Volume , Number 0
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The Celling of America
Organizing in Lawrence
Poor People's Organizing
Slippin' & Slidin'
High-Tech Transportation Workers
The Heat is On
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It Should Be Possible, It Has To Be Possible
For over 30 years, Leslie Cagan has been a tireless organizer: from the Vietnam War to racism at home, from nuclear disarmament to lesbian/gay liberation, from fighting sexism to working against U.S. intervention. Her coalition and organizing skills have put hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in many of the countrys largest mobilizations, and countless smaller public protests, from silent vigils to civil disobedience.
Her writing has appeared in several left publications, as well as a few anthologies, and she has served in the leadership of a number of progressive/left organizations. Wrapping up seven years as the Director of the Cuba Information Project, Cagan coordinated the U.S. delegation to the World Youth Festival in Cuba in 1997.
She is presently on the steering committee of the Same Boat Coalition in New York City, is on the board of the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation, and is national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence.
Cagan welcomes more discussion about the issues raised here and would love to get your feedback, comments, and ideas. Write to her c/o Z Magazine.
Thirty years ago I graduated from college. It was 1968 and the world was on fire. I was 21 and had spent the last two years of my liberal arts education (primarily) organizing against the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Being raised in an activist left family/community meant that by 1968 I had already committed civil disobedience to win a traffic light in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx, marched in Ban the Bomb protests, picketed Woolworths in solidarity with the Southern civil rights struggle, and was almost thrown out of college for protesting against Dow Chemical and university expansion. I also had had my first love relationship with a woman (coming out as a lesbian would happen several years later).
The summer I graduated I went to Europe: Paris two months after the student uprisings, Sofia (Bulgaria) for the World Youth Festival, and Prague days before the Soviet invasion. The Youth Festival was alive with the movements of the day: students from every corner of the world whose actions were having tangible impacts on their governments; vibrant discussions about armed struggle in Latin America, the Sinn-Soviet conflict and the new challenges to old authority in Czechoslovakia. I met Greeks and South Africans who had sneaked out of their countries and faced criminal prosecution for attending the Festival.
Most important for me was our interaction with the Vietnamese delegation. From both the South and the North, these young people had traveled by foot, bike, boat, and train to Bulgaria. The U.S. delegation was already in the room as the Vietnamese arrived. It was a matter of moments before everyone was crying. Hardly anyone could communicate directly since few people in both delegations spoke French. But as we spontaneously gave one another rings, pins, handkerchiefs, whatever we had available, a connection came to life. The emotion in the room escalated when one of the men in the U.S. group took out his draft card and burned it.
Immediately following our exchange, most of us from the States went to the Festivals medical area to donate blood for the Vietnamese to take home.
In the spring of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and the Vietnamese had just successfully carried off the Tet offensive. Graduate school didnt seem to make a lot of sense and I decided to work full time in the movement. I didnt know many people who did this, but the few I knew impressed me. It was clear they werent doing this work for the money and the intensity of their commitment was palpable. I had some good organizing experience and was confident that I could find a way to earn a living.
I came back from my trip to Europe just as things were breaking loose in Chicagothe Democratic Convention and the police riots in the streets were well underway. I threw myself into the effort to raise the needed bail money, which led to a job in the New York office of the Chicago Seven support committee, which led to a job with the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
And thats been the case for 30 years. The closest I have came to a "straight" job was in the 1970s when I co-taught a lesbian and gay literature class at UMass/Boston and radio production skills at a junior college.
In the winter of 1969-70 I spent over two months with the First Venceremos Brigade in Cuba. Just ten years into their revolution, the Cubans had taken control of their history. For years I had thought change was necessary. Now, I began to believe that radical change in every arena of life was possible. While we were in Cuba, Fred Hampton and other Chicago Black Panthers were murdered. It was a shocking reminder of the brutality and power of the U.S. government, and there we were in Cuba, a whole nation under attack from the U.S. As Brigadistas we were taking a risk traveling in defiance of Washingtons travel ban, but we knew the risk was small compared to what Cubans and so many others around the world faced every day.
In this same time period I found the womens movement. I went to my first meeting reluctantly. After all, I was chair of the NYU Committee to End the War in Vietnam and while some women might need consciousness raising and support groups, I didnt. Imagine my surprise. Feminism brought fresh/revolutionary insights to my understanding of oppression, hierarchy, power, and how deeply into the structures of our lives a liberation struggle must dig. The womens liberation movement brought me friendships and working relationships with incredibly smart, creative, bold, assertive, and loving women. The explosive energy of the womens movement touched a nerve at the core of my identity. It opened the space I needed to come out as a lesbian. I realized I had no context for my earlier relationship with a woman, no signals or support from the culture to understand my sexuality.
Last spring I turned 50 and started thinking about my political/organizing history and the movements I have been involved in. The movements for social and economic justice, equality, freedom, and peace have made vastly important contributions to improving the lives of millions of people. The progressive/non-sectarian left had accomplished tremendous things. We had played a critical role in helping to end the War in Southeast Asia. We helped end Jim Crow and won some basic civil rights. We won the right to abortion and put the demands for womens equality on the agenda. We worked to build a powerful South African divestment movement as we worked to end U.S. intervention in Latin America. We were in movements that changed the ways people think about nuclear energy and weapons. We changed public consciousness and the reality of everyday life for lesbians, gay men, and other sexual minorities. And much, much more.
And yet, we are in a great big mess. I cannot recall a period in my lifetime as bad as this. The accelerated concentration of wealth and power in everything from the mass media to manufacturing to health care and banking; the ever-widening gap between the worlds poor and wealthy; the global environmental crisis; xenophobia, racial and religious violence; an epidemic of violence against women, children, and sexual minorities; the influence and power of religious fundamentalism in all its variations.
Lets be honest. The right wing control of so many of our basic institutions, the collapse of any counter-weight to the U.S. in global matters, the virtual disappearance of a liberal voice and the general shift to the right culturally, in legislative chambers, and in the mass media are all part of a context which makes our work very hard right now.
I dont want to paint a totally bleak picture because at the same time there are countless examples of excellent work. Progressives have been elected to office, several unions have won important labor disputes, attacks on immigrants and affirmative action have been met with major street mobilizations, and queer people are securing the right to adopt children and domestic partnership benefits. I would even venture to guess that there are more people active in a wide range of struggles, and with a more comprehensive political analysis, than there were at the height of the 1960s. For all we are doing we are still not able to meet the challenges of our time.
@PAR SUB = As this century draws to an end, it is time to take stock. Things are not, on their own, going to start to get better. If history teaches us nothing else, it must help us realize that even in the most difficult of times, when people are actively engaged, politically (in every sense of the word) involved, and mobilized, we can intervene, disrupt the status quo, and move in a progressive direction. Change is possible and we can be active agents of change.
But the truth is the difficulties of this moment are all that much more severe because of the state of our movement(s). The non-sectarian left and the progressive movements for justice and peace in this country are not strong enough to force significant shifts in power relations or to successfully contest for power in the electoral, economic, or other arenas. When you look at the national picture we are not able to stop the daily assaults and attacks on poor and working people, on women, people of color, lesbians/gays and other sexual minorities, the disabled and so many others, never mind such foreign policy matters as globalization, neo-liberalism, military actions, and economic sanctions.
Thirty years ago I had no idea that things would be like this. Many of us have known for a long time that turning things around is never easy and certainly does not happen quickly. I dont pretend to have a formula for getting out of the mess, but I know there are some serious questions we need to address before we will be able to move forward.
- @ZBULLET = Where did our organizing make a positive difference and where did it not? Whats been missing in our organizing approaches?
- @ZBULLET = Why has it been so difficult to overcome divisions and develop new ways to work cooperatively?
- @ZBULLET = What can we realistically do? How do we measure our strengths and weaknesses? How do we know when we are making a contribution and helping to move things forward?
- @ZBULLET = What about the new technologies? What does it meanboth in terms of what we are up against and the new potentials for usto live and do political work in the information age?
- @ZBULLET = What was good and strong and worked, and what didnt? Why, when positive change happened in some areas have we lost so much since 1980? Why do so many people who maintain a left political perspective find it so hard to remain actively involved? How did the specific or particular weaknesses of the progressive movements interact with forces outside of our control?
I dont believe we have yet to come to terms with the meaning and impact of the Reagan-Bush years. It was not only the massive deregulation of private industry and the trickle-down economic policies or assaults on organized labor and attacks on virtually every victory of several civil rights movements since the 1950s that marked those presidencies. It was also a period of massive military build-up and expansion of military spending, implementation of new ideas for waging war from low-intensity conflict to economic embargoes as well as the time of the "culture wars."
Many of us laughed at the absurdity of Dan Quayles assault on "Murphy Brown." The vice president of the United States attacks a character in a TV sitcom because shes having a baby without being married. The right-wing backlash to the successes (even though limited) of the womens movement had been unfolding for years, but Quayle was taking things to a new height. If we understand, as we must, the most recent dismantling of welfare as a direct assault on women, then perhaps we should be a little self-critical for not having seen Quayles attack as a warning of what would be coming, as a prefiguring of the so-called welfare reform.
Activists/organizers/theorists and others in the progressive social movements have yet to come to a collective analysis or understanding of how we as players in these movements have been affected by what began during the Reagan-Bush years and continues today. For instance, a long struggle for abortion rights was won with the Supreme Court decision of 1973. Did any of us imagine then that one week after the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade someone would be killed by a bomb at a clinic providing abortion services in Birmingham, Alabama? (How chilling to recall the bombing that took the lives of four young girls at a church in that same city in the early days of the civil rights struggle.) What is the meaning of that victory when today 84 percent of the counties in this country have no abortion services available and the overwhelming majority of medical schools do not teach abortion procedures?
What happens when social and cultural space once opened up by the creative energies of the youth and student movements, the civil rights and black liberation movement, the womens and queer movements is shut down and closed off? What happens to individuals who once dared to speak the truth and publicly act on their convictions see their allies and friends shot down, locked up, and driven into exile as their hard won victories are attacked, eroded, undermined and undone? It has taken a toll.
@PAR SUB = It is fairly common to hear people say the progressive movements and the left lack vision, that our ideas about the future are unclear or non-existent. And there are those who argue that the most important task is to articulate our vision. It is certainly important to offer a vision and we need better ways to communicate our vision. But I do not agree that we have no vision, no specific ideas of how we would do things differently, and improve peoples lives. For decades activists and theorists have struggled in every arena of life (housing, health care, education, jobs, unemployment, culture, racial dynamics, legislative/electoral, trade unions, welfare/safety net, etc.), and in each weve developed insightful analysis, thorough critiques, and concrete ideas for how to do things differently. Just as importantly, more general notions about equality, respect, freedom, and justice guide most of the work we do every day. Its not that we lack ideas about the future, but that we have not connected these nor put forth a comprehensive vision, to say nothing of a strategy to turn that vision into reality.
While we acknowledge that issues are connected, a whole lot more work needs to be done to fully comprehend how they are connected. It is not about a longer laundry list or that everything at all times carries the same weight or meaning in peoples lives. Rather, our task is to see the ways that distinct issues are informed or shaped by other issues.
It goes further than this, for it is also about understanding the richness/fullness of the human experience. None of us is solely the work we do or our role in a relationship or where we are in the racial "order" of the day. Most people have times when they feel as if their lives are a series of disconnected events and social dynamics, but for the most part, we move fairly easily through the different aspects of our lives. Its good to understand each aspect of our life, but the larger challenge is to see how the parts fit together. This holds true for communities, even whole societies, as well. Where are the intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality? How do different hierarchies of oppression inform each other?
Even with advances in our analysis, we are still extremely weak at bringing together different constituencies. Of course, there are moments when this happens, but these are more often than not in response to an immediate crisis or around a specific, short-term common project. Sustaining cross-issue and cross-constituency working relationships, indeed, building a lasting unity, continually slips away from us.
While organizing against the Gulf War in 1990/1991, I experienced the issue of unity in a new way. So much of my organizing work had been about building coalitions, usually short-term, project-oriented coalitions, and for years I had been convinced, and I still believe, that unity must be a key building-block in any meaningful social change movement and that without a much higher degree of unity we are destined to be weak and ineffective. As you might recall, we ended up with two national anti-war coalitions. Many of us were troubled that differences inside the anti-war movement made it impossible to work as one national coalition. But I realized that unity for the sake of unity doesnt work eitherunity must be based on some principles. There were tactical and style differences, but the principle that kept these two efforts apart was whether or not to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as part of the political position we were projecting. I coordinated the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. While the primary focus of our work was trying to stop the mad rush to war by the U.S. government, we also were critical of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and other interventions in the Middle East, such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The National Coalition Against U.S. Intervention in the Middle East seemed to be working from the premise that my enemys enemy is my friend and if the U.S. government was going after Iraq, then we should not make any criticisms of that government.
The goal of unity has often been narrowly understood as the need to bring together left organizations, groups that already share a critique of capitalism and other systems of oppression. What has become clearer to me is that the more important goal is to bring together diverse constituencies that make up our national experience, not just the self-identified left. I certainly would not object to being part of a more unified and coherent left, but if that is the meaning of the unity we are striving for, what is the point?
There are a host of other problems we face:
Identity politics. In the last few years a criticism of identity politics has been put forth by some straight, white leftist men. Instead of figuring out how peoples diverse experiences of oppression might inform our overall analysis, critics suggest that such matters as race, gender, and sexual expression are diversions from the "real" issues. This is, of course, ridiculous. Who knows how we would understand race, gender, sexualityas well as classhad there not been vibrant mass movements based on identity? Instead of bashing it, lets figure out why this culture has spawned the type of identity politics so prevalent today and the contributions these political movements make.
At the same time, I wish we could move beyond identity politics. I do think some of this gets a little carried away. I fear that many activists are so committed to their specific identity that they are unable to see how their struggles are linked to those of other people. We need to use the strength we get from identity-based political work to connect with others.
It should be possible to claim our history, community, and experience of oppression without having to degrade or ignore or trample other peoples realities. In the mid-1970s I was at a conference where an African American organizer made a presentation about the need for reparations based on the work slaves did as they cultivated Southern crops. He talked about the ties of black people to the land, especially in the South. As he sat down a Native American took the microphone and reminded him that indeed that very land had once been the home of Native peoples and they too had a claim on it. The African American said yes, of course, and in this moment everyone in the room understood that we must find common solutions to the complex problems we all face and to build connections which respect our differences, allow us the space and support to be ourselves, and in the end make all of our experiences that much richer. It has to be possible.
Theoretical weaknesses. People trained in a particular theoretical model seem to have difficulty integrating insights and ideas which come from a range of social movements. So many traditional leftists still dont get it about feminism and the politics of sexuality. Many white activists dont yet see how fundamental the struggle against racism is in this country. Why is it so hard for progressive activists to comprehend class struggle? Whatever else is going on, part of it is a weakness in the theoretical framework that guides peoples work. Instead of tools to guide our work and help, our thinking, political theory becomes dogma. Instead of using theory as a way to help understand the dynamics of the world we live in, explanations of reality are squeezed to fit into one theory or another.
Separation between activism and intellectual work, between theory and practice. Certainly there are many activists who are intellectually engaged, and some intellectuals who take up organizing tasks. Im not sure if the instant-gratification and TV culture we live in plays some role here, but it seems that often the chasm between the "doers" and "thinkers" is so wide that people dont even know each other, let alone be able to find a way to connect in a regular fashion.
Communications. Is it any wonder that since we barely know how to talk to each other, that the left and progressive movements cant seem to find a way to talk to anyone else? Maybe my perspective on this is clouded by doing political work in New York City, or maybe what happens here goes on all over the country. Activists on one issue barely know what is happening on another issue. Part of this has to do with the sheer size of the city, but fundamentally this is a political problem. If organizers dont see how their struggle is in a core way connected to other issues, then why even bother learning who else is doing what?
Whatever local communications problems we face, this is nothing compared to the national problem. I like to think of myself as someone who keeps up with whats going on, but theres no way I could give you an overview of organizing in Atlanta, Minneapolis, or Tucson.
Confusion about organizing. In the last few years I have had several opportunities to teach basic organizing skills. I always begin by saying what organizing is not: it is not direct mail fundraising, it is not photo ops with famous people, and it is not back room wheeling and dealing with elected officials or others in positions of power. In the course of many organizing campaigns any or all of these tactics might be used. But at its core, organizing must be about the direct engagement of people. It is about knocking on doors, talking to people where they congregate, doing on-going educational work, and inventing and offering concrete, realistic ways for people to be involved.
If we believe, as I do, that change is possible and that both the process and the end results of our social change work will be that much stronger because large numbers of people are involved, then how is it that so little basic organizing actually goes on? If left and progressive movements do not tackle this head on we are bound to fail over and over again.
Movement building, or lack thereof. While I understand the importance of building strong organizations, it seems weve lost sight of the larger objective of building a mass movement, a force strong enough to impact on policy as well as change the direction of this country. Of course, building strong organizations and institutions of the left is a necessary part of any process which will make us a viable social change agent. But I fear that all too often the immediate demands of organization are given priority. For instance: so many national organizations insist on calling themselves "membership " groups, when what they really have are (sometimes) large lists of people who regularly send money. Its great that they have big donor basesalthough none of them are nearly as large as neededbut wouldnt our organizations be that much stronger if the members had input into and helped carry out the political and/or programmatic decisions of the organization?
Beyond this, our critique of the commonly found board-driven structure (which so many progressive groups now operate within) has not resulted in new structural models. The board-driven structure is based on an organizational model from the mainstream non-profit world, which in turn comes from the corporate world. Instead of always trying to make our politics and the work we want to do fit into this model, shouldnt we be trying to develop new structures?
And what about our resources? Perhaps the most valuable resource is our contact lists. If your primary goal is building your own organization, then you would guard your list cautiously. The only consistent exception to this seems to be when making lists available for sale or rental for direct mail fund solicitations. But if your decisions are based on a commitment to movement building, the question about how and when you share your lists is answered very differently. Of course, it is not only about lists. Our resources include much more, not the least of which is our people power. Decisions about how to use staff and volunteer time and energies are influenced by this most fundamental concern: are we building our organization or working toward the development of a broader movement?
Related to all these issues is money. I am continually amazed at how much we get done with the few dollars we have. Imagine what we might do with real money: pay organizers a living wage, produce and distribute educational materials that people could connect with, provide organizers with better working conditions (offices and organizing centers that are comfortable to be in), help people travel to conferences and other events to connect with one anotherthe list goes on. The point is that unless and until we get a handle on how to raise serious money it will be virtually impossible to take major steps forward.
So now what? As Ive tried to say, there are scores of questions we need to address. I am not suggesting that we stop the work we are doing in order to address these issues. Rather, I am encouraging us to find a way to deal with these issues in the context of our work, to integrate a commitment to focusing on todays realities with preparing for tomorrows challenges.
As the next century approaches it is time to project our vision(s) and plan our strategies. We need a strategy that encompasses, among other things:
- A balance of organizing approaches and tactics. People come to political consciousness, and stay involved in political work, in many different ways and so our strategy must include a full range of tools for reaching and engaging people.
- An analysis that includes our understanding of the centrality of race. This means both a commitment to anti-racist work as well as a commitment to building multi-racial organizations and institutions. At the same time, the analysis which helps shape our organizing must include a much more fully integrated understanding of sexual politics and feminism, as well as a class analysis which is based in the economic realities of this moment, not merely on the important contributions of the classic left texts.
- International solidarity grounded in understanding globalization as well as the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Our job, as residents of the United States, is not to help those poor suffering people all over the world but to articulate the ways all of our daily struggles are tied to one another.
- A new willingness to be as bold as possible. Instead of trying so hard to be legitimate and respectable, we need to be more outrageous and challenging in our ideas and in our actions. Lets not forget the power or righteousness of our anger. There is, after all, a tremendous amount to be angry about. And let us never lose the strength that comes with solidarity, with commitment to a better future, with a belief that we are right.
- A commitment to young people as essential to any meaningful social change project. We must combine the passing along of our histories and the skills we have learned with a sincere openness to the fresh ideas and approaches of each wave of young people. Without this we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and never move forward.
This past year, our government threatened another war with Iraq; another bombing of the people of Iraq by the U.S. Even with the problems we face, progressives were ready to mount serious, militant opposition to this madness. We may not be strong enough to stop wars when the powers that be want them, but at least we are wise and humane enough to take political and moral stands as publicly as possible. This is, after all, the foundation we must build from.