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.

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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.





BREAKING: Keystone XL Denied!

18 01 2012

In case you haven’t heard the thunderous celebration by the North American climate movement, today the State Dept is set to outright reject the Keystone XL pipeline. #booyah

This is a reminder that people power works. Direct Action works. Social movements work. Grassroots organizing works. Lets take some time today to celebrate another huge victory.

Every time we win, it builds our resolve for the next fight. We know the fossil fuel industry owns Congress, and so far the Keystone XL campaign has been like playing Whack-A-Mole, or kinda like going to battle with a zombie who just won’t die. There may yet be another stage of the fight, and there will definitely be other theaters of engagement heating up in the Tar Sands fights, like the Enbridge Northern Gateway. I’m confident we’ll be ready to take em on. Moments like this help us remember our power, and that its worth all the headaches and stress of movement building. So lets keep winning.

If you’re in DC, help build the momentum by joining 500 referees blowing the whistle on congress being soaked in big oil Jan 24th. Or this friday, you can join the J20 (January 20) #occupy actions all around the world mobilizing to take on dirty corporate interests. Here in the Bay Area we will be shutting down the SF financial district with nonviolent direct action (check out the hot Lady Gaga outreach flashmob video here).

Here’s a quick sampling of the breaking coverage of the Keystone XL victory from Bill McKibben, and on Globe and MailWashington Post, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, ThinkProgress, Grist, Daily Kos, and Politico.

Congratulations, climate movement. What a great way to kick off the new year, eh?





Defusing the Carbon Bomb

22 08 2011

Wanted to make a quick personal update – shortly after leaving Salt Lake City to train & help coordinate actions for Tim Dechristopher’s trial, I am now in Washington DC for the next few weeks. We are coordinating sit-ins for 14 days in a row, where 50-100 people are risking arrest each day at the White House to draw attention to, and ultimately stop, the Keystone XL Pipeline. Thousands have signed up to participate, and we’ve already seen overwhelming media attention. This pipeline would another tentacle on the largest fossil fuel development on the planet, the Alberta Tar Sands, and NASA climatologist James Hansen calls it “game over for the planet” if it goes through. So we’re drawing a line in the sand for Obama.

I’m here as a trainer and action coordinator, helping organize and prepare participants to commit an act of civil disobedience, and help navigate & facilitate the experience with them. Many are risking arrest for the first time. It’s an honor to support them through it, and even though we are just beginning, this action already feels historic. It’s particularly nourishing to me that so many of the participants are of an older generation – its a thrill getting to train people twice my age. On our first day, the youngest person arrested was 17, and the oldest was 71.

There is of course a lot more to say, but unfortunately we don’t get time to write much these days… though I am updating twitter regularly. In other brief news, my booklet/organizing manual Organizing Cools the Planet, co-authored with Hilary Moore, comes out in a couple weeks. I can’t wait.

Here’s a video from the first day of our action:





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 »





At COP16 Cancun: Canadian First Nations Representatives Deploy Giant Human Banner Demanding End to Tar Sands Development

2 12 2010

Cancun, Mexico, Dec 2, 2010 — Indigenous Peoples of Canada and their allies from around the world are in Cancun at the COP-16 climate summit demanding real action to reduce fossil fuel pollution. Over twenty people with color-coded T-shirts that spelled out the words “Shut Down the Tar Sands” in both English and Spanish gathered in front of the Maya building to directly deliver their message to UNFCCC delegates. Participants included Indigenous community representatives from fossil fuel impacted community across Canada and the U.S., many carrying personal banners linking tar sands with the destruction of their territories.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo of the Lubicon Cree comes from a community impacted by tar sands. “We have seen the destruction of our lands happen right before our eyes. Our water is being contaminated and we are seeing droughts throughout the region. My family used to be able to drink from our watershed, and now within my lifetime we can no longer do so. Young and old people alike have developed respiratory illnesses as neighboring plants emit noxious gases into the air. First Nations and farming communities have reported health effects to the wildlife and livestock. The area is drastically changing – I fear for the future of my homeland.”

The tar sands are the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in Canada. Unless Canada changes track emissions from the tar sands industry are set to triple to over 120 millions tonnes. Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network said, “Our communities demand real solutions to address the climate crisis and that means shutting down the tar sands and a moratorium on new fossil fuel development.”

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Campement d’Action Climatique!

2 09 2010

Co-written by Maryam Adrangi and Joshua Kahn Russell
Last week saw the culmination of the Quebec Climate Action Camp, the most recent in a series of similar events around the world. Climate Camps look different in different places, but the general idea is to bring together like-minded people from around a region to build common strategies, share skills, and take ACTION!

The Tar Sands have been a focal point this year; in the UK Climate Camp brought together activists challenging the Royal Bank of Scottland’s investments in the Canadian gigaproject. Here in Dunham, Quebec, climate camp was set up to challenge a pipeline coming through this community. The proposed pipeline is called the Enbridge Trailbreaker project, and would bring dirty tar sands bitumen to Montreal and then down to Maine, eventually ending on tankers heading to refineries in the Gulf Coast.

The camp brought together activists from across Quebec, Ontario, the Northeastern US, and beyond, to learn about the intersections of climate and social justice issues, and plan out how to best work together in the coming year. Participants cooked, fed, and set up camp outside and were able to build lasting relationships between various communities to talk about how to build a climate movement.

Resistance to tar sands projects has been growing in Canada and people are taking action locally to end the addiction to fossil fuels and the injustices facing communities because of the dirty industry.

The two-week climate camp ended with a march to the proposed pumping station for the pipeline. Local community member and climate camp participants rallied at the proposed site. “Our objective is to unite in order to act on the root causes of climate change. It is the right time to denounce and block the Trailbreaker project. Local communities and ecosystems cannot afford more oil spills, like that in the Gulf of Mexico.” says Pierre-Olivier Parent, a Climate Action Camp organizer.

Check out some of the media stories about the camp here, and stay up on Quebec action from Climate Justice Montreal

Moments like this are just another signal of increasingly mobilized action-oriented groups who are supporting communities resisting point-source fossil fuel destruction. A couple days ago in the Bay Area, 150 people took action on BP, Chevron, and the EPA, with 26 participating in civil disobedience. Its an exciting moment – lets keep building.