What organizing should look like

The first half of this essay has described what is wrong with organizing today, so it is only fair that the second half of this essay should attempt to describe how to make it right. So far I have described the animosity, the prejudice, and the corporatization of various movements. I used the various organizations and movements as examples in the first half not because I want to rescue them, but because I want to rescue people from them with the hope of moving towards authentic, grassroots organizing. Authentic organizing is the opposite of what was described in the first half. It is democratic, it strives to be self-sustaining, it is engaging and striving to grow, and it is constantly reinventing itself in order to meet the demands of its time and conditions.

A Worthwhile Organization

Let me be clear right now, the ideal organization probably doesn’t exist. Unless you were born into an organization and brainwashed into its ways and positions, no group will ever be perfect for you. Instead, serious people should focus on creating or finding a worthwhile organization. The difference between a worthwhile organization (or organizer) and one that should stop existing is that a worthwhile organization attempts to empower the common person. It comes from the ranks of regular people and struggles alongside them, and it not only educates those in its community, workplace, or campus, but is educated by its fellow workers and neighbors in turn.

Although far from perfect and deserving of its own critical essay, Occupy Richmond does provide a good example for one of the points this essay is trying to make. Occupy Richmond was different from the rest of the activism in the city at the time because it was composed mostly of people who were new to activism. It also contained a lot of people who weren’t new to local politics, and who tried to use the occupation to further their own interests or the interests of their organization. Interestingly, the new people and the old people learned from each other in the process of doing battle with city authorities, corporate financial interests, and others. Ideas were exchanged, relationships built, and friendships formed. Not only that, Occupy activists made an effort to reach out to working-class and homeless people in the city. They weren’t always successful in their outreach, but they didn’t always fail either.

As a result of actually doing some listening, many people from Occupy Richmond became involved in local issues such as opposing school closings, opposing legislation that would close women’s health clinics, and various issues facing the local black community. When Occupy finally broke up and the activists went their different ways, many of them went on to work in various issues that they knew were necessary to address as a result of being educated by their fellow community members.

A worthwhile, authentic organization is one that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. It isn’t guided by shadowy funders in distant cities. It isn’t lead by staffers pushing people in this or that direction. A worthwhile organization is composed of people who come from among the ranks of those they are trying to organize. When people look at the organizers or elected leaders of the organization, they should be reminded of themselves. For example, why did the people follow Daniel Shays to arms in a rebellion against the government of Massachusetts in 1787? Shays came from the ranks of the indebted and the poor who were being crushed by taxes and losing their land. The rebels saw themselves and their cause in Shays, and Shays saw himself in them. They were one.

Any organization that is truly of, by, and for the people must be democratic. The specifics and details of the organizational structure should, understandably, change as the organization grows. The specifics will vary by situation, locality, type of organization, and size, so it isn’t the purpose of this essay to really go into detail about it. To keep an organization responsible to the people, all of its officials should be elected and directly recallable at any time if the members so choose. There should be as few perks as possible. In other words, elected officials shouldn’t quit their day jobs. If it ever becomes necessary to employ staff, they should be elected from within the ranks and subject to recall at any time by the members.

Authentic organizing never idles; it is always on the march. Organizers cannot just sit there and say “I don’t know what we are going to do” when times get tough. If you need to step back and reevaluate, then do that. If you don’t know where to go from here, then go back to the drawing board. Get the members together and brainstorm, and always go in a direction that leads to respectful engagement with the grassroots. Remember that your cause is bigger than your organization and proceed to make alliances, be open to new ideas and methods, and, if necessary, dissolve and rebuild as something better suited to your struggle.

Away with dogma.

A worthwhile organization knows when its time is up. Dinosaurs become a roadblock to effective future organizing. I remember speaking with a community organizer friend of mine a few years ago. She was describing how people in Richmond are very stuck in the old ways. As an African-American herself, she had a wealth of experience organizing in the local black community. She gave the example of how people would always want to go to the old organizations like the NAACP and use the old methods like marches whenever something requiring immediate action popped up. People would march, but not in a direction that took them anywhere. At the end of the day, nothing changed. This dogma around how to mobilize and organize became a roadblock to current organizing and the development of tactics suited to the present conditions.

In much the same way, the modern radical left repeats what worked many decades ago and rarely tries anything new. In much the same way, people join the old, useless organizations that are big enough to warrant their own Wikipedia entry (it doesn’t take much). People join these groups that are stuck in the ways of 50 or 100 years ago and often refuse to look beyond their narrow little club. I have seen so many good people join one of these parties or cliques and change into closed-minded and arrogant people. In their mind, their stiff little cult is right and the rest of the world is wrong.

Never ask “what would our heroes do?” All of those people are dead and gone now and chances are good the conditions that they were working under have changed. Instead, ask why what your heroes did was so effective at the time. What was it about their actions that shook the system and frightened the powers that be? For example, when black people were marching in the streets during the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t just symbolism. The very thought of the black masses gathering together and marching through the streets of segregated cities, or Washington DC itself, was intimidating to the racist system. The police, the politicians, and the upper class were terrified that all hell would break loose. Today, protests and marches have been worked into the system. They are considered protected speech. Yes, there are times when they are deemed illegal in America, but it is nothing like it was in the past. Today a protest is often nothing more than symbolism.

Dogmatic beliefs about what worked in the past or how great older, established organizations are have never benefited anyone. Such attitudes belong in the church, but even the Catholic Church has had to make some changes over the centuries in order to keep its following. Organizers must never be afraid to experiment with new ideas, nor should members be afraid to make major changes to the organization if the times call for it. On-the-ground conditions are never the same in different times or places. Authentic organizing involves the practice of adapting to your conditions, adapting to the situation on the ground, and constantly reinventing your organization or your strategy. This is political science, after all. Scientists experiment, scientists are constantly testing and retesting their hypotheses, and scientists criticize each other and themselves in order to progress towards new discoveries. If physics, biology, astronomy, medicine, and engineering all had the dogma of politics, then we would still be living in the Bronze Age. Organizers must be more like scientists. We must break with the dogmas of the past and strive to be innovative in a world that is constantly, and often rapidly, changing.

In order to work towards an authentic model of organizing in this century, we must never be afraid to question the old icons. We must keep in mind that the historical figures organizers tend to look up to were only human. They weren’t perfect and they weren’t right about everything. As a matter of fact, they may have been wrong about a lot more than so many are willing to admit.

A Good Organizer

A good organizer possesses many qualities. An organizer must be a strategist, a psychologist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist all at the same time. A good organizer is considerate, respectful, and never afraid to admit when they’re wrong. A good organizer works to understand the situation and the people they are trying to organize, never acts like they know better than everyone else, and is flexible.

I once had the misfortune of letting myself get sucked into an SEIU-lead campaign to organize a group of people to oppose, or at least put pressure on, Congressman Eric Cantor to do more to create jobs. I was unemployed at the time, so I figured it couldn’t hurt. The lady the union sent down to organize this group was very pushy and maintained firm control over the direction of the group. I remember during one meeting there were some people who had a few ideas that would be good for a long-run approach, which is really where the group should have been focused given that it wasn’t an election year anyway. The “organizer” sent down by the union didn’t like any of their ideas and shot them down, implying the group wasn’t going to be doing any ideas that weren’t the ones she suggested. She wasn’t around long, but everyone who stuck with the group sort of felt like they were doing things for her instead of for their own benefit.

The union wanted to organize a big pro-jobs, anti-Cantor protest towards the end of the summer. In preparing for this, they reached out to a community organization with the hope of bringing out bigger numbers. A few days before the big protest, they held a meeting with members of our super special anti-Cantor group and the members of the community organization. The only problem was that it wasn’t a real meeting. The union staff talked at us, not with us. They told their “community partners” how it was going to go, whether we agreed or not.

When this was all over, and the lady left to embark on her next big assignment, those in the group she supposedly organized went their separate ways. We liked each other enough, we could have stuck together, but we didn’t because we really got the impression that this was just a temporary project to make our new friend from SEIU happy. To top it all off, Eric Cantor remained in office for another term after that.

A good organizer will do the opposite of what my “friend” from SEIU did. When I was the main guy representing SDS at my university, I was approached by a lot of people with different interests and ideas. I always encouraged them. For example, I had a few women join who really wanted to work on the issue of reproductive rights, which was big in Virginia at the time due to legislation targeting abortion and women’s health clinics. Some of them were involved in the larger community protest movement regarding that issue, and others wanted to take a more artistic approach. I would always offer whatever help I could, and whatever miniscule resources SDS had that would be helpful, to these projects. I would even put them in touch with other activists I knew with the hope of starting something bigger, even though myself and the organization would have little to no stake in it. As a result, people kept coming back to our meetings and many of the (thousands) of students on campus knew who we were, as well as many activists from the larger community, and were not afraid to approach us to propose a partnership for their projects.

I must criticize myself, however, because at the end of the day I was just a much nicer version of our SEIU friend. Myself and others in SDS were too busy pursuing activism around various issues that we neglected our overall goal, which was to build the infrastructure on campus to empower students, and to assist with building the same in the community to empower working-class people. While being involved in multiple projects and encouraging members with diverse interests and ideas is definitely the right thing to do (if the group doesn’t spread itself too thin), such work should be undertaken with the ultimate goal of the organization in mind.

The lesson to take away from all this is that a good organizer is a good person who is open to new ideas and encourages the work of others, but at the same time the organizer helps to guide the organization in the direction of achieving its ultimate goals. It is good to have multiple projects, and we should participate in multiple struggles with sincere and honest intentions, but we should always ask ourselves, “How can we use our work in this project or struggle to build the infrastructure to empower those we are trying to organize?”

A Good Strategy

While it isn’t my intention to lay out a full-fledged campaign strategy in this section, I do intend to give a general idea of the qualities a good strategy should have. As stated before, your cause is bigger than your organization. If your work becomes more about the organization than the cause, then you have become a business and might as well install a kitchen and open a McDonald’s franchise. Your organization should never avoid cooperation with appropriate allies, nor should your organization become an exclusive club for certain types of people (old, young, punk rockers, etc.).

Much of the success of Anti-Racist Action (ARA) in the 1990s was due to its openness. ARA didn’t attempt to build a wall between itself and the rest of the people who shared their goals of keeping neo-Nazis at bay. ARA started in 1987 in the skinhead music scene as a reaction to the Nazi presence in the genre. The goal was to build a larger movement to take on the Nazis wherever they go, but for its first few years of existence it was mainly a skinhead group. Its political openness, however, allowed it to grow pretty quickly over the next several years. They were able to build good relationships with groups of people who were often overlooked by much of the traditional (and arguably middle-class) left, such as working-class youths, street punks, and the Queer community. By the early 1990s ARA had grown into a much broader youth movement and became the largest antifascist organization in the US and Canada. Whether you loved or hated ARA, you simply couldn’t ignore it (Key, 2006, ps. 45-46).

While traditional left organizing grew stale, ARA attempted to innovate. Most young people aren’t attracted to fascism due to ideology, but rather through friends and the cultural scene (music, parties). ARA recognized this and established its own counterculture to combat the neo-Nazi underground. This is where the likes of Rock Against Racism came into play (Key, 2006, p. 34).

Solidarity not charity?

Something that stands out to me is when organizations talk a big game about fighting various problems plaguing working-class people, but turn their backs when actual victims of the problem approach them for help. For example, my anti-Cantor “friend” from SEIU had a bunch of people in the group who were struggling because they were out of work. While it’s understandable that the main focus for such a project should be on organizing against Cantor, it may have helped the group in the long-run if she had used her union connections to at least try and get some of these people interviewed by a potential employer.

The reason I suggest this idea is because people become committed to a cause or organization through actions. Actions speak louder than words. They always have and they always will. The common refrain among too many people from the center-left all the way to the far-left is “solidarity not charity,” but are these things really incompatible? People are not won over by “organizing conversations” (sales pitches), and I have never seen a single script recruit anyone. People are won over by the deeds of the organizer and the organization.

Occupy Our Homes, for instance, not only works to block evictions and disrupt the auctions of foreclosed homes, it also finds homes for those without one by fixing up vacant, abandoned, and foreclosed homes and moving the victims of the housing and foreclosure crisis in (Christie, 2011). A search of the Occupy Our Homes website shows that these sorts of actions won over so many people to the vision of the organization. Is this solidarity or this charity? Take, for example, the case of Tacco Cullins and her family. Cullins is a single mother who sought help from Occupy Our Homes Atlanta when she was tricked into substandard and dangerous living conditions by a fake landlord. Occupy Our Homes teamed up with local churches and activists and was able to raise enough money to get the Cullins family a safe place to live. Not only did this campaign get the Cullins family a safe place to stay, it pressured the Atlanta Housing Authority to end their freeze on section 8 housing (“Atlanta” and “Tacco” sources, 2012, and Ross, 2012).

Make whatever criticisms you will of the Black Panthers, but nobody can deny the impact that their free breakfast program had. They saw the hunger and poverty in their community and took it upon themselves to try and alleviate some of it. Their breakfast program was such a good strategy that it concerned FBI director J. Edgar Hoover:

The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the BPP (Black Panther Party) among naive individuals .. . And, what is more distressing, provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths.. . . Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for (Mascarenhas-Swan, 2013).

At the end of the day, the organizing conversation is useless and meaningless if you don’t have a reputation of backing up what you say. The same goes for newspapers, websites, and speeches. Words are cheap. Words are meaningless. Of course, even a conversation can be a type of action, albeit a very small one, if you do it right. Too many professionals talk at the people they are trying to recruit instead of talking to or with them. You can’t just start talking about how great or beneficial this or that organization or project is, or how helpful it might be, because you will be viewed the exact same way as a television commercial or telemarketer. You need to listen to those you are trying to organize. Even if you are one of them, even if you are in the exact
same situation as they are, you still need to listen. It doesn’t matter if they are young and you (wrongly) think you know better because you’re older. It doesn’t matter if these people seem apprehensive or timid. You must always be courteous, if not humble, and listen to those you are having an organizing conversation with. Listen to their concerns, listen to their ideas, listen to their problems and take what they say seriously. Try to learn from the people. It will have an impact and it will speak to them more than any “rap” because it isn’t often that regular people are actually listened to, have their input sought and valued, and treated as if they are intelligent enough to know what they’re talking about. The biggest impression can be made on someone by showing them that you value and respect them. Why do you think so many companies try to give you the impression that they value their customers? Because people will stick around if they think they’re going to be treated like human beings for once instead of numbers, burdens, or fools. Remember that the people don’t owe you or your organization anything. It is you who owes it to the people to prove your group is worth joining and to prove you practice what you preach.

Remember where you came from.

Too many people forget that they are a part of the masses. They build walls between their organization or themselves and the rest of the world. If people liked exclusive clubs, then country clubs wouldn’t be just for rich people and sports teams wouldn’t sell game tickets to just anybody. You and your organization are a part of the masses. You came from the people, and it would be wise to remember that.

The organization that left Occupy Richmond with the worst reputation was one of the local anarchist clubs. I won’t name them here because I respect a lot of the things they do. They were so wrapped up in what they wanted that people wanted nothing to do with them. They were also quite confrontational at times. The sad thing is that so many people there had never been politically active before and it was a great opportunity to win people over to the radical perspective, but they blew it. In the end, people may have left Occupy talking like anarchists but they all became Democrats when the state elections came around.

Around 40 people walked out of SEIU’s Occupy DC camp at the National Mall for almost the same reason. SEIU wanted to hijack and control the movement. They wanted people to give support and effort to them even though they offered nothing in return (Captain, 2011). Another example comes from New York City, when Workers World Party organized an Occupy Wall Street “general assembly” which consisted of party speakers belching out propaganda at the people and little to no space for the views of non-members (Schneider, 2013, ps. 12-13). While there are probably a number of reasons and problems that would lead an organization down such an awful road, one reason is that they thought they were better than, or at least significantly different from, the masses of people. Although forgotten by too many communists today, I believe Karl Marx laid out a great strategy in the Communist Manifesto when he said:

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement (Marx, 1848, chapter 2).

We must remember that we are a product of the people and a product of the class struggle and not the other way around. Say what you will about identity politics (I certainly have my criticisms), but one of the reasons it caught on during the Occupy movement and after it faded is because such politics were brought in and made easy to understand and relevant to the current struggle. You didn’t need to be part of an exclusive club to embrace them. Followers of such beliefs mixed in with the people and worked alongside the people instead of building an exclusive organization and trying to lead or guide the movement. As a result, their politics seemed to be echoed almost naturally by the movement. I see no reason why others can’t or shouldn’t do the same.

When the masses of people do rise, they will not flock to the old activist cliques. They will, however, adopt ideas and beliefs that they can apply to the struggle themselves. They will adopt outlooks that can be reconciled and applied to their democratic practice. Radical ideas are democratic, just not when they are used in the name of dogma or some rigid organization or clique. We must make such ideas readily available, understandable and applicable to the current struggles, and true Marxists, anarchists, and others will do it while being a part of the combative masses and not a separate, walled off organization. We must always struggle as a part of the awakened masses, because we are a part of the masses, and not as some outside group set on “intervening,” shaping, and molding whatever popular movement for our own benefit. If you instead take the approach of the Workers World Party or SEIU, then you might as well be preaching religion at people, and nobody likes that except on Sunday morning.