That’s Why They Call It Dope

November 30, 2020

States where weed is legal, map from

New Orleans        The years pass by, and some things in fact do change. In the early 1970s, when developing staff policies as the organization grew, there was a somewhat notorious addition, showing up fourth on the list: “That’s Why They Call it Dope.”

The rule was unambiguous. You could do anything you wanted outside of work, but if you were caught with marijuana and arrested, you would be terminated. ACORN operated in the public arena in a highly conservative state, Arkansas, so despite the lure and attraction of the youth culture for many of the young organizers, and the sweeping changes of the sixties, including around drugs, it was illegal, plain and simple. The organization was a membership organization, and the membership and the general public were skeptical about the claims and associations around marijuana. We were unwilling to take the heat and dilute the power of our demands or the ability of the organization to represent its membership. An individual could choose to be an organizer or could smoke weed, but not both. We followed the dicta that those who would be most radical, must appear most conservative.

Times change over fifty years! We’re down to only six states where marijuana is totally illegal: Idaho, Wyoming, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina. There are fifteen states where medical and recreational use is legal, including South Dakota, Maine, and Montana. The rest are a mixed bag of medical approval and decriminalization. Nonetheless using or holding marijuana is still a crime at the federal level, and there’s no indication that this is likely to change, even though polling indicates support for legalization is now at 69%, including 49% of Republicans. Neighboring countries, both Canada and Mexico, have now legalized. The US House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, has voted in favor, but the Republican controlled Senate has dug in to oppose, making this a partisan issue.

Personally, I took a couple of drags in my freshman year in college, and that’s my whole story. I often joke that I take risk in my work, but not with my work!         Nonetheless, if I were managing pain, I would be first in line at the dispensary with my prescription.

A friend and colleague, responding to a call for action items for the incoming Biden Administration, added this item to his list in a late entry:

…legalize marijuana nationally. No other issue brings together rural and urban, hipster and redneck better.  We can make the Republicans look like buzzkills.  It could galvanize the alienated and socially isolated low participation apoliticals who powered Trump’s rise.  It may even help lessened to opioid crisis.  Think about it…

He might be right. Celinda Lake, the pollster, another friend and colleague, told Politico,

I think it’s seen as a Democratic issue and a libertarian issue. But real voters, Republican real voters, are in favor of it, too.

It’s not my issue, but it may be an issue whose time has finally come. And, if not, it’s an issue where the outcome is now certain, and it’s just a matter of time.


Strategic Nonviolent Conflict

November 29, 2020

Pearl River     I really, really want to like Erica Chenoweth and her work as a researcher and advocate of “strategic nonviolent conflict,” but I keep having trouble getting all the way there. Chenoweth is most popular for her conclusions, with co-authors, that civil-resistance movements are almost two times more successful at creating large scale political changes than armed resistance. She also maintains from her databases of historic social movements that anytime about 3.5% of a nation’s population is engaged, the movements will tend to be successful. I’ve read her book pretty closely. I’m all about doing research on social movements and running the numbers, but I can’t escape feeling uncomfortable with something that almost seems prescriptive and formulaic.

In a recent New Yorker fan letter, she said some things that were right on target. She noted that the success of civil-resistance campaigns is dropping in recent years and she puts the blames the internet. She argues that the internet “is good at ‘getting people to the streets quickly in large numbers,’[but] its costs to movements may outweigh its benefits.         Also momentum can be difficult to sustain without the more painstaking work of person-to-person organizing.” Big amen, sister, to that! The internet and social media are unparalleled communication tools, but they are supplements, not substitutes, for direct organizing.

Elsewhere in the article, examining how others had confronted post-election power grabs, she listed four factors:

They mobilized mass popular participation. They encouraged defection by people in positions of authority, like economic and business élites, security forces, even members of the opposition party. They tended not to rely solely on mass demonstrations but instead used methods of dispersal and noncoöperation, like boycotts and strikes. And, finally, they stayed disciplined, even when repression escalated.

Interesting, certainly, but these are not mass movement strategies, but elite strategies that require people to hit the streets to prove support and legitimacy, but depend for success on elite networks and persuasion: defection, noncooperation, people in position to call strikes and boycotts, and so forth. These are not strategies of the powerless, but of those with some influence, if not actual pre-existing power.

The very definition she and her associates give to power is troubling, arguing for an alternative theory “in which ‘political power comes from the ability to elicit others’ voluntary obedience.” The examples given, perhaps by the reporter, rather than Chenoweth, underline the role of “pillars of support” that provide the tacit consent to authoritarian regimes, but once again, we are talking about the role of elites not people bearing the brunt of the oppression or the struggle.

The problem may be the article as much as the theory and Chenoweth’s positions, because it requires the reader to bring to the subject some belief that it was possible for Trump and his team to mount a de facto coup and attempt to stay in power. To bring credence to such a proposition requires a left readership as committed to conspiracies as the QAnon’s on the right and the hardcore Trumpsters felt, both of which are preposterous. Yet, the reporter seems to find Chenoweth biting her nails, so to speak, even as the election was basically over, which demonstrates a disturbing level of contemporary naivete about the United States, that I worry bleeds over to current events around the world.

Gene Sharp, the giant of nonviolent theory, is often referenced as the gold standard, as he rightfully should be. Sharp was a star of one of our Organizer Forum domestic dialogues years ago, and graciously sent me a shelf of his books, which I have also read. He had a record of sorts to go with his scholarship. The role of elites was not central in his work.

In some ways the other thing that discomforts me is the one-size-fits-all notion of social movements and change.         The counterpoint to strategic nonviolent conflict is what Chenoweth sees as “the standard top-down theory of power, which ‘focuses on the near-invincibility of entrenched power and implies that only militant and violent action can challenge the system.” Really? Certainly, the level of state power is impressive, especially in developed countries, but in such countries advocates of violent action to “challenge the system” are isolated and miniscule. This argument seems to rely on a strawman. The implication seems farfetched.

Undoubtedly, Chenoweth brings value to the thinking and discussion involving organizing and social change. That’s a good thing. She claims that she has nothing to say to people trying to make change, being an academic and a researcher. Yet, salted throughout the story are examples of her seeming to do just that in different Zoom calls with activists and others. I’m troubled by that. I would like to get there, but I just can’t seem to find a way to do so. Too many contradictions, assumptions, and generalizations, it seems to me, and in these days and times a theory of change that depends on elite action seems as likely to be successful as chasing rainbows.