Blessed Be, the elections are over. Now What?

By Kate

Elections bring various things like clockwork, and one of them is debates among leftists about whether, why and how to participate in them. This year more than most, many leftists put considerable time into electoral campaigns. Some threw down with visionary candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, Rashida Tlaib and Cat Brooks. Others helped swing historically red districts to blue, sometimes by working on behalf of less than enthralling candidates like venture capitalist Josh Harder, in California’s Central Valley and Jacky Rosen in Nevada, one of two House democrats who voted for a permanent tax cut on rich people. Others ran for city councils, school boards, transit authorities or water boards.

Some leftists did not let themselves get distracted by the elections, just kept doing movement work. Others sat on the sidelines, predicting doom and criticizing those who chose electoral paths as dupes or false friends.

With the elections barely decided – a few of them yet to be called – the postmortems are flowing fast and furiously. Among the folks who committed to the fight, some are on much-needed vacations, some are picking up the neglected threads of their lives, some are rolling up their sleeves to help capitalize on a victory or near-victory. Among the anti-electoral set, some are breathing a sigh of relief and hitting the ground running on tenant assemblies, migrant justice coalitions, caravans to the border, socialist schools, climate sit-ins, mutual aid projects – something nearly every day of the week and four a day on weekends.

For some of us who had one foot in and one foot out of the electoral madness, this is a time for some sober reckoning about what is productive and what role we should play.

Elections are a very flawed tool for the left. We’re nearly always outspent, and our opponents control the media. That’s why California, where almost 50% of voters are renters and almost 60% of renters are paying 30% or more of their income for housing, rejected Proposition 10, which would have allowed cities to expand rent control to include properties built after 1995. The national Democratic machine threw its muscle behind millionaire Dianne Feinstein, even after the state party endorsed Kevin de Léon, a relative progressive from a working class immigrant family.

But blaming Democrats, or blaming people who participate in electoral politics, for the weakness of the Left, is backwards thinking. The reason left-wing candidates and initiatives don’t win elections is because the Left has not built political power. It’s not the other way around. If the Bernie Sanders campaign should have taught us anything, it’s that people who sit out elections are not waiting around for socialist candidates to emerge.

What Is To Be Done: December 2018 Lesbian Chorus Recording

The Left can do many things besides try to win policy victories. We can continue to stand aside, holding a militant pole, helping build protests, supporting strikes, encouraging deeper and more critical analysis, reminding people about wars and other things they prefer not to think about, rooting for or dismissing or cautioning against the Yellow Vests in France and waiting for the next big wave of actions to try to get in front of. If that’s what you want to do, more power to you. If what you believe in is fighting fascists in the street, you don’t want nearly-sixty-year-old women in your bunch and I don’t want to be in there with you. So Go With God.

Table graphic of Health Care for All statistics.

But for those who want to be effective on a policy level, here are a few things we need to do.

(1) Learn to read a map.

We like to quote big-picture statistics: 52% of white women voted for Trump, 70% of the country supports Medicare For All, people of color are the new majority. These are (1) not that accurate – it seems like the percentage of white women who voted for Trump is closer to 47%; “non-Hispanic whites” still make up 62% of the population; and (2) not that relevant, given the political system that we live under.

Take health care:  70% is a huge number, and it’s meaningful. But it becomes a lot less meaningful when you consider that the country does not get to vote on whether to adopt a single payer health care system (point of information: Medicare for All is just a much better name for single payer). Who does vote is Congress, and Congresspeople don’t represent the population that responds to opinion polls; they represent their districts or their states. Here’s another big number: 63% of the population lives in cities.  And here’s a small number: 3.5% is the amount of land that those 63% are crammed into.  Here’s another small number:  9.  Just under half of the country’s population lives in 9 states: California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia and Florida.  It’s pretty likely that that much of the 30% who don’t support Medicare For All live in those 41 other states, and a huge majority may live in that 96.5% of the land that is not cities, which is vastly overrepresented in Congress. If you’re a Congressperson from some gerrymandered district in Nebraska, Arizona or Mississippi, it makes zero difference what 70% of people in California, New York and Florida want.

(2) Think globally, act strategically

We want everything for everyone now. But that strategy – which is not really a strategy – has for many years gotten us nothing for anyone. Here’s yet another number:  1 in 8 Americans live in California. If California gets single payer, a right to housing and a $20 minimum wage, that will mean more than 12% of Americans have them. Washington and Oregon may well beat us to it. Hawaii and Massachusetts could be close behind. And California is bluer than ever. Orange County, which gave us homophobe John Briggs and Proposition 13 author Howard Jarvis, is now blue and majority people of color.

California has big Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and a new governor who is not progressive but claims he is. We don’t have to believe that to use it.

Every group doesn’t need to do the same thing, but we should be pulling in the same direction. That means the universal health care people going to the climate justice people and the homeless action people and the no-more-prisons people and working out some agreement that we’ll show up for each other. Social justice nonprofits should (be pressured to) build into their budgets some time spent working on issues that aren’t their primary focus. Grassroots groups should do the same with the resources we can mobilize. In order to do that, we need some way to come together and work out some kind of timeline, so instead of three actions on the same day, we have one major mobilization every two weeks, or whatever, the way the various canvasses used to get together and divide up turf (maybe they still do).

New York and Illinois peeps, get it together. Folks in hopelessly red areas, make this California Winter. I have a guest bed you can sleep on (if you don’t mind a few rats, but we’re working on that).

We got this.

(3) Get out of our own way.

When I was living in Palestine, I went to the bus station in East Jerusalem one day to find a car going to Bethlehem, where I had a meeting. A guy was wandering around and he said, “I heard the checkpoint was closed.” Another woman nodded her head. I asked where they heard it. “Around,” the guy said. I thought, well, maybe it was but often there was a way in, especially for a foreigner. I poked around and finally found a car going that way. I got to the checkpoint. No delay. I went straight through. When I mentioned it to the guy I was meeting, Sami Awad from Holy Land Trust, he said, “That’s what happens when people are occupied for so long. You get so used to being beaten down, you take any excuse not to bother.”

I think parts of the left are infected with that low energy that comes from decades of losing. Some of us are afraid of getting our hopes up and being disappointed again. Some of us are afraid of looking foolish, by believing in some liberal who sells us out. And it’s all a good excuse not to do the f*** of a lot of work it’s going to take to get stuff done.

But here’s the thing: Being right is really nice. I should know, because I’m right almost all the time. But being right with good health care, safe drinking water and a livable minimum wage is much nicer. If someone wants to pledge the flag, I could maybe argue with them about imperialism after we’ve gotten a few wins under our belts together. Something tells me, they might be more willing to listen then. That doesn’t mean I am gonna stand up for the national anthem, but being unwilling to work with liberals has not gotten us revolution in the last four decades. I’m even willing to put up with some annoying nonprofit people.

I suspect some leftists secretly don’t want anything good to happen under Newsom because that might make it look like he’s a good guy. Don’t worry. He’s not. But not-good people have done good things before, or at least allowed themselves to be given credit for them. Need to hear that old saw about Nixon and the Clean Water Act again? George H.W. Bush was just lionized for being the guy who brought us the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he didn’t. He just saw that it was not politically wise to oppose it.

dancing on grave of GHW Bush graphic and text

We all know what gets things done: movements. When Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise Movement sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand a Green New Deal, she signaled her understanding that getting progressive candidates elected is only the beginning of a long process of social change. Don’t tell me Newsom will try to backtrack on his campaign pledge to support single payer. I don’t doubt it. But if the 84% of Democrats and 66% of independents who support single payer are out there demanding it – not passively on the internet but loudly in the streets and the halls of the Capitol of this in 46% Democratic and 23% independent state, Newsom won’t dare deny them. Don’t tell me Pelosi won’t allow it. Last I checked, the Speaker of the u.s. House of Representatives doesn’t run California. The potential blow dealt to the hanging-by-a-thread Affordable Care Act by the ending of the individual mandate can only strengthen support for universal health care. So let’s get busy.

4) If we don’t fight, we can’t win.

The happiest woman in the country right about now has to be Jane McAleavy. She’s a labor organizer and author of the 2017 book, No Shortcuts, which looks at unions and other working class organizing projects. Her main thesis is that mobilizations that don’t require participants to make a commitment by signing a union card, paying dues, joining an organizing committee or voting yes or no in an election, are basically worthless. For the record, I do not agree with her assessment of the value of protest and other types of actions. But recent events certainly give a lot of credence to her approach.

The victory by Marriott workers (see labor roundup, page __) proves that full-on strikes work, while the one-day quasi-strikes and corporate campaigns favored by “new labor” often don’t. (Though, I would point out that Fight for $15, which uses a mobilizing and lobbying approach that minimizes the sacrifices individual workers are asked to make, has won bigger raises for more workers than the Marriott strike did.) The November election results did more than just change control of Congress. It also provided clear and usable data on what works and doesn’t work in a wide variety of political contexts. It shows us where our strength is, where we need push just a little harder, and where we maybe can’t win right now. (Beloved Oakland, what’s your problem?)

It’s up to everyone whether to heed the messages in the bottles or continue spinning impossible fantasies or dire predictions. I personally want to see what we can accomplish if we agree to put our inner Eeyores to sleep.

It’s not always true what they say, that “When we fight, we win.” But this is always true: If we don’t fight, we can’t win.

See you in the streets.

Urban Shield to End

In March, the alameda county board of supervisors voted 4-1 to end Urban Shield after 2018. It is the world’s largest militarized SWAT training and weapons expo, financed by the u.s. department of homeland security and hosted by the alameda county sheriff’s department. It attracts law enforcement from around the world and has been opposed for years by community members and organizations including the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. There was a huge demonstration in 2017 that members of LAGAI participated in, blocking entrances and marching through the Alameda Fairgrounds.

Urban Shield represents everything we  all have been fighting against — from collaborating and training with ICE, hosting the white supremacist militia the Oath Keeperstraining with and sending officers to apartheid Israel, glorifying policing and militarization, exploiting tragedies and natural disasters and public health needs – Urban Shield has no place in the Bay Area or anywhere.

Ending Urban Shield reminds us that we can win through cross movement building and strong organizing.

How Old Left Can You Be?

by Kate

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.