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.





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?





We published a little book!

17 11 2011

It’s finally out! Actually it’s been out for a month, but we’ve been so busy WINNING battles against Fracking hearings and Tar Sands pipelines I haven’t posted. Hilary Moore and I spent the last year working on a booklet for activists who don’t come from “frontline communities” but want to be part of a powerful climate justice movement. We consulted with over 60 frontline community organizers in its creation, and landed on a booklet that is 1/3 refletions & stories, 1/3 organizing tools, and 1/3 analysis. Check it out:

ORGANIZING COOLS THE PLANET: Tools and Reflections To Navigate the Climate Crisis
By Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell
PM Press 2011

Organizing Cools The Planet offers a challenge to all concerned about the ecological crisis: find your frontline. This booklet weaves together stories, analysis, organizing tools, and provocative questions, to offer a snapshot of the North American Climate Justice movement and provide pathways for readers to participate in it. Authors share hard lessons learned, reflect on strategy, and grapple with the challenges of their roles as organizers who do not come from “frontline communities” but work to build a movement big enough for everyone and led by the priorities and solutions of low-income people, communities of color, Indigenous, youth, and other constituencies most directly impacted by the crisis. Rooted in the authors’ experiences organizing in local, national, and international arenas, they challenge readers to look at the scale of ecological collapse with open eyes, without falling prey to disempowering doomsday narratives. This booklet is for anyone who wants to build a movement with the resiliency to navigate one of the most rapid transitions in human history.

Order copies from PM Press here

Free PDF download here

Praise:

“Joshua and Hilary’s manual will be useful to all who want to make change creatively and peacefully in our brutal times.”
—Dr. Vandana Shiva

“There is no task more urgent than to organize a mass popular movement to deal effectively with the looming environmental crisis. The barriers are high, the forces opposed powerful. All the more reason to dedicate ourselves to the kinds of efforts outlined Joshua Kahn Russell and Hilary Moore’s booklet.”
—Noam Chomsky

“In an atmosphere heavy with doomsday predictions and fear, this booklet is a breath of fresh air. Joshua Kahn Russell and Hilary Moore weave together stories and organizing tools to create a vision for practical transition amid the climate crisis. Organizing Cools the Planet confronts pressing questions of our time.”
—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Founding Director, Indigenous World Association

“This booklet comes from people who do what they’re talking about, and do it well. If we’ve got a hope, it lies in organizing–in reaching ever broader circles of our civilization and getting people to take action in their common interest. If you want to be a part of that, this guide is a good place to start.”
— Bill McKibben

“As the climate crisis becomes increasingly unignorable, our movements must learn to navigate a rapidly changing and high-stakes political landscape. Our times demand we think bigger, push harder, and reimagine the possibilities for twenty-first-century movement building. This potent booklet is a great place to begin the conversation. Authored by two visionary young leaders who share their personal struggles and hard-earned lessons from organizing at the intersection of justice, ecology, and change, Organizing Cools the Planet is required reading for anyone who gives a damn about the future. Tune in for some indispensable analysis, provocative thinking and a healthy dose of people-powered optimism.”
—Patrick Reinsborough, cofounder, smartMeme Strategy & Training Project

“This is a rigorous and useful tool for teaching and learning the architecture of organizing, a valuable nourishment for climate justice activists and change agents.”
—Dorothy Guerrero, Focus on the Global South

“It is an erudite manual, spirited and consistently engaging.”
—Andrej Grubačić, author, Don’t Mourn, Balkanize! and Wobblies and Zapatistas

“Still young and developing, the climate justice movement has already shaken up politics with its holistic perspective and fresh energy. Organizing Cools the Planet offers a set of tools to help this dynamic new movement sharpen its strategies, promote frontline leadership, and realize its tremendous potential.”
—Max Elbaum, cofounder, WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras; author





@occupyWINNING

31 10 2011

So much going on, that in typical fashion, I’m not posting. But I am thoroughly inspired by our country getting into motion right now, and the synergy between different movements, campaigns, and long-term fights. Spending time right now trying to serve the #Occupy effort around the country, continuing to push full-force on this Keystone XL Tar Sands pipeline fight, fracking organizing, and how to make our new booklet, Organizing Cools the Planet, useful to folks on the ground.

But until I write more I want to share an excellent resource from Beyond the Choir for the occupy movement. Its called @occupyWinning, which you can follow on twitter, or check out at www.occupywinning.com

Here are some recent posts, tools, and analysis:

#OWS: Not “No Leaders”, but “We are All Leaders!”

The Political Identity Paradox

#OWS: Welcome New Visitors and Plug In Participants

#Occupy Tactic Star





#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/





Nonviolent Direct Action to Defuse the Carbon Bomb

7 09 2011

note – I wrote this for the Ruckus Society blog to clarify our involvement in the Tar Sands Action for our own network. Enjoy! – JKR

This weekend marked the end of the Tar Sands Action in Washington DC, and the beginning of a renewed surge of civil disobedience and action against fossil fuel extraction in the United States. A coalition from across the continent came together to sustain 14 days of sit-ins in front of the White House to pressure President Obama to veto a proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline. The Keystone XL threatens to split the U.S. from Canada down to Texas, all to ship the dirtiest crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands down to the Gulf Coast for export to international markets. It spells trillions of dollars for big oil, death for Indigenous communities in Canada, displacement and poisoned air, land, and water for those living along the pipeline route, and disaster for the climate. In fact, Dr. James Hansen said if the pipeline goes through, it is essentially “game over” for the planet.

Outcomes

In the last two weeks 1,252 people were arrested sitting-in at the White House, and thousands more came out to support, rally, and build connections across movements. The vast majority of participants had never taken action before. Delegations of frontline communities came on different days to speak their truth directly to the White House, including a large delegation of Native American and Canadian leaders with Indigenous Environmental Network & Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3), communities from Appalachia, the Gulf Coast, and along the proposed pipeline route from Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, and Texas. Climate scientists, teachers, mothers, farmers, senators, and celebrities participated. The action persisted through both an earthquake and a hurricane, highlighting the message that the earth is in crisis and extreme weather patterns will only increase if this goes through. There were over 4,500 media hits, including every major media outlet in the United States and Canada (Wall Street Journal, AP, Reuters, CNN, NBC, Fox, CBC, NPR, Huffington Post, etc) and on the day of Hurricane Irene, we made the front page of the New York Times.

Through the process, nightly action briefings/trainings introduced thousands to Nonviolent Direct Action as a tool for change and as an orientation to movement strategy. The experience of these participants is one of the ways we measure success in the action.

The Tar Sands Action was thoroughly an intergenerational effort – on the first day the youngest person to be arrested was 17 and the oldest was 82. On the third day, an 84 year old woman greeted me as she was getting out of jail and said:

“When I saw all you young people leading trainings, I thought ‘yes! The youth will save us.’ But as I sat in with so many people in their 70s and beyond, I thought ‘no, we all have to do it together!”

Other participants shared insights like “It seems like this action was the training wheels I needed – and now I’m ready to ride the bike!”

The action was not just designed to pressure Obama and make a strong stand against the pipeline, but to offer a pathway into sustained organizing and action for people across the country.

Ruckus’ Involvement

The Ruckus Society’s network offered much of the training, facilitation, action coordination, and jail support. Our teams included Ruckus and Indigenous Peoples Power Project members: Rob C, Madeline G, Heather ML, Joshua KR, Hannah S, Jack D, Omi H, Gitz C, Adam T, Levana S; the art was coordinated by Cesàr M; and one of the action’s core coordinators was Matt L.

Mohawk activist and Ruckus member Ben P, took a photo of NASA’s Dr. James Hansen getting arrested, which Rolling Stone magazine called “Iconic” and the most important photo since the 1970’s “Blue Marble” photo, depicting Earth as a lonely sphere adrift in space.

Check out a video of Hansen’s statement at the White House.

It was an honor for Ruckus to support so many different groups and people from across the country, helping offer a pathway into movements for change.

Supporting Indigenous Leadership

One of the most powerful aspects of the action for a lot of the trainers was including testimonials and presentations from impacted peoples in each training. In addition to training, our organizational role was to help support Indigenous People’s Power Project (IP3) and Indigenous Environmental Network’s delegation to have a series of actions, including a statement at the Canadian Embassy, meetings with officials, public presentations, and of course, participating in the civil disobedience.

Strategic Questions

The scale and scope of this action raises many movement strategy questions for us that we’re excited to explore. While the “arrest count” was highly visible, we do not measure success in arrests, but in more qualitative measures such as:

1)   Of the thousands who participated in this action, did we prepare them enough and offer them clear next steps to take their organizing and action to the next level beyond this action? Was it truly a doorway into sustained action, or just a flash-in-the-pan?

2)   How much did the attention this action gave to frontline voices create capacity for their ongoing work?

3)   What new alliances were born out of this work between the environmental and other movement sectors? For example, Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP came and spoke at one of the trainings – what are the next steps for us to build deeper relationships?

4)   How does the media success of this action open up space to popularize Nonviolent Direct Action not just as a pressure-tactic, but as a strategic approach to campaigning?

5)   How do we measure political success when the final week of the action saw a number of disappointing moves by the Obama administration, including his caving-in on Ozone standards. How do we understand this pipeline, whether its approved or not, as a piece of a larger puzzle of shifting the balance of forces in our society?

What’s next

In the wake of the action, communities around the country have a renewed sense of energy for their own local fights, and Ruckus is excited to support them though that. In Montana, a group of grandmothers, including Margot Kidder (who played Lois Lane in the Superman films), and Tantoo Cardinal (a Cree actress who grew up in Alberta and starred in Dances With Wolves, and many other Hollywood films) will be working with Ruckus trainers to engage in direct action to stop the pipeline from coming through their homes. This action has made a national issue of the Tar Sands, which previously few people in the United States knew much about. It has offered an opportunity for continued pressure on Obama around pipeline approval, which Ruckus will stay involved with. It is also an injection of new support for the longstanding and ongoing Tar Sands fights, including the Heavy Haul, which Rising Tide activists in the US have recently been laying their bodies in front of trucks to stop, Indigenous Tar Sands campaigning in Canada, and finance campaigns in Europe.