Last year I read a book called This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century, by Mark and Paul Engler. I learned a lot, which I didn’t necessarily expect to because I thought I knew a lot about nonviolent revolt (I did, but there’s always more to learn). One thing I learned about is the decades-old conflict between the “organizing” tradition, most identified with Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez (who trained and worked under Alinsky), and the “mobilizing” tradition, theorized by Frances Fox Piven and Gene Sharp, and exemplified by movements as diverse as the Civil Rights Movement, the Indian independence struggle led by Gandhi, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
Needless to say, the lines of demarcation aren’t that clear.
In an oversimplified nutshell, “organizing” campaigns are designed and led by (under)paid organizers, usually from outside the most affected community (this apparently was a core belief of Alinsky’s, on the premise that the leadership will then be less corruptible), targeting a narrowly defined sector – a neighborhood, a building, a workplace – to win concrete reforms with immediate benefit to the community – a raise, a contract, lower rents, eviction protection. One tenet of Alinsky’s particular approach is that it needs to be easy, fun and low-cost for most people to participate. That tends to mean that the stakes are also low because it’s not easy or low-cost to win major concessions from capitalism. (It can be fun, though.)
“Mobilizing” involves getting lots of people, often but not always from many sectors or communities, into the streets in a way that ultimately threatens the social order. Mobilizing campaigns usually have broad goals with far-reaching implications: Freedom, Dignity, No Nukes, Stop the War, Smash the State, Queer Liberation Now, End US Imperialism. Mobilizations usually use campaign organizing as part of their strategy. ACT UP is an oft-used case study in mobilizing. “Money for AIDS, Not for War” was not a concrete winnable reform. Parallel track approval (making drugs available to people with advanced AIDS while testing their long-term effectiveness) for specific treatments was a campaign ACT UP led and won.
The growth of the organizing industry coincides with the rise of the social justice nonprofit industrial complex. A consequence of this has been that the organizing model has risen supreme and gets taken as the only legitimate path to social change, while mobilizations are instantly criticized for not having “winnable demands” by people who claim to support the movement’s goals. People who claim that Occupy Wall Street didn’t succeed in transforming US capitalism because it didn’t have clear demands seem not to have noticed that 60 years of winnable demands brought us to Occupy Wall Street. Black Lives Matter was immediately attacked for not being the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, with Oprah Winfrey, Al Sharpton and Hillary Clinton all demanding a neatly typed list of demands in the first week. This was a distortion of the trajectory of the 1960s movement, which was never about one thing, but always about Black Freedom, moving from integration of public accommodations to hiring at corporations to voting rights to the Poor People’s Campaign.
Which brings us to today.
Reverend William Barber, the mastermind behind the energetic and successful Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina, has called for a new Poor People’s Campaign, resurrecting Dr. King’s dream from the months before he was killed. Barber and his never named co-conveners have called for nationally coordinated actions at state capitals in September to kick off this ambitious enterprise. The call to action reads:
“The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is uniting tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality. We need you to step up and join our efforts. Add your name now if you’re ready to join our movement to transform the political, economic and moral structures of our country.”
Rev. Barber and some others have been touring the country, meeting with groups – a lot of faith groups, unions, and presumably some actual poor people – to build for the campaign. He was out here in December. Last month, I heard about an organizing meeting to follow up on his visit and talk about how to build for the Poor People’s Campaign, so I decided to go.
The meeting was at City of Refuge, a huge church in South East Oakland, near the Coliseum. I think it’s a mainly African American church. A bunch of social justice nonprofits and unions have offices there. When I arrived, African American women were serving food in the social hall. Then the meeting started. It was a smaller crowd than I expected, though not as small as it looked in that enormous sanctuary, pretty racially mixed, nearly everyone was around my age, fifties to sixties. One of the ministers of the church, an African American man, led a prayer and introduced the lead organizer, a white man from some union, who asked an African American woman minister to come up and lead a song, which she did. Then she sat down and the white guy was joined by another white guy from another union, and together they led the meeting
After about 45 minutes, we broke into groups based on where you lived. Oakland and Berkeley were designated as one group, so of course, since the meeting was in Oakland, we had the biggest group, while San Mateo, San Francisco, Contra Costa had small ones. Ours broke into two. We were supposed to talk generally about “how we were going to build the Poor People’s Campaign in our city.” No facilitators were provided, or any specific tasks that we were supposed to address so the meeting was ultimately a waste of time. I figured out that the whole meeting was smokescreen, the entire point being to get us to fill out pledge forms saying what we were willing to do: civil disobedience, organizing, support civil disobedience, give money, spread the word on social media. There was also a box to check for “Are you a faith leader?” A few men were delegated to pace the room, asking everyone if they had turned in their pledge form. I decided to leave, taking my pledge form with me, but I did sign the list of attendees so I figure at some point I will get something telling me when and where to show up.
These were obviously the “organizing” folks, using the Alinsky playbook where big decisions are made by a small group of paid organizers, and most people’s participation will be low-threshold. But they are trying to use that approach to accomplish a monumental transformation in our entire social system.
The very next night, I went to a meeting that had been called to start a new Bay Area antiwar coalition. Having posted on Facebook last summer, “All I want for my birthday is an antiwar movement,” and being very freaked out about the prospect of nuclear war with Korea (or somewhere else), I had to go. The meeting was in Niebyl Proctor library in Berkeley, which is not a very big space and it was packed. Nearly everyone was white and the median age of attendees was probably 70; at 58, I was in the youngest quintile. The call for this meeting had been signed by 43 people, some famous –Michael Parenti (who was at the meeting), Alice Walker (who wasn’t), Cindy Sheehan, representatives of national, international, and local organizations, unions, Green Party affiliates, Peace and Freedom Party affiliates, United National Antiwar Coalition/Socialist Action, Workers’ World/International Action Center.
These were the mobilizers, and indeed, the purpose of the meeting turned out to be, not actually to form an antiwar coalition, but to organize a Spring Mobilization on April 15, as part of a national day of action. Now the Spring Mobe, as many of you will recall, was what erstwhile LAGAI member Jim Denison used to call “church for activists,” an annual demonstration For Everything Good and Against Everything Bad held pretty much throughout the 1980s and early nineties when we seamlessly transitioned from protesting u.s. intervention in Central America to protesting u.s. invasions in Iraq and Kuwait. And it was not new in the eighties; the first Spring Mobe was held in 1966, to end the Vietnam war. Unfortunately, the politics seem to have deteriorated since the first Iraq War. The first thing I noticed when I scanned the call to action was that in the ten proposed points of unity, to which these 43 community leaders had already signed on, there was NO MENTION of LGBT oppression or liberation. I pointed that out, and Judy from Workers’ World moved to amend the demand about gender oppression to include LGBT liberation. Michael Eisenscher, one-time coordinator of US Labor Against War, proposed instead that we cut down the demands from 8 to 5, because otherwise “everyone’s going to want to hang their ornaments on it.”
Queer liberation is an ornament? Fortunately, that position did not prevail, and the revised demand was approved. You can read the demands and get involved at the End the Wars at Home & Abroad Spring 2018 Action Facebook page.
Although the coalition structure was supposedly open for discussion and the steering committee would be representatives of the working groups, the march route had already been chosen – Lake Merritt Amphitheater to Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland. It’s a tried and true march route destined to mean we encounter very few people on a Sunday. We had a long debate about whether to get permits for the rallies on either end, with Tova of Worker’s World trying valiantly to explain that the right to protest without asking permission or acknowledging the authority of the police is something that has been struggled for and won by recent movements, especially Occupy Oakland and Black Lives Matter. She pointed out that to get a permit is to separate ourselves from the most successful and militant struggles of the last decade. No luck. People kept insisting that they wanted this to be “family friendly,” and to have “lots of people,” not just some few hundred activists. Improbably as it seems, apparently none of these folks had been at any of the exuberant marches to the Port or taking over freeways, the May Day marches, the Reclaim MLK marches. One woman insisted that undocumented people would not feel safe coming to a protest that doesn’t have a permit. Who exactly does she think organized the Day Without Immigrants marches and does she think a police escort makes them feel safe? Though to be honest, some people seemed to imagine that if we do not ask for a permit, that means we won’t have police there, which is also not true.
The few younger people at the Spring Mobe meeting took responsibility for street organizing – tabling, leafleting, and setting up event pages on social media. The email list has a lot of activity and energy. I’m hopeful that lots of people will turn up for the march, but frustrated that it is not, after all, building any long-term antiwar organizing or making strong and deep connections with climate justice and racial justice movements.
Why is there such a disconnect between the Old Left (which used to be the New Left) and the huge movements of the last ten years? Someone at the Mobe meeting said he had been to a Democratic Socialists of America meeting the night before, which was full of young activists who, although they’re antiwar, don’t see it as anything they can do anything about. Generational splits in organizing cultures is not a new thing, but this is a gulf that I have not experienced before. And it’s not simply explained by youth wanting more profound change or being willing to take more risks than the older folks. Some of these old activists have taken risks that few contemporary activists can imagine. Some went to jail or Canada to resist the Vietnam draft; others spent months in prison for blockading the School of the Americas.
Both of these campaigns seem to me symptomatic of the hegemony of the Alinsky/Chavez Nonprofit Industrial Complex in the organized left. We are never going to dismantle capitalist militarism through skillful community organizing. We need a cultural shift, and we need to show that other ways of living and struggling are possible. These projects – opposing the endless wars, demanding a humane social system that meets the needs of all who live here – require massive mobilizing with tactics that build on and evolve from the most successful ones of past movements rather than recycling them.
SMASH THE STATE! SMASH HETEROPATRIARCHY!