Tag Archives: social movement

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

I had a crazy day today. So much work to get through before taking a break. I am so deeply grateful for a life where I can take breaks. Deep excitement about teaching housing, but a bit nervous too. A bureaucratic meeting in which Foucauldian theories of governance became real with an extraordinary intensity. A meeting with the mayor in which it turns out we are all thinking different things about this research. Much needed pints with some of the more awesome academics I know to talk about radical housing and radical research. A long day.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, after finding it in looking for something else but it came to mind again this evening. I wrote it almost ten years ago and hadn’t read it since then to be honest, and I know it’s not available anymore from Perspectives Journal, who I wrote it for (which explains some of the references). Back before I was an academic. A year after I had left LA, quit organising. I was still thinking about it. For all I’ve learned and written since then I’m still not sure I know more really than I knew then, though I phrase many things differently. Leonardo Vilchis is still my hero, still smarter than me.

In other news, isn’t Killing Eve the best thing you’ve seen on television in ages (I know I’m a little behind on this)? Much as I love Jodie Whitaker…

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

Introduction:

In August of 2002, two different families came to Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) because the manager of the Morrison Hotel had stopped accepting their rent. As tenant organizers, we had found this to be a common tactic to evade the laws of rent control and illegally force people from their homes. Typically the managers would not accept rent for a couple of months, then tell tenants that they had to leave. If the tenants did not leave they would be evicted in court for non-payment of rent, their only defense a claim that the managers had refused their rent. The managers themselves would contradict this while under oath, if it ever actually went before the judge. Such a tactic generally came into play when an owner was trying to empty a building, either to sell for higher profit, or to rehabilitate it and then rent the apartments at four or five times the original rent.

The Morrison Hotel is a 117-unit building situated only a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the midst of a flurry of new construction and luxury lofts. Famous as the cover of The Doors’ album titled The Morrison Hotel, over the years it had become a residential hotel. Essentially it had become housing of last resort, single rooms, with over half of them sharing public restrooms and showers. The managers sat in a small glass-fronted room facing the doors so that they could monitor everyone who came in or out. Knowing that many managers are unhappy about the presence of tenant organizers in their buildings, we went in on a Sunday morning while they were in church. Upon entering, fleas and insects attacked us, roaches were everywhere, and the smell of sewage was overpowering. Mold covered bathroom walls, paint peeled from the ceilings, plaster cracked, fire doors sat broken, panes of glass were missing from windows and balcony doors. The entire building seemed to be full, with a slight majority of the tenants being families with small children. We met one family of five whose two children had suffered from severe lead poisoning and permanent brain damage due to the flaking paint. While Los Angeles County had ordered the owners to rehabilitate that individual unit, only a few years later it was once again in very poor condition. The owners were not ordered to rehabilitate the rest of the building, nor inform other families of the lead hazards. Apart from families, the other tenants were single individuals or couples on general relief or disability. For all of them, the Morrison Hotel was the housing of last resort before the streets.

Within three months, more than 70 of these units would be empty. Not one of them was vacated under the legal requirements of rent control. Some families were evicted in the courts after the managers had withheld all mail informing them of the eviction process against them. The sheriff informed them of their eviction orders when he knocked on their doors. Tenants testified to physical assault, sexual assault, constant insults, and the intimidation of both themselves and their children. Several tenants told of being threatened with the manager’s dog, a pit bull. Threats alone were enough for many to just walk away, others were paid sums ranging from $25 to $4,000 to vacate.

While several tenants who had been threatened verbally were brave enough to come forward to file police reports, the police told them that “until it became physical” they would do nothing. At the same time, the police were being used to keep us—tenant organizers—out of the building.

All of these tactics were set into motion when the owners put the Morrison Hotel up for sale for $8,000,000 and drew up initial plans to convert it into a boutique hotel. They had bought the building for $1,000,000 eight years before, and after years of collecting rent while investing the absolute minimum to keep the building standing, they were looking to gain a substantial profit. The legal system that had failed to ensure the building’s maintenance was used to keep community workers out of the building, and thereby facilitate the owners’ attempt to circumvent California housing law by emptying the building by any means necessary.

This story exposes two things: the first is the changing dynamic of property development and profit in city communities, and the second is the ugly reality that under our legal framework, property rights take precedence over all else in the United States.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In this story, and others like it, lies not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of both development and the private property that is so foundational to our current system. What happened in this building (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society. Without grasping this
moment, critically analyzing it in light of theory, folding it into a greater movement and building on it, this story is nothing more than a story, and represents a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists, or in the hearts and minds of those who fought. This is the importance of theory for the people.

The importance of these stories for theorists is that they represent the harsh reality as lived by America’s poor and working class. It is the reality in which any radical movement needs to ground itself, and a field of battle where those who suffer the most from capitalism can drive the effort towards changing it. Voline wrote:

The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to “govern” or “guide” them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action…of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations…and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and “self-administration,” aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them…i

The question has always been how can this be achieved? The masses will never organize themselves around abstractions while they have to remove cockroaches from their children’s ears, or try to channel the water from a leaking roof away from their beds. They will organize around their key issues: security in their home and community, justice in their workplace, healthcare, a decent education and a future for their kids. It is the role of the radical organizer to ensure that these struggles open up an understanding of the structural realities that have made them necessary. It is also their role to ensure that each struggle builds community and horizontal organizations that will continue working together after the immediate struggle is resolved, to bring theory and practice together, and to tie local struggle into a greater movement for change.

Several things are required to build such a movement. The first is a deeper understanding of the forces operating in our local communities, the tides of disinvestment and investment that have caused such devastation, and how this fits into the larger framework of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism. And we need to share lessons learned through practice, to build stronger horizontal organization and greater consciousness of struggle and change. This article will briefly look at the forces behind the new gentrification and how these can be challenged in practice. It will do so through brief case studies of the organizing work of two community-based non-profits in Los Angeles, SAJE, where I worked as an organizer from 2001 to 2007, and Union de Vecinos, through the words of Leonardo Vilchis, a cofounder and organizer. Both organizations are working to organize, to educate, and to build a greater movement for structural change.

SAJE

SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) was founded in 1996 to improve economic conditions and opportunities for low-income families in Los Angeles. Initially, SAJE worked with various worker-owned and run cooperatives, and also organized campaigns around banking rights, working to ensure that welfare recipients could open bank accounts rather than being forced to pick up their checks at the local check-cashing outlet. SAJE is also the convener of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, which won the largest Community Benefits Agreement of its time against Phillip Anschutz and AEG when they attempted to expand the Staples Center and is now working on issues regarding the University of Southern California’s responsibilities to the surrounding community through what is called the UNIDAD (United Neighbors In
Defense Against Displacement) campaign.

Although winning the Community Benefits Agreement with AEG, there were clear limits to the victory, as the construction of LA Live would lead inevitably to the wholesale displacement of the residents who were supposed to benefit from the agreement. So, SAJE committed itself to working in the Figueroa Corridor, an area consisting of 40 blocks of Figueroa Street that stretch from the Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles on the North, to the University of Southern California on the South. Surrounding this commercial strip and comprising a 12-square-mile area are neighborhoods that house 200,000 people whose median income is 49% of the City’s median. A majority are people of color, among them Latinos, Blacks and recent immigrants. Eighty-six percent are tenants.

Through door-knocking and tenant organizing work, SAJE worked with tenants to fight illegal evictions, harassment, and displacement. It built tenant organizations in both individual buildings and larger community areas, and challenged the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown and South Central.

Union de Vecinos

Union de Vecinos was founded in 1996. It emerged out of a decade of work organizing with the Catholic Church in the tradition of Liberation Theology, and was started as a purely volunteer organization in an effort to save the Pico Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from demolition. Over the past thirteen years, it has grown beyond its initial base in the projects to become a larger network of communities in different parts of Los Angeles County. They work mostly in Boyle Heights, but Union de Vecinos communities can also be found in Hollywood, North Hollywood, South L.A. and Maywood. It is a network that consists at any given time of between 25 and 30 different communities. Leonardo Vilchis defines a community as a small neighborhood, a group of people in a small enough area where it is possible for everyone to know each other. The communities that Union works with organize around the specific needs around their neighborhood. Within these communities, people develop their own programs to improve their neighborhoods and tackle specific issues. All of them come together periodically to organize broader campaigns around the key issues arising from their neighborhood work that affect everyone. Union has also worked to form building committees to address tenant rights issues, the protection of rent control, and the improvement of housing quality.ii

Since 1992, Boyle Heights has lost approximately 2,000 affordable housing units to publicly funded projects, which does not count the displacement caused by private owners and development. There were 1,500 units lost with the destruction of public housing, another 150 units with the construction of a new metro line, and 60 units lost for the building of a new police station.iii

Organizing Methodology:

Who Drives Change

The principal point of departure for both Union and SAJE is that for real and lasting change to be effective, it must be driven by those most affected by injustice. For Union this comes explicitly from the tradition of Liberation Theology and its preferential option for the poor, while for SAJE it is an explicitly theoretical position. For Leonardo Vilchis, this is also a very practical choice:

 … you could do a whole campaign on improving housing in Los Angeles where no tenants would be involved, and where you would raise your voice about the injustices within housing. You could put the data on the table and say this is why this is unfair. You could have all these middle-class people, educated people, college students (in the context of the United States, white people) to organize, and it would be a just cause, it would be the right thing, but I don’t think that that is the point of departure. The point of departure are the tenants themselves and the poor … the analysis, the description of the problem and the solution would be completely different from what this other group of people would make.iv

To build organization in the community you have to start where the people are, and any structures of cooperation have to be based in resolving community problems in ways that community involved actually have faith in. The struggle for bare survival is intense, and it is both a matter of respect and practicality to acknowledge that people will not get involved in anything that does not have an immediate impact on their lives.

It seems a simple enough proposition, and yet the hardest to actually practice for various reasons. The first lies in actually believing that it is possible when everything in a capitalist society tells you it is not. Even among those paying lip service to such an idea, it is difficult for many to put aside the preference and privilege assigned to education and professionalism, and far too often, race and language. And after years of working in the political arena when an organizer can often accomplish something through a few phone calls to City Hall, regular analysis is required to identify when to simply move forward on goals as defined by the community, and when to build capacity by stepping back and allowing people to take it to the city themselves. A clear and collective understanding needs to be built about how those who are educated and who hold professional qualifications should be of service in achieving the solutions as defined by the community, to the problems that the community itself has identified as the most important.

In practice there is a great complexity in this seemingly simple commitment. The poor and working class are constantly under attack on a multitude of fronts ranging from obscure changes in legislation that will have far-reaching negative impacts, to the criminalization of daily activities and the emptying of entire buildings and neighborhoods. It is a world of constant emergency where doing anything but immediately reacting is hard. And there is always the balance between doing anything possible to quickly stop something terrible, and building capacity through longer processes that often move more slowly and involve more risk than an orchestrated campaign following traditional organizing models. It is all too easy to get caught up in a struggle moving at a pace, and being fought at a level of technicality, that results in the poor being simply mobilized in support of an idea or strategy. But it is only through struggle and reflection upon struggle that people and the society they create are transformed.

It is also difficult because too often the poor are not organized. Horizontal structures of direct democracy have to be built in a community to direct the work for change, and this is a long, difficult, often heart-breaking process of many years. This is why we have much to learn from traditional community organizing, despite its self-imposed limits when it comes to real and lasting political change. Groups practicing direct democracy are necessary not only to have collective voice and power, but also to create a space where people can challenge themselves to think critically, to learn and to grow. These are often the only safe places where gender, race, nationality, and class can all be broken down, and the very nature of capitalism understood and rejected. Traditional community organizing has taught us that this doesn’t happen automatically,
and that building power for an oppressed group does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of then becoming oppressive to others.v This makes a guiding ideology and a methodology for making this happen all the more important. The power of such organization to stand up for itself is a beautiful thing when it exerts itself.

Union de Vecinos was founded exactly in a place where people were being silenced, and where the most poor were being pushed away from the decision-making process. There were a lot of people who said that they knew what the problem was with public housing. They were mostly politicians, mostly urban designers, planners, and bureaucrats. And they said the solution for public housing was a) to have more mixed income housing and b) to demolish the projects. And in that process a whole sector of the population was silenced and pushed aside from speaking. If you had asked the people in the projects the solution to public housing, they would’ve come up with a completely different list of answers. They told us yes, we want people to fix our homes. Yes, we want to have nicer services. But we want to stay here. Because, over the years the people who lived in the projects had built a community. Now the bureaucracy wasn’t functioning, the whole system was broken, but the way they solved it was by demolishing it and pushing people out of there. Our community had a different kind of solution. And so Union de Vecinos was started by bringing those people together who were being silenced and ignored by everybody else.

So the idea was to stop the demolition of the projects, to develop a system of relocation that would identify the real people who wanted to move out, and to talk about the preservation of public housing. And we did it totally in the margins, we didn’t have work anymore because the organization I worked for didn’t want us to continue organizing the community. We had to go find other jobs, and the tenants themselves had to do all of the work because we couldn’t be organizing, we could only provide technical support. So it became a strong volunteer organization where everyone was doing the work. We were getting together in the parking lots, in the yards, in people’s living rooms. But as the organization grew, we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a place to put our papers away, so a group of residents in the projects started saving some money and at some point they called for renting a place, and then we found a place in the community that we started renting. And for me that is very important, because they were the ones who were building the organization, they were the ones who were taking control of this process. We were providing all of the technical support that we could, but we didn’t want to be the ones pushing this, we wanted to know that it was coming from them. So they rented this place, and that is when Union de Vecinos got started. vi

Methodology:

Popular education is also foundational in the methodology of both organizations, closely intertwined as it is with the idea of being driven from below. Based on Paolo Freire’s work and writings, in essence it is a way of collectively building knowledge. It is a teaching methodology that rejects the idea of a student as a vessel to be filled with knowledge, but rather sees a process of learning as an interaction between student and teacher, growing out of the student’s lived experience. It is a collective process of learning, as well as a fundamentally political process of asking why the world is the way that it is, and how we can act together to transform it. Popular education as the basis for a method of organizing that builds critical consciousness and leads to concrete change is exemplified in this quote from Leonardo:

… I think the role of organizer, and I would slash it with organizer /popular educator/facilitator/animator is to bring people together to reflect on their reality, to define their reality, and then based on their own experience and their own condition, to seek for ways to change it in an organized way that deals with the social, economic, political, ideological, race and gender dimensions within the world. To get there the point of departure is the practice of being able to describe your world. …vii

What the popular educator brings to the conversation is the ability to move the description of the world to a critical analysis by asking questions, to move a conversation to an act of transformation. It does not mean remaining trapped in the initial world of students, circling, in the words of Freire, “like moths around a light bulb.”viii Their experience is only the starting point.

In this way, people “learn to learn,”ix they learn to deconstruct their environment and layers of oppression, and find themselves as creative and critical individuals able to act upon and change the world. It is for organizers to identify the teachable moments as they arise in the work, to leverage the daily struggles into a greater consciousness of the world and the underlying forces that have created it.

 … As organizers and popular educators, anything that the community talks about we see as a point of departure to do a social, political and economic analysis of the world. Anything can do it, a stoplight in an alley can take you to the issues of safety in the community and the need for light illumination and gangs and problems in the community and the social problems that come with gangs and you can follow that thread. Or you can talk about the budgetary reasons why they don’t want to put those lights and how the budget is allocated and where the priorities are and why they choose to put more police instead of more lights on the street and you can have a conversation on that. Or it can take you to going to the local neighborhood watch and asking the chief of police to sign a letter asking for new lights and finding out that the chief of police doesn’t care about putting lights on the street but only about putting people in jail so it leads you to understand the relation of power within the city, within the community, and the police and so on and so forth. So we use that a lot, we use these little moments, these situations, as tools to analyze the whole. … ”x

Leonardo’s description of identifying and using the teachable moment illustrates the key to popular education as a constant practice. Below is a more formal illustration of the methodology for collectivizing experience and continually building on that experience.xi

It provides a classic example of popular education theory in practice, an invaluable way of both adding theory to lived experience in a way that prioritizes one but values both, and of reflecting on past experience to build more effective campaigns in the future in a continually expanding spiral of experience, theory, and action.

The Challenges of Organizing: Organizing building by building:

The combination of traditional community organizing and popular education means that both Union and SAJE work on the issues that people themselves identify, though SAJE has chosen a more explicit focus on housing, development and displacement. The nature of the work requires that much of the organizing has to be done at a building level, side by side with tenants facing harassment, intimidation, and eviction. Working at this level to solve immediate problems gets people involved and offers a great starting point for connecting the issues of daily life to community wide problems, thereby creating a framework for and analysis and understanding of the world. It also carries many limitations however, that somehow have to be overcome for it to build towards a larger movement.
SAJE’s campaign in the Morrison Hotel showed this clearly. After getting in on the Sunday we set a date for the first building meeting at the St. Francis Center, a local service organization with whom we had built a strong partnership. We attempted to get into the Hotel again, but were physically kept out, first by the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially to keep us out. The police continued to take the side of the managers and the guards. The tenants brave enough to invite us in were physically threatened and faced with eviction, had their electricity turned off, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. In this climate of fear and intimidation, we worked to form a tenant union in the building. Not too many people attended the first meeting, and we essentially introduced ourselves, gave a broad picture of our experience with what was happening in the community, and allowed everyone to speak about the problems they were experiencing. People agreed to bring more of their neighbors to the next meeting, and we continued our attempts to get into the building.

The meetings began growing as people realized that they either had to fight or leave their homes. At the second meeting we began our analysis by putting a piece of paper on the wall and drawing a little cartoon building in the middle. And then we began to draw out who had power over the building. It started with the owners of course, and that is where most people’s initial analysis ended. We didn’t know a lot about the owners at that point, except that everyone had heard they owned a lot of buildings. So we asked the question, who has power over the owners?

And then we began an analysis of the city, drawing out the different structures of the Housing Department and the City Attorney’s Office. Over these we added the city council, made up of 15 elected representatives, the Mayor, and the City Attorney (another elected position in L.A.). We also looked at the County Health Department, and the County Board of Supervisors. We drew in the different state and city laws that protected tenants. And we looked at the city’s accountability to its residents, and the tenant’s own leverage over the owners.

We returned to this drawing to deepen collective analysis of the role and effectiveness of the city as we filed complaints on violations of rent control and habitability regulations. We also carried out participatory research on who exactly the owners were, what else they owned, what their business practices were. We found out that they owned or had owned at least 50 other properties through a complicated network of limited liability companies controlled primarily through the owner’s business, Phoenix Mortgage Corporation. We created a map of their business to be able to both analyze how they worked and who they were. This moved us into a discussion of the practice of rent collection in slum buildings while paying as little as possible in maintenance as one of the ways that these owners made their profit, and the extreme cost of those business practices to tenants. We talked about how the city not only failed to stop this, but often facilitated it, and why. We talked about the changes in the neighborhood and how those had changed the owners’ business practices. We discovered the discrimination in the owner’s business model shown by the differences in how they maintained their apartment buildings in Beverly Hills and their slum buildings concentrated in our own neighborhoods around downtown.

We were also able to see who exactly we were going up against, and the results of earlier attempts, which was important for strategy. As in many slum buildings, the two brothers who were actually responsible for the building’s conditions had distanced themselves from ownership on paper and legal liability as much as possible. The building was officially owned by the Hope Pico Limited Liability Company, which was registered in the state of Illinois and formed in turn by Phoenix Mortgage Company and two money investors. The Danpour brothers were the principals of Phoenix Mortgage, and in investigating them we found that Henry Danpour had two previous convictions for improperly maintaining his buildings. They both owned buildings, either jointly or passed back and forth, that had been identified by various city programs as violating basic habitability requirements. We were able to show that they had been sued multiple times by the tenants in their different buildings, and that several local tenant rights organizations had organized against them. By uncovering these facts together we were able to work with tenants towards a deeper understanding of the structures of oppression. The Morrison Hotel was also perhaps the best example we had of the ineffectiveness of city and county government when it came to enforcing their own codes against private owners. This was further tested by our own collective experience in navigating the city process.

We did similar analyses in each of the buildings that we organized. And every analysis led to deeper discussions of race and class, economics and gentrification. But building work was always intensive, and limited the number of people we could reach. The greatest struggle was always balancing the need to build towards a community-wide response to the problems, while also dealing with a constant level of emergency in the midst of a struggle. The Morrison Hotel was a campaign of extraordinary intensity and required a huge time investment to build trust among tenants, and between tenants and our organization. It was challenging to bring together a population made up of monolingual Spanish speaking families, African American veterans, and a handful of single people of various races, many of whom were rather eccentric, regular drinkers or users of varying levels of drugs, and some mentally ill. All meetings were carried out with simultaneous translation and it took some time to break down the barriers of language and race. Many of the elderly men really did not like small children, and in spite of on-site childcare, there were enough interruptions that it became a point of tension early on. The most effective thing in bridging these tensions was simply regular meetings and discussions, working together towards a common goal and building trust through knowledge of each other. These meetings would immediately address the many personal issues that arose, and, where possible, address them collectively.

Looking back, I know that we seriously under-estimated the investment of time that would be required of us, two years of weekly meetings with tenants, sometimes daily emergency visits to the building, regular one-on-ones, and constant negotiation with the lawyers and city officials who also became involved in the struggle. The symbolic victory was huge when the owner was convicted on 21 criminal counts by a city that had not taken a landlord to trial for decades. And we transformed how the city itself prosecuted problem owners. They began doing the same research that we had done: this resulted in their prosecution of both corporations and the individuals behind those corporations and considering the entire extent of an owner’s holdings when taking them to trial. The city has also begun working in partnership with community organizations.
And yet when looking at the scale of tenant participation, and our ultimate goal of building movement, there is definitely an argument that the Morrison Hotel campaign was a tactical mistake in building a larger base of tenants working together in a long-term way as part of a larger struggle around the causes of displacement in the community. We knew this possibility when we made the difficult decision to jump into a campaign there; we felt in the final analysis that it was too important of a symbol to allow it to fall without any struggle at all. Of all the tenants in the Morrison Hotel, only one leader has remained really active in the struggles of other tenants, though several have remained in touch and supportive of SAJE, donating either money or coming to occasional events. This is an all-too-common issue with many organizers, how to keep people involved in the struggle after their own immediate and pressing issues have been solved.

Overcoming Limitations, Building Structures for Participation:

At SAJE we had always identified this as an issue, and to ensure that our efforts were never limited in scale to a single building, our strategy had been to create a tenant clinic and something we called a Displacement Free Zone. We wanted the clinic to be a place to collectivize tenant experiences, to provide a foundation of knowledge about basic tenant rights and how these fit into a political and economic landscape, and work to build a sense of individual evictions as a community issue. Union de Vecinos has used similar clinics towards the same goal.

… At the clinic when people come together and start sharing their story one after another there is an awareness that we are not alone. There’s an awareness that this is not something that just happened to us because we didn’t pray enough or because we didn’t work hard enough or because they’re racist, there’s also an awareness that this happens because we are not organizing. … xii

Looking back to evaluate our success in these clinics, I believe the area we pulled tenants from was too small. As a result we never had a critical mass together in one place at one time to run a full workshop as we had planned, instead we usually ended up doing more work one-on-one with families, either as they trickled into the clinic, or when they came into the office with emergency situations requiring an immediate response. We were able to achieve some level of education and politicization, but not the strong collective sense of the problem that we hoped for.

We were more effective in building the Displacement Free Zone. As building blocks of the DFZ, we built tenant unions in various buildings, at one point we had eight tenant unions working on campaigns around improving conditions, preventing evictions, and stopping the harassment of tenants by landlords. The buildings themselves had regular meetings where tenants came together to discuss their issues and collectively make decisions on their own campaigns and strategies.

Volunteers from each of the buildings also came to DFZ meetings, which became a space to coordinate support for each other amongst the different buildings and begin to confront the wave of evictions and displacement changing the face of the neighborhood. We carried out an information and education campaign through door-knocking in the neighborhood to let other residents know their rights and where they could find help. This initial committee was gradually expanded to three committees in three different neighborhoods where we were doing building organizing. Although most of the tenants from the different buildings did not really continue in their support of other tenants after the particular campaign in their building had finished, they remained in contact with us and we had a core of people from each of the buildings who remained active in the struggle to improve the conditions in the community for everyone.

This system of working in multiple buildings at once worked reasonably well while the buildings we were involved in did not require a huge investment of our own time. The Morrison Hotel, however, put a huge strain on us, and maintaining active committees while simultaneously supporting campaigns in other buildings proved to be incredibly difficult. I don’t believe we adequately took into account the amount of time needed for tenants with no previous experience in political or community activities to have the confidence and the capacity to run regular meetings and activities on their own. And, of course, I believe we could have done better in giving them the tools required, and in using every meeting as an opportunity for people to develop those skills. It felt at all times as though we were incredibly stretched, and while we had a lot of idealism, our own practical skills were continually developing as none of us had come to the work with much experience either. We definitely learned that certain key skills such as meeting facilitation were incredibly difficult to build in everyone.

Union de Vecinos has been more successful in creating a large base of members that are working actively, many of them with minimal support from the organizers. This only underlines the importance of successful organizers sharing their experience and knowledge. Over two decades of working in the neighborhood, Union de Vecinos’ organizers have created a broad feeling of community that is not always necessarily active, but can come together when necessary. As Leonardo puts it:

 … Overall we have between 25 and 30 committees. It fluctuates because in the community, you know, people aren’t as involved if nothing is happening. Sometimes if an alley was the core of the problem in that community and you take care of that and there are no gang members and there are no buildings with problems, then people … well, they’re still your friends, they’re still part of your larger community even though they feel they no longer need to meet as a committee for a while. Just like with your friends, you don’t always see each other all the time. So those communities disappear and then others emerge in the process … xiii

They also grow in an organic way, through the members themselves talking to their neighbors. And over time there are now a number of committees able to maintain themselves on their own, though Union de Vecinos stays in regular contact with all of them.

…The way they (the committees) develop is that our members talk to other members, they learn about the issues and invite us to some meetings. Now sometimes it happens that they hold their own meetings and invite us to come and talk to them, and then they continue their meetings and we don’t see them for three months and then they invite us again. Our goal as organizers, our goal as staff to this organization, is to be in touch with the people in every committee, and to keep an ongoing relationship with every committee… ”xiv

It is this loose structure of keeping involved those wanting to be active, creating a space that allows committees and people involved to come and go, to take time off if burned out and easily pick up again, and building skill and capacity in individuals that has allowed such a small staff to build an impressive network of grassroots organization.

The committees also vary tremendously in size depending on the community and the people involved, but they have been successful as long as a core group of people are committed to the long-term and big-picture struggle. At SAJE it certainly took us a while to learn how to start building movement while also winning battles. Again, as Leonardo puts clearly:

 … The smallest committee is six people, but going back to the traditional organizing model, we do pay attention to the balance of power. We want to have an impact, we want to have influence in the community. So if it is six people who just want to meet with us and talk to us about their problems but they’re not involved in anything in the community, and don’t want to be involved we really don’t work too much with them. But if it is six people who are involved and who are able to move the community we work with them. … ”xv

When we first started doing the tenant organizing at SAJE, we more than once invested a lot of time in helping individual families who weren’t at all interested in giving back to the greater community. By doing this we made a great difference in individual lives, but it did not contribute to building something larger. In the face of desperate need, it is often difficult to limit your own involvement. It is only through commitment to the bigger picture that this becomes possible.

Building Scale:

The biggest keys in building the numbers and level of organization needed to have an impact on the larger problems facing a local community seem to come down to a few key principles. The first is to organize around what the people in the affected neighborhood want to organize around, typically things that are immediately relevant and meaningful in their lives and capable of providing concrete victories. The second is to target your efforts to those who share a similar commitment to you, and will help you organize something greater than a single victory. The third is to create fluid yet stable horizontal structures that allow people to be involved over a long-term period, and can be reanimated if the community becomes inactive for a time. And the last is simply to make a long-term commitment to a community and to individual development; what Union de Vecinos has created was built by key organizers’ working in the same community over a span of twenty years.

Yet even so, many of the problems that organizers face have roots far distant from the local level. Local action can be capable of only so much when facing the regional, national and global economic realities that define life in the inner city. One of the most vital areas of study is how to build cohesive and useful coalitions of organizations on every scale, from the city to the region to the state to the nation to the globe.

For organizations and groups committed to being driven by those they are organizing, this presents a particularly difficult problem. There is a risk that pressure could be brought to bear from the top down and coalition work turn into a simple mobilization of local residents. To prevent this from happening while still facilitating useful work, safeguards and a strict decision-making process must be set in place. At the same time, the process must be as streamlined as possible to reduce the additional burden of work on already overburdened organizers or it will simply not be possible. The process and the work must always be immediately relevant, reinforcing the need for theory and big-picture strategies. And best practices for integrating high-level campaigns with those working on the ground need to be investigated, developed, and shared. Both SAJE and Union de Vecinos are members of various coalitions on a city-wide level, and for the past two years have been part of a new and promising national coalition of organizations and theorists called Right To The City. This is certainly an area where much more needs to be written, and their efforts to build national organization amongst organizations that are committed to radical community organizing needs to be evaluated and shared.

Conclusion:

The eternal organizing problem is the unending succession of emergencies, of actions, of things that must be done. There is never enough time to do everything that requires doing, and making the effort to lift your head to look where you are going often seems impossible. This problem is compounded when you have to sort through the huge amount of theory and political thought that is not grounded in practice, and does not serve community building in immediately meaningful ways. This is no reflection on the usefulness of theory in understanding the world, simply that for those immersed in grassroots work, it is hard to find time and space to reflect on the abstract.

There is also very little written on the practice of radical community organizing, and the difficulties in creating sustainable and long-term horizontal community organization. There is even less on how to use every meeting and every campaign, however small, to constantly build towards a scale of involvement and power that can
have a real impact.

This essay is a beginning attempt to start thinking through what I have learned over years of work, and is only a very small contribution towards how we can more concretely respond to overwhelming challenges while remaining true to the belief that real change must come from the masses. How we can undermine the dominant ideas of private property, and propose alternatives. How we can create sustainable communities of critical analysis and action that operate through direct democracy. It has possibly raised more questions than provided answers and the ultimate question is whether such work could ever be enough. I don’t know that it is a question that can be answered, but it should be raised by anyone committed to these ideals as way to measure our own efforts and the usefulness of our theory. To organize certainly requires a great faith in the knowledge and abilities of the poor and working class, but also a recognition of the organizer’s place in a long line of people working for social justice both leading up to this time, and taking over after we are gone. I want to end with Leonardo’s answer to the question of what he thought was the most important advice he could give to other organizers:

“ …We have to understand that we are not operating on the time of the here and now. We are operating at the time of history, so these things take a lot of time. We need to think in terms of generations. A lot of times I think that the leaders that we are working with right now, the adults in the community, are not the main beneficiaries of this process. It is the kids who grow up in an environment where their parents are organized, where their parents come to these barbecues that Union de Vecinos is organizing, and who come to these actions. These kids grow up in a completely different world than they would have if they hadn’t been part of this movement, and that’s what I’m kind of hoping for in terms of the work of Union de Vecinos. Our results are not the stuff that we did 10 years ago, it’s the stuff that will happen in 20 years, and for that you have to have a different kind of patience.

You need to think in terms of making history, that you’re part of a historical process, of a social process. Social processes don’t get developed overnight. You’re talking about changing culture, changing values, changing society, changing the way everything is organized. And that is also why we are different in terms of a community organization. In most community organizations you only work in terms of the specific, the achievable, and the measurable. If it is not specific, if it is not achievable, if it is not measurable you don’t do it. We do here. We do it because it may not be specific, but it may be meaningful. And if it is meaningful it appeals to your consciousness, and if it appeals to your consciousness it changes how you look at the world, and if it changes how you look at the world it changes how you act on that world … there are signs of hope everywhere, we need to pay attention to them, we need to build on them, we need to become stronger every time we are part of them. But still, it is going to take time. … ”xvi

Works Cited

Arnold, Rick et al, Educating for Change. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Fisher, Robert. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Truax, Eileen. “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.

Notes

i Volin, cited in Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 37.
ii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
iii Eileen Truax “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.
iv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
v Fisher, 65.
vi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
vii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
viii Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 70.
ix Freire, 81.
x Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xi Rick Arnold et al, Educating for Change (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), p. 38.
xii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xvi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification
Perspectives Journal, 2009

Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

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

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

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

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

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

And also for this reason:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Errors? Lots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fisher continues:

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

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

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

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Roles in Movement Building

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

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

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

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

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2: Building Strong Groups

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peet & Watts: Liberation Ecologies

How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context?  ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’

— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)

I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:

Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)

I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:

Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).

Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.

What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:

Peet and Watts Development discourseThere is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:

‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)

Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.

They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:

transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)

They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their

presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)

This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.

On to the Post-Marxists, who:

argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)

The ways that these are

Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.

I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.

On Habermas…I have to read more

Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)

and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):

urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)

This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and

‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)

Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.

This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.

Theory for liberation.

[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]

 

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William Gamson: Pluralism and the Strategy of Social Protest

William Gamson The Strategy of Social ProtestReading William Gamson made me feel like we’ve come a long long way in thinking about social movements — but then I realised I am speaking from a non-academic viewpoint. This book is really a conversation with pluralism (think Robert Dahl) and the modifications made to it to account for elites. It is an indictment of ‘collective behaviour’ theories and part of the fold of ‘resource management’ theories of movement. Exciting stuff? Not so much, but some good summaries of things that continue to shape how people think — I recognized so many of these concepts in things I read today, and had forgotten that they had a label and a fanclub. There is an exciting (and disturbing) finding about unruliness, but I shall save that.

So. Pluralism. I dimly remember some of this from as far back as the Federalist Papers:

an image of of a highly open system with free access for would-be competitors…A democratic political system must be able to handle two great problems if it is to continue successfully: the danger of tyranny or domination by a minority, and responsiveness to unmet or changing needs among its citizens. (5)

This fits well with ‘Collective Behavior’ theories, which see riots and unrest and violent conflict as

abnormalities or pathologies arising from the gap between an always imperfect reality and an ideal, abstract model In other words, the occasional, admitted failures of American democracy to produce orderly change are caused by departures from the ideal conditions of pluralism.’ (5)

To operate properly, pluralist political institutions require an underlying pluralist social structure and values as well. So what are these ideal conditions for an ideal democracy capable of change?

Procedural consensus: There is acceptance of the “culture” of constitutional democracy. One operates within the rules, the rules are considered generally fair, and defeats are accepted because of the strong legitimacy. (6)

Cross-Cutting Solidarities: Individuals have strong identifications and affiliations with solidarity groups at different levels below the total society… [that] overlap and cut across each other… (7)

Open Access to the Political Arena: There are no barriers to a group getting a hearing.

Balance of Power or Countervailing Power Operation: There is a sufficiently large number of groups that no one group can dominate. (7)

Flaws? This was a good short recap of the basis of pluralist thinking, I have dipped in and out of Dahl and don’t feel the need to return to it because my. sweet. jesus. Dahl wrote Pluralist Democracy in the United States and argued all of this in 1967. I know I’ve just been reading about the civil rights movement, but this is written when people are still being assassinated for trying to register to vote. No poor person, no woman, no Black person or Native American or immigrant could ever fully have believed this. This belongs to an establishment that doesn’t really listen to those kinds of people, and this kind of thinking pushes blame for being locked out of such a system on people themselves.

Gamson writes:

“The flaw in the pluralist heaven, is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (quoting Schattschneider, 1960 p 35, p 9).

A white male accent as well. It ignores the existence of an elite, which many a critic broadened the theory to include, but William Gamson argues it also is overly sanguine about the issue of ‘permeability and openness to efforts at change. I’m glad he debunked some of these theories.

He looks at two main assumptions of pluralism (the ‘play nice because we are all civilized here’ ones):

  1. Only those groups whose objectives leave intact pluralist social structure and values will be “successful” Participation and success is denied to those who attack and try to change the pluralist order itself.

  2. Only those groups which use institutionally provided means will be successful — in particular, the electoral system and the political pressure or lobbying system. those who resort to the tactics of the streets will be unsuccessful. (12)

Part of me is so frustrated that the huge amount of work going into this study is focused on those ideas, which seem so obviously wrong. But I am glad it is done. William Gamson and teams of undergraduates made a list of all of the ‘challenging organizations’ they could find — came up with between 500 and 600 between 1800 and 1945, of which they did a sample of 53. Their focus:

The central issues concern the permeability of the political arena by new participants and how their success or failure is influenced by their strategy and organization. (22)

I am almost as interested in the groups they excluded — this in itself says so much about narrow ideas of citizenship in a pluralist society and who is excluded from that:

We also exclude groups whose members are neither American citizens nor striving for such citizenship. In particular, we do not include the various Indian nations, which have engaged in numerous wars and conflicts with the federal government, as challenging groups. (18)

How they measured the answer of permeability and success:

— to what extent was there ‘acceptance of a challenging group by its antagonists as a valid spokesman for a legitimate set of interests.’ (28)

…whether the group’s beneficiary gains new advantages during the challenge and its aftermath. (29)

Interesting. What a narrow, if important, measure of success this is! Another thing I don’t like so much about this kind of study which requires such quantifiable measurements. But some of the findings are really interesting.

Particularly Chapter 6, ‘The Success of the Unruly’ (72) Because William Gamson (and that large team of students) unexpectedly found that yes. ‘The violence users, it turns out, have a higher-than-average success rate.’ (79)

So ‘Does Violence Pay’?

Yes, yes it does.

‘Specifically, the data undermine the following line of thinking: violence is the product of frustration, desperation, and weakness. … Violence should be viewed as an instrumental; act, aimed at furthering the purposes of the group that uses it when they have some reason to think it will help their cause. This is especially likely to be true when the normal condemnation which attends to its use is muted or neutralized in the surrounding community, when it is tacitly condoned by large parts of the audience. In this sense, it grows from an impatience born of confidence and rising efficacy rather than the opposite. it occurs when hostility toward the victim renders it a relatively safe and costless strategy. The users of violence sense that they will be exonerated because they will be seen as more the midwives than the initiators of punishment. (81)

The example he uses here is of the ‘Night Riders’. Klan I was thinking, white council? But no…or at least, their main activity as a secret fraternal order was to ‘force all growers to join the [Planters Protective] Association’ and to force companies to only buy tobacco from members. I bet they engaged in some extracurricular activities, but it is a fascinating terrifying history of violence that succeeds in gaining quite a lot by taking over entire small towns and burning a couple of warehouses to the ground.They fought against a large corporation (the American Tobacco Company) attempting to take their livelihoods (there is more on their history here, and I imagine a number of other places). They are hell of scary and evoke a very different kind of violence, their fame emerged from the ways they turned this against white planters and townspeople.

blackpatch_riders

This is really interesting when turned around to think about how oppression and domination have worked, how white privilege has been secured at the grassroots level.

William Gamson continues:

I am arguing, then, that it is not the weakness of the user but the weakness of the target that accounts for violence. (82)

Chilling, very chilling. And what does it mean for those on the other end?

The groups that receive violence…are threatening and vulnerable, and most fail to survive the physical attack to which they are subjected. (82)

The examples he gives are the First International, abolitionists, National Students League, miners in Cumberland Gap. Threatening because they look like they might succeed in their aims, vulnerable because they consist of, or are fighting for, the groups of people I argue fall outside the pluralist heaven — women, youth, people of colour, working class and poor.

The amount of violence always present in our society, and upon which it is founded, makes such a mockery of pluralism to me.

Gamson looks at other tactics beyond violence, disruptive tactics that he calls ‘constraints’ such as boycotts and marches that he found also improved success rates. In summary in writes:

Unruly groups, those that use violence, strikes, and other constraints, have better than average success. (87)

Chapter 7 he calls ‘Combat Readiness’. Interesting again, as a metaphor. It looks at how success rates matched the level of bureaucracy (‘keeping an organization in a state of readiness to act’) and resolving internal conflicts. (92)

He writes:

Each of these variables — bureaucracy, centralization of power, and factionalism — makes a contribution to success, and there is a substantial interaction between centralization and factionalism. A centralized, bureaucratic group that escapes factional splits is highly likely to be successful; so, in fact, is a decentralized, bureaucratic group that escapes factionalism, but it is less likely to escape than its centralized counterpart. (108)

But again, this kind of work cannot capture larger ideas of social change and how those are embodied in the ways that you work, the possibility you could succeed by his criteria, but fail in a deeper sense. Gamson isn’t unaware of these complexities, they simply lie outside what this kind of study can look at.

Chapter 8 – Historical context? This is the weakest chapter I think. His hypothesis is that ‘challenging groups should enjoy relatively greater success in times of general crisis than in quiet times.’ (112) But they don’t, he finds, not really. Established groups sometimes get further on their agendas. That is somewhat interesting in itself, but approaching it from this angle kind of misses the point I think,  by not focusing on the kinds of change attempted and achieved — the quality of changes achieved in certain periods and the level of mass movement that made them possible. Landmark shifts in ability to organize unions and a social safety net were made after the great depression, the civil rights movement achieving political and voting rights through the crisis period of 1960s upheaval… surely that is important, though perhaps many other kinds of challenge groups failed to advance. My old boss use to always bang on about the ‘political moment’, and she was almost always right.

It ends with Limits of Populism, and a very brief look at the new ‘resource management’ paradigm as an alternative to the ‘collective behaviour’ one. I have to read Tilly I know. It all fills me with distaste, the idea that social change is about resource management is quite infuriating. But I do like this final thought:

The pluralist image, then, is a half-truth. It misleads us when applied to the relations between political challengers and members of the polity. The appropriate image for this political interaction is more a fight with few holds barred than it is a contest under well-defined rules. (142)

[Gamson, William A. (1975) The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press.]

Meyer & Tarrow: The Social Movement Society

946055I confess, there are a lot of angry notations in the margins of The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century, edited by Meyer and Tarrow.

I won’t burden you with all of them. I suppose books are meant to provoke as much as inspire.

Their introduction opens the book, frames the book, is essentially a hypothesis put forward which other authors are all responding to. Their idea of a movement society advances three main points:

  • First, social protest has moved from being a sporadic, if recurring feature of democratic politics, to become a perpetual element in modern life

  • Second, protest behaviour is employed with greater frequency, by more diverse constituencies, and is used to represent a wider range of claims than ever before.

  • Third, professionalization and institutionalization may be changing the major vehicle of contentious claims–the social movement–into an instrument within the realm of conventional politics. (4)

Here is their definition of social movement:

We begin from the assumption that the social movement is a historical and not a universal way of mounting collective claims. Movements, in our view, are best defined as collective challenges to existing arrangements of power and distribution by people with common purposes and solidarity, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities. (4)

A bit broad, right? Also doesn’t capture much about scale, number and diversity of organisations, groups and individuals involved.

I don’t think this is entirely useful, this idea of social movement. I lean more to the idea that what is happening now is as much protest as caring people can manage in the absence of mass movement. I love much more the work of say Aldon Morris, who studies a concrete movement and looks at what is built and nurtured in hard times to serve as a foundation for when the spark comes and mass movement makes more structural and meaningful change possible. I think what Meyer and Tarrow define as  social movement is simply protest — and in this world of growing inequality, war and climate change, there is a lot to protest. That it is becoming less contentious though more widespread…that’s not too provocative:

In general, the evidence from both Europe and the United States suggests that the amount of highly contentious forms accepted and actually used by citizens seems to be more circumscribed than it was two decades ago. (8)

But what follows takes the decades following the sixties as a one-way and universalised trajectory rather than a cycle or spiral or any of the other potential forms (more likely trajectories based on my own research). It is in great part divorced from history despite their claims of historicity, from the wider social context of intensive repression, red-baiting, backlash, end of the cold war etc etc. that has taken place in the intervening decades:

A paradox is inherent in the professionalization of social movement organizations. Whereas the movements of the 1960s were animated by a democratic ethos that encouraged and legitimated participation at the grassroots of society, the following years demonstrated that the skills and resources for mounting the efforts that comprise a social movement could be, in fact, concentrated, reproduced, and professionalized. Those who developed those skills, taking them from one movement to another, may lose a connection with the groups they purported to represent. Professionalization is about drawing boundaries (Moore 1996) between accredited persons and others. Although the fuzzy boundaries between professional activists and their constituencies may support the ethos of democracy, they may also undermine the prospects of sustained and effective mobilization. Ironically, a movement organization concerned with effecting democratic reforms in the polity may be most effective by abandoning certain democratic and amateurish political practices. New technologies and forms of social organization have complicated this picture further. (15)

I don’t think this question makes much sense divorced from previous decades and centuries of protest and struggle preceding the 60s, all of which themselves come between periods of repression and greater conservatism. How does this match what happened to unions and activists drawn into bureaucracy and organisation after the Great Depression? While I think it’s important to look at professionalization and the changes modern protest groups have gone through in reaction to changing times, the questions the editors end up asking generalise from a very small period in history. They are also divorced from what drives social movement, divorced from questions on injustice, from the life and death issues many social movements engage with and do the best they can to address in widely different circumstances.  Those are the questions I am most interested in, and I missed them.

But, to return to what they do do, they argue institutionalization occurs through:

  • the routinization of collective action (familiar scripts)
  • inclusion and marginalization — those willing to play ball get access, others more easily shut out
  • cooptation – ‘challengers later their claims and tactics to ones that can be pursued without disrupting the normal practice of politics.’ (21)

Again, more interesting in a wider context, but still good things to analyse. So ‘How do ongoing changes in contemporary institutions affect the process of institutionalising dissent?’

  1. ‘social movement activists have learned to move between conventional and unconventional collective actions, and even to employ both sorts of strategies in combination’
  2. ‘police practices increasingly encourage the routinization of contention by cooperating with protestors in planning their events, avoiding provocations, and allowing them a public but circumscribed hearing.’ (23)
  3. ‘the tactics used by movement organizations and those used by more institutionalized groups increasingly overlap. (24)

These seem a bit common sense, especially in light of activists and organisations hunkering down through a period of more limited engagement, though I do think that we are seeing discourses and tactics of activism being coopted by those traditionally on the other side. That is interesting, but not really what they are getting at here…nor are they getting at what people think they can win through making these decisions to move towards institutionalisation that they can’t through more combative struggle — and why.

‘… because of the increasing incentives to engage in socially controlled collective action in our societies today, can we still regard the social movement in its classical form as a major player in the political struggle? (25)

I noted here, ‘everything about this sentence is wrong’. Nothing has ever been won for the poor and the oppressed without a struggle involving a whole lot of people. Perhaps this is not in evidence today, but I sure as hell hope it is not dead entirely. Does socially controlled collective action diffuse some of this anger, make this harder? That is a good question, but not exactly one answered here. Does it mean we’re back to armed revolution, to riots? Or is this the end of all opposition? Who can tell.

Finally, if states have become adept at institutionalizing movements and activists are becoming both more professional and more interchangeable with interest groups in their activities, what will happen to those actors who refuse the blandishments of recognition and legitimation? Will they profit as free riders from the institutionalization of protest? Will they simply fade away…? (26)

Sweet baby Jesus. Free riders? Really? I think there is no single phrase in the English language (that is not abusive) that I hate more than the term free rider. Technically free rider as a term includes babies and small children, people suffering from mental illness and physical disability, the elderly, all those people that for whatever reason can’t face down police to make a better world. Technically that word destroys the concept of a movement that cares for and works towards a better future for the entire society, not just ‘our’ people or the ‘deserving’. And then to question will they simply fade away? Not until the issues driving them to change the world do because movements arise out of real injustices, real suffering. No sign of that ending.

I plowed through the rest of the chapters, but given my feelings about the usefulness of the hypothesis, it wasn’t that useful.

I liked some of the content from ‘The Institutionalization of Protest’ by John McCarthy and Clark McPhail — yet it compares protests at the 1968 and 1996 Democratic National Conventions in Chicago without really acknowledging the immense differences in political moment. A time of insecurity and fear and mass movement in 1968 after over a decade of intense civil rights protest with real threats to the power structure and a growing move from non-violence to the Black Panthers and Black Power — and how does that compare to 1996 again? How does that shape police response shifting from ‘escalated force’ to ‘negotiated management’ (96)?

This article — and all of these arguments due to the framing —  separate the content of injustice from those protesting, it often (though not everyone does this) conflates social movement with ‘social movement organizations’ yet often fails to recognize the broad range of organisations still fighting, the interlocking array of tactics…doesn’t recognise that anti-racism struggles, homeless rights struggles, women’s and immigrant rights struggles aren’t just something that can be picked up or let go but mean life and death for many, and determine the strategies and tactics of groups and institutions closest to them accordingly. And those decisions are entirely about political moment and context.

Everything here is so tidy.

The police, for example, are seen as monolithic, but really they form a complex bureaucracy with many different (and disagreeing) parts — and one that continues killing black and latino people let’s not forget.

But Public Order Management Systems are interesting, defined as:

…the more or less elaborated, more or less permanent organizational forms, their guiding policies and programs, technologies, and standard policing practices that are designated by authorities for supervising protesters’ access to public space and managing them in that space. (91)

They quote a few stellar things, like this 1989 statement published in the journal of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)

[The Police] are…the first line of defense for the First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully and speak freely. Few unpopular ideas would ever get a public hearing unless the police were on hand to ensure the speaker’s safety and maintain order . . . The recognition of the police role as guardians of civil liberties and civil rights is one of the welcome fruits of the professionalization of law enforcement over the last several decades (McCarthy  & McPhail p. 89 quoting Burden 1992, p. 16)

They are not as astonished (or angered) by it as I am however. Break out the Don Mitchell and analyse how the opposite is true. Then there is this, from the City of San Francisco crowd management manual:

Pre-event Planning: …If event sponsors do not come forward to obtain needed permits…the Event Coordinator will … attempt to locate them and set up meetings. (94, quoting SFPD 1989, pp. 8-10)

Another nugget — these courses in public order management were developed by the U.S. Army Police School. There’s a whole lot to be done with that. But then it is all ruined with a line at the end about the police and protestors wishing to reduce the extent of ‘unintended violence.’ (109) Jesus. As though it were unintended.

These are the lines of lived experience often separating the poor, people of colour, and activists from researchers. No one where I grew up or ever worked with would believe it to be unintended — at least, not by everyone. Maybe there’d be a couple of people that saw it as a PR disaster, or even as morally wrong. But honestly, police brutality against certain communities and the ‘social movements’ working around those issues happens every day.

Then there are discussions of protest movements in Latin America with no acknowledgment of what they are up against: US military intervention, the IMF and World Bank… this happened in several chapters, and how can you properly discuss international and transnational strategies and coalition building without that understanding and analysis? And just for the record, I cannot respect the argument that the US Congress and Treasury Department or the World Bank are the people to lobby to tell Latin American states to protect indigenous rights. They are the people to lobby to demand they stop telling other governments to violate indigenous rights.

I will end with a shout out to what was good — I did really like Mary Fainsod Katzenstein’s ‘Stepsisters: Feminist Movement Activism in Different Institutional Spaces’ and the different struggles of women in the military and the Catholic Church over time. That was quite fascinating, firmly based in women’s experience and their own words, and nuanced. Yay.

Anyway, this raised good questions in my mind about institutionalisation of protest, how this shapes organisations and everyday experience of protest and what it can (and can’t win), and how this will shape what is possible for the future, but I’m not sure that’s where most of this was heading.

[Meyer, David S. and Sidney Tarrow (eds) (1998) The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.]

Hamid Dabashi on the Arab Spring

Hamid Dabashi - Arab SpringI found Hamid Dabashi’s The Arab Spring inspiring, even though being written in the moment it might be a little repetitive and a little early in some of its pronouncements perhaps. Yet it captures a feeling — both of the exuberance and hopefulness of the protests that spread around the world at the time (and continue to some degree), and a frustration with old ways of thinking about things. We differ in some of the details of this, but it’s the delicious and productive kind of difference in opinion, not the same old frustrations with small groups stuck in their ways.

But first, to deal with that provocative tagline, the end of postcolonialism. As Dabashi writes:

[T]he major argument of this book is that events in the Arab and Muslim world generically referred to as the ‘Arab Spring [p 75]’ represent the end of postcolonial ideological formations as we have known them for the past two hundred years. By the end of postcoloniality, I mean the cessation of ideological production in colonial contexts and terms — the terms determined by the European colonial domination of the region, and the tyrannical ‘postcolonial’ states left behind when the Europeans collected their flags and left. Anticolonial nationalism, socialism, and Islamism are the ideological formations that historically have confronted European colonialism and shaped the modern nation-states … [p. 139]

The end of postcolonial ideological formations does not mean that colonialism itself has ended or that imperialism does not generate resistance but that the world is no longer trapped in old ways of thinking, trapped in opposition, but free to struggle with itself, move forward into new pathways. [p 140]

Said spoke for an earlier period, but to build on his work we must transcend it:

We need to overcome the anxiety of Orientalism and shift our theorizing lens to our evolving history and stop trying to explain things to that fictive white man who sat in Edward Said’s mind for a lifetime.

Ha. He also answers the ‘outlandish’ question of whether the subaltern can speak with a resounding of course. He questions Hardt and Negri for their Eurocentrism (and the Christianity of their ideals!), draws on Badiou and Hannah Arendt and Agamben and Bishara and poets and writers of Arabic that I do know — in something of a mishmash perhaps, but I think taking what is useful from different places to understand the now is no bad thing. That is not to say he asks that we forget the past, just that we do not allow those old patterns of thought and action to control us moving into the future. There is so much here, so just to focus on what I loved most.

I appreciate his efforts to see the academic/writer as making a conscious choice to join the uprisings, and then what their role can be. He writes:

The task of becoming attentive students of the uprisings and seeing to it that they generate their own knowledge are tasks no less urgent than the revolutions themselves. To be sure, we are fortunately no longer in the age of grand-narrative-based universalist philosophies and sweeping theorizations. Whereas the Left Kantians’ longing for ‘total revolution’ following the French Revolution ended up producing ‘prophets of extremity’ in Nietszche, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida, I have opted for the idea of open-ended revolutions, work-in-progress, an opera aperta, as a working idea to keep the tenacity of these revolutions alive theoretically.

In terms of the search for a new mode of compatible knowledge, the left is part of the problem, not the solution. The Arab and non-Arab left must shape up and join the revolutions, and cease being an obstacle to them. [241]

I don’t know about the ‘prophets of extremity’ bit, (though I very much look forward to rolling my eyes at the next mention of Foucault over cocktails and muttering ‘prophet of extremity’), but I do agree that the establishment left needs to get its act together and act not as a brake, but as a springboard, isn’t that what we’ve been working and organising and theorising for? Still, the major lack in this book is a thoughtful look at the coproduction of knowledge, participatory research, praxis…just what kind of intellectual work needs to happen in the movement that is building, and how? That is a huge question that people have been working on in other places, people like Freire or Myles Horton, but which I don’t see being picked up or theorised elsewhere which saddens me.

But that said, above all this book made me happy. It does not takes us beyond, but calls for us to go there together with the people in revolt:

In order to reach for the current world, the world we live in, the world in which people revolt, the world in which Meydan Azadi and Tahrir Square have become emblematic of something else, something beyond ‘Western liberal democracy,’ something yet to be named, needs to be imagined. In this world, I suggest, demography, labour migration, gender apartheid, and environmental catastrophe are the key operative factors. In this world, Islam will not disappear, it will be sublimated into a new cosmopolitan worldliness. [p. 118]

I read that list of key operative factors and wanted to do a fist pump, yes I said, yes! That’s it, and that isn’t really what most people are talking about. He continues

…the commencement of the Arab Spring is the inaugural moment of not just a new historical but, more importantly, a new emancipatory geographical imagination… [55]

Again this is a thought that is started, but not really developed – how much exciting work is to be done? But I am fascinated with this idea

A geography of liberation begins with people’s struggles for bread and dignity and builds from there the moral map of their worldly whereabouts to wrap around a fragile planet. On this map there is no East or West, South or North, invested with ideological racialization, one against the other.[57]

I love his acknowledgement of the radical aspects of the civil rights movement, and his effort to recapture that understanding as we watch the renewed struggle. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been poor or oppressed can really understand just how important the struggle for bread and dignity are, the meaning and necessity of a basic level of security and respect in society. I know that I will never understand it fully having been born poor and treated so and still angry, yet white and with all the privileges of an American and European passport. Fundamental changes are needed to win these fundamental demands if we demand them for all.

Like the geographies of liberation, he raises what are for me equally exciting about the connection between democracy – a new, revitalised vision of democracy – and public space.

What the naked military apparatus of these illegitimate states faced was the expanded public space that was now fully conscious of itself…That amounts to the people, hitherto the subjects of a (‘postcolonial’) tyranny, becoming, ipso facto, the citizens of the republic they wish to populate and thus expand into the public space they must thus define and designate. [204]

And

The regime du savoir associated with that politics is being altered, by way of altering the worlds we inhabit, and not merely by way of resistance to power. The transversalism of these revolutionary uprisings, as a result, generates its own synergy by systematically and consistently expanding the public space they implicate for the exercise of civil liberties.

These are all revolts that are fundamentally about the (re)taking of public space, both physical and virtual, the (re)taking of a new kind of citizenship, and I’m following this idea along here, but it is a citizenship not of blood or passports, but of geography and struggle. I love thinking through this, and I love that he did not focus on this as a virtual revolution as it so clearly was not, that was simply one aspect of the millions of people actually physically coming together and demanding regime change, demanding social justice, demanding a new world. A view of this as simply being about twitter and youtube and blogging takes away much of its power and potential as a force for revolutionary change

Thus the middle class and blogging are offered as the explanations for a transnational uprising that was catalysed by a fruit peddler who set himself on fire out of economic desperation. [222-223]

We cannot forget that.