relentless violence, to get some coverage and maybe help the broader community to care. Ransby quotes her as saying:

If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something. (322)

Ransby talks a little about the development of the Freedom Schools, education was always one of the methods closest to Baker’s heart. SNCC established over 50 alternative classrooms for political organizing and popular education, run by Charlie Cobb, Robert Moses, and Staughton Lynd among others.

This highlighted for me one of the strange absences here, as Ransby tries to differentiate them from SCLC’s Citizenship schools by highlighting that Freedom Schools went way beyond teaching literacy for voting tests. In Septima Clark’s vision coming out of Highlander, this was never to have been the only role of Citizenship schools,  but maybe it’s an indication of how routinized these had become under the SCLC?

Myles Horton and Highlander are interesting absences here — not that they don’t appear at all. As an aside, Ransby notes Baker as attending a conference there on one occasion, and later that she worked to defend Highlander from closure. In another brief mention Ransby connects SNCC to Horton,  and notes Baker starting up a new fundraising group called Operation Freedom in 1961 with Horton, the Bradens and others to again funnel money to activists for emergencies. I was disappointed, though, not to learn more about Baker’s friendship with Rosa Parks, Myles Horton or Septima Clark. So I found it interesting that Baker’s theories are compared to Paolo Freire’s, a worthy comparison but interesting in the absence of Myles Horton and others from Highlander.

There is a brief note on education and the connection to Tanzania — but that remained undeveloped as well. Rightly so as it was a bit of a tangent perhaps

Moses also shared Baker’s confidence and faith in young people. After leaving SNCC in the mid-1960s and living for several years in Tanzania, he became a radical teacher, in Ella Baker’s style and tradition, focused on creative methods of teaching and learning as a strategy for empowerment and social change. (252)

But I would like to know more about connections to Africa and Nyerere’s Ujamaa movement.

A last absence was more about the concerted attack on the NAACP in the south after Brown v Board, the number of people who lost their jobs by refusing to renounce NAACP membership — and the number of people who did renounce it. The number of branches that shut down all together, and all of them people that Ella knew, had visited, had encouraged to form branches and become members in the first place. That must have had a huge impact on her. Huge. But it isn’t really visible.

I wanted a little more on the Southern Conference Education Fund run by Anne and Carl Braden, and founded by Jim Dombrowski who had helped found Highlander with Myles Horton way back in 1932. In 1963 Baker began working for SCEF, doing much the same as she had always done — whatever she thought was most needed to support local organising. The difference seemed to be that SCEF supported that. But I tracked down what seems to be the solitary book written on SCEF, which I am looking forward to reading and finding more.

To end here (though I will write more on Moye’s take on Baker), a final quote from Ella Baker that emphasises the longevity of the freedom struggle, the ways that things just haven’t changed fast enough, and the work that all those she has inspired should be continuing in, particularly in support of Black Lives Matter:

Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. (335)

Save

Myles Horton & Saul Alinsky: Popular Education and Organising

200275A final post on Myles Horton’s The Long Haul on what he saw as the differences between popular education and organising. This was something we always struggled with at SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, where I once worked as organiser and researcher). I remember reading this book while I was there, and how it made so much sense to me — also made me realise I was more of an educator than an organiser, and certainly no charismatic leader though I saw the good of both of these things in a strong collective mix of people working for radical change.

Horton writes:

There’s a lot to be learned from unsuccessful organization over a specific issue, from achieving a specific victory, like preventing a building from being torn down or getting a new sewer system. However, some equally valuable learning takes place when you escalate your demands to the place where you finally lose. Now if you don’t push to the place where you might fail, you’ve missed a wonderful opportunity to learn to struggle, to think big and challenge the status quo, and also how to learn to deal with failure. If you analyze them, you can learn more in some ways from failures than from successes. Now, all this is predicated on learning from analyzing your experience. An experience you don’t learn from is just a happening. (176)

The analysing is key in both organising and popular education, but it often gets dropped in organising because there is always a new emergency and never enough time. But in organising, success is always really important. It’s so easy to do what you need to do to win and let some of the other stuff go — and maybe sometimes it is what is needed, but if you get too used to it you maybe stop pushing as hard as you can.

There is also, of course, the recognition of different political moments, what is possible in a period of fear and organisation as opposed to a wave of movement:

In a social movement we are clearly part of a collective struggle that encourages us to increase our demands. One of the dynamic aspects of a social movement as opposed to an organization is that quite often in the latter, you’ll bargain down to. make concessions in order to survive.  You have a limited goal, and you might say, “Well, we want to get ten street lights,” and you’ll get together and figure that you won’t get ten, but you probably can get five. So you decide to tell them  you want ten in order to get five. In a social movement, the demands escalate, because your success encourages and. emboldens you to demand more.(115)

I found the section on Saul Alinsky particularly interesting, first because it embeds this critique in experience, and second because Alinsky’s model through the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is so prevalent in the US, and now in the UK as well through London Citizens.

One of Horton’s critiques of ‘Alinskyite’ organizers, was that they had a simplified model method that they used no matter the situation. Another common problem with organising I think:

They think it’s a matter of gimmicks. What made him [Alinsky] such a good organizer was his tremendous sense of humor, his brilliance and his utter disregard for what anybody said about him. he could have organized in half a dozen different ways and it would have worked, though some people think it was the particular method that was responsible. You don’t try to imitate people who know more than you. You try to learn from them. (178)

Particularly interesting was where Horton believed Alinsky had failed:

He thought that they’d want to share what they had learned with other people and that there would be a radical community movement. He felt this movement would spread, but it didn’t, because once the local leaders he had developed got into power, they held onto it and stayed where they were. in the Back of the Yards community in Chicago, the people Saul had worked with  became part of a racist power structure. This was the first community Saul had organized, and he was very upset about the outcome…. Although I always had tremendous respect for his integrity and ability, I didn’t always agree with Saul. His purpose was to put the poor and disinherited in power, he didn’t realize that when these people were no longer poor themselves, they wouldn’t necessarily be dedicated to poor people anymore. (180)

In L.A. we had some unpleasant encounters with the local branch as we did not fit their model and strategy of building power. I heard many similar stories from sister organisations, and these stories went back twenty years or more. For most of us this critique was combined with respect for what they had accomplished, but it never felt that respect was mutual. I think Horton’s observations above make some sense of this pattern.

But much of it comes back to the tension within our own organisation, particularly when it comes to people making their own decisions, leading their own fights, and needing that win:

Saul and I differed because my position was that if I had to make a choice between achieving an objective and utilizing the struggle to develop and radicalize people, my choice would be to let the goal go and develop the people. He believed that organizing success was the way to radicalize people. (180)

This tension between means and ends, process and potential failure as opposed to anything for success in a struggle that is almost always on someone else’s timeline (whether it is an employer, a landlord, a developer, whatever) is one faced by all movement organisations. It isn’t one that can necessarily be resolved, like so many things. You have to sit and struggle through this dialectic, and that struggle will hopefully bring you closer to accomplishing lasting change. Social change organisations that are not having this struggle? I worry a lot about those organisations.

For more on organising and popular education…

 

Save

Save

Israel Joshua Singer, Podgórze Ghetto, Płaszów Camp

Israel Joshua Singer is Isaac Baschevis’s older brother. His book The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) blew me away. Written in Yiddish about the Jews of Łódź, Poland, it reads to me like a working out of demons — a deep and knowledgeable, very Marxist examination of capitalism and justice, yet the most chilling of conclusions about the power of hate.

All of these things find an equally chilling physical manifestion in the ghetto of Podgórze and the remains of Płaszów Camp.

The Brothers Ashkenazi begins, of course, in the Łódź ghetto, and contains the first of many things that struck me like blows, the similarities of segregation in Poland and that of African-Americans in the US:

At first, the Jews confined themselves to their own quarter. Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers converging upon Lodz from the surrounding areas…

Gradually the Jews began to spill out of their congested area in Wilki, which was officially closed to them. The first to stick a toe inside the restricted area were the more affluent, audacious Jews; presently the more timorous followed.

Then, like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to include them.

Here too is an examination of real estate, and strategies for overcoming racial and religious restrictions as seen through the wheelings and dealings over building a new residential suburb. A savvy character named Preiss sees the potential, and buys land from a heavily indebted noble family, pretending it is for a factory.

Forgetting the fact that a Polish nobleman was obliged to address a Jew by his first name only, the Kanarskis abjured protocol and were almost civil to their visitor.

They are furious when they find out it is to become a residential area for Jews rather than an industrial one, but too late — the new municipality of Baluty is built, swallowing up peasant huts and transforming the lives of the gentiles within them in a new cultural melding.

This is also a story of the lived experience of Hasidic Judaism, of the unique battles between tradition and modernity faced by those raised in such traditional households. It explores the many contradictions of religion and capitalism, as well as the complicated relationships between family through the complex relationship between the twin brothers Ashkenazi, Simha Meir (Max) and Jacob. Both become successful, though in very different ways, both leave Hasidic Judaism for the most part behind them. Both love the same woman. There are a host of characters that seem drawn directly from life in all of their quirks and hypocrisies. My favourite is perhaps Feival, who works to recruit young men away from the Hasidim and into the intellectual heresy of their choice.

In his large house, strewn with daughters, papers, promissory notes, and bedding, stood bookcases filled with books for which he had paid fortunes.

His wife and daughters hate him…I was impressed by how Singer exposes quite relentlessly the oppression of women, their limited possibilities, the ways that it twists and distorts their lives and dreams. Not so impressed at the consistently shallow figures of haridans running around the novel (with one exception), but no one in this is whole.

What most fascinated me, however, is how with all of this emotional complexity of life and religion as they are lived, this also manages to be a story of the industrial revolution. A story of the rise of capitalism. It describes the practice of Jews buying factories through gentile front men, and hiring only gentiles so their factories can run through the Sabbath ‘with impunity and a clean conscience.’ Simha Meir becomes Max in his quest to become the ‘King of Łódź’.

More than ever he spent sleepless nights, scheming how to squeeze even more profits out of the factory.

He cuts out middle men, reduces quality of the materials used, reduces the amount of material, improves technology from hand looms to steam, reduces wages, increases hours. It explains the whole process of piecework and subcontracting. It describes in detail manufacturing at the beginning of the 1900s, here is just  a sample:

A giant cloud of steam, moisture, and stench hovered over the dyeing rooms. the directors grimaced at the half-naked workers clattering in wooden clogs over the slippery stone floors. they laundered the goods, rinsed and dried them before huge ovens, steamed them, threw them into bins, and passed them through the press.

By now the visitors had had enough, but Ashkenazi wouldn’t let them go.

There are ongoing strikes and the organizers are complex and sympathetic characters appearing throughout the book. The strikes are mostly broken — it is Simha Meir who reports its organizers to the police. Thus the workers come to study Marx:

Ironically, there was no place in tsarist Russia that offered such splendid opportunity to study Marxism as prisons.

As the strike falls apart, religious violence is unleashed as Catholics rampage through Jewish streets. The fragile solidarity built between workers is nowhere near enough to contain the fury and violence.

As the Jewish community mourns its dead and rebuilds what has been destroyed, industry and business push forward into a new time of prosperity for the few and increased misery for the workers.

The contradictions of capitalism emerge, as the huge bubble of credit spurring prosperity eventually bursts. Fires break out across the city as factories, warehouses, spinneries burn for the insurance. Simha Meir stays ahead. Rebuilds.

More violence is unleashed as the Austrian army occupying Poland unravels, and war breaks out. Singer writes:

The only ones with no homeland to return to were the Jews. Hooligans of all persuasions daubed their homes and shops with obscene and threatening slogans. the sounds of nationalistic and religious songs were accompanied by the tinkle of shattered Jewish windowpanes.

This is eerie. Just as is the descriptions of the 1918 massacre/pogrom of Lviv (Ukrainian)–Lwów (Polish)–Lemberg (Austrian).

When the Crocuses arrived and drove off the Ukrainians, the Jewish quarter was offered to them as a prize. A mob of priests, clerks, streetwalkers, nuns, housewives, criminals, teachers, monks, nurses, and assorted civilians gathered to egg on the conquerors. “Get the sheenies!” they howled. “Hang them by their beards! Smoke them out like rats!”

The mob is everyone, it unites the city across all other barriers because who does not appear in this list? Legionnaires disarm the Jews, hang the leaders. The next morning they set up machine guns at all the strategic corners and open fire. Then they go from house to house stripping them of valuables, raping women and killing at whim babies and grandmothers and anyone who resists.

“Let no Jewish seed remain in Christian Poland!” the officers cried.

On the second night they do their best to burn the quarter down to the ground.

Singer’s despair weighs on you like a stone. This insanely violent and destructive anti-Jewish sentiment makes a mockery of Marx — not in terms of the functioning of capitalism and industry and the resulting desperation and misery of the workers, but in the hopes for the unity of the working class to overturn it. You arrive at this conclusion with Singer, and it fucking hurts.  Because he understands the plight of the workers all too well, and his sympathies are always with the agitators fighting for change:

Like flies caught in spider webs, the men, women, and children of Balut sat glued to their looms, working until they dropped. But all the millions they earned weren’t enough to prepare for the Sabbath.

Yet in a world where capitalism has intertwined with gentile power and hate, capitalism is impossible to overturn and attempts to do so will only bring another wave of Christian violence crashing down on the Jewish community. Another strategy is required.

Had Jews adopted the gentile’s ways, they would have already long since vanished from the face of the earth. But the Jews perceived that theirs had to be a different course, and it was this perception that had lent them the moral strength to endure and accumulate the only kind of force the gentiles respected — intellectual and economic power.

You can read this book perhaps as a commentary of the emptiness, the unhappiness of In Max Ashkenzai’s life, where he only finds a measure of fulfillment in reconciling with his family through mutual tragedy. Yet I don’t think Singer lets us off that easily. In the face of hatred he shows how Max’s life — despite its ruthless exploitation of his fellow Jews along with gentiles, its emptiness  and unhappiness — is perhaps the best Jews can achieve. It is a victory and a revenge against Polish society that needs celebration. Thus, at his funeral, Max is acknowledged the King of Lodz, and beloved of his people:

Piotrkow Street was black with people, droshkies, carriages, and cars. Wild-bearded Hasisdim walked next to top-hatted bankers, grimy vendors, clerks, brokers, herder students, beggars, thieves, workers. In Max Ashkenazi’s passing they say the demise of Lodz itself. His funeral was its funeral.

It was hard reading this to remember that it was published during the Nazi’s rise to power, that these conclusions were reached with such desperate sadness before anyone knew the unthinkable thing the Nazis planned. These conclusions seem even more apt in grappling with the meaning of the holocaust, and I have found a little more insight I think, into today’s politics and all the ugliness of Israel’s actions. I still hate them, and watch, with heart breaking, oppression beget oppression.

“Let no Palestinian seed remain in Jewish Israel!” the officers cried.

While Krakow’s museums and plaques and self-descriptions rightly celebrate the stories of those who stood against the Nazis — among them Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Catholic owner of the Eagle Pharmacy in Podgórze who continued operation and helped the resistance, or Schindler (with all his complications) whose factory also sits in Podgórze — they fail signally to engage with this longer history.

We did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau — the thought of visiting a place of such horror as an attraction, with a guided tour for tourists as you must, filled us with dread. Instead we spent a day exploring the remnants of the ghetto on our own.

Between 1941 and 1943, Nazis carried out mass murders of Jews here in Plac Bohaterów Getta/ Plac Zgody — the staging point for their deportation to other camps from the ghetto. The Nazis ordered all Jews to leave Krakow in 1940; 17,000 remained and all were forced into the ghetto. In 1942, the Nazis carried out a mass deportation of people to Bełżec death camp. Those remaining they divided into sections “A” and “B”, employed and unemployed, useful and not useful. I think it is this kind of organizational detail that I find most terrifying. Those in group “A” were later marched to Płaszów Camp just down the road, while the people of “B” were murdered on the spot or sent to Auschwitz.

This is also the square on which the Eagle Pharmacy sits.

Podgórze

A later picture I found: the plac in 1958, with an advertisement in the background for Nova Huta…the past invisible here, and only a looking forward to the future.

808302

We hunted down the remnants of Podgórze’s walls, built to contain and cage:

Ghet Krakow 2

Today, here is a view of the old ghetto framed by the remaining section of wall on the left:

Podgórze

Podgórze

A terrifying picture of the clearing out of the ghetto, pieces of the wall in the background, ‘normal’ life beyond them:

Ghetto

From Podgórze, we crossed the highway to climb a prehistoric  mound, mythologised as the resting place of King Krakus, Kraków’s founder. It is the oldest human-made structure in Krakow, and normally I would have been much more excited about that. Alongside it, as you can see, sits a huge quarry. Used by Spielberg in filming Schindler’s list, it was also a site of work for groups from Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

bigplaszow2

 

We continued on along a fairly overgrown and narrow track alongside the quarry and with a Catholic cemetery on the other side. Finally we reached Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

It was dusk, and I know some of the ruins still exist at the other end, where the main entrance sat. We did not go and find them. But we looked out over the site from above, eerie and empty. You want to be alone with your thoughts in such places, don’t you.

Podgórze

This is what sat here once:

PlaszowCampWe wandered back through Podgórze, and into Kazimierz, the older Jewish neighbourhood sitting just south of Wawel castle.

This history of violence and contradiction lingered. It is not something that should be, or even could be, reconciled, contained, fully understood, capped off, or put behind us. This issue of how not just to bridge what divides us — and there is the whole grab-bag to choose from such as race, religion, gender, sexuality and any other difference we choose to invest with such meanings — but to find strength and beauty in our diversity, remains the key challenge for liberatory praxis I think.

Kazimierz & Podgórze

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Poor People’s Movements: Piven and Cloward

Poor People's Movements: Piven and ClowardPoor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1978) by Piven and Cloward has become a classic of social movement theory, and one I find quite fascinating even though I disagree with almost all of it.

I read this years ago as an organiser and remember being both impressed, and a little struck by their lack of generosity to people in the movement.

What I love is that these are engaged scholars, part of the struggle for change — to the extent that they became known as communists and radical figures to the national press. They are also firm in where they stand — with the poor and the vulnerable and the dispossessed. They try and write from a position of respect and understanding for people’s daily lives, and in some ways they have tried to create a radical theoretical framework that is responsive to how things have actually played out.

Yet in other ways, their framework is astoundingly rigid, and I would argue brittle. It ignores how histories and traditions of struggle are preserved and passed down, particularly among the oppressed.

Where we agree? Organizers do not create the conditions for mass movements. Piven and Cloward go on to argue that when these conditions are right, possibilities for change may be limited but the impetus of mass movement needs to be pushed forward as quickly and as far as possible to obtain what gains are possible.

I agree with that, and also that social movement organizations can sometimes act as an unwelcome break on people’s demands. But that this obliterates the need for organization at all? That such mass movements spring up from nothing and take their direction only from the objective circumstances of that particular capitalist moment?

No. I think Aldon Morris’s detailed work on the Civil Rights Movement shows just how important organization can be, particularly those that facilitate critical thinking and preserve historical memory that can be respectfully passed along to new leaders without dampening their creativity or innovation. Freire and Horton, as well as my own experience, point to how the practice of working collectively, direct democracy, research and strategy are all learned skills, and without them things fall apart pretty fast. But I’ll come back to them in later posts.

Developing Formal Organization:

So. The model they are critiquing:

But whatever their overarching ideology, activists have concentrated their efforts on developing formally structured organizations with a mass membership drawn from the lower classes. What underlies such efforts is the conviction that formal organization is a vehicle of power.

This is based on three assumptions:

1. formal organization allows coordination of economic & political resources of lots of poorly resourced people

2. these resources can be used strategically

3. allows the continuity of political mobilization over time (xx)

They think that they have proved the opposite — I think if you go through their case studies they certainly fail to do this, they are littered with the appearance of, and leadership from, organizations of different kinds. Still they argue:

The model has not succeeded in practice, as the studies in this book reveal…The flaw is, quite simply, that it is not possible to compel concessions from elites that can be used as resources to sustain oppositional organizations over time. (xxi)

This, of course, has always been an issue, but organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Highlander (and a host of other grassroots organisations) prove otherwise I think.  Organizers are of course attracted to the possibilities of organizing through extraordinary times of upheaval, but it is partly true that:

Organizers do not create such moments… Insurgency is always short-lived. Once it subsides and people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it temporarily threw up and which elites helped to nurture simply fade away…

Sometimes, but not necessarily true that

Organizations endure …by abandoning their oppositional politics. (xxi)

Sometimes, but not necessarily true that

Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilize. (xxii)

The question is how to ensure that this blunting of force, weakening of demands, and calcification or bureaucratization of organisations does not happen — and I think here that this is also where key figures play a role, who do not necessarily remain with one group but remain involved in the movement. People can be wise and giving rather than autocratic and smothering, and key people reappear over and over again, though generally in the background.

So, key arguments:

On power

Their opening sentence is:

Common sense and historical experience combine to suggest a simple but compelling view of the roots of power in any society. crudely but clearly stated, those who control the means of physical coercion, and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power over those who do not… Common sense and historical experience also combine to suggest that these sources of power are protected and enlarged by the use of that power not only to control the actions of men and women, but also to control their beliefs. (1)

Power is rooted in the control of coercive force and in the control of  means of production. However, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence. (2)

The role of structural limits

I am the last person to discount the importance of structural limits, but I think there is a more complex relationship than this:

…the forces which structure mass insurgency also define the boundaries within which organizers and leaders act…It is our belief that many past organizing efforts foundered because they failed to take account of the profound ways in which the social structure restricts the forms of political action in which the lower classes can engage, and having failed to recognize these limitation, organizers and leaders also failed to exploit the opportunities afforded by lower-class mobilizations when they did occur. (xxiii)

The occasions when protest is possible among the poor, the forms that it must take, and the impact it can have are all delimited by the social structure in ways which usually diminish its extent and diminish its force. (3)

I utterly disagree with the bit about ‘the forms it must take’, just as I would about demands and organisation. These are what emerge from local culture and histories of oppression and resistance, from the beliefs and practices of key organisations, from the supporting infrastructures in place to help grow movement or whose absence ensures it remains fragmented. The militant nonviolence of the civil rights movement was nothing natural or spontaneous, as Morris and Cobb show so convincingly.

The definition of mass movement

Lofland spends a lot of time on definitions, and chooses to focus on social movement organizations, whereas Piven and Cloward spend their time separating movement entirely from organization, and define the two quite separately. They argue for a broader notion of mass movement:

Prevailing definitions by stressing articulated social change goals as the defining feature of social movements, have had the effect of denying political meaning to many forms of protest. (4)

In some ways works for me. Yet there are many forms of protest that I think could be seen as social movement, but not mass movement. I think mass movement is quite rare. But back to them resolutely separating movement from organization:

The stress on conscious intentions in these usages reflects a confusion in the literature between the mass movement on the one hand, and the formalized organizations which tend to emerge on the crest of the movement on the other hand — two intertwined but distinct phenomena. (5)

Whatever the intellectual sources of error, the effect of equating movements with movement organizations — and thus requiring that protests have a leader, a constitution, a legislative program, or at least a banner before they are recognized as such–is to divert attention from many forms of political unrest and to consign them by definition to the more shadowy realms of social problems and deviant behavior. (5)

I think attention was diverted this way, but for ideological reasons and not really as a result of definitions. I like thinking about the complexity of protest, but that’s not what they’re doing here.

The rise of protest

So, this I think is true:

The emergence of a protest movement entails a transformation both of consciousness and behavior.

They argue it has 3 distinct aspects, which are interesting to think about, though Morris challenges these as well.

  1. The system loses legitimacy

  2. people normally fatalistic begin to assert ‘rights’

  3. new sense of efficacy, people believe they can change something

The change in behavior that occurs during a mass movement is twofold:

  1. masses of people become defiant

  2. defiance acted out collectively

I agree that these are indeed exceptional periods, and I like the respect they show in laying out just what poor people face when they begin to stand up and fight:

masses of the poor were somehow able, if only briefly, to overcome the shame bred by a culture which blames them for their plight; somehow they were able to break the bonds of conformity enforced by work, by family, but community, by every strand of institutional life; somehow they were able to overcome the fears induced by police, by militia, by company guards.

As they argue it,

The emergence of popular uprisings reflects profound changes in the larger society.

…only under exceptional conditions will the lower classes become defiant–and thus, in our terms, only under exceptional conditions are the lower classes afforded the socially determined opportunity to press for their own class interests. (7)

I really hate the use of the term ‘socially determined opportunity’. It’s like they jettisoned some of the Leninist dogma but kept some of the bits of Marxism I hate most, while losing the more flexible dialectic that I love. What do they argue are characteristic of these times of opportunity? Economic and structural change is not enough to explain it, because that’s a usual rather than extraordinary state of affairs under capitalism (I do like that point), nor is it just when social institutions break down, but when both happen together.

…when the structures of daily life weaken, the regulatory capacities of these structures, too, are weakened. ‘A revolution takes place,” says Lefebvre, “when and only when, in such a society, people can no longer lead their everyday lives; so long as they can live their ordinary lives relations are constantly reestablished.” (11)

And I do like the point that people have to believe their actions can achieve something, and the times when apathy can reasonably become hope are also rare.

For a protest movement to arise out of these traumas of daily life, people have to perceive the deprivation and disorganization they experience as both wrong, and subject to redress (12)

extraordinary disturbances in society are required to move poor ‘from apathy to hope’, these are rare, so too are rare the poor’s chances to effect real change. (14)

They do a lot of work to lay out the circumstances under which these conditions arise, but very little on the form insurgency then takes — nor do they actually address concretely why it doesn’t happen all the damn time. Piven and Cloward argue it is when:

— deprivation experienced in concrete setting — this shapes specific grievances and targets

— ‘institutional patterns shape mass movements by shaping the collectivity out of which protest can arise.’

— institutional roles determine the strategic opportunities for defiance, for it is typically by rebelling against the rules and authorities associated with everyday activities that people protest. (21)

Concrete conditions determine the time and shape of movement. Not intellectuals or practitioners.

Opportunities for defiance are not created by analyses of power structures… It is our second general point…that the opportunities for defiance are structured by features of institutional life. Simply put, people cannot defy institutions to which they have no access, and to which they make no contributions. (23)

This is basic to organising, right? You start where people are…but you sure don’t have to stay there. You collectively ask some questions, find some answers, craft strategy. Defiance can choose a number of targets, strategies, conditions, goals.

The kinds of response you get — and this assumes that government is the target, which I suppose in mass movement terms it usually is.

When government is unable to ignore the insurgents, and is unwilling to risk the uncertain repercussions of the use of force, it will make efforts to conciliate and disarm the protestors. (29)

  1. offer concessions.

  2. try to channel energies and angers into ‘more legitimate and less disruptive forms of political behavior.’

  3. undermine sympathy group able to command from wider public (31)

  4. employ repressive measures after above have worked (32)

Off course, much depends then on the political moment — who is in power, who their main constituency is, and yes, often the point in the electoral cycle is important, but always?

The main point, however, is simply that the political impact of institutional disruptions depends upon electoral conditions. (31)

Organizers and leaders cannot prevent the ebbing of protest, nor the erosion of whatever influence protest yielded the lower class. they can only try to win whatever can be won while it can be won.

In these major ways protest movements are shaped by institutional conditions, and not by the purposive efforts of leaders and organizers. The limitations are large and unyielding. Yet within the boundaries created by these limitations, some latitude for purposive effort remains. (37)

So win what you can before it all slips away and you just have to sit around waiting for the next wave?

Curious.

On to the case studies in the next post because this is already stupidly long.

Israel Zangwill’s Big Bow Street Mystery

big_bow_mysteryMrs. Drabdump, of 11 Glover Street, Bow, was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual.

She is quite a brilliant, gloomy character of a landlady, and the whole of this novel was immensely enjoyable. The actual locked-room mystery was perhaps a little heavy handed, but for a serial written in four weeks — that had the felicity of responding to some of its reader’s guesses within its pages — it is quite awesome. I loved the nod to Dickens in the names and the form of it, but it is far funnier and stripped of most of the Dickensian sentimentality.

There are a number of funny digs at hack writing in here, in the introduction as well as the story.

So much written about the East End was written to to uncover and to educate on poverty and working class misery on the one hand, or to titillate with crime and tales of the underworld. It occurred to me halfway through this how wonderful it was to read something without any of those aims. To read something set in the East End because the East End is what the author knew, to involve the whole panoply of East End characters, from landladies to Oxford and Toynbee House gentlemen to labour organisers with political pretensions to hack journalists scrounging their way and their ongoing debates with their friends the cobblers and the ex-detectives. Some theosophy thrown in along with the socialism. It is therefore mocking and irreverent, but compassionate too. Written from the inside as one of this great diverse throng, too often reduced to caricature.

That said, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie, which of course I also loved. This is a time of organising to change the world. Near the end he allows himself an aside:

A sudden consciousness of the futility of his existence pierced the little cobbler like an icy wind. He saw his own life, and a hundred million lives like his, swelling and breaking like bubbles on a dark ocean, unheeded, uncared for.

“The Cause of the People,” he murmured, brokenly, “I believe in the Cause of the People. There is nothing else.”

Israel_ZangwillIsrael Zangwill (1864-1926) born in London to immigrant parents, was long a champion of the oppressed. In reading about the suffragettes and East End struggles, his name appears time and time again. He had a complicated relationship to Zionism, wrote numerous books and plays, including a play about America as the ‘melting pot’ which earned him a letter from Roosevelt. Reading this, I thought to myself he is someone I would have really loved to know, so I shall investigate further at some point — or read more of his fiction.

 

Save

Re:Imagining Change – storytelling & movement building

Re:Imagining ChangeRe:Imagining Change is a very useful little book — both for activists looking to reframe the issues they are fighting and energize people around their cause, but also I think for critical theorists thinking about praxis. Authors Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning write:

Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to the ideas and methods of the smartMeme Strategy and Training Project. We founded smartMeme to innovate social change strategies in response to the movement-building and messaging demands of the globalized information age. We are motivated by the social and ecological crises facing our planet and by a belief that fundamental change is not only possibly, but necessary. (11)

On the one hand it is written simply and is full of charts and questions to really help people on the ground work to create and tell a powerful story about their struggle (and I like that for the authors this is clearly just one component of movement building, and they ask that a politics and ethics of justice and accountability  be intrinsic to this approach). They write ‘smartMeme uses storytelling to integrate traditional organizing methods with messaging, framing, and cultural interventions’. (12)

On the other, it is also contains some big thinking about discourse, narrative and hegemony. Thinking and theory that has been boiled down into the bare essentials through multiple workshops with a range of organisations around a range of issues. This is what activists working on the ground have found most useful in this theory — a good way to direct theoretical forces but also ask some questions about where those in practice may be missing something important.

It is in five sections:

Section I – overview of story-based strategy campaign model

Section II – theoretical framework of narrative power analysis

Section III – battle of the story method

Section IV – points of intervention

Section V – case studies

For me, and probably this is because of all I have been grappling with and my fascination with Gramsci, there was a long section that I found summarised much of what I have been thinking in a rather satisfying way (and while I have read a lot of Gramsci, I have not read much at all about narrative power analyses or story based strategies, though I have sat through a few press and spin trainings):

Many of our current social and ecological problems have their roots in the silent consensus of assumptions that shape the dominant culture…

To make real and lasting change…these stories must change.

A narrative power analysis recognizes that humans understand the world and our role in it through stories, and thus all power relations have a narrative dimension. Likewise, many stories are imbued with power. This could be the power to explain and justify the status quo or the power to make change imaginable and urgent.

A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? What new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we see? And, perhaps more urgently, what are the stories that can help create the world we desire?

Narrative power analysis starts with the recognition that the currency of story is not necessarily truth, but rather meaning. In other words, we often believe in a story not necessarily because it is factually true; we accept a story as true because it connects with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling.

The role of narrative in rendering meaning in our minds is what makes story a powerful force. These power dynamics operate both in terms of our individual identities — whether or not you get to determine your own story — and on the larger cultural level: Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our world? (20-21)

Who is heroic? Who is the villain? The answers show ‘the narrative dimensions of the physical relationships of power and privilege…’  (21)

A nice, simple view of Gramsci:

Hegemony operate in cultural stories that over time gain widespread acceptances and reinforce a dominant perspective or worldview. These webs of narratives are control mythologies, which shape a shared sense of political reality, normalize the status quo, and obscure alternative options or visions (22-24)

Referring to these stories as “mythologies” is not about whether they are true or false — again, it is about how much meaning they carry in the culture. (24)

And what this book is all about — changing people’s minds

A narrative power analysis suggests that the problem is not necessarily what people don’t know (the facts). Rather, the problem may be what they did know (underlying assumptions).

In other words, people have existing stories about their world that may act as narrative filters to prevent them from hearing social change messages. (28)

I think this is very true, and I also think it shows one potential limitation of this approach — it is in many ways about asking important questions while crafting stories, but those stories are still mostly for consumption. And I worry that there is not enough on how we know we are overcoming our own filters and our own stories.

Growing up poor, working alongside communities of colour and communities who don’t speak English, I have encountered (and continue to encounter) a large number of well-meaning individuals somehow unable to see any member of these groups as equal to them in experience or intelligence, who have believed they had all the answers if only people would listen. They liked to tell stories, to try and educate, to try and convince us that our narrative filters were wrong — when actually there was nothing wrong with our narrative filters. They just didn’t understand our realities.

This kind of approach used without a very deep integrity and commitment to critical dialogue and self-reflection could potentially lend itself to the same patronising mythmaking it is trying to fight. It needs to use both the process of creating stories, and the stories we create, to challenge and educate people to interrogate all such myths and memes for themselves and in themselves. So for example, when they write:

Audiences naturally look for characters we can identify with. Which characters do we sympathize with or relate to? (53)

They don’t interrogate the reality that in the US it is fairly well-known that many white people only relate to white people — and of their (self-identified) class or above. Hollywood holds this as axiomatic, immigrants know it, poor people know it, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the ongoing violence with impunity against Black bodies has shown again and again how true it is — how then do you frame your stories? How do you choose your audiences? How do you ensure sympathy? Who do they mean when they say ‘we’?

This small sentence alone raises immense issues and complexities in an American context, because the character that may evoke the most sympathy from the broadest swathe of American society — and that’s a group needing some targeting — may not at all be the character that should be used, and may in fact prop up the oppressive and all-pervasive racism that exists even though it might be trying to do the opposite in some well-meaning way.

Of course, this analysis would have made this a much longer book.

I think ultimately the point has to be to enable people to resist and deconstruct the power of myths and memes, and to collectively and as broadly as possible build up new and empowering stories. I think this book starts asking many of the right questions, starts thinking about some of the tools to do this. I also think these narrative tools are tools that can be used to move our causes forward and to build movement, and we ignore them at our peril. But I worry about using them too easily.

I kind of like this definition for example:

At smartMeme we think of a meme as a capsule for a story to spread. (34)

I like how they outline the craft of telling stories, and their elements: Conflict; Characters; Imagery (Show Don’t Tell); Foreshadowing; Assumptions.

This helps think about how to shift the frame, how we start to have the conversations we need to be having about issues of environmental collapse, and social and racial justice. I think perhaps I just wanted a little stronger dose of caution, of Paolo Freire and some of the brilliant work coming out around race and class, of critique and questioning incorporated into story telling and the complexities of that in the world we face today.