Amherst Once I showed up at Gordon Hall at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Professor Dan Clawson and others shared with me a message they had printed from the internet of the 9/12 projects strategy for disrupting my talk on “Workers and the Poor: Lessons for Organizing in the Age of Obama and Globalization.” Supposedly they were going to wait until 15 minutes into my remarks before disrupting. They wanted to make sure that they had different people inside than were at Springfield College so that they weren’t recognized. Faculty and staff scurried around to make sure they were ready for whatever might happen. An undercover campus cop was in the audience and ready if there were problems.
I was in for a penny in for a pound. I asked the earlier folks to sit up front just to make sure the protestors placement was distributed rather than positional, since they had been front-rowers the night before. I talked to a young woman who moved who was a recent graduate of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas up the road from Little Rock. We joked about how weird it was that I had spoken and talked about Citizen Wealth all over Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas with hardly a problem (one lone flag waver in New Orleans at my very first event), and yet here in Western Massachusetts, one of the well organized national bastions of liberalism, what do you know, they were everywhere!
As an organizer though, I know how hard it is to build momentum, so a 2nd day in a row letdown would not be a surprise, and the venue was not welcoming since this talk was in a large room on the 3rd floor, and simply not as accessible a target as Marsh Hall had been on the Springfield College campus. After Clawson laid out the rules of the road, Professor Bob Pollin, who had worked with ACORN on some many studies of the impacts of living wage increases in New Orleans and Florida for example, gave a ten minute introduction that sounded more like a testimonial about his time working in partnership with ACORN and the great work of the organization, and the “honor to have the founder speaking here.” It was easy to start by assuring the overflowing room that squeezed more than a 100 in that the introduction would likely be more inspiring that my remarks. It was a pleasant affair with an attentive crowed and good, solid questions from all political points of view, and no disruption.
Campus reporters told me that there were about eight protestors with signs and waving an America flag outside. They were gone by the time I got out. The article in the Daily Collegian by Nick Bush and Cameron Ford was detailed as this excerpt shows, and their quotes from the Western Mass 9/12 Project leader, Bill Gunn, are instructive:
“If Rathke had been expecting something similar Tuesday at UMass, he was sorely mistaken. Rather, the crowd sat and listened quietly as Professor Dan Clawson of the Department of Sociology introduced Rathke and turned over the podium to him. Clawson became concerned that the lecture would be interrupted by protests again.
“Anybody is welcome to attend and listen and ask questions,” Clawson said in an interview the morning of the lecture. “On the other hand, anybody who disrupts the talk will be asked to leave.”
During the speech, which was sponsored by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), the Departments of Sociology, Economics, Political Science, Social Thought and Political Economy Program (STPEC), and the labor center, Rathke mainly focused on his book’s criticisms of how the government has attempted to bridge the gap between rich and poor. He argues instead that “wealth-building” is key to solving these problems, and that the government’s attempts to do so, such as food stamps, unemployment insurance, and tax relief provide some temporary relief but ultimately make things worse by preventing individuals from building up the assets they need to provide themselves with a stable lifestyle.
The protest outside Rathke’s lecture was small – about eight people stood outside, directing their signs towards passing cars.
Rathke advocated minimum-wage increases as an effective way of coping with poverty. “[They’ve been small raises] like a dollar, a dollar and a quarter, a dollar fifty, but if you’re in full-time work, if any of you are labor students, you know, full-time work is still 2080 hours a year…that’s a $2000-plus raise if you’re a full-time worker,” he said.
After the talk, attendees leaving walked into several conservative protesters outside Gordon. The protest was organized by the Western Mass 912 Project, a local chapter of a national movement called the 912 Project, started by conservative radio and television host Glenn Beck earlier this year.
“We’re not affiliated with anybody but [Glenn Beck] was the encouragement to start it,” said Bill Gunn, a Ware resident and one of the organizers of both the Springfield College event protest and the protest at UMass. But the protest outside Gordon hall was significantly smaller than the one in Springfield the night before, drawing about eight people who gathered outside, brandishing signs as diverse as “Community Activism Leads to Corruption” to “Buy Locally Grown”, also waving United Nations and American flags, shouting anti-ACORN slogans, and handing out flyers accusing ACORN of socialism, embezzlement, voter fraud, and other criminal activities. All of the protesters refused to give comment.
“We agree with some of ACORN’s causes,” said Gunn, citing voter registration
and the empowerment of poor people as some examples. “We disagree with the
way they go about it. Those are great goals; we share those goals. But we
actually mean it when we say it.””
Since I’m working so hard to really understand the anger, alienation, and motivations of my friends on the right, I was particularly interested in Gunn’s comments. He also sent me an email on yesterday’s blog that called my attention to some errors he thought I had made either in the confusion or by guessing (the 2nd speaker was a woman, not a man; the fellows in biker gear were some of his buddies and not “real” disrupters; he wasn’t ushered out, but wanted to leave anyway; the woman who I quoted so movingly at the end of my blog yesterday was his wife; and as I suspected the pretty young woman several seats from her was the daughter.) He thought I didn’t accurately get everything he was yelling, but he seemed to agree with me, it’s actually hard to follow what someone is saying when their yelling. The point of yelling as a tactic is in fact the noise, not the content of the words being shouted. I’ve been on his side of the action many times, and I know how hard it is for civilians to understand the chants or shouts…that’s not how that tactic works. So, that one is not on me. I’m not posting the “comment” because it was really more in the way of a personal email. Gunn, as you can read in the Daily Collegian is more than able to speak for himself, so I’m not comfortable just throwing his message out there. He also indicated some additional areas where he agreed with many of ACORN’s campaigns, but not necessarily their tactics or methodology. I don’t want to quote that part of his message to me, because for goodness sake I don’t want to ruin his “street cred” among his constituency on the right if he’s seen as being “soft” on the poor or something.
Gunn was clear that disrupting was not his natural modus operandi. Certainly, that was not a surprise to hear. He suggested that we talk directly and invited me to appear on a public access show he has in the area. I’ll take him up on both of those of those offers.
The distancing from Glenn Beck is also interesting, though this is a big disingenuous perhaps. A student at the back of the audience in the Q&A asked me about one of the 9/12 project a handout which I hope is pictured with this piece (see top right). A student had showed me the piece at Springfield College, and I frankly didn’t get it at all, and showed it to another student and lost it. I couldn’t help the questioner, so I had to admit that I didn’t get the leaflet, but would appreciate it if she would share it with me later. Another young woman, who turned out to be a journalism student, actually gave the answer that probably was closest to the mark for the protestors. The so-called “Share the Grade” point about giving up half of their grade point average to “needier” students and the hint that I had missed before that this was all “brought to you by ACORN and Socialists everywhere!” was supposed to be how socialism worked she said. I had thought they were talking about some kind of high education deal in Massachusetts, and I was clueless. But, her guess, and she’s probably spot on, is that this is supposed to be an attack on “creeping” socialism. Smart student! Of course when the students were deconstructing the flyer after the talk downstairs, they were horrified at the racial caricatures and the other “problems” with the leaflet, that as one said, “were so wrong in so many ways.”
The other leaflet was entitled: Web of Deceit: Wade Rathke/ACORN/SEIU and Possibly Obama?”
This is not stuff that Bill Dunn and my new friends in Western Massachusetts concocted on their own. There’s a dialogue worth having here. At the grassroots level members of ACORN in Springfield and members of 9/12 would find a lot of common ground.
This other stuff is dangerous though, and we all have to understand that much, much better.