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 »





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.





#OccupyMovementStrategy

10 10 2011

“Change happens slowly. Except when it happens fast!” – Tom Hayden

One of my favorite things about #OccupyWallStreet is that its turning everyone into a movement strategist. Everyone has advice or criticism. The fact that its a large-container has made everyone wanna talk about organizing, strategy, analysis, message, demands, direction, etc. Getting thousands to think critically about movement building is a gift.

Here are some great strategy pieces on the #occupytogether phenomenon by organizers contributing to building it:

Boston shows us how to #Occupy with purpose and political vision.

Three Reasons Why I Love Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street: Perfectly Coherent.

In Front and Center: Critical Voices in the 99%.

Base Building organizations in the Bay Area came together this week to shut down Wells Fargo world HQ. http://www.foreclosewallst.org/





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:





Lessons from Tea Party Tweets

13 06 2011

What I learned from spending 5 minutes looking at a Tea Party twitter feed.

cross-posted from Beyond the Choir

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the activist filter bubble, the reverberating echo-chamber of insular social media and political networks that keeps progressives marginal and talking to ourselves. Recently, I’ve had several different Tea Party twitter accounts follow me (at least four this week alone) and began talking to friends about whether or not this means they are 1) building lists of progressive activists for potential future smear-campaigns; 2) following their opposition so they can Retweet things out of context to scare/outrage their base; or 3) genuinely interested in hearing perspectives outside their own echo-chamber. Whatever their purposes, it reminded me that we can learn a lot from the way our opposition presents itself through social media forums (of course there is a lot of deception and other missteps that we don't  want to emulate, but there are some transferrable best practices mixed  in too – here’s some of both).

A few minutes ago I got an email notice that @TheTeaParty_net is following me.

1) Their twitter profile (which I see in the notification email) succinctly states the values they profess to hold: “Limited federal government • Individual freedoms • Personal responsibility • Free markets • Returning political power to the states and the people”

I already know what they stand for and I haven’t even looked at their twitter feed yet. In fact, their statement of values is likely the thing that will make me choose to look or not look.

And here’s what I notice from literally 5 minutes of browsing their twitter feed:

2) Constant creation of an “us vs. them” narrative, inviting people to identify as part of their group (“us”) and asking people to take a small action (retweeting) to signal their insiderness. A kinestetic action simple as pressing a button helps solidify the choice that was made by the tweeter. It asks them to take a stand, pick a side, and then reinforces that choice with a physical action that their peers can see. They ask their tweeps to do this on a regular basis.

Read the rest of this entry »





The Rapture didn’t come, but don’t worry, the world is still boiling.

22 05 2011

Cross-posted from Beyond the Choir
Church this morning must have been quite awkward for some people. The sermon might have gone something like “I know we’re all disappointed that the rapture didn’t come, but don’t worry, its not like it’s the end of the world or anything.” Ha ha.

I was among many progressives making fun of the rapture all day yesterday, but ultimately the joke might be on us. When it comes to global warming and climate chaos, the script is a bit too familiar. According to a recent poll, 44% of Americans believe increased severity of “natural” disasters is “evidence of biblical end times. ” That’s nearly half the people in the most powerful country on Earth. 38% believe God uses Nature to dispense justice. It’s an important poll that climate change activists and sensible people everywhere should take seriously.

The #rapture meme picked up remarkably fast. While some have seen billboards declaring May 21st, 2011 to be Judgment Day for a while now, it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that it started getting into the media and many Americans learned that a small fundamentalist sect believed they uncovered the true date of the Beginning of The End. Within a few days over a million people joined multiple “post rapture looting” facebook events, pranks were being played across the country, it was all over the news, and people were cracking jokes on twitter like there’s no tomorrow.

So why did that meme spread so quickly? Unfortunately biblical notions of the coming Apocalypse are not just entrenched in our culture, but are also rearing their ugly heads in our political landscape. And they’re shaping policy.

John Shimkus, The Republican Congressman who hoped to chair the House Energy Committee told reporters this Autumn that we didn’t need to take action to reduce greenhouse gasses because he knows the planet won’t be destroyed. How does he know? God told Noah that it wouldn’t happen again after the Great Flood. Obviously. Shimkus went on to clarify that “The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over.” And its not just Shimkus – the November election saw a wave of new Republican leadership hell-bent on scriptural justifications for inaction on global warming.

In his excellent article Apocalyptic beliefs hasten the end of the world, Jason Mark discusses the depth of biblical explanations used to explain the recent Mississippi river flooding and tornado in Alabama. He cites “two surveys by the Pew Center [that] reveal what climate campaigners are up against. According to a 2010 Pew poll, 41 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return by 2050. A roughly similar number — 36 percent — disagree that human activity is causing global temperatures to rise.” Jason points out that while causality between these two stats is dubious, worldview clearly plays a significant role in the public’s response to climate science.

Read the rest of this entry »





Evolutionary logic of collective action (series)

15 02 2011

Beyond the Choir is publishing a valuable series of articles getting at the root of human behavior and ways we are hard-wired for collective change. Below are four articles from Jonathan Smucker. Check em out.

In this series I explore how evolutionary theory might help to explain the origins and logic of collective action, and how it might inform the thinking and strategies of progressive change agents.

This is the landing page for the series. You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Humans: not just selfish
  2. War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection
  3. The Political Identity Paradox
  4. Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative




VIDEO: our opposition

30 11 2010

I’ve spent most of my life learning to organize with the following premise: social movements are won not by beating and overpowering your opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them. This involves providing action-opportunities to help “passive” allies become “active” ones, and media-strategies to help transform “fence-sitters” into passive allies.

Depending on the campaign, we often must confront our opposition, but this usually means targeting power-holders; for example, when fighting to end Mountaintop Removal, we need to deal with Massey Energy and other coal companies directly. That’s not exactly the same thing as being over-consumed by focusing on our ideological-opposition – the loudmouths who happen to have a different world-view than we do.

But with the rise of the “populist” Right wing backlash that has gotten so much attention in the last year, I have been more and more drawn to studying some of our most vocal (and often ideologically fanatic) opponents. They’re effective at fear-mongering for sure, but their rhetoric is powerful – even when wildly inaccurate – because they have a well-organized base that is rooted in institutional relationships. Talking points aren’t just repeated on Fox News and the message-disciplined Right Wing noise machine, but also every week in churches across our country and other institutions that offer meaning to people’s lives in a holistic way.

It is in that context that I want to share this video, which is being viewed across our country by churches who are reinforcing its anti-poor, anti-environmental, anti-earth message. Its a short clip of a 12 part DVD series.

Their website says: “One of the greatest threats to society and the church today is the multifaceted environmentalist movement,” says Cornwall Alliance founder and national spokesman Dr. E. Calvin Beisner. “There isn’t an aspect of life that it doesn’t seek to force into its own mold.” Whew!

As Dangerous Minds noted, this is so ridiculous that it may be the “Reefer Madness” of our generation…but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. As long as the Environmental movement fails to speak to the concerns of faith-based people, poor and working people, and the needs of communities hurting, dominant narratives like this will continue to compel people.

There has been much hand-wringing about the dramatic poll drop in the U.S. public’s belief in climate change, and how “environmentalists” are losing the battle of the story on climate science. A lot of this shift, I think, is not exactly that we’re losing this specific battle of public opinion. It’s that climate denial is just a small part of a broader “populist-Right” platform that has swept the country; people who used to default on the side of real climate science, are now defaulting on the side of the denial-fantasy because its built into a larger world view that makes meaning in their lives. In that context, it makes sense that now we are seeing a much stronger issue-based conspiracy-theory oriented push from our opposition on climate, because their ideas fit in with a broader orientation of the Tea Party platform.

Its clear by now that policy progress won’t happen on a national level until climate is just one element of a broader progressive platform that gains momentum (led primarily by other concerns, like the economy and health care). So where are the national spokespeople articulating such a platform in a compelling way? Until climate advocates are unafraid to speak boldly and directly to other progressive issues, we will be stuck in issue-based silos that the progressive movement desperately wants to move beyond, but is still struggling to figure out how to do it. That “how” has to go beyond media-saavy messaging and must be rooted in organizing the institutions that people belong to that give our lives meaning – church groups, unions, schools, base-building political organizations, etc.

This video is one example of how people aren’t compelled by facts, but by meaning. On the Left we still seem to think that because what we’re saying is true, that it will automatically be meaningful. The Christian Right proves that the opposite tends to be the case: if something is meaningful to people, they believe it to be true. The old axiom of the “truth will set you free” is only one part of the story. Meaningful stories set us free, if they happen to also be true. That’s our task.





Open Letter to Board and Staff of 1 Sky

23 10 2010

I was asked to post the letter below (to Grist, Znet, & Rabble), written by grassroots organizations engaged in climate justice organizing across the United States (including Grassroots Global Justice, Movement Generation, Indigenous Environmental Network, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives etc – full list at the end).We are at a critical moment for reflection on movement strategy. Perspectives from the front-lines are illuminating and offer us direction. – JKR

To the Board and Staff of 1 Sky,

We are grassroots and allied organizations representing racial justice, indigenous rights, economic justice, immigrant rights, youth organizing and environmental justice communities actively engaged in Climate Justice organizing.

Given the very necessary discussion spurred by your recent public letter (August 8, 2010), we wanted to share with you some of the work we have been doing to protect people and planet, as well as our reflections on a forward-thinking movement strategy. Your honest reflections on the political moment in which we find ourselves, alongside the open invitation to join in this discussion, are heartening.

Organizing a Powerful Climate Justice Movement

Like you, we recognize Climate Disruption as a central issue of our time. With the right set of strategies and coordinated efforts we can mobilize diverse communities to powerful action. Our organizing strategy for climate justice is to: 1) Organize in, network with and support communities who have found their frontlines[1] of climate justice; 2) Organize with communities to identify their frontlines of climate justice, and 3) Coalesce these communities towards a common agenda that is manifested from locally defined strategies to state and national policy objectives through to international solidarity agreements.

Community-Led Climate Justice has been Winning

In assessing the broader landscape of climate activism it is critical to recognize that despite the failure of DC policy-led campaigns, there have also been significant successes on the part of grassroots climate justice campaigns across the U.S.

Read the rest of this entry »





Climate Justice and Coal’s Funeral Procession

2 05 2009

I wrote a movement strategy piece that is the cover story for the May issue of Z Magazine.

Climate Justice and Coal’s Funeral Procession
Learning from the Capitol Climate Action

The snow was 4.5 inches deep and it was 23 degrees out when our action started at 1pm. We could already hear the Fox News commentators making the usual absurd statements: “A global warming protest in the snow?! Maybe this climate change stuff isn’t real after all, ha ha ha.” But by the end of the day, even Fox News gave positive coverage to the largest protest in history demanding solutions to the climate crisis.

On March 2nd, around 4,000 people came to the Capitol Power Plant in Washington DC, over 2,000 of whom risked arrest through civil disobedience. The vast majority had never been to a demonstration of any kind before, let alone engaged in non-violent direct action. People from communities most directly impacted by coal’s lifecycle — from Navajo reservations in the Southwest to Appalachian towns in the Southeast — led the march. With vibrant multicolored flags depicting windmills, people planting gardens, waves crashing, and captions like “community,” “security,” “change” and “power,” we sat-in to blockade five entrances to the power plant that literally fuels Congress. We called the whole thing the “Capitol Climate Action” (CCA).

The belching smoke stacks just two blocks from the Capitol building made a fitting target for a national flashpoint. They symbolize the stranglehold that the dirty fossil fuel industry – and coal industry in particular – has on our government, economy, and future. Burning coal is the single biggest contributor to global warming. We will not be able to solve the climate crisis or build a clean energy economy without breaking its hold.

Read the rest of this entry »





SmartMeme analysis on Capitol Climate Action

19 03 2009

Wanted to share a reportback on CCA from Doyle Canning from SmartMeme, an amazing strategy, communications, and training organization.


Reportback: Capitol Climate Action

Doyle Canning, SmartMeme

Two weeks ago I was in the streets with thousands of friends, old and new, for the historic Capitol Climate Action (Check out my pics on FLICKR!) SmartMeme endorsed this action, and I was excited to support the effort by helping to create messages for the action’s banners, training participants in nonviolent direct action , and being a “contingent coordinator” with the awesome Blue Team.

Honestly, I had a ball! The action was well organized, colorful, and upbeat despite the cold temperatures. My nonviolence training session was packed – with a dozen participants showing up 30 minutes early to ensure they got a spot, and a line going out the door when the room was full. 95% of that group were first timers to nonviolent protest, and they were fired up and ready to stop coal and solve global warming.

The action was endorsed by a large and diverse community of organizations, and attention was made to amplifying the voices of directly-impacted people. Leading the march were residents of Appalachian communities being blown-up by the Coal Industry; Indigenous delegations from Black Mesa and Michigan (where five new coal fired power plants are proposed), and leaders from Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who are fighting for clean air against coal fired power plants. They were joined by celebrities and prominent environmental leaders like Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry, and the executive directors of the convening groups. The majority of participants were students (mostly white), many of them taking action in the streets for the first time.

Action Logic

The Capitol Coal Plant was a smart venue for this event. It comes with built in symbolism and implicit story-based strategy. The plant is powered by coal to warm and cool our nation’s Capitol building. The concept of the action was to draw attention to the fact that coal-fired power is fueling climate destabilization, and highlight the utterly destructive life cycle of coal, from mining to slurry to smog. It was also a way to point to the heavyweight influence that the coal industry has over all of Capitol Hill. Symbolically this was a perfect stage for our play.

But two unexpected things happened that took the story off the script.

1. Days before the protest, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid released a letter asking the Capitol Architect to switch the Capitol Power Plant from coal to 100 percent natural gas by the end of 2009.

Organizers responded saying that this was a victory, showing the power of grassroots mobilization to get the attention of power holders. This hardly took the wind out of our sails, but did complicate the frame. The discussion emerged in my nonviolence training about whether this shift even was a victory: “Natural gas is also a fossil fuel.” “The problem is the whole coal/oil/fossil fuel paradigm.” “One symbolic concession is a dangerous victory to claim, given the stakes.”

So the question is, what would a real victory look like? What if we’d pressed Pelosi further, and said “If you want to make a statement, put solar panels on the Mall and windmills along the Potomac, and kick Coal Inc. out of Congress.” As the climate fight intensifies, we cannot settle for half-hearted victories or afford to celebrate false solutions. We’ve got to shift our thinking and get ahead of the curve with visionary, foreshadowing stories and strategies. Bolder demands can be made of the new political establishment, and now is the time to make them.

Read the rest of this entry »





Van Jones on the first Green president

16 03 2009




Our Capitol Climate Action Victory: in context

4 03 2009

Yesterday thousands of people converged on the Capitol Power Plant to engage in mass civil disobedience, shutting it down for the afternoon to demand clean energy solutions to our economic and climate crises.

Check out the recent media coverage in Associated Press (AP), TIME Magazine, CNN, Huffington Post, The Hill, Alternet, and USA Today.

See lots of pictures here.

There is already a lot being written about how this action achieved our goals in building outside pressure, political will, and urgency to change the national conversation around the climate crisis and get bold policy in 2009. The announcement three days prior to our action that the Capitol Power Plant would be switched off coal validates the power of mass pressure and people power, as we push on to fight for truly clean energy. The amazing media (over 400 stories) we have already gotten have helped shape the national conversation.

I want to talk about another goal we had: movement building – and how we can make the most of it.

Through organizing this action, nearly 2,000 people were trained in non-violent direct action. Hundreds of people stepped into roles like peacekeepers, contingent leaders, artists, trainers, media runners, tablers, scouts, chant leaders, media wranglers, technical communications, police liaisons, worker liaisons, trash clean up, medics, support (bringing people food, water, blankets, and hot chocolate), online support, photographers and videographers, spokespeople, and many many others. Our resolve and determination not only brought many to risk arrest, but all of us to brave harsh weather. Speakers ranging from Dr. Vandana Shiva, to Bobby Kennedy, to DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, to Dr. James Hansen took the mic to support this movement and action.

We certainly surpassed our expectation of 3,000 people participating, some are estimating many more than that.

But here’s the inside scoop: it’s important to be real about this action, what it is, and what it isn’t.

This action was a national flashpoint to get together and help move our country forward on a federal level. It was also an “outside strategy” that gave leverage to the thousands who were inside Congress lobbying for clear and specific policy.

But we all know that civil disobedience and non-violent direct action is just one tool of many – sometimes it’s strategic, sometimes its not. We are honored and excited that so many thousands of people have had a transformational experience yesterday and are energized to go home and use these tactics. That was a goal.

But to get excited about tactics for their own sake – devoid of strategic context and community accountability – would be to take the wrong lesson home.

We believe in direct action that is community led, and part of ongoing campaigns where directly affected people are in leadership positions and making decisions. These kinds of direct actions are often smaller and much less “sexy” and “flashy” than national convergences like Capitol Climate Action. The role of national convergences like CCA is specific and rare – and the real work happens when we go back home.

While yesterday’s action was endorsed by over 100 organizations, including many from impacted regions throughout the continent, the convening organizations who made up our organizing group (along with allies) – Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Ruckus Society – are justice-minded organizations that are national or regional in scope, but are not community-based groups. We want to be transparent about that. We believe in supporting such groups and their leadership in our movement. We were honored to be able to support Native, Appalachian, and urban communities affected by the life cycle of coal in leading our march and being spokespeople for the action. But people wanting to engage in tactics like this should seek local community support and build with one another to craft a smart, thoughtful intervention and escalation with people who live in the impacted area. Read the rest of this entry »





New activist resource guide! Tell stories through your work.

3 12 2008

<a href=”https://smartmeme.rdsecure.org/index.php”>smartMeme</a&gt; is an organization dedicated toward helping change-agents tell better stories with their activism and organizing. Story telling is the oldest form of human communication, and the most effective action, too. In their new resource guide, smartMeme helps activists shift ideas, culture, and the world around us. I can’t recommend it enough.

You can download it here.





Joshua is dissapointed in the first 2008 presidential debate

27 09 2008

Last night I saw Obama debate McCain. It was the most anticipated moment to date, in an election that has been more expensive and hyped than any in U.S. history. On the heels of a huge economic collapse, with the most hated president in our history as a backdrop, I was ready for something interesting. I went to a friend-of-a-friend’s where they were projecting it onto a wall. We were armed with wine and popcorn. Rather than the standard debate drinking games (drink every time a candidate says “terrorism”! And for every 9-11 reference!, etc)  – we were all obliged to throw our snacks at the screen every time we heard something foul. We quickly made a mess.

I was really disappointed. It was boring. and despite what some polls say, I think Obama lost pretty clearly.  I saw him constantly playing into conservative frames, spending most of his time on defense, and frankly being too complex and nuanced for his own good.

McCain spent most of his time reinforcing the same message: that Obama is inexperienced and naive. Every chance he got he would repeat the same line over and over again: “what my opponent doesn’t seem to understand is…” “Mr. Obama is naive because…” Obama (mostly) retaliated with facts, not with messages that appeal to values or emotions.

Obama, you are smarter than that! You know that it doesnt matter if you are right, it matters if you are convincing.

Progressives across the spectrum keep trying to be right instead of understanding how to reach people and shape ideas.

Obama instead could have thought of one or two simple phrases tying McCain to Bush, and repeated them every chance he got. Just like McCain attached Obama to the meme of naivete, Obama must do the same kind of thing with simplicity, consistency, and clarity. Obama could have also stuck to what he is good at: telling stories, and focusing on vision. In the process he could have framed the argument, rather than simply playing on McCain’s terms and frames he was putting forward.

As I was ranting to some of my friends it dawned on me: the main reason I found Obama compelling was that he was playing politics in a smart, savvy way that actually could win. Maybe others are drawn to him for his politics. I’m neither drawn nor repelled by them, really. I know many other organizers who constantly bemoan Obama’s positions on the issues: his increasing warmongering, terrible plan for climate change (support for coal and nuclear), or talk about how “Obama is gonna let us down.” That seems a bit silly to me. Obama is transparent about his positions. He’s not a Leftist, never claimed to be, and I have no expectations of him to be. I’m not sure how he can “let people down” unless they aren’t listening to what his actual policy proposals are.

I do think it is strategic for progressives of all stripes to help Obama get into office to build strong movements, but my main personal investment in the Obamamania is just that for the first time in my political life I see a presidential candidate who isnt a Republican who understands strategy and speaks to people’s values in a way that compels them to action. Someone who understands that if we just keep hammering people with facts, the way the Left always does, we are gonna keep falling on deaf ears.

If Obama doesn’t start getting back to the politically savvy and smart game of shifting ideas, then I actually will be dissapointed him.





Wise Up Dominion!

16 09 2008

The Beginning

We woke up at 3:30am, but few of us had slept the night before. You’d think we’d be groggy, but the adrenaline and excitement propelled us into action. By 5:30am two trucks holding steel barrels reading “good jobs, healthy communities: we deserve a clean energy future” and “prosperity without poison” pulled into the rendezvous point. My heart was pounding as I pulled a van full of concerned citizens and young activists to meet them, two more cars trailing me. A half hour later we all jumped out at the entrance to Dominion’s new $1.8 Billion coal-fired power plant in Wise County VA. Within seconds we had a blockade. Nine people were connected to concrete-filled barrels, two of which donned six large solar panels illuminating the sun in the background of a large banner reading “Renewable Jobs to Renew Appalachia.” Two more chained themselves to gates, keeping them closed. Our solar lit banner stretched out above the rosy smiles of visionaries young and old. It was a true privilege to work with such skilled organizers and help coordinate one of the most fluid, tight, and positive Nonviolent Direct Actions I’ve ever been a part of.

We watched the sun rise together.

CHECK OUT OUR VIDEO HERE:

Solidarity

I’m not from Appalachia. I’m here because I’ve been deeply inspired by coal-field residents who have spent their lives standing up for clean air and water, good green jobs and a better future for their families. And it’s made them subject to intense harassment and intimidation. Wise County citizens have been fighting this Dominion plant for over two years; they’ve spoken out at every public hearing, filed ever paper and lawsuit possible, and gotten 45,000 people to sign a “mile long” petition to the governor. And now many took the next step and invited friends from around the region and country to join them in solidarity for the first ever protest at this plant. Nonviolent Direct Action is about risking one’s own personal safety for the greater good. It is an act of courage that can come with some severe consequences. That people travel from all around to support this local struggle is emblematic of the world we are fighting for – one in which we look out for one another and support each other, even when that comes at personal cost. 11 of the activists today were arrested and are currently navigating their way through the labyrinth that is the U.S. legal system. We have a vigil setting up for them as I type this.

Intergenerational

Alongside those (mostly young people) who chose to put their bodies on the line, came a contingent of cheering protesters of all ages, including a nun, ex coal miner, veteran, schoolteachers, and students. The positive energy was infectious: there was a sense of agency and empowerment shared among all of us, even as we choreographed an elaborate and potentially dangerous dance between police and Dominion employees. The action was courteous, respectful, and residents who were new to this type of action kept remarking about how it was a “class act.” The words “classy,” “beautiful,” “reasonable,” and “respectful” were constantly heard both from Wise County residents, passers-by in cars and trucks, and even the police.

It’s no surprise people were ready to take such a step – and to take it so seriously. Wise County has already had 25% of its historic mountain ranges destroyed forever to mountaintop removal mining. We’re not just talking about saving the environment here, we’re talking about cultural survival for one of the poorest regions of the country.

Click below for more story, pictures, & media links.

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The Party Crashers

22 08 2008

I’m in Minneapolis, shortly before the 2009 Republican National Convention…and the gigantic protest spectacle here to greet it. But I don’t think I’m even going this year. Not to dis all the good folks who will be pouring into town in the coming week to express their dissatisfaction with that last 8 years of the Bush regime, or the hard working organizers who are coordinating it all, I’m just not sure what my role would be beyond feeling some catharsis in screaming my politics real loud.

4 Years ago I was in New York City gearing up to protest the same convention. The logic of our message was compelling: the Republicans were trying to exploit the memory of 9/11 by holding a convention in NYC, and we were going to expose their fearmongering. New Yorkers overwhelmingly wanted them as far away from their city as possible. It was a great narrative to tell the U.S. public.

Within hours I ended up in handcuffs on a curb, baking in the hot sun. My crime? Riding my bike. Legally. The officer explicitly told me “you’re being arrested for exercising rights you thought you had, but I guess you didn’t have em, didja?” I guess not. They took hundreds of us to a toxic, chemical-oozing bus depot called Pier 57 and held us in detention. I left with my body covered in a rash. I still have a pending lawsuit against the NYPD. At that moment I was more disillusioned with symbolic mass mobilizations than I had ever been – mostly because it just seemed like a scripted game. I saw my fellow arrestees wearing their day-in-jail as a ‘badge of honor’ – like some kind of protest cred. I kept reminding people that getting captured, in most cultures, is seen as a bad thing. It was embarrassing. Even with a clear message and vibrant participation, I wasn’t sure what the point of expressive protest was anymore.

I have since softened up, and I do admit that my heart sings when I see large diverse groups of people demonstrating their power using public space, even if it has no instrumental or concrete goal.

In The Nation yesterday, Michael Gould-Wartofsky wrote an article called The Party Crashers. Its a well written survey piece, getting a pulse of the youth movement protesting the RNC and the DNC. I’m quoted. What I was trying to express was the basic intention of organizing being relevant to society, rather than simply antagonistic. Symbolic protest can have meaning, but only if it engages our political moment. Unfortunately, it seems like much of the convention protests this year are approaching this election like all the others. The article’s tagline asks “In the age of Obama, is street protest still relevant?” My answer is that it can be, if we think differently than we have been. While dissent in the streets is healthy for any democracy, savvy dissent can help move whole society forward. Even though in The Nation article I talk about the role of activists engaging the current progressive wave and “pulling it to the left”, I may have confused readers with my use of the word “left” – all I mean is that community-based organizers, who have their feet rooted on the ground and dirt under their fingernails, have a crucial role to play in grounding our new progressive majority in the needs of oppressed communities from Appalachia to New Orleans, in orienting a politics that is accountable to people and creates long-lasting change. Anyway, check out the article below.

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Rebirth of a Dream

15 04 2008

by Amy Ortiz and Joshua Kahn Russell

This past weekend, April 4-6th, something historic took place in Memphis, Tennessee. During the same few days where people from across the nation gathered in the place where Martin Luther King Jr’s was assassinated forty years ago to honor the man, his legacy, and his dream for America, a thousand people, the majority of them people of color, came together to take part in rebirthing MLK’s vision. At The Dream Reborn, visionaries, artists and leaders came together to “create ecological solutions to heal the earth while bringing jobs, justice, wealth and health to all our communities.” We saw environmentalism re-defined, re-vitalized, re-energized and re-imagined, and witnessed not just the rebirth of MLK’s dream, but also the birth of a transformative movement with the power to bring the kind of change that we so desperately need.

The Dream Reborn was a weekend charting a new environmentalism that isn’t so new: the marriage of movements for social justice and the environment. Environmental Justice and other groups have been working at this intersection for years. Racial and Economic justice organizations strive to put an ecological lens on their organizing, just as Environmental organizations strive to put a racial and social justice lens on their work. But this weekend was the birth of that organizing with new language that is gaining influence in the mainstream of society, energy around program such as Green Jobs, and forcing major institutions and even presidential candidates to take notice. In more ways than one, the time for a new environmental movement, one for justice for both people and the planet, has come.

We spent our time at Dream Reborn coordinating and participating in Rainforest Action Network (RAN) – and it’s youth arm RAN Youth Sustaining the Earth (RYSE)’s youth delegation. 13 amazing people aged 13-22, along with 4 RAN staff, came together from across the nation. We represented many different communities, ages, and interests. We came to Memphis to connect, learn, grow, share and ultimately leave with the tools and the inspiration to go back to our communities and build a just, sustainable future. It was a chance not only to bring diverse youth to the table as stakeholders in conversations around green jobs and movements for environmental social justice, but to offer ideas and leadership to RAN’s growing network and the evolution of RYSE.

Featuring keynote speakers such as the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Winona LaDuke, Afeni Shakur and Majora Carter, with Van Jones emceeing the event, it isn’t surprising that visions of a future of eco-equity permeated the entire weekend. Workshop and panel sessions such as Food Justice and Building a Youth Movement for Green Jobs focused on providing conference attendees with the connections and skills needed to go back to their communities and make this vision a reality. A shared understanding of the truly historic moment we were all partaking in created a space that was imbued with hope and spirituality. There were many moments when we all broke out in spontaneous hand clapping, song, celebrating the beginning of a revolution birthed from love, compassion and respect for all people and the planet.
The conference was more than just a networking opportunity. We were building community. Community with one another as RAN and RYSE organizers; community across organizations and movements. It was the birth of something exciting. It charted a course for a new revitalized vision for our country and the world. It helped provide the kind of glue that social movements are made of, bringing together the longstanding amazing work of organizers and organizations for racial and economic justice, and for the sustainability of our planet, in a way that makes a truly multi-racial mass movement for change in this country seem within our reach.

As young people, we’re committed to making the dream a reality. Lucky for us, we have the knowledge and wisdom of movements past and present to build with and learn from. We’re ready.





Benefit show for Tibetan Uprising

2 04 2008

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A great Bay Area benefit show to benefit the March To Tibet Campaign. Folks are trying our best to raise as much money for this historic uprising movement of Tibetans to successfully sustain in the most critical of their times… we will also be mobilizing ALL our attendees to come out to the streets on April 9th to protest the passing of the Olympic torch through SF. It is the most strategic chance to raise the profile of the struggle for the right of return to a free Tibet in a long long time.

Click below for all the info on the show!
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VICTORY for the Old Growth Campaign!

28 02 2008

Yesterday our Old Growth Campaign won a major victory! We have been supporting the Indigenous community of Grassy Narrows in their struggle to protect their traditional territory. As the result of mounting pressure – including pressure from our recent day of action targeting Office Max, and actions like the sit-in at Ohio State University (which you can keep up with here, here, here, and here), Boise announced yesterday that they are refusing to purchase stolen wood that comes from Grassy. This is big. Millions of dollars big.

Annie Sartor explains what all this means below:

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What the Right has to say

16 02 2008

Everyone I talk to agrees. There is new political space opening in the U.S. We’re helping build a critical moment where we can make a lot of change a lot faster than in perhaps four decades. And it’s not just us who are saying it. My friend Max recently shared this article with me – written by right wing ideologue David Frum.

Beware the coming Democratic sea-change
Financial Times – February 7, 2008
By David Frum

The conservative ascendancy in American politics is coming to an end.
For three decades, the right has dominated, with the Republicans
winning five of the seven presidential elections since 1980.
Conservatives did more than just win elections: even when liberals
gained power, they governed on conservative terms.

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Obamarama!

4 02 2008

Will.I.Am from Black Eyed Peas did a song over Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” (si se puede!) speech that he made after the New Hampshire primaries.

My opinions on Obama’s platform and actual policies aside, organizers and activists of all stripes should be playing close attention. The way Obama is raising expectations, involving new people, and constantly referencing social movements creates a lot of space for us to build on that momentum and involve people in movement building well past this presidential election. Not only can organizers learn from the way Obama has been able to speak a language of social movements and relate it to people’s preexisting values and narratives for change, but we can also think strategically about how the electoral world and the social movement world affect and shape one another – or could – in the coming years.

When a politician is winning a presidential race based on rhetoric like this:

It reveals something important about where the public is at. Will Left organizers make the most of it?