Occupy, Neighborhood Organizing & National Convergences: Race & Class Struggles in Chicago & Beyond

As Occupy activists travel to Chicago for the NATO protests it is important to consider tensions between neighborhood organizing/long term organizing and national campaigns/shorter term actions. James Tracy and Amy Sonnie are authors of “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times” (Melville House, 2011). It is the story of radical organizing in working-class white neighborhoods, the interracial movement of the poor, and the original (pre-Jessie Jackson) Rainbow Coalitions with the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and others.

Submitted by klas batalo on May 26, 2012

Camilo Viveiros (CV): Can you share a story related to Chicago from your book that may inform activists who hope to gather people from around the country for upcoming national protests?

James Tracy (JT): The Chicago of 2012 is much the same as the Chicago of 1968 in one very important way: there are dynamic community and radical organizations that have been fighting what we now call the 1% for generations. Chicago has been an important part of every national progressive upheaval in the last century. Think of Haymarket, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Puerto Rican Independence movement, just to name a very few. If you are going to Chicago for the NATO protests, that’s wonderful. You are stepping into an event that may well turn out to be just as historical as the Democratic National Convention protests of 1968. But you should know the lessons of history and respect the local activists who have valuable experience.

The Chicago-based groups in our book were very intentional in how they picked their targets. They organize against slumlords who had holdings in black, white and brown neighborhoods because these targets gave community members an opportunity to work with one another. It was a commitment to what the Panthers would later call intercommunalism. These kinds of tangible opportunities for unity are built when organizers first build a base and make deliberate choices to foster connections.

There will be choices for Occupy activists to make about where to put your energies. Why not choose to support the protests led by local Chicago groups fighting school privatization, health care access or housing displacement? These struggles are all being fought right now and outsiders would do well to ask how they can help. And if your protest turns into a war zone, realize that at some point, most of the visiting activists will receive a level of legal support often denied everyday people in a town notorious for police brutality.

CV: In the early 1960s, Students For a Democratic Society (SDS) created the Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAP), placing student organizers in poor neighborhoods. What are some examples of student-community alliances from ERAPs that worked? What are ways that students and community groups can make sure to monitor and foster reciprocal relationships?

JT: While many of the ERAP projects folded quickly, the Jobs or Income Now Community Union based in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood lasted the longest and evolved into two important organizations: the Young Patriots Organization and Rising Up Angry. These are the central stories we cover in our book. The alliance between students and poor residents had its share of issues, but it worked because organizers on both sides put hard work into understanding each other. It wasn’t about a single action or Rent Strike. They knew if they were going to go toe-to-toe with the Right for the allegiance of poor whites, it was about long-term building in the community. It’s also important to note that quite a few key organizers were students from working-class backgrounds, the first in their family to get through college. For them the student-worker debate felt artificial, they had their feet in both worlds. With so many of the access points to higher education closed off today, I’d imagine that the divide is actually more intense today than it was in the 1960s.

“The alliance … worked because organizers on both sides put hard work into understanding each other…it was about long-term building in the community.”

CV: Can you touch on the story of the founding of the original Rainbow Coalition in Chicago and how similar collaborations might be useful models for today’s activists? What are some of the lessons about forming alliances that are pro-organizing, that are diverse without letting any group dominate?

JT: The Original Rainbow Coalition included the Young Patriots Organization, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization chapters in Chicago. Each group was expected to organize their own community, and come together in coalition. Former Panther Bob Lee told me that the Rainbow Coalition was simply a code word for class struggle in a movement that had been focused on race — for important reasons, of course. Our book details how the slow work of organizing across colorlines created the conditions where the Patriots (poor whites who used the Confederate Flag on their uniform) physically defended Lee from assault by the police and even ran armed security for the Panthers at events. It was their sustained organizing that made the insurrection possible, not the other way around.

“It was the sustained organizing that made the insurrection possible, not the other way around.”

The key to understanding this organizing approach is the concept of Self-Determination. Each group had the right to make its own decisions, but were simultaneously accountable to each other in a structured coalition.

CV: In your book Peggy Terry, a poor white organizer originally from the South, believed that “politicians stoked poor whites’ fears that any gains for people of color would come at the greatest loss to them.” What are ways working class organizers can shift narrow power analyses that define other oppressed people as competitors, and instead target those in power who pit us against each other?

JT: These fears come from somewhere tangible, because historically the ruling-class has indeed granted reforms in a strategic manner to divide and conquer poor people. The Black Panther Party demanded full employment, but the Nixon Administration came up with affirmative action. Now imagine what might have been done if the movement had been able to fully articulate a vision of what full employment for all would look like while honestly addressing historical inequalities and racism within labor? It would have been harder to convince poor whites that they were going to be tossed aside.

“…what might have been done if the movement had been able to fully articulate a vision of what full employment for all would look like while honestly addressing historical inequalities and racism within labor?”

CV: After the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 many anti-globalization activists went “summit hopping,” prioritizing going from one large-scale protest to another, not always spending the necessary time building local campaigns or supporting local organizing. As we face a series of national (DNC, RNC, etc.) protests in 2012, what are some lessons you can share about the need to work with local struggles and specifically for activists to recognize and organize in their own communities? What worked and what went wrong in Chicago related to the DNC protests in 1968 and how can we reflect on and avoid the same mistakes now?

JT: It’s not an either/or proposition. Rising Up Angry built a strong base in Chicago’s neighborhoods over many years, but also took their members to important protests in other cities. They knew that going to the mobilizations against the war in DC could give their members a sense of being connected to something bigger, and that hopefully the movement would recognize the importance of working-class people in it. At the same time, these national conventions and summits have a very real and not always positive impact on local communities. While many people now recognize the 1968 DNC as the turning point for broad public acknowledgement that the police were out of control, many local activists skipped the convention altogether because they knew the level of brutality the cops were likely to unleash. They saw it every day. It’s a double-edged sword that national attention can come out of these events, when on the other hand the ongoing repression of local folks, especially in communities of color, never gets discussed. The questions for out-of-towners are: What can you do to limit negative impacts of mass protests on local neighborhoods, and how can you actually build with and listen to local activists before, during and after a convention?

“how can you actually build with and listen to local activists before, during and after a convention?”

CV: Thank you for bringing to light the myth that poor and working class whites are more likely to defend racism than whites with money. In your book you share another key organizing insight “that poor whites experience the benefits of institutional racism differently and, therefore class-based organizing must account for those differences without ever ignoring the race question.” What are ways we can counter classism in today’s movements?

JT: White supremacy is a complex system and it works on many levels, from financial advantage to psychological. But it is also a system that requires broad participation from all so-called white people, so why assume that the bulk of the responsibility for it lies on the backs of those who benefit from it the least. A poor racist might throw around epithets displaying their racism more crudely. A rich racist can just smile and benefit from foreclosures, offshoring and privatization. I don’t think we should try to measure the extent of damage done — racism is damaging no matter what its form — but class matters because power matters. And where power comes into play, we need to evolve smart organizing strategies and understandings. The groups we write about didn’t do everything right, but they saw a real need to address class, race and gender issues in tandem, pushing poor whites to re-examine who they blamed for their problems and pushing the Left not to ignore poor people’s leadership. This is just as relevant a lesson today.

CV: Stemming from discussion and correspondence about your book, have you seen any shifts from white middle class people about the importance of white working class organizing with an anti white supremacist orientation? What are the core suggestions that you would offer activists and organizers as we look ahead for ways to build trust and relationships of respect in our diverse movements of oppressed people?

JT: Yes, when we first started discussing this book with other organizers and activists, I sensed a bit of trepidation from some self-identified white anti-racists about our intentions. I think it is obvious now that the book is not trying to unravel the good work they have done to create an understanding of how central white supremacy has been in destroying progressive movements. Intellectually, we are indebted to the work of people like Ted Allen, David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and many others. Yet we’re firmly outside of the “white studies” canon and people of various classes have responded positively to what our books suggests: an interracial movement of the poor is possible, and it is also possible for it to be led by poor people themselves.

“…an interracial movement of the poor is possible, and it is also possible for it to be led by poor people themselves.”

James Tracy is a long-time social justice organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of the San Francisco Community Land Trust and has been active in the Eviction Defense Network and the Coalition On Homelessness, SF. He has edited two activist handbooks for Manic D Press: The Civil Disobedience Handbook and The Military Draft Handbook. His articles have appeared in Left Turn, Race Poverty and the Environment, and Contemporary Justice Review. http://www.jamestracywords.com

Originally posted at Activism 2 Organizing