New Radical Alliances for a New Era

9 05 2012

How the Left’s talk of co-optation missed the real critical questions that 99% Spring offers our movements

This post originally appears on Znet

By Joshua Kahn Russell and Harmony Goldberg.

Last month, a broad alliance of organizations from across the progressive spectrum came together to train 100,000 people in nonviolent direct action in the hopes of supporting a wave of action targeting corporations and the politicians that own them. It was called 99% Spring. Some also called it “co-optation.” We call it “alliance building.” 

The conversation within the movement has been fascinating, and reveals some key pitfalls that the resurgent U.S. Left might fall into if we’re not careful.

Grassroots groups that organize primarily in working class and communities of color such as National Peoples Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped lead the 99% Spring process. Despite this, the terms of the debate have almost exclusively centered on the participation and limits of MoveOn.org (as a symbol and stand-in for more moderate liberals, the institutional left, and the nonprofit industrial complex). “Are the liberals co-opting Occupy?” or “Is Occupy co-opting the liberals?” There is indeed a historical precedent of radical peoples’ movements becoming de-fanged by the status quo. And yet, too often, the historic limits of the Left in the United States has been connected to its internal tendency towards sectarianism and the politics of purity. At this moment, our own circular firing squads may be a deeper threat to the viability of our movements than “outside” groups.

ImageIt is precisely because of our long-term work with radical grassroots movements that both of us dove into helping organize 99% Spring. We were each involved in writing the curriculum and designing the trainings. We were challenged by, and learned a lot from, the process. Our organizations (the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Ruckus Society) are both movement groups that support frontline communities speaking and acting for themselves, and we were both part of the left wing of the 99% Spring alliance. 

We are living in an incredible time. Occupy has helped us all re-imagine political vision and strategy. 99% Spring was a bold effort with a lot of success, real limitations, and some mistakes. We want to share our experiences from the heart of 99% Spring project to help our movements think more clearly about alliances, and some of the challenges that our political moment presents us.

At a Crossroads
We are at a crossroads as a movement.  Many have been slogging away in the trenches for years, pushing against the political winds and doing the slow work of organizing to build popular power within communities hit hardest by the economic and ecological crises. It was hard work, and it moved slowly. Last fall, Occupy exploded on the scene and challenged many of our assumptions about what was possible. By offering both an inspiring political tactic (“occupy”) and a unifying frame (“We are the 99%”), the Occupy movement was able to tap into the mass anger about the crisis that had been brewing for years. Occupy showed that it was possible to have an explicitly radical message, to engage in confrontational action and still speak to millions of people in this country. It became acceptable to talk about economic inequality, corporate greed and capitalism, and that changed the context for all of our work in important ways. It was a humbling moment for many long-term organizers. It also helped reveal some of the shortcomings of the institutional left.

But now what? Like all movements, we have challenges. Most physical occupations have been evicted by the police, removing the ongoing public spaces that made us visible, and the ongoing police confrontations aren’t tapping into organic mass anger in the same way. Many of our internal challenges make it difficult to do the big-picture strategic thinking we need to envision the next steps. This offers us all a moment of experimentation and innovation. In order to engage it, we need to seriously reflect on our circumstance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements




Shift the Spectrum of Allies

7 05 2012

I am excited and honored to be one of 60 contributors to a new book called Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for the Revolution. The book reads as an activists manual, weaving together case studies, principles, theories, and tactics, distilled from years of working in many movements for social change. Here is one of my entries in the book, based on lessons from Training for Change, the Highlander Center, Ruckus Society, and others.

Shift the Spectrum of Allies.

In sum: Movements seldom win by overpowering the opposition; they win by shifting the support out from under them. Determine the social blocs at play on a given issue, and work to shift them closer to your position.

Activists are often good at analyzing systemic social problems, but less good at thinking systemically about organizing.

Activism is about using your power and voice to make change. Organizing is about that, too, but it’s also about activating and empowering others. It helps to think in terms of groups. Successful movement-building hinges on being able to see a society in terms of specific blocs or networks, some of which are institutions (unions, churches, schools), others of which are less visible or cohesive, like youth subcultures or demographic groupings.

Analyzing your spectrum of allies can help you to identify and mobilize the networks around you. A spectrum-of-allies analysis can be used to map out a local campaign or to strategize for a whole social movement.

Here’s how a spectrum-of-allies analysis works: in each wedge you can place different individuals (be specific: name them!), groups, or institutions. Moving from left to right, identify your active allies: people who agree with you and are fighting alongside you; your passive allies: folks who agree with you but aren’t doing anything about it; neutrals: fence-sitters, the unengaged; passive opposition: people who disagree with you but aren’t trying to stop you; and finally your active opposition.

Some activist groups only speak or work with  those in the first wedge (active allies), building insular, self-referential, marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else. Others behave as if everyone is in the last wedge (active opposition), playing out the “story of the righteous few,” acting as if the whole world is against them. Both of these approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements win not by overpowering their active opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them.

For example, in 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major driver of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, conducted a “spectrum-of-allies style” analysis. They determined that they had a lot of passive allies who were students in the North: these students were sympathetic, but had no entry point into the movement. They didn’t need to be “educated” or convinced, they needed an invitation to enter.

To shift these allies from “passive” to “active,” SNCC sent buses north to bring folks down to participate in the struggle under the banner “Freedom Summer.” Students came in droves, and many were deeply radicalized in the process, witnessing lynching, violent police abuse, and angry white mobs, all simply as a result of black people trying to vote.

Many wrote letters home to their parents, who suddenly had a personal connection to the struggle. This triggered another shift: their families became passive allies, often bringing their workplaces and social networks with them. The students, meanwhile, went back to school in the fall and proceeded to organize their campuses. More shifts. The result: a profound transformation of the political landscape of the U.S. This cascading shift of support, it’s important to emphasize, wasn’t spontaneous; it was part of a deliberate movement strategy that, to this day, carries profound lessons for other movements.

Further insights:

Explanation of the “Spectrum of Allies,” from NewTactics

Strategy tool for “Spectrum of Allies,” from Training for Change

Douglas McAdam, Freedom Summer. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.





SF to Cancun: Social Movements Bring Hope as COP16 Falters

7 12 2010

Thousands of community activists around the world take action to promote Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis


The tone inside the conference center at the U.N. Climate Negotiations in Cancun has been a bit dismal this past week. Yet despite the reduced expectations inside, this morning the international peasant movement La Via Campesina gave us a new injection of hope and vision with a vibrant march of thousands of small farmers, Indigenous peoples and community activists through the streets in Mexico. It kicked off today’s international day of action – “1,000 Cancuns” – where grassroots organizations across the world demonstrated local resiliency and real solutions to the climate crisis. 30 coordinated events took place in the U.S. and Canada today, anchored by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance.

Here in San Francisco, more than a dozen local community organizations joined forces to help convert a Mission District parking lot into a community garden and park with affordable housing units. Click here for photos.

“This action demonstrates a tangible solution to the climate crisis by promoting local food production, challenging our dependence on automobiles and strengthening bonds within the community,” explained Teresa Almaguer of People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights (PODER) “The climate crisis requires community-based solutions and an end to corporate influence within the UN climate negotiations.” In addition to planting vegetables, participants enjoyed live music, theatrical performances and speakers all focusing on solutions to the climate crisis. A common theme at the event was increasing local food production in the fight against climate change, in contrast to the corporate-driven false solutions being put forth inside the U.N. negotiations.

“Industrial agriculture is one of the top three sources of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan of Movement Generation. “Agribusiness corporations profit from everything from fertilizer and pesticide sales to control of what goes onto supermarket shelves. The people are left paying the true costs in polluted water, depleted soil, diet-related diseases, and climate disruption. Meanwhile, U.S. agribusiness harms small farmers, farm workers and consumers – in the U.S. and around the world.” Read the rest of this entry »





Environmentalists say: stop ALL of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law

29 07 2010

Today, Arizona’s “show me your papers” anti-immigrant law SB1070 goes into effect. Across the country, July 29th has been declared a national day of action for Human Rights. Phoenix is ground zero for the collective outrage and protest that this bill has inspired. Here thousands of people are in the streets, many showing their courage by participating in civil disobedience across the city. In particular, downtown Phoenix has been transformed into a temporary “Human Rights Zone” with public promises from communities, businesses, and police to not comply with the law. It is an inspiring moment of solidarity and protest during a very dark time. Don’t let the partial-injunction fool you, most of this law has been allowed to continue, and we all know there are no half-measures when it comes to human rights. The hate and racism we are seeing in Arizona is only the latest, in a long series of escalating demonization of brown communities.

There is one unlikely group that has joined in protest against the anti-immigrant law: Environmentalists.

As I am practicing civil disobedience in Phoenix today, I’m proud to be a part of the new generation of eco-activists who see the forests for the trees (and the people). We believe the fate of our planet intimately depends on how we treat our brothers and sisters, and that standing up for Immigrant Rights is a central element of our task.

These new environmentalists represent a new way of thinking. We’re connecting the dots: an ecosystem is your home. Economy is the management of your home. When you globalize your economy, you globalize your ecosystem. Here’s the frank outcome: the ecological systems that support life on our planet have been pushed to the brink by an economy that trashes natural resources and destroys relationships between peoples across the planet in the process. When you convert forests into paper, mountains into coal, and oceans into oil, you force people off their land and deprive those land-based peoples of the resources they depend on to survive. A key lesson from the Environmental Justice movement is that supporting those communities in protecting their land and their livelihoods is one of the most strategic ways to fight the drivers of climate change. The root cause of environmental degradation and climate change is the root cause of forced migration. Read the rest of this entry »





Why Climate Activists should care about Immigration and Arizona

13 05 2010

Like many people, I’ve been deeply disturbed at the recent racial profiling and deportation laws passed in Arizona, as well as the recent ban of ethnic studies. Its clear that Arizona is our new battle ground. Immigration is going to be front and center for Climate Justice, particularly in the coming years when there are increasing numbers of climate refugees and migrants. I’m in the process of getting my thoughts together for a call-out to the climate community to throw down for a “Freedom Summer” style push to organize in Arizona, but in the meantime wanted to share this recent post by Jason from Movement Generation.

Lets Get This Right: Why We All Need to Stand up for Immigrant Rights Now!

By Jason Negrón-Gonzales

(photo by Marisa Franco, Right to the City Alliance)

Events in recent weeks in Arizona should be a cause for concern for all people who seek justice and progress in the US, and they have special significance for those of us who call the climate justice, environmental justice, and environmental movements our home.  These events call for a principled stand and action on our part, in defense of communities that have been displaced by economic and ecological crises, and against the racist and bigoted institutions that we also confront in the fight for a sustainable future.

In the words of Pablo Alvarado, the Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Committee (NDLON), “this week, the Arizona legislature passed the most anti-immigrant legislation the United States has seen in a generation.”  This legislation, SB 1070, will:  1. legislate racial profiling by requiring police to arrest and detain people based on a “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented, 2. make it a state crime to be unable to produce legal residency documents, and or to transport or shelter undocumented people, and 3. ban day laborers by making it a crime for anyone to “pick up passengers for work” and penalizing anyone seeking work at a day labor site, or those contractors who hire them.

Read the rest of this entry »





Don’t get caught in a bad hotel

13 05 2010

9,000 hotel workers in San Francisco have been struggling for a fair union contract since August 2009.

Some of my friends hatched this idea of a Lady Gaga flash mob inside two of the boycotted hotels. 4 days ago the video went up of the action’s kickoff in the Westin St. Francis hotel – it already has 100,000 views! Props to Pride and Work and One Struggle One Fight.

Never underestimate the power of a fun and creative action – especially one that can ride pop culture momentum. The video has gone viral and is not just shining a spotlight on the campaign, but inspiring lots of others to get into the streets (or corporate offices) and have some fun.





Dispatch 1: Rumbo a Cochabamba

19 04 2010

The historic gathering of the worlds most affected by climate change is kicking off in Cochabamba this week. Delegations of grassroots activists from the U.S. are going to help give a voice to the “South within the North” – communities on the frontlines of the impacts of climate change and resource extraction and fossil fuel development. Below is the first blog from Jason Negrón-Gonzales of the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project on his way down to Bolivia. For up-to-the-minute reports back from Cochabamba check out Global Justice Ecology Project’s Climate Connections Blog.
Dispatch 1: Rumbo a Cochabamba
Jason Negrón-Gonzales

I’m writing from the plane in route to Cochabamba for the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and Rights of the Mother Earth. For those who aren’t familiar with the conference, it was proposed by Bolivian president Evo Morales in the aftermath of the COP15 conference in Copenhagen last December. While that conference was billed early as “Hopenhagen”, this week’s meetings in Cochabamba, Bolivia hold the real seeds of hope for a global response to climate chaos that is rooted in justice, equity, and historical accountability, and led by global social movements of workers, farmers, and the poor.

What’s at stake?

While the world needed and hoped for a responsible and sufficient (if not radical) response to climate change, or at least a solid step in that direction, instead what we got in Copenhagen was more of the same: corporations and developed countries trying to extend their advantage and wealth. The class character of the debate was striking. One the one hand, delegates from Global South and Indigenous communities who are least to blame for emissions and are facing the loss of the livelihoods and homelands were demanding strong action now. On the other, economic powerhouses like the US, which consumes about a quarter of the global energy supply, refused to be accountable for the environmental impacts of their economies and way of life.

Read the rest of this entry »