Legacies of Resistance
By Jim Straub
It happens somewhere in America almost every day. On Chicago's
South Side, dozens of elderly folks gather outside the power company's
gates before dawn to block utility trucks from going to shut
off poor people's electricity and are arrested. In Los Angeles,
African-American, Latino, and Korean bus riders, all wearing
yellow t-shirts and chanting, march one week against poor public
transportation, and the next against the war in Iraq.
the supposed lack of class conflict in the United States, hardly
a day passes without angry crowds of ordinary people confronting
the elites whose decisions affect their lives. In organizing
terminology, these groups are frequently called community-based
organizations, or CBO's. From national networks like ACORN and
the Industrial Areas Foundation to locally based groups like Direct
Action for Rights and Equality in Providence or the Bus Riders'
Union in Los Angeles, these groups share a particular set of organizing
methods first developed in the 1930s.
Although community organizing in the United States has many roots,
historians frequently trace its modern genesis to a disgruntled
social worker named Saul Alinsky. Born and raised in the slums
of Chicago's south side, Alinsky led a colorful life during the
early part of the century - brawling in Jewish-Polish gang fights,
infiltrating Al Capone's crime family to write a sociology paper
on it, and working as a state criminologist - before finding his
true calling as a radical organizer in the 1930s.
himself drawn to "the causes that meant something in those
days - fighting fascism at home and abroad and doing something to improve the
life of the masses of people who were without jobs, food, or hope," he
reflected in an interview in the 1960s. The experience of revolutionary upheaval
during the Great Depression inspired Alinsky to take things a step further.
He moved back to his old south side neighborhood, the Packinghouse District
immortalized by Upton Sinclair in his novel The Jungle, and started what he
called "an organization of organizations." Conceived as a community-wide
coalition to fight for the needs of an impoverished, working-class neighborhood,
the Back of the Yards Council managed to unite a poor, ethnically divided slum
and score a number of surprising victories against meatpacking companies and
the local government.
The larger significance of the Back of the Yards Council
was that it was replicable; its strategy of uniting constituencies in a neighborhood
around indigenous leadership and goals could be picked up and taken to almost
any community in the country. Alinsky found himself being called around the
United States to help start other community-based organizations. His brash
style and the militant tactics of the groups he helped form won him suspicion
and anger from local elites. The Kansas City police jailed him, while the
Oakland City Council voted to ban him from the city altogether.
Malcolm X, meanwhile, said, "that
man knows more about organizing than any other person in the country."
model called for a professional organizer to act as an outside agitator
to unite existing local groups and build a membership base around
issues the community felt were important. He emphasized militant
confrontation against the power structure, but advocated flexibility
in tactics and ideological relativism. "The
question is not, 'Does the end justify the means?' The question is, 'Does
this particular end justify this particular means?'" he wrote in his
organizing textbook Reveille for Radicals.
With such a flexible, pragmatic
outlook, Alinsky-style groups found themselves free to use tactics ranging
from protest mobs to company boycotts to one memorable "fart-in" at
an opera in Rochester, New York. Alinsky extended this flexibility to
politics, saying the organizer should not have an outside agenda, but
should simply seek to facilitate what the people of a community already
This emphasis on developing the capacity and voice of local leaders
and communities, however, took some strange turns. By supposedly not
bringing outside values or politics to the organizations, some groups
founded on the Alinsky method, such as his initial Back of the Yards
Council, began using their organizations for unforeseen ends, such
as keeping African Americans from moving into their neighborhood.
And by downplaying issues of oppression and privilege likely to
exist within organizations, many of these groups developed internal
racial and gender hierarchies. Alinsky's own politics slid towards
conservatism, going from fighting capitalism in Chicago in the
1930s to calling the Black Panthers "thugs" in
After Alinsky died in 1972, the groups that carried on with
ideas he pioneered inhabited a complex and mixed legacy. On one
hand, activists from the black, student, and women's movements
used the Alinsky framework to craft organizations of people fighting
in their collective self-interest. On the other, some liberal
elites like Charles Silberman of Fortune magazine promoted Alinskian
community organizing as a possible reformist alternative to the
tide of insurrection in America's ghettos and campuses. In the
1970s, the federal government actually began paying the salaries
of some community organizers through the VISTA (Volunteers in Service
to America) program. This tension, between effective mass organizing
and politically neutral clientelism, has existed in mainstream
community organizing ever since.
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