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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.

Despite 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.

Alinsky found 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."

Alinsky's 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 want.

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 the 1960s.

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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