Edinburgh The problem of transactional versus transformational organizing is nowhere clearer than in the lines being drawn around the issues of net neutrality and the internet as a public utility between old line civil rights groups and reformers. Some are trying to make much of seeing groups like the NAACP, LULAC, PUSH, and old lions like Rev. Jesse Jackson trek into the offices of the FCC and its chair, Tom Wheeler, to ask the commission to let the companies do whatever they can to whomever they can to make their money.
It’s a sad and embarrassing commentary on the state of the institutional apparatus of reform. It is also a display of the real grease that smooths the engines of our movement rather than the direction we all know we need to travel on the highway.
Comcast, AT&T, Times-Warner and others have paid the pipers. For years they have underwritten conventions, conferences, partnerships, projects, ad books, awards, and scholarships for the old-line outfits. The big companies maintain relationship specialists with various names whose job description is in fact managing these relationships, providing the grease, pressing the flesh, solving little problems, and showing up at big events. This is soft power that tries to avoid the direct expression that a quid pro quo is involved; even when everyone involved realizes that there will come a time when the chits are called in. Most smoothly expressed, these big companies, and most others like banks for example, would maintain that at the most they are getting access and have the right rolodex to be able to present their best cases to the decision makers in these organizations.
I’m not saying that the organizations shouldn’t take the money. Times are hard for organizations. At the same time they have to be able to walk away and maintain their credibility or it’s all over. Look at the tragic farce that has become Andrew Young’s legacy from civil rights to politics and diplomacy, and now as corporate shill from Walmart to whoever makes the next contribution and pays the next plane fare. These are cautionary case studies. We saw this over and over when ACORN was in fights with the banks and other lenders for example. I’ve often told the story of the settlement with HSBC, where we insisted ACORN’s share for remediation had to be double the annual level of what they had paid an old line, Beltway civil rights organization to saddle up to defend them. In fact we saw it with Comcast when they refused to listen to our demands for outreach to our communities on internet access, and instead wanted to accuse us of a shakedown. They thought, and still think, it’s all transactional. In the arrogance of corporate power, many of these big whoops start to believe that everyone can be bought, even when they must know only some are really for sale.
There’s a reason that politicians and others are left scratching in the face of modern protests and turmoil around police brutality and racial discrimination. They don’t have anyone to call on their speed dials that has credibility on the streets and in communities. They are calling the old lions, but they are a long way from the action because in fact they are in the lobby waiting to come up the elevator for a chat now.
Reportedly Rev. Jackson argued to the FCC’s Wheeler that he needed to protect the big company’s monopolies so that they would make investments in minority communities. Given the tragedy of sorry access and utilization in our communities from these companies as well as the exorbitant pricing which creates the divide and maintains their millions, it is just a matter of time before everyone asks Rev. Jackson and others, “What investment?” And, that is a question to be feared, if the answer is only an investment in some this and that with these organizations, rather than in the communities that are so desperately demanding change.
Transactions are invariably temporary. Transformation is always permanent. When change is coming, and it is coming, it’s best to be on the right side of the line.