Flipping the Script on Panthers’ Bobbie Seale and AFL-CIO’s Rich Trumka

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale checks food bags. March 31, 1972.

New Orleans   It’s a topsy-turvy world out there. What was down, is up, and what was up seems down, and we’re all looking for solid ground.

Take Bobby Seale, the controversial political and cultural icon of the 1960s and former Chairmen of the Black Panther Party. Steve Early, labor representative and journalist (and regular contributor to Social Policy), noted these same ironies in a recent piece in Counterpunch on the way what goes around has come around for the 81-year old Seale in his homecoming in the Bay Area and the Panther’s work in Richmond, particularly.

As Seale recalled last week, the BPP’s first local organizing in Richmond involved policing complaints. In its Richmond heyday, the BPP fed up to forty-five kids a day in a lower-budget breakfast program not funded by Big Oil. Panther volunteers did testing, door-to-door, for sickle cell anemia and hypertension. They gave away hundreds of free shoes to people in need. Although the BPP promoted black empowerment, Seale describes the Party today as a “populist movement” committed to “crossing all racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

As the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a multi-racial political formation, has gained municipal clout in recent years, Panther history has won official and unofficial recognition locally. The RPA operates out of downtown storefront office renamed the Bobby Bowens Progressive Center, in honor of a Richmond Panther leader now deceased.

As Seale noted during his visit, a city hall proclamation in 2009 thanked him personally and “his organization and all the Black Panthers who…emerged from Richmond to activate, unite, organize, educate, mobilize, rally and increase awareness and hope for a better future for all the residents of our city.”

That local appreciation was expressed again in the standing ovation Seale received after his hour-long speech, to a crowd of 350, at a second Black History Month event hosted by For Richmond last Friday. Chairman Bobby began his talk with the observation that, once again, it’s “time to struggle and stand up for what you believe in.” He concluded, as expected, with the famous Panther salute, “Power to the People!” But, in between, he reminded his listeners that “the methodology of grassroots community organizing” remains key to gaining political power in Richmond or any place else where it hasn’t been well shared in the past.

Down comes up, it seems when the arc of history is long.

On the other hand, a message hit me from another friend and comrade calling attention to a visit by Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO to Fox Business News. He was red-hot mad that Trumka, seen as the voice of American workers, had called Trump’s speech before Congress his “finest moment” and expressed his willingness of labor to “partner” with Trump on trade and other issues. I listened to the clip, and, inarguably, Trumka said those things, but it wasn’t totally upside down, because he was also clear that Trump has promised, but hasn’t delivered, and has to balance the playing field, rather than toadying to the rich. It seemed clearer that President Trump has labor leaders like Trumka walking a tightrope without any net. They want him to deliver on jobs and trade, but know that they are going to get hammered almost everywhere else. This is a dangerous act though, since Trumka, like most union chiefs, have to understand that Trump can start and stop the merry-go-round any time he wants, either tossing them aside or making Trumka and his team, in the famous British expression of the relationship of George Bush and Tony Blair, his “toy poodle.”

Maybe Trumka has not totally flip flopped from up to down, but he – and the rest of us – have to be worried about whether we can survive with Trump anywhere near the middle.

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Resisting Deportations

Edinburgh   In the new orders being rolled out by the Trump Administration targeting immigrants and possibly Muslims and others, many have pointed out that we are now going to be creating secret communities of immigrants unprotected by usual law and order, victimized by employers and wage theft, susceptible to human trafficking, and devolving into slums. Bill Quigley, professor at Loyola Law School, and longtime friend and comrade recently provided eleven ways that people are resisting deportations around the country, and I thought it worth sharing, so here they are.

Here are eleven recent examples of how people are directly resisting.

One. Blocking vehicles of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A coalition of undocumented immigrants, faith leaders and other allies blocked a bus in San Francisco which was full of people scheduled for deportation. Other buses were blocked in Arizona and Texas. People blocked streets outside of ICE facilities in Los Angeles.

Two. People have engaged in civil disobedience inside border highway checkpoints to deter immigration checks. People have called neighbors to warn them that ICE is in the neighborhood and held up signs on highways that ICE is checking cars ahead.

Three. Cities refusing to cooperate with immigration enforcement and targeting. Hundreds of local governments have policies limiting cooperation with immigration enforcement.

Four. Colleges and universities declining to cooperate with immigration authorities and declare themselves sanctuary campuses. Dozens of schools have declared themselves sanctuary campuses and over a hundred more are considering some form of resistance to immigration enforcement.

Five. Churches sheltering and protecting immigrants scheduled for deportation in their sanctuary. Over a dozen churches are already doing this with hundreds more considering sanctuary. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles declared itself a Sanctuary Diocese in December 2016 and pledged to defend immigrants, and others targeted for their status.

Six. Detained people demanding investigation into illegal actions. Over 400 detained immigrants in Broward County Florida wrote and publicized a letter to government officials challenging the legality and conditions of their confinement.

Seven. Divesting from stocks of private prisons. Private prison companies CCA and GEO have pushed for building more prisons for immigrants and have profited accordingly. Columbia University became the first university to divest from companies which operate private prisons.

Eight. Lawyers have volunteered to defend people facing deportation. People with lawyers are much less likely to be deported yet only 37 percent of people facing deportation have an attorney and of those already in jail the percentage drops to 14 percent. Los Angeles has created its own fund to provide legal aid to those facing deportations. Other groups like the American Bar Association recruit and train volunteer lawyers to help. Know Your Rights sessions are also very helpful. Here are CAIR Know Your Rights materials for Muslims. Here are Know Your Rights materials for immigrants from the National Immigration Law Center.

Nine. Restaurants declaring themselves safe space sanctuaries for undocumented and LGBTQ workers. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 25 percent of workers in restaurants are Latino.

Ten. Sit-ins at elected and appointed officials at government buildings. Bodegas have gone on strike.

Eleven. Social self-defense. Jeremy Brecher pointed out that decades ago communities in Poland organized themselves into loose voluntary networks called Committees for Social Self-Defense to resist unjust government targeting. This opens resistance in many new forms in addition to the ones identified above including: setting up text networks for allies to come to the scene of ICE deportation raids, to document and hopefully stop the raids; identifying and picketing homes of particularly aggressive ICE leaders; providing medical, legal and financial assistance to help shelter people on the run from authorities; and boycotting businesses and politicians that cooperate with ICE.

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Could the US Labor Movement Lose 3 to 5 Million Members Under Trump?

Sheffield   Visiting with a British union organizer in touch with colleagues in the United States, I was shocked, though perhaps I should not have been, when he told me he had been hearing of worst-case scenario meetings of labor strategists meeting after the election estimating that the American labor movement could lose 3 to 5 million members based on policies and initiatives that might be unstoppable at every level under a Trump Administration. Needless to say, such a mammoth disgorging of union membership would be crippling, not just for existing unions, but for the entire array of progressive forces throughout the country.

In the last 35 years, union membership density in the US has already fallen from slightly over 20% of the organized workforce to barely 11%. There are somewhere around 14.5 million members of unions, so a loss of even 3 million would deplete membership by more than 20%. A loss of 5 million would rip away over one-third of US union membership. The private sector membership of unions is now less than 7%, and even without Trump, organizing strategists for 20 years have warned that without major restructuring of organizing programs and significant organizing initiatives and policy shifts, labor was on a path to only 5% density or one in twenty American workers enjoying union membership. The current jet fueled conservative assault is likely against the more than 35% public sector membership that remains in unions.

We already can see the attack unfolding on several fronts. Republican-controlled legislatures and statehouses have already eviscerated union security provisions in Kentucky and Missouri is likely to fall with the house already having acted and the senate approving after current contracts expire with the governor’s signature seemingly inevitable. Other states are on the list. A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand. The other major front already manifesting itself is more broadly aimed at public sector workers. Memorandum attacking paid union leave time in the federal sector for grievance handling and contract enforcement is already proceeding. The defeat in Wisconsin, which had been the birthplace of public unionization, provides a road map for other states to follow, but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.

Antonio Scalia’s death provided temporary relief when the Supreme Court split on the issue of withdrawing union security provisions for public workers in California and one or two Trump nominees, barring another miracle, means that even in staunch labor redoubts public union membership at the city, county, state, and educational level could be devastating, as we have seen in Wisconsin. Powerhouses of progressive labor like the teachers, service employees, government workers, and even industrial and private sector unions like the communication workers, auto workers, and teamsters which also represent significant bargaining units of public workers would all be hit hard.

Some unions are reportedly taking steps to prepare for these losses, both in their organizing and servicing programs, but lessons from not only Wisconsin but also from the British labor movement where union security was lost under Prime Minister Thatcher, indicate the losses under any reckoning will be severe. Never make the mistake in believing this will be a crisis only for American workers and their organizations. Conservatives know well what progressives should never forget, crippling institutional labor will have a seismic impact on all progressive organizations and capacity.

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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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Looking at Migration from Honduras Up, Rather than US Down

London   Draft rules being prepared by the US Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency for ICE, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, would provide for expedited procedures for anyone in the US over two weeks, rather than two years, immediate deportation at the border, and potential legal action against parents sending unaccompanied minors. Honduras, where ACORN works in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the two largest cities, was frequently leading the list of countries sending children. We were fortunate to have an intern from Tulane University, Jordan Sticklin, do some research to help our organizers in Honduras understand what many of our members and their families are facing. Looking deeply at the situation in Honduras reveals a more complicated story than many might want to understand.

The crisis of insecurity and violence in many lower income communities forcing families to flee for safety is a real issue, which we confront in our neighborhoods daily, and there is little debate that the government of Honduras has not been able to develop sufficient capacity to protect families. The child migration problem though dates back before this time though to the destruction of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and its continued aftermath. Many families were displaced then, and a US program allowing temporary stay permits facilitated the migration of many Hondurans during the emergency. Families were often separated then with children left with relatives as migrants hoped to reclaim them once they stabilized in the US and legalized their migratory status. The failure of the US to provide a policy solution there has exacerbated the problem.

A Honduran agency found that between 2013-2016, more than 9,000 Honduran children were detained upon trying to enter the US, and in 276 cases they were unaccompanied minors. Inarguably, the issue in Honduras is not unaccompanied children, but entire families fleeing their communities, and frankly running for their lives. Given this fear-to-flight situation, it is easier to understand the harsh reality that negates much of the US policy discussion. Polls in Honduras indicate that 80% surveyed believed that policies under President Trump for migrants would worsen, yet 40% still believed that they had no choice and would still be forced to migrate.

Meanwhile Mexico is caught in the middle with US pressure to tighten up its borders to prevent transit of migrants from Honduras and other Central America countries to the US. In 2015, 91% of the migrants returned to Central America were from Mexico and only 8% were from the USA. The draft Trump deportation rules, if implemented, will increase the pressure – and cost – to Mexico in handling increased numbers of migrants at the border who are now being housed in the US while waiting on deportation or other adjudication, who will now just be pushed back across the border. We can expect to see the nightmarish pictures coming on television similar to the squatters’ camps in France where African migrants try to figure out how to get across the English Channel to England.

We can keep blaming and shaming, but none of this is a solution, nor is it humanitarian or show any respect for human rights or the basic reality of the situation. At best it looks like a way to make Mexico pay for migrants, whether they pay for the wall or not. None of this will end well.

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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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