Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

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What It Means To Be Active

Justin Ruben

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 large.

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 responsibility.

- 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 … As 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 in Seattle.

- 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 here … 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 to collapse … 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 level…

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 … I 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 of production … 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 … that's going 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 once-every-four-years vote.

- 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 media.

-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 conversations:

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 relevant.

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 continue.

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 it.

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