Parsing Demonstrations to Movements to Organizations

Santa Cruz      Let’s give a “A” for effort on this paper, regardless of quibbles about content.  At least Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, writing for the New York Times Magazine in a piece entitled “Cause and Effort” gave some props to social change and tried to introduce some of the problems and potential of organizing to a larger audience of the cognoscenti who might have made it through the magazine on a Sunday.  The question she takes for herself has been the subject of constant discussion and debate among generations of organizers who understand why movements are so important, and that is “…how and when do we decide that a movement actually exists?”

In some ways the answer is simpler and more obtuse.  It’s a little bit like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography which often boils down to “I’ll know it when I see it.”  When a movement “actually exists” there is no longer any reason for deciding or speculating, it is as obvious and moving as the roar of an incoming tide.  Any time someone must ask whether something is really a movement or simply claiming the mantle of a movement, the answer is demonstrably, “No, it’s not a movement.”  Everyone can recognize a movement when it is in full force and flower.  You can also tell there is a movement as much by its opponents as by its adherents.  In times of real movement, how to act and react to change is on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s minds.

In trying to help a mass readership get their arms around the existence of a movement, Gage works her way through some false dichotomies that are less than helpful.  On one hand she underplays movements in comparison to “something disciplined, tactically savvy and in for the long haul,” as if, by definition, those elements would not or could not normally be part of a movement.  She also wants movements to have clear leaders to make it easier to identify and positions this as a modern problem of “leaderless movements,” yet genuine movements have always been marked by their ability to move people into action, regardless of leaders.  Often in movements the so-called “leaders” are externally identified or internally ambitious and racing to stay even and ahead of real movements demands for change.  Surfers riding the wave are not the ocean.  She also wants numbers to be a gateway to recognizing a movement and tries to make some curious points about demonstrations and how they happen, then and now.

The most curious point Gage makes is about whether the short shelf life of many, perhaps all, movements is a sign of success.  Often it is more about the dynamics of change and the constant pressures on people to deal with the rest of their lives.  Some people can be in motion all the time and make issues, change, organizations and the search for movement their entire life, but most people respond to the surge of a movement as they rise up and act, and then settle down with the change that is made and go on with the struggles of their regular lives.

Gage ends well though pointing out that in “social activism …nobody can ever really predict when, where, how or why any given issue will change from a lost cause to a cause celebre.”  She then quotes a colleague reminding students that “ambitious goals have usually been ‘impossible’ until they were achieved, at which point they suddenly become ‘inevitable,’ a matter of simple justice and common sense.  The movement is what happens in between.”  Those are very helpful points, though when we look at the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and many others, we still seem not to have come to the clear, high ground where these issues are now “a matter of simple justice and common sense.”



Independent Political Action is Blooming in Columbus and Ohio

organizer screening at the historic Drexel

Columbus     Ohio has been a battleground state for a number of elections, even though it went solidly red in 2016 for Trump and seems southern with a Republican governor and legislature.  Visiting with people in the state capitol, Columbus, as well as spending time in Youngstown, Cleveland and Cincinnati, it is clear that there is a concerted grassroots fight to resist the red tide and turn Ohio around again.

I had met Amy Harkins one of the organizers of Yes, We Can Columbus at the screening of “The Organizer” and heard briefly about the effort and its attempt to elect members of the local school board and city council.  As luck would have it, I met later with Amy and some of the team after they participated in the local version of the March for Our Lives to learn more about the organization.  Like so many, they had founded the effort in the wake of the 2016 election both in reaction to the Trump victory and the inadequate response of established leadership of the local Democratic party and its electeds.  Assembling a group of up to 300 volunteers committed to the campaign, they have constructed an activist base sufficient to poll well in their inaugural efforts when they presented their slate to the voters in local elections.   Their success moved them to form alliances with other organizations in Ohio as well as nationally where they became an affiliate of the Working Families Party and a partner of the Bernie Sanders follow through organization, Our Revolution.

excitement over Nuts & Bolts in Columbus

Most of our conversation about the future concerned the chances to put an initiative on the ballot to change the at-large district governance system in the city to a district form or a combination of district and at-large seats that would give citizens of Columbus a stronger and clearer voice in local affairs.  We talked about the nuts and bolts of such efforts since ACORN has waged several successful fights along these lines including in Little Rock over the years.  In Columbus only 8000 valid voter’s signatures would be required with a full year to gather them, which should be within the capacity of Yes, We Can Columbus itself, but the organization wisely wants to also help build a larger coalition dedicated to progressive political action in the area.  Worth watching for sure!

interviewing and video at WGRN with Bob Fitrakis

Talking to Bob Fitrakis and Suzanne Patzer it was also clear that the Greens are something more than the color of grass in Columbus and Ohio as well and are regularly putting up a slate of candidates, including Bob himself who polled 35,000 votes in a losing race to become the prosecuting attorney.   One of his law partners is running for Governor as well.  Never say never in Ohio because not only is Richard Cordray, a former state attorney general and most recently the first director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau on the federal level, running for governor as well, but so is former Cleveland mayor and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

All of this anger and activity will move the needle in Ohio, so we need to all stay tuned and support these initiatives and experiments.