New Orleans I retweeted something last week where someone had said, “Glenn Beck takes the left more seriously than anyone else,” or words to that affect, simply because it was true. For all of his buffoonery and conspiracy theories, Beck is on to something: he knows community organizing is serious business, and he knows that it threatens the status quo. Liberals make the mistake of simply seeing community organizing as nice, harmless civic participation, which is also true, but only part of the story, which is why in the assault on ACORN they often drew the line inaccurately at form, rather than recognizing that the substance of the attack was deeply targeted at substance, and as it turned out the very right of a mass-based, socially responsive, politically active membership organization of low-and-moderate income families to even exist. It wasn’t then and isn’t now a question of the name, but the very game itself.
All of this is becoming crystal clear as change continues to come in the Middle East. When reporters began interviewing the small cadre of younger activists who seemed to serve as the catalytic organizers of the early protests and marches that ended up toppling the Mubarak regime in Egypt they were unequivocal in explaining that the sea change in their development of a significant mass base of support was when they finally abandoned middle and upper income neighborhoods with their call for democracy and participation and instead went directly to the poor and working areas and called to people flatly about their need for jobs, higher wages, and better housing. In other words when they turned from being sloganeering activists to fundamental organizers, and in fact community organizers, talking to people about their real issues and helping them link the connections to the lack of responsiveness of the government, then they saw success.
The superficial intellectual left critique of community organizing for decades has been the inability of community organizations to move past stop signs, drainage, and loose dogs to “more fundamental” societal and political issues in their analysis. To say that such a criticism is elitist is equally one-dimensional. To answer simply that one builds a base with such issues is also less than satisfying and does nothing to silence such criticism if there is no further explication of what the base might do or essentially “power for what.” Frankly, too often community organizing has stuttered and stalled past the “stop signs” so to speak. The Alinsky formulation of “organizing the organized” and aversion to direct politics has continued to confuse many organizations and their organizers in the United States for decades. ACORN’s very difference and distinctiveness in strategy and battlegrounds made it target, and the lack of consensus on these very issues isolated the organization, fatally as it turned out.
No such qualms about the effectiveness of such issues in developing strategy and tactics can be seen in the Middle East or elsewhere. A fascinating piece, “Revolution U” on the work of some of the old Optor organizers from Serbia written by Tina Rosenberg in Foreign Affairs, was forwarded to me by a friend, and gave a fascinating report on her witnessing conversations between Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of Belgrade-based CANVAS (Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies) along with Slobodan Djinovic, with activists among the Burmese trying to organize against this repressive regime. The conversation was one I have witnessed and been a participant in perhaps a 1000 times, as the group discussed possible issues useful for organizing and began focusing on discontent around garbage collection and the strategies and tactics useful in moving people around the issue. From our organizing with ACORN International in slums around the world, we know that garbage is the developing world’s “stop sign” issue as a failsafe common concern that is virtually universal.
CANVAS has had these kinds of basic trainings in what can only be called community organizing techniques applied to political action in fifty different countries around the world. Not all of them have ended in revolution. This is not a cookbook session after all. Nonetheless the seeds have been planted and the inevitability of change is present as long as the end is clear and the work is done.
Community organizing is dangerous stuff in the hands of people who want to participate fully as citizens and create democratic change. Anyone who opposes the will of such people expressed with determination and dedication, should be worried, whether Glenn Beck, Republican Congressmen, or dictators wherever they may live and rule.