USA Election: A Movement Can Always Beat A Machine

socmvmtcollage1New Orleans   The election was over early, just not the way many had expected. I had always argued that regardless of the polls and pundits the election was going to be close, but I had also argued that I thought Clinton would win. Now, I will have to substitute the word “thought” for “hoped.” I had always argued that I hoped Trump would be the Republican nominee because he might be the only candidate Clinton could beat. I now may have to rethink that and revise my analysis, because Trump and his unique campaign may have been the only candidate that Clinton could NOT beat.

The bottom line is pretty clear: a real movement can always beat a machine. When you have almost vastly unpopular candidates in the contest, making everything relatively equal in that regard, a genuine movement can always beat even the best financed and well-oiled machine.

As progressives, we have to understand the simple facts. With courage, this could have been us. In fact given the closeness of the contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, it almost was us.

As organizers, we have to give Trump credit for his willingness to unabashedly embrace a movement and his place in it. He argued a case for the abandoned and left behind by the economy. He railed against the adverse impacts of trade and globalization. He argued for jobs for the jobless. He made a better case against Wall Street and the Washington establishment. These are all our issues. A populist is someone who puts the people first, and as unlikely as Trump was as the bearer of that message, this was our message.

The contest in coming months on the right and throughout the establishment will be to see who can best capture Trump’s heart and soul to make him fit the usual mold better. We actually need to push him on the claims he has made to deliver change to our constituency, if we want to reclaim it. We need to push the demands of huge blocks of those who will feel suddenly disenfranchised by this counterattack by the white and rural and too much of the working class: women, Latinos, and African-Americans. These are also our constituencies and Trump is vulnerable to all of them in trying to convert his movement to governance.

We know these problems and their fragility, because we have faced it repeatedly. We saw how rapidly the movement behind Obama dissipated. Trump may be a horse less easily broken to the bit, and in that space the effort is being made to corral him, we have huge opportunities, if we are able to seize them. Make no mistake this new world order in America will hurt millions if allowed to settle and concretize or be usurped by the far right, so we really don’t have much choice. This is ride-or-die time.

Disruption forces realignments. Chaos provides opportunities, but only to those moving hard and fast to take them and create change out of the turmoil. We have to engage the struggle where we find it, and Trump has now created the new conditions for engagement, and we now have to adapt quickly and organize the alternative paths for new movements to take hold and win, before the door closes and the opportunities are once again lost.

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Obama is Wrong about Social Movements and Activists

 “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

New Orleans   President Obama is on his farewell tour. Speaking to a young, university audience in London while trying to drum up some support for Britain to stay in the European Union, he offered what has to be seen as totally gratuitous advice to them – and of course all of the rest of us – about what he sees as the proper, underline “proper,” role for social movements and activists. And, not surprisingly, he is totally wrong, but here was what he had to offer:

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment.”

In the New York Times story about his remarks, they predictably added that something that they felt, equally gratuitously, would help give an extra dose of credibility or street cred to the President of the United States, arguably – and temporarily – one of the powerful people in the world. They offered that,

Mr. Obama began his career as a community organizer working on local initiatives in poor neighborhoods in Chicago. Sometimes, he said, solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions.

Now, certainly if you are a big whoop, or the biggest whoop of them all you, want the rowdies out there to get the message that if you lean down from your perch and deign to listen to them for a hot minute, they are supposed to understand that they are supposed to behave, thank you, and then go and shut the heck up. But, as Obama surely must really know, regardless of the claptrap he’s selling right now, the role of social movements, and many activists, is exactly the opposite. The role of social movements in fact is to speak “truth to power,” not to make the deals and settle for the incremental changes, but to chant, “more, more, more,” keep the heat on that continues to create the pressure and push to create the space for the deal-makers to do their thing to get closer and closer to the mark, and not stop until the job is done.

Obama knows from his time in Chicago that an organization has to accept “half a loaf” frequently to deliver to its members. Good organizations get more, and weaker organizations get less, but it’s a social movement’s job to continue to raise the banner for truth, justice, and the whole loaf. There’s a different between seeking power and putting on the pressure. The Alinsky tradition, that Obama shared, was always uncomfortable with social movements because they were too easily appeased by applause, rather than being thankful that social movements enlarged the space to allow organizations to win even greater victories. Sadly, but once again not surprisingly, Obama knew this seven years ago when he challenged activists to push him – and the country – if they wanted more change, but now that he’s more worried about his past legacy, than his future accomplishments, he sitting too comfortably on the throne.

It’s worth respecting his position, but for the sake of all of us working for change, when it comes to social movements, we need to adamantly decline to follow his advice.

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Occupy What? Occupy Where?

occupy-bannerRock Creek  The weekly entertainment and alternative paper in western Montana is the Missoula Independent.   The cover story entitled, “Occupy Missoula:  Where are They Now?” caught my eye.  Coming on the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the movement seems now more firefly than firestorm. 

            The reporter interviewed a half-dozen people who had been prominent in Occupy locally, but the article could probably have been written in scores of other communities. Typical of the power of a movement, all of them had hear the call and responded to the spirit.   Stirred to action by what they were seeing in New York City, more than 200 had assembled in a park of the Clark Fork of the Missouri River and then later camped out in front of the Missoula County Courthouse until winter came freezing them out and breaking them down with one problem or another.

            The cross-section of people interviewed included experienced activists, long accustomed to taking the long view of social change and heartened by the event, random folks seeking a voice to protest the economic collapse and its impact on their families and fortunes, and seekers, folks looking for a way to make change and desperately hoping that Occupy might be the answer.  Many had now scattered to the wind, returning home to work in more traditional nonprofits or teach school.   Others went back to school still grasping for a way to impact issues. 

A common theme runs through all of this that cannot be forgotten:  people want change but they have to find a way to be effective.  The common complaint from the Occupy experience, and for some the disillusionment, was the inability of the movement to define itself, either strategically or, moving past the encampments, tactically. 

One seeker joined an “intentional” community in Missoula that recently connected to something nationally called the International Organization for a Participatory Society or I-Ops for short.  I-Ops sounds like an interesting evolution of some of the strains of the Occupy excitement.   Members include some well known names like Noam Chomsky and David Graeber, the anarchist theorist credited with some of the thinking behind Occupy.   They claim 3200 members worldwide and are clear about their mission, ideology, and principles, which some of the ex-Occupiers appreciate.  They seem to call for a classless society and a participatory economy something along the Zapatista model in Mexico, according to this story.

In the same way Occupy sprang up in communities around the country, I suspect this story could be duplicated in city after city, community after community.  In Little Rock, there is still an Occupy time slot on Saturday afternoon with a heartbeat.  In New Orleans, like so many places, divisions were more common than consensus by the end. In Missoula, the I-Ops folks meet the last Wednesday of the month at the public library. 

Movements happen and their strength is the way they attract moths to the light, too bright, and people drift off again, but some come close enough to see a way to move forward and keep the fight alive, build the next thing, and learn a way to make change a part of their future, making it all worth the flight.

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Annals of Organizing: Naked Protests

SHonduran ACORN Organizers and Wade an Pedro Sula Waiting for the meeting to begin ACORN Honduras leaders in the San Pedro Sula area were talking animately back and forth. In my sorry Spanish I could make out the fact that the subject was Cairo and the military, but not enough to be certain how each leader was coming down. I whispered to the volunteer helping translate and she confirmed that almost everyone but one leader believed that Mubarak should have stepped down, and all of them were worried about how the Egyptian people who handle the military from their own experiences in Honduras. When I asked if my companeros did not believe that the protests would go back to Tahrir Square if the military stepped out of line, another burst of talking began and one leader, cowboy hat on his head, held up a flash card to me, which read: “NO.”

We will see soon enough, but the creativity of social movements and their organizations had hit me hard reading earlier in the day about an effective protest and tactic in the frontier Northeast of India which has been under the equivalent of martial law for 50 years through the perverse Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. Local and international human rights organizations have attempted consistently to make the AFSPA and the military abuses under the act an issue in India, but one government after another has sidestepped the matter despite frequent allegations of murder, torture, and rape by the armed forces.

A local victory came from the courage and creativity of a women’s organization in July and August 2004 to the terrible murder and likely rape of a 32-year old Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, by soldiers. Here’s how an excellent new book called, The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India by Professors Nandini Deo and Duncan McDuie-Ra, tell the story:

“A group of soldiers from the Assam Rifles paramilitary division and several unidentified others entered Manorama’s house in Imphal and arrested her on the premise that she was an explosives expert with the People’s Liberation Army, the oldest insurgent group in Manipur. They beat her outside the house for three hours while the rest of the family was locked inside. The following afternoon her body was found naked and bullet-ridden by a roadside. It was difficult for doctors to determine whether she had been raped as she had been shot through the vagina. As the news became public the state capital erupted in protest led by the Meira Paibis, the vanguard organization in the women’s movement in Manipu. People poured into the streets demanding the immediate withdrawal of the AFSPA; the army fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd and imposed a curfew. Still the people protested; government offices were set fire, five youths attempted self-immolation in the center of Imphal, while another young man cut off one of his fingers. Opposition political parties joined the protests and demanded that the AFSPA be removed in three days.

“At 10:30 on the morning of July 15, forty middle-aged Manipuri women from the Meira Paibis marched to the Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the local branch of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force. The Kangla Fort is a significant symbol of Manipuri identity and resistance narratives; it is believed to be the first place settled in the Imphal valley and where the Manipuri kingdom was established in AD 33, but it has been occupied by British and Indian armed forces since 1891. The women entered the fort and unfurled anti-AFSPA banners, shouting slogans calling for the removal of the AFSPA. Then a dozen of the women stripped completely naked and ran into the army compound and called out to the soldiers to come and rape them. They then held up a banner that read in red lettering “Indian Army Rape Us,” while those at the gate held up a banner that read “Indian Army Take Our Flesh.”

The protest was extraordinary. Editorials appeared in newspapers from Kolkata to Mumbai debating the AFSPA and publicizing Manipur’s anguish. Displays of solidarity took place in locations like Delhi and Bangalore. Manipur was now on the national agenda.” The AFSPA remains, but the women won a victory nonetheless: “…on November 20, 2004, the protests led to the Assam Rifles vacating the Kangla Fort, the first time in nine decades that the fort returned to Manipuri control. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conducted the handover on the site where the nude protests had taken place. The colonizers were handing the fort back to the colonized, and the women’s movement had been the catalyst for this – something militant groups and transnational networks had been unable to achieve after decades of similar demands.” Meira Paibi in Hindi means “torch-bearing women.”

The military can be beaten!

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Spontaneous? No Way! Organizers Speak in Egypt

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square

Houston You know the old saying, “If I had a hundred dollars for every time,” blah, blah, blah.  We’ll if I had a $100 for every time Anderson Cooper or someone on CNN or Fox or any of the other pundits, reporters, or talking heads told the story of the demonstrations in Cairo being the product of a “spontaneous” uprising of the Egyptian people, then ACORN International would have the money to open a half-dozen new cities around the world this year.

Finally, since President Mubarak and Vice-President Suleiman were trying to spin a story from their recent negotiations that there were an emerging consensus shared by representatives of the young organizers behind the rising of the masses, some of the local organizers finally came out from around the screen of silence to more explicitly detail how they had set the stage and sequencing for this historic drama.  And, despite the attempt of the New York Times reporter, David Kirkpatrick, to try and shoehorn Facebook and all of the new tech tools into the factual accounts to fit into the modernist, American-touched narrative he would like to tell, these are simply down and dirty stories of exceptionally good, shoe leather, street sense, and solid strategic community and political organizing.

Here are the elements they have now revealed:

  • The core cadre was about 15 organizers all less than 30 years old forged from a variety of oppositional parties and experiences.
  • The coalition was held together on a non-ideological and non-partisan framework of uncompromising opposition to the current regime based on a sense of what one organizer in the video called the “spirit of Tunisia:”  the sense of movement that something was possible now that might not have been possible before.
  • Old school organizers with proven skills whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party in Egypt were critical because they knew how to organize from their years as persecuted minorities despite the fact that they lacked a mass base and in the words of one young, feminist organizer, would be unlikely to pull “10%” support if allowed on the ballot.  This was a pragmatic coalition.
  • Communications, it seems, were rudimentary.  The messages in the tree hole or posters plastered after midnight in communications from past rebellions were replaced by some connections via Facebook or Google Talk, but these were only ways to secure safe conversation and contact, not to actually move and organize people.  I know this seems obvious to organizers, but it’s important not to be confused.
  • The organizers were aspiring middle class professionals it seems, but the masses that moved were unique compared to past efforts because in the words of one of the organizers, this time they went to the poor neighborhoods rather than the middle class areas as they had in the past.  [Starting in a poor neighborhood was itself an experiment. “We always start from the elite, with the same faces,” Mr. Lotfi said. “So this time we thought, let’s try.”] And, the poor and working class areas in these “field tests” followed them out of their houses, cafes, and businesses into the streets and didn’t stop until they were done and the organizers outlasted and out lapped by the people.
  • The organizers worked in teams.  Smart!
  • The organizers recognized that surveillance was a part of their lives and political work so they continually masked their plans and feinted with false locations, targets, and so forth to confuse the police state.  Shrewd!
  • The organizers finally used real, bread and butter issues not democracy and pie in the sky, and to no organizers’ surprise, people responded by putting boots on the bricks:  “Instead of talking about democracy, Mr. Lotfi said, they focused on more immediate issues like the minimum wage. “They are eating pigeon and chicken and we are eating beans all the time,” they chanted. “Oh my, 10 pounds can only buy us cucumbers now, what a shame what a shame.”  Yes, Virginia, self-interest still has to be mixed with aspirations to create the chemistry of social change.
  • The organizers moved within the intensity of crowd and it’s energy understanding that you cannot simply repeat the same drill day after day and scheduled the big events on Tuesdays and Fridays to allow the crowd to reenergize.  This is brilliant and shows these folks were real police…amateurs never get this, but professionals know!

Enough said.

These folks are organizers not keyboard punchers, and they are writing the case study on how to organize within the moment of a movement the changes that matter.  Nothing can take away the spirit and courage of the masses of people moving to the call, but people are being served by some great organizers and this is where the future of Egypt and many other countries will be determined.

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Revolution for the Masses, Leaders for the Media

_51109727_011189195-1New Orleans If the commentary on TV and in print about Egypt were not so ridiculous, pathetic, tragic, and misinformed about such deadly serious business as freedom, revolution, and regime change, it would actually be funny.

I listened to a blip on CNN on the way to the Hornets game last night with my son in which a commentator on the ground in Cairo named Nic, I believe, Robinson, pontificated on how unusual, and essentially frustrating, all of this was because there were no easily identified leaders, and then he proceeded to tell the views in an intimate tone that essential “as we all know” revolutions are ignited by charismatic and easily identified leaders and this is not the case in Egypt.   Earlier in anger I had read the same thing in an AP story trying to argue that Egypt was different and unsettling because a dozen days in they had still not been able to identify a transcendent leader to rally around in the streets.  The Times almost as pathetically wondered today whether the released Google exec might be willing to stand up and be the much needed face and voice of the revolution.

At one level this is ridiculous because it contradicts reports on the ground in Egypt.  The largely young organizers of the demonstrations are known and recognized and were even given seats at table in the early meetings with Mubarak’s vice-president and now chief negotiator of the transition.  Furthermore according to Al Masry Al Youm in the English edition yesterday:

“Five major groups [participating in the demonstrations] have formed a revolutionary committee and chosen ten individuals to represent them,” said activist Ziad al-Alimy on Monday.

Al-Alimy explained that the coalition included the 6 April protest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing, the Mohamed ElBaradei Support Group, the Young Freedom and Justice Movement and the Democratic Front Party’s youth wing.

The development represents the first appearance of a unified leadership among protesters, who insist on maintaining their popular uprising that began on 25 January.

“The coalition will coordinate with other opposition parties and groups to continue demanding the departure of President Hosni Mubarak,” al-Alimy said.

He added that the coalition had not participated in the talks held recently between some opposition parties and newly-appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman.

So, the bottom line is that the problem is not that there are not leaders.  There are obviously.  The media and the government are troubled by the fact that these leaders understand with all apologies to Nic and others that revolutions are fueled to success from the bottom, not from the top, and they are trying to maintain their aligned to the base to survive long enough to topple the government despite the concerns of the State Department and other countries and the interests of the media in tying this into a neater little package of sound bites with head shots of the coming boss.  In Egypt the real organizers and leaders want the new boss to be different than the old boss, not just the same as the old boss, as The Who sang.

Perhaps it might remind some of a country they are not very familiar with:  The United States of America!

Don’t believe me, read American Insurgents, American Patriots by distinguished Northwestern University Professor T.H. Breen, published last year, which through brilliant research resuscitates the role of common people and their role in making the American revolution work.  Breen once again proved how the mass base in hundreds of communities across largely rural America moved years ahead of the Declaration of Independence and forced the “leaders” to emerge who were willing to follow them.  Just as we are seeing in the Cairo streets, they were insurgents then in English terms and only became patriots later in American terms after we won our independence and freedoms.

Put your pencil and computers down for a second, and read a book, if you are unable to simply listen to what people on the street in Egypt are saying.  This is how revolutions are made from the bottom, and it’s why they are unstoppable, despite the huge forces daily trying to co-opt their energy and power.

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