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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Chaos in the White House Can’t Stop Progress in the Streets

Bristol ACORN

Bristol   Maybe President Trump needs to get out more? Perhaps there’s something in the air in the White House that is clogging up his so-called “fine-tuned machine” and bringing out the crazy? Maybe from the outside looking in, it would be easier for him to understand better why the rest of us are scared sillier every day?

Who knows, but for me it was relief to jump off the merry-go-round of the Trump-Watch and back onto a plane again. And, though sleepless and a walking-zombie imitation, sure enough it was possible to find signs of continuing progress away from the maddening vortex of chaos in Washington.

Visiting with the ACORN organizers in Bristol, the big problem of the day was one every organization likes to have. On the eve of ACORN’s first all-offices, national action scheduled only days away from Edinburgh to Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, and beyond against the giant multi-national bank, Santander, they threw in the towel and caved in. The issue was a requirement that Santander attaches on any loans in housing that tenant leases mandate rent increases. ACORN was demanding the provision be dropped from all leases, and Santander announced that it was doing so, and in a bit of dissembling claimed that they had never really enforced it anyway. Hmmm. I wonder if they had told any of their landlords, “hey, ignore that part, we don’t really want you to raise the rents, we’re just kidding, it’s only money.” Hard to believe isn’t it? And, we don’t, but a win is a win, and the action will now become a celebration and a demand that all other banks in the United Kingdom also scrub out any such language.

Back home, ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, was front page news as they laid the gauntlet down once again around an expansion of the Industrial Canal that divides the upper and lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The expansion would dislocate homes and further bisect this iconic and beleaguered community.

Meanwhile, as we get closer and closer to being able to target big real estate operations and private equity that are exploiting lower income home seekers in the Midwest and South through contract for deed land purchasers, there was progress in the courts. A federal judge ruled that Harbour Portfolio, a Dallas-based bottom-fishing private equity operation with a big 7000-home play in FNMA, would have to abide by a subpoena from the much embattled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and disclose information on its use high-interest, predatory contract-for-deed instruments in its home flipping. As we get closer and closer to having our arms around not only terms and conditions of these exploitative contracts, but also lists of potential victims in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, this is good news, even though far from the relief and victory families will be seeking.

All of which proves that if we can keep our focus away from the chaos created in Washington and our feet on the streets, there are fights galore and victories aplenty to reward the work and struggle.

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Blockadia May Not Be a Place, but Could be a Tactic Everywhere

action to block Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos from being deported

New Orleans   I read Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, in November 2014, but had forgotten her notion of “blockadia” until I was listening recently to the Bioneers broadcast on KABF following our new public affairs show last week. She was giving a speech to their convention along with other Canadian activists. She was trying to coin a phrase to brand what she hoped would be a movement. Going back to her book, she offered a definition:

Blockadia is not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines.

Given what we have seen in the fight over the Keystone Pipeline and other pipelines in Canada and the dramatic and temporarily successful fight by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies over the Dakota Access Pipeline, Klein seems prescient on the effectiveness of this tactics around environmental issues. Certainly, we have seen it elsewhere around Shell Oil’s Artic drilling plans, which we can expect to see soon once again.

The story of the deportation of a more than twenty year resident of Arizona and mother of two children from Arizona recently, after she dutifully reported to immigration authorities for her annual visit for the terrible crime in 2008 of having been caught using a fake social security number was also the story of a different call for an application of “blockadia.” Puente Arizona, the well-known and effective immigrant advocacy organization in Phoenix, and many of her family and friends from long experience knew the way ICE used decoy buses to thwart protests, so while one group engaged the decoy, other protests ran around the back of the ICE facility and managed to surround the van that contained the woman and others being driven to Mexico. They didn’t ultimately stop it, but their actions and this one woman’s story was a national event, publicized in newspapers, television, and radio everywhere. In that way, it stood out in a time when we know in our hearts and minds, and this same story is being repeated hundreds, and probably thousands of times throughout the country today.

Just as all of the spinning stories and alternative facts, could not disguise the conflation of anguish, heartache, and then joy as refugee families and others with green cards and visas arrived at airports around the country during the respite in the Trump travel ban, thereby creating a political and public relations disaster for the White House, a blockade movement might have the same impact from community to community to raise the status of resident immigrants without status, but with friends, family, and positions in the community. If the resistance, blockades, and protests of such deportations can be public acts, rather than private moments, the price of the policy may also prove more than the White House can handle. Even immigration lawyers are no longer advising their clients to report for these interviews, so the forcible extraction of law abiding men and women who have spent their whole lives here needs to be met with the same kind of preparation, protest, and civil disobedience that in fact makes Blockadia a place where all of us live, until we win.

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