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"If You Don't Fight, You've Already Lost" An interview with Steve Meacham
An interview with Steve Meacham
S ince meeting Steve Meacham six years ago, I have spoken with him many times about the challenges of seeking radical change in the course of daily reform work. Meacham is someone who is in the struggle for the long haul, who is serious about winning, who strives with others to integrate a radical vision with the daily struggle, and who doesn’t give up.
PETERS: Have you always considered yourself a radical organizer?
MEACHAM: I dropped out of graduate school in 1972 and started doing community organizing. I considered myself a socialist, but I didn’t bring that part of my politics into the organizing. We were organizing for things like stop signs. I didn’t talk socialism because I didn’t think people were “ready” for that. But then the people who I thought weren’t ready started recruiting me to be in left-identified groups.
So are you less reticent to talk about radical politics?
My experience has taught me that there are plenty of people who have no trouble embracing a radical analysis. In the 1980s, I worked at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts for nine years. Six thousand people were employed there. On the one hand, it was absolutely awe-inspiring—just the scale of human activity. I worked from 3:30 PM to midnight. If you were lucky, and you weren’t in the bowels of some ship, you could witness this incredible operation— cranes moving, lights flashing, bells ringing, clouds of smoke. It was like an enormous carnival.
On the other hand, it was a hell hole. There were longand short-term health hazards and extreme repression on the part of management. Working in the shipyard was a school of struggle. I learned a lot from it. There were skirmishes with management almost every day. There was this one time when the rankand-file caucuses had organized a protest—I can’t even remember what for. After the protest, management set up this rope fence so that we’d have to go single-file back to work. They wanted to slow down our return so that they could dock our pay. To undermine that, we crashed through the gates. Which is kind of ironic when you think about it—all these rank-and-filers crashing the gates to get into work. But it was a radical gesture nonetheless—a spontaneous gesture that stopped management from screwing us on one small thing.
I happened to look behind me as we were crashing the gates and I saw this guy. He was an alcoholic. Life hadn’t been too kind to him. He looked a lot older than he was. But at that moment, he looked ten years younger. I’ve always remembered that face as the potential for the working class of America. The skirmishes taught a lot of folks about what we can accomplish when we’re organized. They gave rise to incredible networks of conscious workers that had learned a lot about how power works and how to engage in struggle.
I understand the shipyard closed in 1986. What happened to those networks and all the learning that had taken place after the shipyard closed?
It pretty much completely dissipated. People were schooled in a
specific struggle, but there was no organized place for people to
take those lessons. That represented a profound loss. It’s
the kind of loss that’s repeated over and over on the left.
People struggle, expend enormous organizing energy, the struggle
ends, and all that effort dissipates.
In the case of the Quincy shipyards, there was an additional loss because activists had actually connected the class struggle at the shipyard with issues of peace and economic democracy. When it was clear the shipyards were in trouble—around 1982—I helped to found the South Shore Conversion Committee. It was made up of half peace activists and half workers. We called for shipyards to be converted from weapons-making to other purposes—pre-fabricated housing, ocean thermal plant ships, and other large and small civilian uses.
The conversion compromise was a good one. It was a reform that would have worked on a lot of levels. What we wouldn’t give to have jobs like that—with training and decent pay—for youth today? Imagine the government subsidizing non-military use of the plants rather than investing in weapons. A lot of people’s needs would have gotten met at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers. Nobody had an answer for what to do with 6,000 people on the verge of being put out of work—except for us.
All the organizing around conversion gave me a good education on how to combine macro issues with on-the-ground agitating. It was a lesson in economic democracy. General Dynamics preferred to shut down the plant rather than put it to good use. We said back to them, “Well, you don’t have the right to decide. We built this plant.”
Many workers supported the idea of conversion, but the right wing won the critical union election in 1985 in a vote marred by charges of fraud. For conversion to be more than a radical call from the sidelines, the union would have had to back it up institutionally. After the election, they didn’t.
You must have felt pretty devastated.
As part of the international battle against plant closings, one shipyard in Germany had taken over their plant, and they had hung a banner. It said, “If you fight, you may lose, but if you don’t fight, you’ve already lost.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted that banner in my life.
I’m not prone to demoralization, but it’s true, that was a pretty tough moment. But I had seen the potential of organizing. I saw how fertile the ground is. I learned the lesson again that it is not difficult to bring the ideas of the left to the U.S. working class.
What did you do next?
After the shipyard closed, I tried to get various organizing jobs. I’ve been an organizer all my life, but when non-profits looked at my resume and saw that I had been a school bus driver and a welder, they didn’t want to hire me.
I eventually went back to Cambridge and helped to found the Eviction Free Zone. It was an incredible time. Rent control was under attack, which was part of a wholesale attack on working class tenants. There were mass rallies, caravans for housing justice, mass meetings every week of people facing evictions. There were mass testimonies at city hall that were incredibly moving. A lot of tenant leaders who became radical understood that they were making a challenge to capitalism.
In 1999 you started working at City Life/Vida Urbana [CLVU]. At that point, CLVU was 26 years old. How had it survived—unlike so many of the mass-based organizations that were founded in the 1960s and 1970s?
City Life was one of the only—if not the only—community-based radical organization that didn’t break up because of left debates. I think this is largely because the founders had an extremely anti-vanguardist approach. The tendency for many left organizations to pronounce themselves as the vanguard was forcing individual activists to choose which vanguard to belong to. CLVU specifically argued against this trend.
You said at one point, “City Life has the soul of a radical political group.” How do you maintain that in an organization that works on a daily basis for reforms?
We are fighting for an end to economic displacement. We believe people shouldn’t be driven out of their homes by market forces. All the building-by-building organizing we do and policy reforms we fight for are designed to defend the working class of the city against capital.
Our reform work doesn’t just prevent the occasional eviction or improve public policy, it challenges the underlying assumptions about how the system works. Since I’ve been working at City Life, I’d say that tens of thousands of people have been displaced because of speculation. I’m not talking about prices going up because of something real (like increases in the cost of fuel or raw materials or whatever), just pure speculation. Speculators drive the price up, tens of thousands of people are displaced, and no one notices. If it had been a natural disaster displacing that many people, it would have been international news. But since it’s the market—which we perceive as being akin to oxygen—it’s not noticed.
It’s quite ironic because the market is a human construction. We could actually do something about it. It’s a mechanism that we could control. When we offer people a forum to discuss the market as something that is alterable—as opposed to written in stone—then we are taking our reform work in the direction of radical social change. Just getting the landlord to sit down to negotiate reconfigures all the assumptions. It indicates that the market does not have to be the sole arbiter.
What’s another specific example of how you challenge underlying assumptions?
When we have a group of tenants working together, we invite them to participate in political discussion groups. Here, they have a chance to explore in more depth what’s happening to them. We have discussion groups on housing, race, class, empire, and democracy. We do this exercise where we identify what “They say,” and what “We say.”
For example, City Life has a slogan, “Housing for people, not for profit.” At the discussion group, we might ask what the landlord’s response to this would be. People come up with a typical landlord-like response, such as, “That’s my building. I can do what I want with it.” Now that they’ve identified an assumption, they can contest it. At City Life, people learn how to talk back to what previously they might have thought was just part of the woodwork—i.e., not something you could do anything about.
Here’s another thing the owner complains about sometimes. He or she says, “You’re preventing me from getting market rate.” We say, “We created the market conditions. We created this neighborhood. We made it so that it has value. It’s our effort that made this place valuable, not yours.”
People have these concepts pretty readily available. People have a pretty clear understanding of the injustice that they’re experiencing on a daily basis. We just give them a chance to put it into words and to do so collectively and then to organize together in a way that fights those injustices.
One of the things that’s liberating about radical analysis is that you can see what needs to be done. Liberals wring their hands about why people are “stuck in their ways” or “people are just plain greedy” or how “human nature” means that the status quo is inscribed in stone. Radicals see the mechanisms that keep the system functioning. We know what to go after. It’s daunting, but at least it’s not a mystery.
There is not much cultural support for doing this kind of work. How do you support people to push further, to question these seemingly unquestionable assumptions?
From the first phone call to the first meeting and on to successive meetings, demonstrations, and actions, we emphasize solidarity. I’m talking about love, really. We don’t just tell people what their legal rights are and then leave them to figure it out. We listen to them talk about what’s happening in their lives. We give them the space to say how they feel. We help them meet up with others who are facing similar conditions.
The staff is made up of community leaders who came out of various struggles. They are magnificent people who regularly make sacrifices that can’t possibly be explained, except to say they are motivated by love and dedication to their community.
There’s one organizer, Roberta Jones. At a meeting recently, we were talking about the miners who were trapped in the Pennsylvania mine in 2004. Jones noted that the miners had all lashed themselves together so that if they didn’t make it, at least their bodies would all be found together. She said, “We’re like those miners. We’re lashing ourselves together so that we can sink or swim together. But there’s a difference,” she added. “I’m not going down.” That’s the essence of how we support each other.
City Life is a place where people actually experience solidarity. You see it all the time. Tenants from one building show up at another building just to lend their support. People describe the neighbors in their building as family. They defend each other with the same fierceness you might expect people have for family members. One woman I know who’s in her 80s, who’s very quiet, showed her steely side at a demonstration a few weeks ago: “We shall not be moved,” she said with the kind of determination that makes you want to cheer and cry at the same time.
We need organizers for the long haul. How do you protect against burnout?
You have to measure success by how the movement is growing and by how people are moving forward. People are beginning to articulate that there is a better way to live. We don’t have to accept the current conditions.
What is the better way to live that you are hearing people talk about?
Greed doesn’t have to hold sway in certain arenas of human activity. One of those arenas is your home. The cooperative movement contains an embryo of an alternative to the marketplace. People say, “Let’s get together and own our own building. We’ll keep it affordable.” But coops run into an extremely hostile macro-environment. They do contain an important kernel, however. The place where you live, your home, should not be subjected to the greed of the marketplace.
Aside from your organizing aims, how does the culture of the City Life pre-figure a better world?
We don’t treat people instrumentally. We value people for who they are, for their experiences, for what they know. I’m not talking about office skills. Office skills aren’t such a high priority. Anyone who wants to can learn office skills. People who have office skills, but no heart—I don’t even want them around me.
You’ve got someone who’s been around, who’s survived some hard times and learned how to cope with really difficult situations, she’s going to be the one to diffuse a difficult moment in a meeting. She’s the one who knows how to intervene. She’s the one who will make an effective leader.
What is the role of leaders?
The raw material of our movement is people who have been badly beaten up, oppressed, scarred. Radical organizers aren’t trying to “help” anyone—at least in the way that we tend to institutionalize the “other” in this society and then dole out charity to them. We affirm the idea of “solidarity” instead. It would be good to ban the word “client” from use by organizers. City Life members are people who are learning from what they’ve been through and turning that into power.
They are the people who are the best leaders. We need democratic movements, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders helping to give them shape. When you hear some xenophobic comment at a meeting, for example, you need enough leadership in the room to be able to deal with it somehow. Ideally, you offer some perspective that values the person who is the target of the attack, but at the same time you don’t trash the person who is making the comment. That person has value, too. That person is in a process of transformation.
There are many large and small ways that people can use their power. How do you measure the worth of a life?
People aren’t very able to picture their own heroism. Maybe that’s what organizers do—we hold up the mirror so that people can see the heroism in all the daily ways they face life. We look for that in each other and we celebrate that.
Cynthia Peters is an activist and freelance writer living in Boston. This is the first in a series of interviews with activists about how they do radical organizing in the context of reform work.
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