What It Means To Be Active
In the wake of last September's horrific attacks, both the World
Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, DC, and
the massive protests planned around them were cancelled. To the best
of my knowledge, no one suggested that this marked the demise of
the two international financial institutions, but pundits were quick
to declare the global justice movement yet another casualty of terror.
As Naomi Klein has pointed out, this movement (perhaps better described
as a confluence of movements) has been declared dead with some regularity
since it was first "spotted" in Seattle, and it is not
clear that the diagnosis is any more fitting this time than it has
been in the past.
At the time of this writing, however, it does seem clear that we
in this movement face a new set of challenges after September 11.
When almost anyone who suggests that U.S. government policies are
unjust is open to charges of "being unpatriotic" or even "condoning
terrorism," some of us wonder whether we should reframe our
critique of corporate-driven economic and foreign policy. Congress
has already passed "anti-terrorism" legislation that gives
government new powers to crack down on dissent. It appears that the
risks associated with direct action may have increased dramatically,
and those risks could preclude an even greater number of people from
taking part (at least one Arab-American immigrant with whom I have
worked closely is now afraid that any association with our relatively
tame group may result in deportation). And the U.S. military response
has provoked wildly different reactions within different sectors
of our movement, exacerbating pre-existing tensions. In the face
of these challenges, the question of strategy-how to move forward-looms
In fact, this strategic soul-searching, like the global economy's
most recent downward spiral, actually began long before the attacks.
Since Genoa, and even since the "a16" IMF/World Bank protests
in April of 2000, it has been clear to many of us that if we really
hope to transform the global economic and political order, this movement
needs to grow and evolve. But how?
Around the middle of last year, I decided that one important set
of answers would come from people who have been building this movement
from the ground up. So I interviewed 20 people from a variety of
backgrounds and viewpoints, all organizers of the recent North American
mass actions. I spoke with paid organizers and volunteers, anarchists
and leaders of organizations that pursue legislative reform, white
people and people of color, people who work on women's issues, workers'
rights, the environment, the prison-industrial complex, youth of
color empowerment, and a host of other concerns (an extensive set
of selections from these interviews can be found here).
Although these conversations happened before September 11, 2001,
if anything, they seem more relevant in the post-World Trade Center
world. These organizers warn that without strong links to liberals
and grassroots groups outside our movement, we will remain vulnerable
to the government attacks that now seem even more threatening than
before. Their call for aggressively internationalizing our movement
resonates in the face of mounting xenophobia. As our anger over recent
events - and our divergent responses - make it difficult to communicate
with each other and with the public, these organizers demand that
we do the hard work of connecting with the local struggles and lived
experience of "everyday Americans," especially working
class communities and communities of color.
Responding to last fall's horrific events will require new approaches,
but it will also mean redoubling our efforts to address challenges
that have dogged this movement from the beginning. In that spirit,
I offer you some savvy organizers' best thoughts on the questions
that face all of us engaged in this struggle for global liberation,
sustainability, and justice.
Capture Peoples' Imagination
I think the basic weakness today of leftists, progressives, revolutionaries
- whatever we want to call ourselves - is that we lack a mass social
base. By that I mean a grassroots, working class, poor folks, people
of color, base. The strategic question then is, how to build that
base. To do this in the United States, a worldview and a program
of action that move people at the base are crucial. This means putting
forth projects that encourage a sense of potential victory and a
sense of community.
For example, an organization I worked with in the late '70s launched
a campaign to tax the big corporations when it became clear that
California's Proposition 13 was going to pass. That radical new law
cut the tax base of all kinds of services like health care, public
schools, and libraries. Our group came up with a proposition to save
those services by taxing the big corporations, which we put on the
San Francisco city ballot. It almost passed, thanks to an amazing
response from ordinary, working-class people ranging from Latino
community college students to elderly African-American pensioners
to white city employees. Our proposition was overtly anti-capitalist,
even pro-socialist-Tax the Rich! But that didn't scare away anybody.
The campaign sparked a sense of grassroots collective strength.
- Elizabeth Martinez, Institute for Multiracial Justice
Target the Intersection of Corporate Power and Governmental Decision-making
If you go after corporations, you're going after one corporation
at a time. So what good does that do? You can go after governments
and push governments to reassert control over corporations, but the
corporations are the real source of the power. My formula for this,
although it's very abstract, is that campaigns and direct actions
should target the intersection of corporate power and governmental
decision-making. I think the WTO was a good example of that, because
it was where corporations were directly participating in this new
world economic government.
- Mike Prokosch, United for a Fair Economy
It's About More Than "Diversity"
I definitely think that a middle class white organization has a
lot to contribute, in terms of, maybe, say, an understanding of the
global economy or something. But it's definitely a misunderstanding
of what needs to happen to say
"We need to do outreach
and educate [poor people and communities of color] about the global
economy so they can understand that it's important to them."
The difference is for us to be able to support the work that needs
to be done in those communities for real survival struggles, but
in a way that is building those millions or thousands of survival
struggles into a movement. We need to figure out how those different
things that they're struggling against are structurally part of the
problem, and to be able to promote their analysis and their leadership.
- Jia Ching Chen, JustAct: Youth Acting for Global Justice
White Folks: Organize White Folks
I find it real problematic when white middle class people are trying
to organize poor people of color. Real problematic. Where they place
their time and energy on organizing poor people of color, because
they say that, " Well, this group is being screwed the worst,
so why even bother with our own group." It's really important
for white people, particularly white middle class people, to organize
white middle class people. So go back to your community. So don't
stand in Harlem handing out newspapers about the problems of society.
Go home. Talk to your mother. Talk to your neighbors. Do that work.
And that's harder work, because they do have a lot invested in the
society, and it is going to be a lot harder to get them won over,
for lack of a better word, to liberation. But that's part of your
- Kai Lumumba Barrow, Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM!)
Choosing Your Issue is a Privilege
You have to be pretty privileged to have the ability to choose your
issue. Most people that are involved in resistance are involved in
resistance due to survival. Their community is under attack
opposed to a lot of white activists who come from a more privileged
background, who are choosing their issues.
Rather, what we can do is to be more aware. People are always trying
to create a diverse movement, but they're putting the cart before
the horse. They way you get to a diverse movement is not simply to
have lots of meetings and go and meet with people and do different
things - that's a piece of it - but you have to begin with the intellectual
diversity, the understanding to see how different communities experience
the world in different ways, and particularly experience coercive
power in different ways.
- Patrick Reinsborough, Rainforest Action Network
Go Beyond the Sexy Stuff
I think the movement right now is too flashy. It creates this opportunity
in which young, white, middle class [people] and middle class young
people in general can pretend that they're actually doing something
to change the world by just locking arms and holding off streets.
And it allows them the opportunity to ameliorate their class guilt.
I really think that the movement needs to do the hard-core organizing.
That means canvassing, talking to people, holding smaller events
like teach-ins and workshops and town meetings, and listening projects,
and do the analysis, and the relationship building.
- Thoai Nguyen, The Brown Collective
Ask Yourself: What Are You Doing in This Community?
The large protest without consistent grassroots organizing work
does not work. The two have to go hand in hand. Their success depends
on each other. You definitely need the bigger actions and all that
to support the grassroots, more community-based organizing. But you
also need the more community-based organizing to make the larger
mobilizations and actions effective. And the only way they're going
to be effective is if people can relate to them and understand them,
and that can't happen without the community organizing.
- Howl, New York youth of color organizer
Structure is Not a Four-Letter Word
I think that one problem in the movement was on the question of
leadership. Because although I have a lot of respect for the desire
not to have any hierarchy, I also think a lot of crap happened because
there was nobody that was taking responsibility. There was no method
of accountability. You know, you have a meeting, and whoever was
there made the decisions, and so nothing was ever decided or continued
or kept going, and that's also why I think that some of the networks
that were built up haven't met again.
- Phoebe Schellenberg, Wages for Housework Campaign
It Didn't Start in Seattle
The movement has to become more humble in terms of how we think
of ourselves, how we see ourselves
We didn't start this movement.
We're just sort of cresting. This movement has been going on for
at least 40 years because of the policies of the IMF and the World
Bank. Indigenous people and third world people have been fighting
these policies since day one
So the struggle just didn't begin
- Thoai Nguyen, The Brown Collective
Tactics Don't Alienate People
It's not a tactic that alienates the public. It's that if we don't
do the work ahead of time to get support for an issue, we alienate
the public. A good example is Northwest tree sits. Generally the "general
public" in the logging towns out here hate them. They try to
shoot at them. There is an example of a tree sit that happened out
They actually went and did community organizing before
they put up the tree sit. And so once the tree sit went up, the community
of Randolph was saying things like, "I would never climb a tree,
but I think it's great that they're up there." I think that
the public understands the expression of complete and utter discontent
if it supports us on why we're doing what we're doing.
-Liz Butler, ForestEthics
Internationalism vs. Buchanan
In the short term, there are always contradictions within the movement.
Like white workers who profit from racism, in the sense that they
get a job and a black worker doesn't. In the short term, yes, they're
benefiting, but ultimately that's going to come back to haunt them
and be used to crush both of them.
And the same is true on a world scale
Corporations are creating
a global labor market. That's causing the labor market in this country
Ultimately it's going to mean unions are going
to be forced to build alliances across borders
I don't think we're against globalization. We're against corporate
globalization. Globalization is good, because, if it does exist on
a real level, it's going to lessen the chance of war and things that
divide workers too
[So] it's a constant struggle to make sure
the rhetoric isn't racist, or chauvinist, or xenophobic. And that's
where Buchanan will come in. But fundamentally [workers in the global
North and South] have the same interests.
-Russ Davis, Massachusetts Jobs With Justice
Get Beyond Casey Neil and Propagandhi
I think artists and writers play an immensely important role. And
one of the weaknesses I think of our movement right now is the real
lack of art and culture that resonates with mass society. You have
a lot of art and culture that resonates with a real marginal white
hippie left, but I listen to hip hop and electronica, and I wonder
why we don't have more of a political left on an artistic and cultural
Because there's going to always be in society, especially in the
United States, where there's a large number of folks who aren't too
badly off, a large number of folks who think things suck but would
rather hang out with their friends than organize. But the awareness
of those people
is really best supported and sustained through
art, and things that give people a way to share in common, and not
through a constant anger. Because people don't want to be angry all
the time. They want to hang out and enjoy life.
- Terra Lawson-Remer, Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC)
Get Into the Box, Dammit!
[In terms of tactics] we have to recognize that even though we may
not agree, there has to be some way to be accountable to each other
don't think that the goal
should be to force everybody into
the same [tactical] box
[but to get] people into a particular
box at a particular time, for the purpose of having a strategic alliance
or tactical alliance, because that is where we're more powerful and
we're not undermining each other.
In Prague, you had people who wanted to throw rocks. Unfortunately,
they wanted to throw them from the back of the march, so you had
demonstrators who were getting hit in the front of the march.
- Lisa Fithian, LA Direct Action Network
Our Economic Institutions Become Our Political Base
The interesting thing about one of the main strains of opposition,
Marxism, is: central to Marxism is a focus on control over the means
But Marxists pretty much have talked about that
and not done it
They don't even control the print shop that
prints their books. Let alone setting up stores to provide services
and goods to people.
So then what you're left with is this Leninist
model that the Left creates a political vanguard
to lead the working class to seizing the State. And then the State
will force the capitalists to be nice. The only problem is, it doesn't
work. We have enough proof to show that it doesn't work, and, in
fact, in still-existing communist states like China, we see that
they're perfectly happy to combine the worst aspects of Stalinism
with markets, so you get market Stalinism. Great. A corporate takeover
of the economy and no political freedoms to fight against the worst
aspects of that market economy
So that's one of the key things. We have to develop green enterprise.
To actually build an alternative economic structure. Then, if you
run a green party, and that green party is founded on an economic
base where there's organic farmers, and solar power companies, and
socially responsible investors, a whole sector that is predicated
on a different ideology about the economy, I think then you have
the chance of getting state power where it's not just based on a
- Kevin Danaher, Global Exchange
It's A Battle of Ideas and Power, Not a Military Battle
I think there's space for lots of different [tactics]. Each community
and each sector needs to be incredibly smart and strategic, because
what we're up against is so sophisticated. You can't just get all
your friends and duke it out in the street like you could 500 years
ago. A lot of the battle is about the hearts and minds of the folks
looking on. What we're doing is trying to intervene in the hype,
using images and associations. Direct action and disruptive tactics
are one way to do that, but if they're not well thought out, instead
of empowering people, framing things, communicating, they become
weak openings that allow the state to attack us.
It's about realizing that it's a battle of ideas and power and not
a military battle between protesters and police. When we get into
those situations we need to be clear about why people should back
us up and support us, so that we don't let the system marginalize
us. We want to make it so politically expensive for them to attack
us it that if they do, it backfires and catalyzes more people to
join the movement, and if they don't, we get to do what we want.
- David Solnit, Freedom Rising Affinity Group
Fuse Social Service and Politics
I really like what the [Black] Panthers did in the '60s as a party.
They had a radical analysis but they fused social service with their
politics. We really need to take this to communities that are affected
in the trenches and the front lines of globalization and activate
more people, and that's one way to do it. For people who don't have
health care, we should have free clinics.
- Beka Economopoulos, co-editor of Another World Is Possible:
Conversations In A Time of Terror
Hey You! Support Indy Media!
I think that this movement will never ever succeed, no matter what,
until we have our own media that is truly democratic. I think that
non-corporate controlled ways to speak to masses of people at once
is really, really important. And the internet is not going to be
it for an awful long time at least
I think that everyone needs
to be working on whatever they're working on and cultivating indy
-Han Shan, the Ruckus Society
This movement is best represented by a multiplicity of voices. But
I can't resist offering some of the lessons I took away from these
1. We have to hit the streets with our clipboards instead of our
gasmasks, and carry on an extended conversation with all kinds of
people outside of the movement. We need to speak honestly, in language
that people can understand, but even more importantly, we need to
listen. Among other things, listening can help us understand the
forms of privilege that many of us have because of our skin color,
class, gender, etc., and the blinders that come with that privilege.
2. We need to move beyond mass actions to promote a wild range of
creative local actions and local campaigns (not just protests!) that
have more relevance to peoples' daily lives and allow all kinds of
people to participate.
3. Our media need to extend beyond the internet, and to be aimed
at people outside the movement. And we need better strategies for
using the corporate media to communicate with the public.
4. We need to recover the kind of disciplined, militant, non-violent
direct action used during the Civil Rights movement; tactics designed
as much to communicate as to disrupt.
5. We need to learn that democracy and accountability are not tradeoffs,
they are complements.
6. We will not succeed without stronger ties with our brothers and
sisters around the world, particularly in the global South.
7. We DO need to build alternative institutions, but we should learn
from their spotty record. The history of the left is littered with
countless examples of infoshops, coops, and other institutions that
have sucked massive quantities of peoples' time, only to doom their
efforts to failure or irrelevancy.
I believe time will prove predictions of this movement's demise
to be premature. On the contrary, our movement has never been more
For many marginalized and impoverished people around the globe,
ideologies of hatred and xenophobia - from Buchanan-style populism
to Bin Laden-style Fundamentalism - offer the most compelling alternative
to a morally bankrupt Washington "consensus" that promises
salvation through ever-widening corporate control and consumer "choice" (backed
up of course by the threat of U.S. bombs). But we have our own alternative
- a vision of a world where people cooperate across borders to build
an international system designed to promote justice and increase
peoples' control over their lives and their communities. Never before
has this vision been so sorely needed.
The definition of "unsustainable" is something that cannot
The system will change. Our job is to push for a world centered
not on profit nor on hatred, but on justice, cooperation, sustainability,
and true democracy. And to be as smart as we can about how we do