Karl Rove, the IAF, and Protest Advice Everywhere We Turn

Little Rock   When Karl Rove, the George W. Bush hardcore Republican consigliere and now Fox News favorite and Wall Street Journal op-ed pundit approvingly quotes Michael Gecan, veteran community organizer and co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky legacy community organizing training and support outfit, it is hard to prevent a momentary shutter surging through your body. It’s like walking into your house and noticing things aren’t where they belong, and there’s been a burglar loose. Rove stealing lines from the IAF, are you kidding me?!?

Certainly it isn’t news that the IAF, back to the days of Alinsky, has had an uncomfortable relationship with mass social movements and their marches and protests. In Alinsky’s day, they employed the tactics of protest, perhaps threatening as much as delivering, but movement was not their model then as they advocated for the building of peoples’ organizations, community-wide representative of assemblages built on the framework of the labor federations. In his memoir, Nick Von Hoffman, Alinsky’s chief lieutenant in those early days, discounts their antipathy towards movements, but it is hard to take all of the many words out of Alinsky’s mouth. Arguably, it is even less their organizing model now, as they advocate a careful process of deep organization building which specializes in large assembly accountability sessions and developing almost symbiotic relationships to mayors and governors to deliver programs and results. One of the more troubling stories in Gecan’s own book about his experiences recounts a behind the scenes IAF transactional outreach to then Mayor Rudy Giuliani to offer him an alternative path while protests of vicious police brutality were in the streets, so it is not that the IAF don’t use protests at some level to leverage power.

Regardless of Rove’s appropriation, Gecan’s piece in the New York Daily News titled “How Democrats Are Getting Played” is mainly meant as a slap down of the Democrats, much of which is spot on, including their inability to stick to a persistent, long term strategy and listen to much of anything or anyone that doesn’t represent huge donations whether the rich or special interests. Unfortunately, the story he chose to tell is a pile-on about the union defeat in Wisconsin at the hands of Governor Scott Walker. He tells it by slamming the protests and protestors, which many in Wisconsin still feel were essential in the fight and created long term benefits, rather than simply firing his guns at the recall, which almost everyone agrees was a desperate move and a hopelessly futile tactical defeat.

The mass protests and protestors are not party-centric or Democratic Party organizing events. Everyone can rightly join in, as Gecan does, in criticizing the Democrats and their clueless strategy and tactics on an ongoing basis. But, in the same way Gecan correctly argues that people need to organize and engage the Trump-base in order to find the way forward, he misses the fact that we also have to organize and engage the people and deep-seated energy and anger behind these protests.

In the end Gecan was misused by Rove, even though he left the door open for such a theft, because he beats the same drum that we’ve been beating endlessly, that we have to “have an offense” and can’t win just through resistance and a defense. The problem is not the protests. They are invaluable, and let feet on the street never be stopped. The problem is the plan, and the absence of one. In the meantime with all of the freelance critics of protestors and, hopefully, a burgeoning movement for change, we need to keep our house unified and undivided, while we put the pieces together.

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Delhi       The fabrication of the Commonwealth Games continued. The headlines trumpeted six more gold medals and the 2nd place standing of India, while the stories continued to be nothing but mishap and misfortune due to poor organizing and faulty equipment, and literally no crowds at all. An automatic set of tire puncturing teeth didn’t read the electronic sticker and came up hurting 3 Ugandan dignitaries seriously. The courtesy driver fiasco continued for Tata Motors with the new spin being the fact they only got the contract signed in July, so it’s someone else’s fault of course. Wild speculation on why so few people are attending the games including the Times of India wondering if Delhi elites were so used to getting free passes that they were unwilling to pay to go to the game. Solution: the Delhi Municipal Corporation asked the Organizing Committee for free passes for school children and others to be able to fill the stands. What isn’t mirage continues to feel like farce here.

As a break from the Commonwealth Games Campaign (go to www.commonwealthgamescampaign.org to support the work), I spent a delightful couple of hours visiting with Mridula Koshy, a former SEIU and IAF organizer largely in the Portland, Oregon area who is now a well read author of short fiction and a coming novel living with her family in Delhi. I’ve told the story before in several places of stumbling onto her book of short stories while killing time in the domestic airport in Delhi before flying to Mumbai on my last visit. We’re publishing two of her stories in the coming two issues of Social Policy, which I’m quite excited about doing.

Mridula gave me the opportunity of not just talking about blanks in my understanding of India and organizing here, but also allowing me to test some of my suppositions and theories with someone with whom I shared a common language of organizing. Coming from her IAF experience with the redoubtable Dick Harmon, she made many suggestions about whether or not ACORN India could find “mediating institutions” that might help. Colleges and universities were one of our brainstorms and it resonated with our work in Mumbai and our organizers’ own histories of activism in Delhi, so that suggestion is high on the list of things to discuss with the staff in our next meetings. She also hit home with me by filling in a couple of Bollywood blanks particularly the social change focus on one of the more well know directors who has appeared in our YouTube blurbs to support the “Waste” documentary on our organizing in Dharavi and the ACORN India Trust and noting the way he was focusing on the college and university market for change as well.

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