Black Lives Matter Lawsuit is a Reminder of the Importance of Structure

New Orleans   Last year at a meeting organized for nonprofits by Tulane University, there was furious head scratching when everyone was asked what workshop they would volunteer to lead, and I had written down my willingness to do one on the importance of structure. Asked why, I argued that too many organizations without thinking or with the advice of lawyers and funders, not organizers, in a knee jerk fashion decided to incorporate and file for a tax exemption without reckoning with the critical weight of the decision. In matters of structure, I have always argued, the “beginnings predict and prejudice the ends.” In other words, form can determine function. Not surprisingly, I’m still waiting for the call for that workshop!

But, Judge Brian A. Jackson, a federal judge sitting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in a lawsuit stemming from the police-inspired mayhem involving the protests around the killing of Alton Sterling, an African-American, by a white Baton Rouge policeman, has issued a decision which should serve as a reminder of why choices about structure are vital for those involved in organizing social change. An unnamed “John Doe” policeman filed suit against Black Lives Matter and activist/organizer DeRay Mckesson claiming he was hurt in the melee when hit by an object. The headlines in the news whether the Times or the Post or NPR or whatever are stupid. Some say the judge ruled that you can’t sue “a hashtag.” Others said the judge ruled you can’t sue a “movement.” Neither are true, but both are structurally important.

The suit named Black Lives Matter as “an unincorporated association” which is a perfectly appropriate organizational formation, whether movement or not. Such a designation is how all labor unions are organized for example. The judge had no beef with BLM as a defendant. Organizations form corporations in order to shield and protect the actions of individuals by creating an entity that will take responsibility for all actions “as an individual.” In some ways operating a structure as an unincorporated association protects the organization first, rather than any individuals. Not creating a corporate entity means that an unincorporated association forces a plaintiff, whether an individual like this policeman or an arm of the government, to prove the actions of specific individuals in order to assess any liability or stop any activity. The judge ruled that Joe Doe failed to prove that DeRay Mckesson, as an individual, caused the harm, therefore the suit failed.

In organizing with welfare rights in the late 1960s where arrests for civil disobedience were common, we would never incorporate because, like unions, we wanted to be able to resist broad injunctions being filed to stop our actions and activity, forcing the state to have to enjoin individual leaders or organizers. This allowed members to continue to act on the standard organizing principle that if one falls, another steps into place. Had we been a corporation, we would have been stopped in our tracks. ACORN from 1970 to almost 1978 was an unincorporated association of groups for the same reason, until our national expansion forced us to incorporate as simply a nonprofit. We never filed for tax exemption, because we never wanted our activities to be curtailed.

Structure is so critical that I’ve included an entire chapter on these questions in my forthcoming book, Nuts and Bolts: The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing. So, sure you can sue a movement and an association, but the movement and association can’t be stopped if it is an unincorporated association, only individuals, and individuals matter less in movements – and most organizations for change – than the ability of the members and masses to act. Judge Jackson and Black Lives Matter are teaching a fundamental organizing lesson here, so brothers and sisters, pay attention in this class.


Are Women Rising or Falling in Morocco?

Laila Nassim

New Orleans   Sitting in a popular restaurant in Rabat, as we enjoyed great Moroccan food, having finished the last meeting of this edition of the Organizers’ Forum, we went around the room and listened to the evaluation of the participants. It has been a moving and important experience for everyone, including the Moroccan organizers who were part of our delegation.

The remarks started on a high note as Laila Nassimi, one of the ReAct local campaign organizers, brought us news in the aftermath of our visit at the home of a political prisoner, Aldi, and our visit to the rally to support the families of political prisoners at the prison the following day. Aldi had been allowed to have a cell phone so he can communicate with his family. Nine prisoners had ended their hunger strike after authorities agreed to stop solitary confinement and allow all of them to be in cells together. Laila claimed that the organizers were crediting some of the results to our participation as foreigners, given the government’s sensitivity to foreign pressure and opinion. It was hard to believe that we had had much impact, but we were delighted to hear that progress had been made.

Several participants remarked how impressed they were by young women and their leadership and how it had given them hope for the future in Morocco. I wasn’t so sure. My overall impression was more measured. Without a doubt we had met some outstanding women, but when I went back and reviewed my notes and the agenda, other than the firebrand director of MALI, most of the women warriors highlighted in the presentations were our own ReAct organizers, Bouchra, Marwa, and of course Laila, herself. The journalists and economists the first day were men. The political leaders and activists the second morning were men. The leaders of the UMT and ODT unions were all men. The cultural organization and NGO, Racine, and the Theater of the Oppressed were also run by men. The housing committee organizer was a man. At the ACM, though the project coordinator for domestics was Rose Monde, her co-director and colleague who presented much of the work was a man, and the ACM was run by a man. We met an NGO head of a community center who was a woman. Indonesia remains the only Islamic country visited by the Organizers’ Forum where almost all of the organizations were run by women.

Bouchra Rhouziani

When we met the head of one of the country’s oldest women’s advocacy group, who was a woman, her report on the status of women in the country was very mixed, much of which was confirmed by the women organizers in our own delegation. The family law passed over a decade ago had been important for the MENA region, but progress had slowed, and in most reports, was moving backward after the 20th of February. In a surprising development, the social pressure against women and their place in the public space seemed to have become more conservative and right wing religious forces became more aggressive after the movement slowed.

The bias against single mothers was horribly shocking. Sara Sojar of the Democratic Feminist Movement told us that the level of discrimination of single mothers included leaving jagged scars, poorly sewn when they were forced to have Cesarean births. Discrimination and misogyny doesn’t get much more personal or despicable than that.

Women are our hope all over the world, and certainly in Morocco as well, and our own women warriors carry great weight into the future, but the tide of progress has been moving against them recently in Morocco, and men – and religion – are still in front leaving women’s issues and very lives too far back for hope to be a plan, when the fight needs to be joined immediately.

Sara Sojar