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.





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 »





How Bolivia celebrates Earth Day

22 04 2010

This morning my email inbox was full of advocacy groups commemorating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. As the ecological systems that support life are reaching their brink, there is certainly a good reason to use this opportunity to shine a spotlight on a range of issues and challenges. But activist organizations aren’t alone in commemorating today.

Today I was struck even more by corporations trying to capitalize on Earth Day to green their images. As Becky Tarbotton observed in the Huffington Post, the New York Times summarized the situation well: “So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins ‘to challenge corporate and government leaders’… Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.”

Photo by Diana Pei Wu

Against this backdrop, World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba today is a breath of fresh air.

The Indigenous Environmental Network celebrated today by explaining that “this morning Bolivian President Evo Morales was joined by representatives of 90 governments and several Heads of State to receive the findings of the conference on topics such as a Climate Tribunal, Climate Debt, just finance for mitigation and adaptation, agriculture, and forests. The working group on forests held one of the more hotly contested negotiations of the summit, but with the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, a consensus was reached to reject REDD and call for wide-scale grassroots reforestation programs.”

Jason Negrón-Gonzales of Movement Generation elaborated on how they do Earth Day in Cochabamba: “…from now I’ll be talking to my children and 2010 will be remembered as the year that Earth Day took on new meaning.  It will be the year that humanity turned a corner in our relationship to Mother Earth and began struggling along a new course…more than politics, the conference in Cochabamba brought to the table humanity’s relationship with Pachamama.  This question, raised most pointedly by the Indigenous communities present, was reflected in the project of creating a declaration of Mother Earth Rights, but also went way beyond it.  Can we really reach a sustainable relationship with the Earth unless we stop looking at it as something to be conquered or fixed that is outside of us?  How would it change our lives and our struggles if we thought, as Leonardo Boff of Brazil said, ‘Todo lo que existe merece existir, y todo lo que vive merece vivir (Everything that exists deserves to exist, and everything that lives deserves to live)’?  Or if we understood the Earth as a living thing that we are a part of and that, ‘La vida es un momento de la tierra, y la vida humana un momento de la vida (Life is a moment of the earth, and the human life is a moment of life)’?”

Read the rest of this entry »





Youth intervention at high-level plenary at U.N. in Bangkok

8 10 2009

Here is the text of the intervention speech the International Youth will deliver in Bangkok at the U.N. today.


Delegates, you will remember 6 months ago we asked you how old you will be in 2050?

You seemed to notice, you responded, you bought the t shirt. But this did not translate into action

My name is ___ and I hope to be ____ In the year 2050.

Earlier this week, we declared “no confidence” on the road to Copenhagen.

The process has been hijacked by carbon cowboys looking to profit from this crisis; our future is being held hostage to the self-interested dirty delaying tactics of Annex 1 countries.

We have seen the arrogant betrayal of the Bali Action Plan, with the perverse idea that developing countries should or can somehow act first.

History will judge you.

We witness the US deliberately undermine the negotiations by introducing language to merge the Kyoto Protocol and convention processes, tearing out compliance and top-down target setting.

Other Annex 1 countries hide behind the US to avoid their responsibilities; setting disgracefully low targets; with deceptive offset measures that amount to no real emissions cuts at all.

We will not accept a dirty deal.

Read the rest of this entry »





Bangkok: Rich countries try to kill the Kyoto Protocol, International Youth declare “No Confidence” in road to Copenhagen

7 10 2009

cross posted from Grist.

Today marked one of the final days of the Bangkok UN Climate Negotiations. With the end of this intersessional in sight, the International Youth Delegation (IYD) has officially declared “No Confidence” in the road to Copenhagen.

With youth delegates from over 30 countries engaging in the Bangkok process, the IYD cited pathetically weak targets from the North, alarm that a second commitment period in the Kyoto Protocol will not be secured, and a lack of guarantees for protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests, in its Declaration. The current text of the draft climate deal is so weak and so full of “false solutions” (measures like offsetting that actually make the problem worse) it is unacceptable.

Youth delegates representing each continent addressed the U.N. today, detailing the urgency of the crisis as it affects their communities currently, telling stories of their hope and organizing alongside their denunciation of the state of play in the UN Negotiations.

This week the Annex 1 (rich countries), attempted to kill the Kyoto Protocol (KP). We are nearing upon the end of the current KP term, and a lack of renewing it means that the world would lose the few legally binding international climate agreements it has (as insufficient as they are). The excuse is that the United States will not sign, and therefore the whole thing should be scrapped and an entirely new deal can be struck on its own. It is lunacy to think that this will yield a stronger outcome, and the G77 (the rest of the world) countries are furious. We have always known the US wont sign the KP; the world cannot continue to wait for the US to get on board. In Bali, the U.S. already committed to setting comparable targets to other Annex 1 countries, so the world could deal with the U.S. in the LCA (Long Term Cooperative Action).

This all amounts to a shell game: more dirty delaying tactics from self-interested countries who are content to strip away basic attempts at an international agreement (for example “compliance” – meaning that the U.S. would have international oversight of its targets, or “top-down target setting” – meaning the international community sets carbon targets together based on science, rather than each countries independently setting their targets based on what their fossil fuel extraction industries dictate).

Allowing the U.S. to drag the world out of existing legal obligations is disgraceful. These negotiations are going backwards.

Make no mistake: Our future is being held hostage to interests that have consistently thumbed their noses at the international community and their obligations to the rest of the world. This process has been polluted by self-interested corporations and nations looking to profit off of our crisis. They have been pushing false solutions that exacerbate rather than fix the problem. Not only are the targets set by rich countries weak, but they are deceptive. Rather than representing actual emissions reductions, they contain unacceptable proportions of offsets, which do not reduce emissions, and displace the burden back onto the developing countries of the world.
Read the rest of this entry »