Grassroots Organizing for a World Revolution
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
The core of our argument:
1) that any discussion about reimagining socialism, particularly in the United States, has to be rooted in anti-racism and anti-imperialism and the support for self-determination of oppressed nations and nationalities inside and outside of the United States;
2) that the Obama administration needs to be engaged by the U.S. Left from the perspective of contradictions within the united front against racism, fascism and imperialism and that the center of gravity for revolutionary change and socialism is situated within the leadership of the Latin American Left; and
3) that the present and future struggle against racism and imperialism and the viability of a reconstructed socialism has to be tied to a deliberate massified set of counter-hegemonic demands and powerful social movements led by the multi-national working class and oppressed nationalities communities. So, this is and integration of the two papers into one. We hope you enjoy reading it.
Two Defining Moments
We are living in exciting times, a period of mass movement to the left in the world. We in the U.S. Left, especially those with deep ties to social movements and those developing an independent base in the working class, have the chance to be part of a broad united front against racism and imperialism, built on the ground one person at a time.
In 2009 there have been two defining moments that give shape to any U.S. approach to socialism in the 21st century.
• In April at the Summit of the Americas, Hugo Chavez placed forcefully into Barack Obama’s hands a book, The Open Veins of Latin America. Chavez’s move was conscious and tactical, an anti-colonial intervention against the president of U.S. Empire. With a strong base in his own country, his own military, and his powerful leadership on the continent, Chavez, along with many other elected left heads of states in Latin America, advised, lectured, and warned Obama that neo-colonial interventions in Latin America would not be tolerated and would be resisted.
• In July, Barack Obama, a Black president of African ancestry, went to Ghana to tell Africans that they should get over the Transatlantic Slave Trade. He told an audience in Ghana that “a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.” He also blamed post-colonial Kenya for being riddled with “tribalism, patronage, nepotism and corruption.” In doing so, he situated himself as a neo-colonial ideologue with no heart for the sufferings of his own people, an imperial lecturer hiding the U.S. role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the ongoing consequences for Blacks in the U.S. and throughout the world, and the ongoing U.S. crimes (through the CIA and World Bank) in assassinating post-independence African leaders and driving countries into debt peonage. He used the enormous good will of Black Americans and Africans who supported and elected him seeking civil rights and greater self-determination to position himself as a conscious, willful, opponent of the movements for reparations, African self-determination and human rights.
The Present Period: World Crisis, Latin America, and Obama
The world is in flux as the planet and its inhabitants confront a set of interrelated economical, social and ecological crises that are rooted in the destructive and unethical practices of capitalist and imperialist consumption and plunder. Yet we are also living in exciting times. The Latin American Left is generating an alliance of left governments and powerful regional social movements. The Latin American Left is coalescing a new center of anti-imperialist gravity in the world today, opening some of the most hopeful new discussions for the future of socialism in the U.S., including the 42 million Mexicanos, Chicanos, Central Americans, Caribbean Islanders and Latin Americans who reside inside the United States.
In the U.S., the election of Barack Obama has created watershed openings for the Left—especially for those of us with deep ties to social movements and those developing an independent base in the working class—to build a broad united front against racism and imperialism. Both of us supported and worked for the election of Barack Obama. Eric wrote an article, reflecting the views of most Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union leaders, Ten Reasons to Turn Out the Vote for Barack Obama. With a clear grasp that Obama was running for the presidency of U.S. Empire, he argued that electing Obama would create new contradictions in the U.S. ruling class that would create historic opportunities for an independent anti-racist, anti-imperialist platform, and that the Left should work to elect Obama in a united front against racism and fascism in order to defeat the Far Right. We stand by that assessment and our tactical choice.
We continue to see the organized racist, fascist Right—reflected in the Republican Party and its right-wing thugs and paramilitary groups—as the main danger. We see a relationship of unity and struggle with the Obama administration. We have unity with its progressive actions, unity in a united front against the racist, fascist Right, and a relationship of struggle with its many and growing reactionary policies. There is already growing opposition to its bailout of corporate America and to its bloody interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. There is increased awareness and opposition to his ideological role as the defender of a “post-racial” empire and his efforts to defeat a Black/African alliance and any other anti-racist, anti-imperialist challenges to the U.S. Empire.
Anti-imperialism Is the Key to Reconstructing U.S. Socialist Theory and Practice
In the racist, imperialist society of the U.S., the only viable strategy for the Left is to build a movement against racism and imperialism—or else the Left, as Eric has written, “is condemned to ally with the imperialist class and degrade its struggle to a larger share of the spoils of empire.” There can be no socialism in the U.S. outside of anti-racism and anti-imperialism. U.S. imperialism is a system of monopoly capitalism requiring the exploitation, oppression, and subjugation of whole nations and peoples. Given the social formation of the U.S. as a settler state based on virulent white supremacy, the racialization of all aspects of political life operates as a material force in and of itself—shaping and infecting every aspect of the political process.
Clearly, the centrality of anti-racism/anti-imperialism as a strategy has its own merits but it is also fundamental to a socialist strategy within the United States. At a debate among left organizations about the Future of the Left at the first U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007, Manuel argued that anti-racism/anti-imperialism has to be “the central building block for a carefully and slowly reconsidered and reconstructed socialism. Any working unity must be built on an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist united front. This united front is the foundation for any real socialist future but it is also the defining politics to defeat any form of so-called socialism that is neutral on fascism, weak on racism, weak on anti-imperialism. This united front is, in other words, the defining politics to prevent the social chauvinism that would actually hurt the struggle against U.S. imperialism.”
At the Strategy Center, organizers have chosen—within the strategy to struggle against imperialism from inside the U.S. Empire—to focus on building social movements of the multinational working class to lead the anti-racist, anti-imperialist united front. Eric has been evolving a theory of Transformative Organizing to create a structure and methodology to guide our everyday organizing work. A central objective of our work has been to organize mass social movements and new organizations that, in the course of waging resistance struggles against the fundamental ideals of capitalism, build leadership, consciousness and organization among oppressed nationalities, women, immigrants and the multiracial working class.
We believe one of our best contributions to this forum is to encourage a regrounding of U.S. Left theory in mass practice. We believe the main tactical aim for the U.S. Left at this point is to build mass organizations that are explicitly anti-racist and anti-imperialist in everyday practice. In other words, we have to massify our message among oppressed nationality communities and the working class. We can’t be “independent” Left intellectuals and activists discussing the future of socialism or strategic aims without engrossing ourselves in that discussion with our own base and with a broader population. Mao said, “Seek truth from facts.” As grassroots organizers of all persuasions say to each other, we at the Strategy Center say, “The only way I can understand your theory is to see it in practice.” To reimagine socialism, we must have fusion in our work. We cannot be a separate organization that talks about left ideas without taking these ideas out into the streets in mass campaigns, in the public arena of ideas and policy changes that must be won. We will go into a discussion of how we try to generate a theory-driven practice later in the article.
Outrage and opportunity: Anti-imperialist left strategy under Obama
In the months since his election, Obama has garnered much outrage not only from the Left but also from many quarters of his own base and his own party. Some of the Obama administration’s policies are causing an angry backlash among key and often-prestigious supporters. Progressive members of Congress, of the armed forces, as well as liberal and progressive public interest groups and commentators are already challenging Obama. Several former generals have openly criticized Obama for his continuation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. There has been strong criticism of him for rejecting single payer health care in favor of corporate health care. There has been a profound disagreement in Congress with his continuation of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the “progressives” are not ready to stand up to the threats by Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff or risk “isolation” from the president. And finally, there are the beginnings of rumblings among the volunteers who joined “Obama’s Army” for “change they can believe in.”
We think the contradiction between Obama’s vague but clearly stated civil rights and anti-war campaign and his actual actions open up great organizing opportunities among people who voted for Obama and want to demand real changes. The challenge is, how can a U.S. Left grab these new openings to engage in the political arena, put forth clear politics, organize actual working class people, oppressed nationality people, and people of all classes and races to a specific set of anti-imperialist demands that we bring on corporations and the government with the goal of winning them.
The openings fall into three categories: key strategic, winnable policies; people inside Obama’s administration who can be moved; militant, direct challenge against Obama’s most reactionary positions.
Policies—High Strategic Impact, Winnable.
Ask people working on issue-based work—they know when the administration is moving backwards and when there are small or even significant victories.
• The decision to open up travel and remittances by Cubans in the U.S. to Cuba helps the Cuban revolution. The more Cuban Americans go to Cuba the power of the exiled Gusano generation is weakened, the chance of U.S. invasion lessened, the possibility to struggle for the lifting of the blockade is greater.
• The Justice Department’s decision to begin investigating the discriminatory impacts of convictions for crack cocaine and powder cocaine will mean years and years of difference to Black prisoners and a greater challenge to the entire war on drugs.
• The U.S. assigned a new ambassador to Venezuela and reopened diplomatic ties with the government and Hugo Chavez.
• The nomination of Sonya Sotomayor and the Right wing attacks on her for indicating there are issues of discrimination facing women and Latinos is a blow to the Right and will help decisions at the Supreme Court. She does not have to prove to be a great liberal if we understand the racist attacks on her candidacy give greater openings to fight for affirmative action and women’s rights beyond what she and President Obama would attempt.
• The Climate Bill coming out of the House is very weak. The entire concept of the buying and selling of air pollution credits is bizarre and unenforceable. But it does create some pressures on polluting firms (as well as many loopholes). There are principled people arguing it is worse than no bill, other strong environmentalists pushing for its passage. The fact that there is a bill to organize around is light years away from what McCain and Palin would be doing now.
• The healthcare bill is similar. Without yet being able to study it we know it makes many concessions to the insurance industry but it does purport to provide government sponsored health care to 50 million people without it. Again, the working class will understand a strong left movement to strengthen it, criticisms of the president for freezing out the advocates of single payer. They, and we, will not agree or have the nerve to argue that a health care bill is just a reactionary trick or is of no actual benefit to working people.
People—Genuine Progressives Inside the Obama Administration.
There are hundreds of people in significant positions in the Obama administration who are genuine progressives and took those positions to carry out, and struggle for, anti-racist, strong environmental, civil rights and civil liberties policies within the Obama administration. We know some of them are already sick about some of his moves to absolve the West from genocide in Africa, and very disappointed on all the deals needed to pass “any climate bill.” We are working with members of the Obama administration on our national campaign, Transit Riders for Public Transportation (TRTP). The fact that there are people at the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Transit Administration, and Department of Justice who are open to proposals and demands coming out of mass work gives hope to organizing. The “locked door” policies of Bush/Cheney made many people feel that any organizing to change national policy was hopeless. If you have a base, built on clear demands that reflect an environmental justice, anti-war, anti-racist and anti-imperialist perspective, with an e-organizing tactical plan to put issues in front of Congress and other elected officials, there are openings, at times quite small, but good organizers figure out how to develop a base that can drive a wedge into that opening, and in the united front, find allies inside the Obama administration.
We do not have to be told the obvious: most of the Democrats are very difficult to work with and many are downright reactionary. But we are already working with more than 28 congresspeople, including a letter by Illinois Congressman Lapinsky to get an increase in operation funding into the federal transportation bill. Congressperson Russ Carnahan of St. Louis has a marker bill proposing that 30% to 50% of all funds in the bill to be available for operating funds. We are working to change the language to “dedicated” rather than “flexible” because construction lobbyists will want all the money for highway building. More than 15 community groups are working with Transit Riders for Public Transportation to educate members in their communities and put pressure on local congress people. The stakes are high. If we, Amalgamated Transit Union, and other civil rights and environmental allies pass this provision, it will generate tens of thousands of new green jobs for union bus drivers, mechanics, and service workers. It will also allow dramatic fare reductions and service expansion. If it is defeated, working people will be faced with a dead job market for bus and rail personnel, high transit fares, and massive service cuts. Only in an Obama administration could this struggle be had with Congress. We cannot imagine any group of pro-socialist bus drivers and riders who would not think the election of Obama is helping their organizing and giving them a chance for a better life. In this case they look to the Left, to the Strategy Center, to TRPT, as leading that battle and want to join us.
Militant and Direct Challenges Against Obama’s Most Reactionary Positions.
There are organizers already speaking out in direct opposition to many of the policies of the Obama administration. The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC has guests almost every night criticizing the administration from the left. She showed footage of 25 gay and lesbian demonstrators being arrested in front of the White House challenging Obama’s weak policies on gay rights including his vacillation on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military. There are obvious challenges to the murderous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the incursions against Pakistani sovereignty. Challenges to the weakness of the climate bill, challenges to Obama’s refusal to attend the U.N. World Conference Against Racism.
But the goal of left organizing is not simply to “expose” President Obama statement-by-statement, act-by-act, as if we are keeping a scorecard—although that is a contribution to movement building. The primary challenge is to build movements rooted in the Black and Latino working class and communities as part of a broad united front to demand that the U.S. government retract and reverse its policies. This campaign assumes we have a base in our communities, know members of Congress, are building respected and powerful mass movements that can directly challenge the administration and have some tactical plan to win victories, often small and incremental, but victories that force the government to change policies. For isn’t that the point of revolutionary organizing? In our work, we keep repeating a formulation based on Frederick Douglass, Huey Newton, and many grassroots organizers: “Power is the capacity to get people and institutions to do things they otherwise would not do.” While we plan to play an active role in aggressively challenging Obama’s reactionary statements and policies, we want to differentiate ourselves from those who condemn his actions in order to prove that there is no strategic difference between moderate corporate imperialists (Obama) and the pro-fascist Right (Bush). We think the building of movements on the ground with working class people would not allow that formulation because it contradicts their everyday experience and reading of history.
The next goal will be to develop some organizing muscle behind one of these demands and have a mass action at the White House or in a major urban center, with a broad united front criticizing the president, taking him on, and demanding that he and Congress change their policies. We understand that imperialism is a stage of capitalism not a policy (thus we are not asking the president to “end imperialism”). But whether on his deplorable remarks in Africa, the bombing of civilians in Pakistan, the clear efforts to permanently occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, the Left needs to lead. But we also need to build a broad united front against his policies, to pressure the most liberal members of Congress to stand up to the president, reach out to those who worked for Obama, prominent clergy, people who it is understood are taking a risk to openly oppose the administration and carry out actions that are tactically creative, that force media coverage, and find a way to put the policy directly in his way. The specifics of those tactics will be another discussion but there is no arguing here for a “honeymoon” period. The question is how we can organize protests that are forceful and impactful.
Taking the opening: Theory and Practice of Transformative Organizing
Our theory of Transformative Organizing will be explained in far greater detail in Eric’s forthcoming book: The Twenty Five Qualities of the Successful Organizer: A Journey in Transformative Organizing. This theory is a unique synthesis of revolutionary theory and history that has been developed and evolved through four decades of Eric’s practice. For this discussion Eric has summarized his formulations into three interrelated concepts:
1) Transformative Organizing directly challenges the systems of racism and imperialism and is based on an international united front against imperialism. As such it is working to weaken, isolate, and defeat the U.S. Empire in its specific occupations, wars and interventions throughout the world.
2) Transformative Organizing is based on an ideological challenge to the master narrative of the empire itself. It brings new ideas to the working class, and works to transform their worldview through counter-hegemonic demands, revolutionary organizations, and political education. It argues that anti-racism and anti-imperialism are mass questions and transformative organizers must be bringing these ideas to mass arenas, not having left conversations in the office and narrow, pragmatic conversations in the field.
3) Transformative Organizing transforms the organizers themselves as they listen to the people, consolidate their strengths, observe and correct their own weaknesses, take on the police, the corporations, the state, and get stronger through deep ties to the people and a collective introspective and self-critical process.
(We urge comrades to address this theoretical frame for organizing and to acknowledge its origins and initiation.)
Talking About Our Own Organizing Work
We are not writing an article about “where the Left should go.” We are writing about what we think and what we do and what we hope is helpful to others in this discussion. We think further discussion of the organizing work of the Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union will help. Obviously we do think some of our conclusions can contribute to the broader conversation about strategy, tactics, and future direction.
How Do We See the Strategic Alliance of Forces, What Is Our Base, and How Are We Building that Base
There is a long and arduous process in front of us about how to unite forces whose primary self-definition is “left.” Among community organizers, those carrying out a strategy of Transformative Organizing, rooted in the anti-racist anti-imperialist united front, and those carrying our a more “pragmatic” organizing there are many political disagreements. But one critical currency of discussion is “what is your base, what you deliver. On a given Saturday how many working class members can you bring to the corner of Crenshaw and King in LA, 125th Street and Malcolm X Avenue in Harlem.”
20 Year Left Experiment
For the Strategy Center for the past 20 years we have focused on four integrated tasks.
• Consolidating the organization on clear demands against the system, reflected in our publication Towards a Program of Resistance (available at www.AhoraNow.org.) and evolved in practice since it’s writing in 2000.
• Focusing on the strategic alliance of the oppressed nationality working class, the oppressed nationality peoples in the United States, the broad anti-imperialist united front of all races and classes, and direct solidarity with Third World struggles against U.S. imperialism. Recruiting and training leaders to transformative organizations and that strategic view.
• Building a strong campaign driven organization with significant working class membership based on those politics.
• Bringing those demands against the system in campaigns, campaign we are fighting to win.
The Strategy Center is a left institution, an experimental form that seeks to contribute to building a united front against U.S. imperialism—rooted in the strategic alliance of the multi-racial, multi-national working class in alliance with oppressed peoples and nations both inside and outside the United States. In this alliance, the Black and Mexicano/ Latino working classes have a unique, essential, pivotal, and irreplaceable role—simultaneously as leaders of the entire working class and as leaders of their own people's struggle for full equality, national liberation, and self-determination.
The Strategy Center, given focus by the anti-racist, anti-imperialist united front and the theory of Transformative Organizing has generated what we call “theory-driven practice’—the generation of mass campaigns of the working class and oppressed nationalities, in particular the Black and Latino workers and communities. We want to highlight two of our mass campaigns to give you a sense of our depth and practice—the Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros and Community Rights Campaign. These campaigns are historically relevant on their own terms, but also have real relevance to any transition to an uncharted socialist future.
Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros
The Bus Riders Union (BRU)/Sindicato de Pasajeros (SDP)’s transportation organizing is strategic because it’s a race, gender, economic justice, environmental, public health, and climate justice campaign all packed into one. In 1994, our civil rights intervention was to re-strengthen a grassroots Black and Latino led civil rights campaign that pushed not only for the enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (at a time when its enforcement was waning), but also to push the bounds of working class communities of color urgent demands to protect and expand the social wage with a clear goal to “redistribute wealth” in a time period of lowered expectation and neo-liberal dogma. Since 1994, The Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros has worked at reaching over 500,000 daily bus riders, 90% of whom are Mexican/Latino, Black and Asian/Pacific Islander, 60% of whom are women, and 60% of whom have family incomes under $12,000 a year.
Los Angeles buses are the factories of the multi-national working class—factories literally on wheels—in a period of heighten segregated communities and the dispersive nature of the service economy—the bus is the primary space to find and interact with Black security officers, Mexican restaurant workers, young Chicano fast food workers, Salvadorian nannies, Guatemalan housekeepers, Black cafeteria workers, Korean elders, Filipino homecare workers, garment workers, light manufacturing factory workers, entry level nurses, janitors, retired elders, the unemployed, the disabled community, and multiracial working class high school and community college students. We have raised this life experience of the working class into a theory of transit racism and the bus as a new center of working class life, struggle, and organization.
The BRU/SDP’s explicitly ideological approach to organizing, reflected in its slogans on posters, leaflets and T-shirts throughout the city— ‘Fighting Transit Racism,’ ‘1,000 More Buses, 1,000 Less Police,’ ‘Stop the Corporatization of Government,’ ‘Mass Transportation is a Human Rights,’ ‘Stop the Bi-Partisan Racist Mass Incarceration Complex,’ ‘Build a City for Human and Civil Rights, Not a Police/Prison State’—explicitly challenges the accommodation pro-corporate, pro-police policies of many former civil rights, labor movement and left activists who are now powerful Democratic elected officials. We are directly confronting the internal class dynamics within the Black and Chicano/Latino community between the growing multi-racial political and economic elite and the working class Black and Mexicano/ Latino communities in a region with over 10 million people and a State with over 34 million people.
What Our Work Looks Like and Our Reach
The Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros has been built as a primarily Black and Latino organization with a solid Korean base, and a small, but strong group of anti-racist white working class members.
Teams of organizers and members leave each morning to recruit new members, and educate and engage bus riders and drivers. Our key objective is to win political space on key bus lines and neighborhoods for our demands. We have historically organized on four major bus line for the past 14 years—the Wilshire line which carries over 90,000 daily riders between East Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Vermont line which carries 60,000 daily riders between South Los Angeles and Hollywood, Crenshaw line which carries over 20,000 daily riders with a large Black bus riding population and Soto line which carries over 20,000 daily riders with Chicano and Mexico bus riders that travel the Chicano barrios of Southeast Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and Highland Park.
We organize on several L.A. buses six days a week. We do specific community/bus line organizing in South Los Angeles, Pico-Union, Koreatown, East Los Angeles; and we have a growing base in the San Fernando Valley. In periods of heighten struggle, we can pass out over 30,000 flyers and leaflets in a month. We speak and carry organizing materials in three languages—Spanish, Korean and English. We can generate hundred of signed and personal noted post-cards and phone calls to target the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board and City Council members.
As we board a bus, we often open up and break the ice by making a short and loud pitch, such as “My name is Esperanza, I am a Bus Riders Union organizer, a civil rights organization that is fighting the MTA’s racist fare increase and we are here to recruit new members to the struggle.” We cover the whole bus, flyer-it out, and recruit bus riders. We engage riders on the root causes that impact the L.A. transit system—institutionalized racism, the corporatization of public policy and resources, and the ecological, moral, and ethical impacts of the massive subsidy to the single-passenger automobile and highway expansion. Our membership dues are $10–$50 a year. You can start a membership for $1. Organizers and members collect phone numbers and emails to follow up on one-on-one conversations. Each year we recruit between 350–500 new dues paying members.
The Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros has monthly membership meeting. Every third Saturday of the month (with no fail over the past 14 years) we host a monthly general membership meeting that attracts between 90 to 100 people. Between 15-25 new people come through to our new member orientation meeting, where over 80% of those who participate in the orientation meeting become annual dues paying members.
The demographics of the monthly membership meeting on average is about 40% Mexican/Latino, 40% Black and 10% Asian/Pacific Islander, 10% white. The monthly meeting is a major place to debate strategy and tactics for the BRU fight, but it has also become an important body that discuss national and international affairs from the massive California prison expansion, to Hugo Chavez and Latin America Left, to Global Warming and the U.S. government unwillingness to cooperate in international green house gas reduction standards. We also vote on the BRU’s rejection or endorsement of statewide and countywide propositions—with courageous votes rejecting the so-called ‘parents right to know’ anti-choice propositions since 2004 and stand against the anti-LBTQ California Proposition 8!
Our mobilization capacity has grown throughout the years, with its most impressive mobilization on a weekday early morning MTA public hearing with over 1,500 people that led to the LA County Fire Marshals temporarily shutting the doors of the MTA $1 billion headquarters. Over 400 bus riders testified, 99% of the riders testifying against MTA’s draconian fare increase and supporting the Bus Riders Union. We have built an internal mobilization capacity of about 300 people that we have been able to reach for several critical mobilizations in the history of the BRU campaign. We have a monthly mailing list that reaches over 1,000 people that is made up of current dues paying and active members that are sent a monthly mailer with the BRU monthly meeting agenda and current flyers and leaflets. We have about 100 active membership base that attends at least four BRU monthly members meetings annually. We have a solid leadership of 50 BRU members building critical leadership and tactical bodies.
Community Rights Campaign
The Community Rights Campaign has evolved out of a strategic and tactical intervention from our own practice. Strategic in the sense that after the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa and its primary demand for Reparation and Restitution for the continent of Africa and the African Diaspora from the crimes and legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, we felt that we needed to give specific attention to the demands for the Black Nation and one clear manifestation of national oppression is the criminal legal system of the United States that has locked up over one million Blacks. An important revolutionary reform to win is to dismantle what we have coined the racist re-enslavement complex—a challenge not only to end a clearly horrific violation of human rights, but also to challenge the ideological underpinning of the role of police, suppression and repression in the formation and maintenance of the system. The tactical intervention was out of our direct experience in our grassroots organizing within the Bus Riders Union where we literally were meeting men and women on the bus heading to serve time in LA County jail or as we organized young people and parents we saw the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles School Police Department handing out truancy and tardy tickets to become the first interface of the criminal legal system for Black and Brown youth.
On any day in Los Angeles, Community Rights and Bus Riders Union organizers are working at local high schools and on the buses to build a movement to fight the growing police state, and the criminalization of Black and Latino communities.
What we want: Free the U.S. 2 million! We need to free the prisoners and end the criminalization of oppressed nationality communities. In 1980, at the height of the Reagan administration’s law and order regime, there were 500,000 people in U.S. prisons. Today, there are 2.3 million. These are our sisters and brothers. Of those 2.3 million human beings almost 1 million are Black and more than 500,000 are Latino. This level of structural racism is a human rights violation against internally oppressed peoples. We must build a national and international movement for self-determination and against national oppression both inside and outside the borders of the United States.
We challenge the escalating rate of imprisonment among Black, Chicano/Latino peoples, immigrants, and working people. The U.S. has moved from being the biggest slaveholder in the world to becoming the biggest jailer in the world. We see our work in Los Angeles, as well as in California, as helping build a national and international movement to free the prisoners.
We wanted to work more directly to confront the massive incarceration rates of young people of color and particularly the Black and Latino community and decided that we would concentrate our work two fold as part of a broader movement: 1) to stop the racist "cradle to jail cell" pipeline by addressing the role of the schools, what we call preprisoning, and 2) contesting the growing police/prison state (budgetary/legal jurisdiction) through the growing criminalization of urban life through police enforcement policies (i.e., gang injunctions and broken windows) and racist criminal justice initiatives (i.e., Three Strikes, minimum sentencing, war on drugs). Our goal over the next couple of years its to make inroads at the Los Angeles Unified School District with over 700,000 student. Our intervention is to take low-income/working-class Black and Latino high-school students and parents from Los Angeles public schools, particularly in South Los Angeles, Mid-City and the San Fernando Valley, and train them in organizing and campaign development so that they can be the change agents within a system that tracks them into prisons and not Princeton’s.
Taking Action is our school based student led form. We have over 60 active participants of Taking Action at Cleveland High School. This group meets twice a month on campus that attracts up to 40 students. That reaches out to base of 3,800 at Cleveland High. This group has been meeting over four years at Cleveland High School in Reseda in the San Fernando Valley.
We have build solid base at Westchester High Taking Action with over 40 active participants. This group meet twice a month on campus that attracts up to 25 students. That reaches out to a base of 1,800 at Westchester. In fact, the Taking Action groups has been able to survey over 75% of their entire population in our Pre-Prison incident form and survey.
We have built a monthly Community Rights Campaign meeting that has attracted between 30–40 participants from all around the city over the past three months. These meeting have also attracted our first serious level of parents and older concerned adults to our Community Rights Campaign. Our goal is to reach at least 50-60 members by the end of the year.
The Community Rights Campaign has built critical institutions of leadership and organizing skill like the Summer Youth Leadership Academy that has trained successfully over 30 youth over three summers, who have in turn recruited scores of other youth into their Taking Action chapters or BRU/SDP activities. We have also instituted a Spring Break Taking Action week—where we have recruited dozens of youth from many high schools in the region to take a week of their spring break vacation to recruit on MTA buses on critical issues like war and militarism and pre-prison complex.
The Community Rights Campaign and Bus Riders Union Drum Corp has recruited and sustained impressive youth mobilization, over the past six years, in opposition to the U.S. invasion and war on Iraq, we have mobilized over 150 youth to anti-war demonstration each year and the Community Rights Campaign youth base have also been a critical base in defense of immigrant rights under our banner for Open Borders—where over 50-75 students have marched with dozens of BRU/SDP members and allies at the May 1st mobilizations for immigrant rights over the past four years.
In Los Angeles we have been carrying on a left experiment for 20 years. Our work focuses on raising the political consciousness of all working people, providing an organized form where they can learn, grow, and become organizers. To be clear, we are not talking about “working people” as some abstract entity. These are our members, our leaders—this is us. More than 100 people, 40 Black, 40 Latino, 10 Korean, and 10 white, majority women, majority working class are reaching out to hundreds and thousands of people every day. There are more than 1,000 people involved in Strategy Center projects over a year.
We focus on building the anti-racist, anti-imperialist united front. We work to generate a left “think tank/act tank.” We work on developing theories and formulations to unite people and give focus to their work. We talk about “theory driven practice, practice driven theory” and have evolved the theory of Transformative Organizing to give greater clarity to ourselves, those in the BRU/SDP, National School for Strategic Organizing, Summer Youth Organizing Academy. This article reflects that theory and practice. It reflects the full consolidation and agreement of more than 100 of the most dedicated leaders and has massified most its concepts to reach thousands of working people in Los Angeles.
We focus on our practice to engage other groups in a discussion of their own practice. We see this work taking on a growing national and international focus . We see ourselves allied with the growing Third World Left and in particular the impressive work of the Cubans, Venezuelans, and Bolivians, with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Evo Morales as present day models of anti-imperialist power. We see the organized racist, fascist Right reflected in the Republican party and its right-wing thugs and paramilitary groups as the main danger. We see a relationship of unity and struggle with the Obama administration, unity with its progressive actions, unity in a united front against the racist, fascist Right, and struggle with its many and growing reactionary policies. We have put forth the theory and practice of our organizing work and some of the very specific reflections of Black and Mexican/Latino leadership, working class leadership, and women’s leadership to generate a discussion of theory and practice. We are very appreciative of Z Magazine for taking this important initiative and creating a space that in itself takes a lot of organizing work. We look forward to the debate and discussion with the goal of building a more unified Left in the U.S. that can fight for the interests of the multi-national working class, the oppressed nationality communities, and all progressive people who want to join a united front against imperialism. This can provide more help to our sisters and brothers in the Third World who need a stronger resistance movement against an aggressive U.S. Empire.
Eric Mann is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angles.
Manuel Criollo is the lead organizer of the Bus Riders Union.