Gorsuch, Like Mother, Like Son?

The chemical plant responsible for the Love Canal problem is the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, in this aerial view, which dumped toxic waste in the Love Canal neighborhood from 1940 until 1950 and which was investigated and exposed in 1980.

New Orleans   All heck seemed to be breaking loose in Washington. The FBI says they were investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and that there is no evidence that the Trump claim that Obama tapped his phones is true. In another hearing room, Neil Gorsuch, was being queried about a job as a Supreme Court Justice, and claiming he was “above politics.”

More disturbing to me in some ways was reading a piece in High Country News reprising his mother’s controversial stint and resignation as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Ronald Reagan. Her mission at the EPA was search-and-destroy, much like that of Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who has sued the agency more than a dozen times and is now the newly confirmed department secretary. Both of them have beaten the drums on department overreach and the need to cut the budget and the staff and push more regulation – or lack of it – back to the states. Pruitt reportedly has already had to learn to be careful what he asked for and scurried, unsuccessfully, over to the White House to see if he could limit the budget reduction at the EPA to only a billion bucks, down to $7 billion. The White House instead responded by taking the EPA number down to $5.7 billion.

Anne Gorsuch Burford had been a firebrand Republican Colorado state senator before being raised up to a post in Washington to try and dismantle the EPA. Reading the article it all floods back in the memory of the hard times of the 1980s under Reagan. Gorsuch Burford was the administrator of the Superfund program, created by the EPA and Congress in the wake of the Love Canal, which, as many remember, was built to devastating effect on top of toxic wastes. Gorsuch Burford’s administrative under reach was her undoing. As High Country News reported:

“At a defunct chemical waste processing facility in Indiana…Gorsuch’s EPA allowed a company to pay only a third of the cost of cleaning up underground pollution, and then granted it immunity from liability for underground waste. Accusations of mismanagement let to multiple congressional investigations, and the FBI also investigated the agency for shedding documents related to Superfund probes…Gorsuch herself was cited by Congress for contempt after refusing to turn over documents during the investigation. By Gorsuch’s own admission, the resulting political meltdown paralyzed the agency, preventing it from getting any work done. Gorsuch resigned in 1983 after learning the Justice Department wouldn’t defend her on the contempt charge.”

Neil Gorsuch has been reported as upset and confused by his mother’s resignation as a teen, and arguing for her to stand and fight. Judge Gorsuch has also been noted for his decisions pushing against the so-called “administrative state,” where agencies have acted to interpret Congressional actions in accord with their regulatory authority, as well as his closeness to corporations and their interests.

None of these judicial nominees do much besides dancing at hearings of the Judiciary Committee, and certainly the anger of child is not the same as the maturity of an adult, but nonetheless it’s unsettling still because the child is still father to the man, and there are too many payback coincidences in Judge Gorsuch’s current views that seem to flow directly from those seminal experiences in the 1980s. He may have learned how to get along better than his mother, but the views seem a little too close for comfort to me.

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Where are the Citizen and Patient Protests to Protect Affordable Care?

New Orleans   In the activist moment with cries for resistance, I wonder why the healthcare issue is being left behind by many, as well as the current Obamacare beneficiaries, and why we are not all massing in protest at the threats and head fake proposals to replace care?

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m aware of the moving stories at some of the Congressional town hall meetings where some of the sick and infirm along with others have asked their electeds the hard, life-or-death questions, involved in eliminating healthcare insurance. I know the risks to the Affordable Care Act and the fear it has stirred has increased support for the Act past 50% in the polls. I know the Koch Brothers are trying to rekindle their grasstips base to demand repeal or else. I know the Freedom Caucus, concerned Republicans, and others are pointing out the costs and naked emperor-has-no-clothes aspects of Speaker Paul Ryan’s so-called secret plan demonstrating their divisions. I know the President has discovered that health care is complex. I know various sides, pro and con, are on the airwaves with video and sound bites.

What I don’t know is why we aren’t seeing people in motion in serious numbers?

With more than 20 million people on Obamacare and many of them on the highly threatened expanded Medicaid coverage the ACA triggered, that would seem a big and bad base ready for action. If our neighbors and friends in this group are just scared and confused, how about the many millions in schoolhouse door states that stubbornly refused to expand care, take Texas for example? Or, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin? Don’t tell me there aren’t millions in that number caught in the gap between low income qualification and not enough income to afford insurance. And, how about all of the service workers in nursing homes, home care, food service and elsewhere with company provided play pretend policies with $5000 and more deductibles who want reform so that they can finally have coverage?

Don’t tell me there are not millions mad and desperate for care?

Where is the campaign that moves people state to state in this fight, like the effort that helped win the fight in the first place? Where are the community organizations that are listening to their members and making this the issue they are moving on right now?

Is the issue too complex as Trump claims? The tactics are numerous, so are the targets the problem? Sure the distance is huge between us and DC, both physically and philosophically, but how about state legislators and governors, those are closer, and every report seems to say, governors are on their knees begging the White House not to cut and run on Obamacare, dumping the problem to them without enough money to fix it. How about hospitals? If we start hitting them hard on charity care that they are supposed to be providing, but aren’t and their tax exemptions, maybe they would get in gear. A couple of thousands of them according to IRS reports are making more than a million a year, so they might move to the feet and voices of patients’ protests and demands?

The problem with resistance is that it’s reactive. We need offense, not just defense. We need it now before our weaknesses devour our strengths.

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Fighting to Save Political Parties Out of Sorts with the Base

Edinburgh  Eating curry last night with leaders and organizers of ACORN in Scotland, once the usual questions about Trump were quickly exhausted, one veteran activist asked what Senator Bernie Sanders, last year’s surprisingly successful Presidential candidate, was up to and whether he was gaining ground and credibility in the current chaos. It was a good question, and my answer was that the best I knew his people where focused more on positioning in the Democratic Party than the larger issues. I told the ridiculous story of some moderate Democrats trying to convince Sanders to call off the dogs and make sure that town hall protestors only attacked Republicans, as if Sanders was pulling any strings at all in the activist moment. I found that notion among conservative Democrats as bizarre as the Republican conservative claim that poor old George Soros is paying demonstrators these days to voice their outrage.

Turns out I was either lucky or timely in my observation. Almost as soon as I logged on to the news I stumbled into a story reporting that Sanders’ operatives had been scoring some significant wins in Democratic inner party elections.

In California, supporters of the 2016 presidential contender, Barry Sanders, packed the obscure party meetings that chose delegates to the state Democratic convention, with Sanders backers grabbing more than half the slots available. They swept to power in Washington State at the Democratic state central committee, ousting a party chairman and installing one of their own in his place. Sanders acolytes have seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and won posts throughout the party structure from coast to coast.

Presumably the agenda is to move the party in a more solidly progressive direction.

Observers in several papers noted that as miserable as the 2018 midterm elections look for the Democratic Party’s shot at control of the Senate, there’s an arguable path to pick up 24 seats in the House by targeting districts either won by Hillary Clinton by stout margins or where the demographics are heavily weighted with educated white and general Hispanic voters. Polls indicate that Trump’s slide steep has accelerated in both camps. There are fewer districts that Sanders won last year though, so that crossover is uncertain.

Others might argue that you have to be careful what you wish for though without a deeper strategy to engage the base. The Labour Party’s predicament in the United Kingdom is a case study here. Having moved in a more progressive direction as the left took control of internal elections without a program effectively responding to the working class base, right leaning pro-Brexit forces are cleaning their clock. By-elections in hard core Labour districts that they have held for more than 30 years are being watched closely to see if the party can even survive.

Sanders in some ways is well-positioned internally since Clinton is not part of the picture and a more moderate Democratic Party leader has not emerged.

Is it a winning strategy? That’s another question for sure. No lucky guesses will count on that one.

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Is Direct Membership Organizing “Old School?”

ACORN doorknocking in Toronto

Sheffield   In a meeting in London, I was briefly taken aback when one of the participants said that they had heard a critique of ACORN that we were “old school.” The quizzical, surprised look on my face from another person at the meeting prompted him to say, essentially, no problem, Wade, I believe in the old school.

Admittedly, I was testy about the issue during the meeting, saying things like, hey, when their school builds a half-million member organization or even a 150,000 member organization, I’ll go for lessons. You know stupid stuff like that. Luckily, I said stuff that was slightly smarter like, yo, we bolt new social media tools on the old school feet on the street, bottoms in the bus seats to build power. No harm was done.

I get it though. It’s a natural evolutionary tension within the work. It was long ago that mass texting and the Orange Revolution were the “new” school, while the rest of us had to catch up and learn the new steps. Flash mobs had their time in the sun as well. Then Twitter had its moment in Iran when change was coming through a “twitter” revolution, even though it became quickly evident that only a miniscule number of Iranians were actually on Twitter. Tahir Square for an equally brief moment was marketed as a Facebook revolution before the story of systematic, long term organizational efforts that triggered the protests became widely known. Now whether Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March on Washington, the tools and platforms that assemble protests are undoubtedly touted as the future of organizing.

It’s easy to understand why Alinsky, who forged his organizing methodology in the 1950s, was dismissive and threatened by the mass movements of the 1960s. This old school warrior won’t make that mistake. For power to be built, for change to occur, for organizations to survive and thrive, they have to grow or die, and that means constant adaptation to whatever moves and has meaning to people. At ACORN, we embrace the new social media tools and methods of mass communications, but of course taking the new courses doesn’t mean that we abandon identifiable membership, internal democracy and accountability, and the importance of having a mass base which can take action, respond to attack, vote when needed, speak loudly when necessary, and fight to win.

An experiment is not an organizing model. Trust me on this, if a better model of building mass organization is developed anywhere by anybody in the world, ACORN will be among the first adapters.

But, there are lessons in some of the new school experiments too. Lessons in Egypt and Iran, and the change that didn’t happen once the rallies ended. Lessons about whether change can be won or power built without an organization. There’s still just no substitute for people, no matter how slick and fancy the new tools. And, that means going through the time and trouble of building real organization even while we are able to mobilize differently in this magic moment.

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Easy Is Winning in Technical Organizing Tools

Bristol  We spent hours in Bristol talking about how to use technology and tech tools in organizing including a Skype call with experts in Washington and our folks from Canada, England, and France. The short summary is the one we already knew going in: nothing is perfect. Everything we tried had gaps, hidden costs, and aggravating features. There’s nothing appealing about making decisions where you know from the beginning that no one is going to be completely happy no matter what. Bad memories of endless discussions from different advocates and fans of different database systems when we were forced to decide on one for everybody came roaring back at me like nightmares.

I spent time before that call, talking to Kentaro Toyamo, professor at the University of Michigan, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology,  who suffers through my techno-peasantry while trying to help me figure out a way to milk advantages from tech potential. The question I posed was whether there was a way to combine locational and relational algorithms, similar to those used by Google, Amazon, and others to allow people to find each other – and an organization – when they faced issues in their tenant block, neighborhood, or workplace and wanted to organize to deal with it. The answer was kind of a “yes, maybe,” but the caution he remarked in developing an independent application or something that triggered to a website was the mountain to climb to the find the crowd versus trying to navigate Facebook where the crowd already congregates. The continuing dominance of Facebook almost argued that it made sense to try to develop an app for that, rather than one that was independent, just because of the pure volume of users and the ease of use and adoption.

Though Facebook is made of “likes,” it’s just hard to love from the fake news to the constant advertising, data mining, and self-absorption from the top down.  Yet, it’s hard to argue with success and when you are trying to work with people, there’s no way around going where people are, and that’s Facebook today for many hours of people’s day it seems.

We spent a lot of time and started building some affection for ActionNetwork.org and its tools. We found the gaps obnoxious, but found the ease of use compelling, along with the fact that the nonprofit operation was created by people with organizing experience who seemed as least receptive to our particular needs.We’re likely soon to decide to go in that direction, all things being equal.

We were also taken with Slack.com as well, which is a free service used extensively by the Sanders campaigns to link volunteers and more recently by activists trying to connect and organize in the US period of chaos and resistance. ACORN in the UK has been using Slack to do daily communications with organizers and allow them to add channels for work projects. I’ve been trying it with slightly less success with my research interns at the University of Ottawa as well.Nonetheless, I found it very, very easy, and way better than something like Dropbox to move large documents effectively to the work team, so that’s something to love, but no matter the tool, it only has value if people use it. How an organizer would keep up with 1600 Slack groups is still beyond me, no matter how easy it is to use, but that’s something worth learning.

So we get back to Facebook groups, which we use, and our members love in dealing with tenant support issues in the UK, mental health rights in Alaska, and disability rights in Vancouver. Hard to beat.

No matter what works in theory, we have to go where people are.

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Is There a Resistance Movement or Resistance Moment?

Bristol   I definitely don’t want to be standing at the station when the whistle blows that the train is moving out. I have to admit that I have my ears perked up at every sound to try to hear whether it’s the thundering feet of a movement or just the sharp cry of a moment.

I’m too jaded in this work to see Congressional town halls as the birthplace of the next revolution, but I don’t want to be blind to history either, and a snippet of the news like the one that follows makes me sit up straight and stand at total attention:

In fact, some of the most formidable and well-established organizing groups on the left have found themselves scrambling to track all of the local groups sprouting up through social media channels like Facebook and Slack, or in local “huddles” that grew out of the women’s marches across the country the day after the inauguration.

When the people are moving and established organizations and institutions are having to work overtime to catch up with them, that’s a very, very interesting sign. In a time of movement, it may be difficult for this kind of activity and anger to be channeled in the way that these same organizations and institutions are hoping to move the stream. It’s good news though for the 30 million lower income families taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act that there are many of the flags being waved as elected representatives slink home from the Congressional chaos are focusing on saving health care.

There are other signs too. When seasoned organizers report that they expected 200 at a meeting, and 1000 showed up, as my generation said, “you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.” The Times also reported on other barometers that people were in motion:

Anti-abortion demonstrations in some cities this month were met with much larger crowds of abortion rights supporters. At a widely viewed town-hall-style meeting held by Representative Gus Bilirakis in Florida, a local Republican Party chairman who declared that the health care act set up “death panels” was shouted down by supporters of the law.

And, perhaps more interestingly, an organizer for Planned Parenthood posed the question plainly as she tries to ride this wave of momentum:

“It doesn’t work for organizations to bigfoot strategy; it’s not the way organizing happens now,” said Kelley Robinson, the deputy national organizing director for Planned Parenthood, which is fighting the defunding of its health clinics. “There are bigger ideas coming out of the grass roots than the traditional organizations.”

If she’s right, that’s a call to arms for all of us to get ready to move, because grassroots activity needs formation, planning, resources, and direction in order to win. That’s not bigfoot, that’s soft touch, listening, and work on the ground that takes a moment and helps make a movement and births new organizations and great social change.

When that whistle blows, we have to all be on the train.

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