Nick von Hoffman, TWO Legend and Alinsky Lieutenant

Saul Alinsky and Nick von Hoffman

Boston    It’s just makes a cold day even colder when it starts with reading an obituary in the Boston Globe about Nick von Hoffman dying at Rockport, Maine at 88 years old.

For von Hoffman the early part of this career in Chicago when he was a community organizer and the chief lieutenant of Saul Alinsky is almost a footnote to the more mainstream prominence he attracted as a columnist for the Washington Post, the liberal side of the television commentary debate called “Point Counterpoint,” or even his best-selling book about the notorious fixer Roy Cohn from McCarthy to Trump and others.  But, community organizers know von Hoffman as the lead organizer for the then path-breaking and famous, TWO, The Woodlawn Organization.

In 2010 Nick wrote a reflection of Alinsky as he was having a strange revival as a tactical textbook for the right wing, quoted liberally by James O’Keefe, the video provocateur among others.  Nick arranged to call me in 2009 for some background or another that I don’t recall precisely this minute, but it was largely because he wanted to draw a straight line between Alinsky and ACORN.  We had a cordial and lengthy conversation, but the quid pro quo for my participation was getting the chance to ask him some questions that had always intrigued me about the paths taken – and not taken – by Alinsky and his team then.

I had often quoted a line attributed to von Hoffman when he decided to shelve organizing and try his hand at journalism.  He had run a giant voter registration effort in Chicago shortly before that where they had registered thousands of new voters, 8000 sticks in my memory, and he was quoted saying in essence that despite this major effort, it made no difference in the election and in Chicago politics, and that was the wake-up call that led him away from organizing.  I asked him about that campaign and his comment which was determinedly political, and why Alinsky and his successors had always so militantly avoided politics.  Was it the power of the Daley machine in Chicago, and the feeling that it couldn’t be beaten at the polls, so it was better to avoid the contest?

Responding, Nick claimed that Alinsky had never avoided politics or encouraged organizations to not be political, which was contrary to every conversation and piece of evidence to the contrary.  After a couple of more questions along this line as well as their positions on women organizers and other subjects, I figured out Nick’s mission.  He was writing the book as a counterpoint of another sort.  He wanted to update Alinsky to modern organizing and contemporary progressive practice, including ACORN’s.  He was going to marry his own memoir to the new currency of Alinsky and community organizing after the election of Obama who also had his short stint in the work.

This was a legacy project.  We should all have been lucky enough to work with Nick when he was a great organizer, and we would all be so fortunate to have him guard, protect, and invent a legacy when it matters, as a last gift of friendship to a comrade-in-arms.

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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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