“The Organizer” a Big Hit at the Festival des Libertes

mural on National Theater commemorating the Festivale and a critique of the war

Brussels      Perhaps the most interesting question I have gotten at a screening of “The Organizer” in a long time came from Professor Philippe van Parijs of the University of Louvain in Belgium, a noted scholar long recognized over many decades as an expert and advocate of universal basic income.  He asked a several part question, as many did, but the second half was the unique part of his inquiry.  After watching the movie and living along with the audience the ups, downs, and ups of ACORN and the victories and defeats I had experienced, he wanted to know how I managed to weather the storm and seemed “so relaxed and happy” as I stood to answer questions after the showing?

My answer was my usual.  My perspective on the work – and life – as a struggle to be met every day in a battle to resist, persist, and sometimes prevail.  Perhaps in fairness, he might have observed what should have been obvious to the audience.  It was hard NOT to be relaxed and happy.  There was a full house for this first ever showing of the film with French captions on the biggest screen I felt I had ever seen, partially perhaps because I had ended up after a TV interview sitting on the second row on the aisle feeling like the whole film was sitting in my lap.  The hosts had been prepping Adrien Roux of ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne and me, about the details since shortly after noon – six hours before, so it was great to finally have this part over and hear the repeated and appreciative roar of applause from the audience.

Somewhere in the heat of the experience was also just the wonder and adventure itself, and my feeling of pure luck at getting to be a part of it all.  Not knowing what to expect from moment to moment, but being open and ready to accept the experience, enjoy it, and even learn from it, is part of the key.  The Festival des Libertes was not your usual film festival.  It was a multi-media kind of event that focused on empowerment and social change.  I had not realized it until the afternoon, but the “debate” listed on the program was not another word for question-and-answer period, but after the screening and the Q&A, it was actually a back-and-forth about the value and impact of community organizing.  How great is that?  No matter what rocks might be thrown, the fact that the film and the story of ACORN’s experience had triggered a discussion already proved the fact that community organization was steel plated.  Opinions had to be registered and weighed.  Organizing and building organizations, unions, and social movements was serious business and had to be considered soberly as a subject of inquiry and engagement.  Debate?  What debate?  From the opening bell, we had already won any possible argument, leaving the rest to naysayers and back-benchers.

More than 100 people had saddled back up for this second session and, unbelievably to me, they hung in until after 10pm, way past the point of common sense and good judgement.  I was tired and hungry, but I couldn’t have had more fun or been more honored to have been able to participate and in such a great event.

the crowd filling up the seats for the screening

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Can Ideology Save an Organization?

Thessaloniki    The twenty people watching “The Organizer” documentary screening in the classroom at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, were all either PhD candidates in political science or professors.  They began with a good, open-minded attitude and were friendly and tolerant as we worked to get the pieces together at the last minute.  We had experienced our usual snafus at the airport of missing each other in the waiting area for several hours, so by the time I taxied to the university with help from a mutual friend in Brussels transcribing the location for me from the flyer, we hardly rendezvoused at the stated start time.

Though the script had been translated into Greek, the technical transfer of captions into the documentary didn’t really get done, so everyone had to make their way through the film in English.  The professor was convinced this would not be a huge issue, and perhaps it was not at least for some.  One woman before the meeting said she was actually from Bennington, Vermont though she had been in Greece for years.  Another, surprisingly, had spent a year in high school in Shreveport, Louisiana, and had traveled in Texas, and she thought it likely in Arkansas as well.

Nonetheless, the Q&A section that I live for was difficult.  No small part of it was likely on me.  Having been up for almost 36 hours straight, I was likely less patient than usual and certainly not at the top of my game.

The political science students were earnest.  They wanted to believe that there might have been a magic bullet that could have saved ACORN when it was under attack in the United States eight and nine years ago.

One asked whether we were familiar with other kinds of currency systems that might have allowed ACORN to avoid the “capitalist” system and cited various small-scale examples of experiments with alternative cash-credit programs.  In answering I said I was familiar with some of the trials, and even nodded knowingly to the woman from Vermont that I thought some of them were in that state, but that, frankly, that had been outside the scope of an organization like ACORN, regardless of its size.

This was a sophisticated crew so there were no questions about social media, but there was a detailed question about anarchism and the structure of ACORN, which I weathered.  There was another lengthy question that seemed to hope that the problem was that ACORN was an NGO and wanted a detailed list of how we distinguished ourselves, that I was happy to provide though left the questioner unconvinced from what I could tell.

Then there were a number of questions that firmly believed that if ACORN leaders and staff had a more committed and traditional ideological framework then the organization might have survived even though they had been “duped by Clinton and Obama,” as the questioner argued.  I made the case for the organization’s own internal ideology, but could tell I had not convinced the crowd, perhaps because the very demise of ACORN in the United States likely proved the weakness of my argument.  I was probably simply lucky that the students did not press home that point to my embarrassment, and finally left so I could find my way to my sleeping pad and get some rest to fight the wars another day.

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