Tag Archives: community organising

Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

I read Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide years ago now, and after all I’ve read in the meantime appreciated it more and more this time around. I love the long view of historical struggle, the historical framework it is set into. The importance of contextualising the massive influence of Alinsky — taking him in the round and not as a kind of straw man — while developing our understanding of how things need to grow and change, and where they have done so. It’s an interesting timeline, there is so so much in here I didn’t know, had not even heard of. I suppose my own research has thrown up other vibrant traditions of grassroots community-based organizing through the 1930s and the war years, primarily in the African American Community that I missed a bit, but this begins to open up the deep histories of struggle we can look to in the US. I particularly love the drawing out of lessons for contemporary struggle…

I’ve based my posts around his periodisations, so we start in the 1880s up through the Great Depression

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

This connects to the Social Settlement movement in the UK — 1884 saw the founding of Toynbee House in East London by two students at Oxford (and still standing as a community space and centre today, though it has changed with the times). It promoted the need for those who wished to work with a community to actually live — usually embracing some level of poverty — within it. Still a problematic and often patronising idea, but a step up from mandating improvements from comfort in stately surroundings miles away. It  inspiring similar settlements across the UK and in the US. Most famous is probably Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. I’ve been meaning to read more about Hull House but not worked myself up to it, precisely because this is my general view of those participating in this movement:

Settlement workers got involved in neighborhood organizations out of a mixed bag of sympathy, fear, guilt, social concern, and a desire to give purpose to their own lives. (8)

And also for this reason:

They sought harmony within an unjust economic framework — liberal reformers not ready to challenge the economic roots of poverty (10)

They still, for the most part, blamed the poor for their own poverty and worked around programmes of skills trainings, moral uplift, birth control in the way that leaves you feeling disgusted because it’s more about preventing mucky poor people from reproducing, rather than supporting capable women to take control of their lives and choices.

Seeing only deficits, such models were often insensitive to existing networks — yet Fisher notes how poor communities continued to be organized outside of these top-down elitist structures.  Churches, synagogues, mutual benefit associations, and ethnic, labor and political organizations continued to thrive alongside informal networks of support. (13)

Out of and in response to the Settlement Movement, which I knew of, came the Community Center Movement, which I did not.  It was driven by people who wanted something more effective and widespread and with more bottom-up from local communities. It reached its peak between 1907-1915, yet still struggled with top-down programming, and it remained primarily managed by the elite. As WWI started, many such community centre’s actually began to drive patriotism and work with the government to track ‘subversives’ among ethnic and radical populations, effectively bringing the whole thing to a halt. (21)

I very much loved the deep look at the Cincinnati Social Unit Plan — a unique community-based child welfare program created by Wilbur and Elsie Phillips under a Socialist mayor (!). It attempted to put real power in the hands of mothers for deciding priorities and support needs, and showed real success in improving health and making concrete changes in people’s lives. However, the fall of the mayor meant the programme was defunded and fell apart.

This happened despite the Phillips’ ongoing attempt to distance themselves from the mayor’s socialism in claiming that that their work was not political. Fisher also notes despite the successes of the programme, they still failed to fully escape elitism, which ensured they were not able to sink deep enough roots in the community they were working in, preventing the community from feeling a full sense of ownership of the programme that could have led to a fight to preserve it under a new mayor.

Lesson, this shit is political and you will need people’s support to keep it going through hard times.

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

Starts with Langston Hughes’ poem to a landlord — few better places to start:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:

Some things never change. But the 1930s were some time to be alive. Fisher writes:

Neighborhood organizing in the 1930s was characterized not only by its radicalism but by this dual concern of building an insurgent movement at both the national and local levels. (38)

I think perhaps we’re approaching this level again. There is a long, very interesting discussion of the radical work of the Communist Party at this time — a small proportion of community organizing but a very visible one, and quite influential in tactics and strategy. But this difference is key between the Party’s organizing of the period and what would come to be known as community organizing:

Most activists now see the primary goal of neighborhood organizing as awakening people to a sense of their own power. the Communists saw neighborhood work as a means of recruiting people into a national organization. (39)

But still, the Unemployed Councils? They would divide up a city or rural area into sections and then send organizers there to get to it, build a council that began to organize and implement direct actions, stop evictions, face down bailiffs, force up relief centres. They did some amazing things. But always controlled by the Comintern. Underground for a long time, the party came out in the open in late 1920s to organize the unemployed and racial minorities until the 1935 switch to popular front. But until then they did some brilliant things. In 1930, they decided on a:

four-pronged “bread and  butter” strategy focused on relief, housing, race, and “translocal” issues…issues outside the community which would concern neighborhood residents. (43)

Key issues basic to life itself, but tied into wider struggle through the ‘translocal’ aspect — in Harlem, for example, support for the Scottsboro boys was just one of these, along with anti-lynching legislation, and opposition to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They had tremendous successes in the early days across the country. Fisher notes that in Detroit, the unemployed councils succeeded in stopping practically all evictions through direct action.

I also love the party’s insistence on complete equality between whites and people of colour in these years, with the party line being:

…the struggle of white workers would never succeed unless workers of all races were included as equal participants (45)

In some ways the shift to the Popular Front strategy and new focus on anti-fascist struggle and union organising was important, but it left hanging all of the work already started. Above all, eradicating racism was left to the side, and members were ordered to abandon work on the councils by 1939. But while it lasted, Fisher argues the CPUSA was successful because it:

emphasized organizational discipline, defined local issues in a national and international context, linked community struggles with those in the workplace, developed alliances between black and white workers, and offered a thorough political analysis of the problems community people faced. Such accomplishments by radicals had rarely been seen before in this country. (49)

Errors? Lots:

political opportunism, its interest in the needs of the Soviet Union over those of American workers, and its autocratic organizational structure, which quashed the type of criticism necessary to prevent ideological and tactical errors… abandonment of African Americans… (49)

There was, however, a developing understanding of organizing and movement. Fisher writes:

There is a complementary relationship between social movement and community organizing. Local organizing oriented to social change can exist without a movement, but it will not thrive for very long. When a movement develops, however, community organizations often ride the wave of mass support. (52)

Out of this ferment Saul Alinsky would emerge, already organising with the CIO through these radical 1930s, already grappling with these connections (more in Alinsky’s own words can be found here). Fisher emphasises the continuities in struggle — Alinsky would apply his work with the CIO to the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a way that Fisher describes as ‘a kind of “trade union in the social factory”‘. While he would later describe himself as an “urban populist”, Alinsky started out in his student days involved in the CP ‘in typical Popular Front terms, as a “professional antifascist.”‘ (56)

As I say, I really like how this contextualises Alinsky’s insights into, and codification of, community organizing. This particularly draws out how the weaknesses of the communist party’s work in its accountability to Moscow rather than to local people almost certainly influenced Alinsky’s move towards a ‘non-ideological’ standpoint which is now where much critique of his methodologies is pointed.

Fisher describes what he believes to be the five essential elements to ‘Alinskyism’, recognizing of course that this simplifies it all a bit, always dangerous:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change. They need to be well-trained, creative, help to make democracy happen.
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization. Democracy as self-determination, people make the decisions about the things that effect them. The organizer is catalyst for this, not the leader.
  3. The goal is to win power. ‘Power is the sine qua non of Alinsky organizing. … Neighborhood organizations are seen as the interest groups of the powerless and unorganized.’ (53) This is ultimately based on self-interest.
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used. I like Fisher’s list: ‘Negotiation, arbitration, protests and demonstrations; boycotts, strikes, and mass meetings; picketing, raising hell, being diplomatic, and being willing to use anything that might work… (54)
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological. Alinsky believed ideological organizations were undermined because ‘their organizers came with preconceived ideals, goals and strategies; they did not let neighborhood people make decisions… Only the progressive ideology that people developed themselves would last.’ (55)

Fisher continues:

Alinsky grounded his pragmatism in the promise of pluralism. He believed that the economic and political system could work for working-class people if they could reach the bargaining-tables of power. (55)

You know that idea’s come in for a lot of critique.

His Back of the Yards campaigning was pretty impressive, and out of it developed some lessons I recognize well: do your homework before the community meeting (you’ll have already talked to everyone to know where they stand, you don’t want no surprises), build the organization by winning victories, use service delivery if you need it but the primary goal is social change.

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

which raised strategy and tactics to paramount importance in community organizing, above and beyond questions of ideology, goals, and even democratic structure. (61)

And beautiful as the Back of the Yards struggle was, it became racist and reactionary, and Alinsky himself came to call this community a hell hole of hate as they fought to keep African Americans out. This perhaps highlights the weaknesses of an organization that puts process over goals, and only discusses tactical questions. Such a strategy only makes sense if the only problem is a lack of power, rather than deeper issues around capitalism itself and how that articulates with race, class, gender and etc. Fisher describes the older Alinsky as essentially cool with liberal capitalism, someone who loved FDR, believed in this ‘interest-group model of democracy’ and did not question capitalism itself. (64) Arguably the lesson here, is that we do need to grapple with ideological understandings, while also some practical focus on building movement and winning things. We can’t forget how important — and how possible — winning things actually is. The struggle is how to tie that into a programme for truly radical transformative social change that can only take place over the long-term.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]









Organizing Manual from Daniel Hunter: A Movement to End the New Jim Crow

The organizing guide to Daniel Hunter’s Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow contains a note on the copyright page that this emerged from conversations with Daryl Atkinson, Chris Moore-Backman, Michelle Alexander and Dr Vincent Harding, makes me so wish I had been a fly on that wall. Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, and James Lawson gives it a brief preface. It is short and sweet and tries to answer the question of what to do with the realities described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, how do we build a movement to end it?

Hunter starts each chapter with a story that holds a lesson. Nice. Every chapter is filled with clear headings and clear points. Every chapter ends with next steps that summarise the main points and gives you the questions you need to be asking yourself. This makes it easy.

I. Roles in Movement Building

It starts out debunking some myths about movement, which I really like.

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

The myth that movements “Suddenly appear” misses the critical process of building up networks ready to act and ways to communicate broadly. The myth ignores the necessary tasks of leadership building and visioning. While sparks are important, without those critical pieces, movements will not tun into a fire. (6)

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders (6)

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

…movements don’t win because of singular actions. Movements need ongoing resistance…require sustained pressure. (7)

I like too the understanding that there are different roles in this great struggle to change the world. It’s good to understand where you fit, to know that might change (I might have added that in there, most of us aren’t organisers for all that long), and to respect the others. He gives this minimum of four: helpers, advocates, organizers and rebels, just as a starting point. I also like that he connects each to structural change — that’s really key, and hard to do for a lot of folks. I don’t know why I liked the warning labels best but I did, there’s lots more description.

Helpers — great, but need to understand structural issues, not just personal ones

Advocates important, sometimes take over and take away ‘clients’ power and agency.

Organizers — awesome, might get stuck in a stuffling organization, only try to get what they think is ‘winnable’ even if people want to try for more. That goes for the others too. I really like this line:

‘Organizers understand that shame festers and breeds when people experience something as a personal failing they cannot overcome. (12)

rebels — can become too attached to marginal identity, reduced to simply tactics without an end game, can become self-righteous.

Just to reemphasise that a Key part of movement building is the moment when pople understand not just through eyes of individual responsibility, but larger structural issues.

2: Building Strong Groups

I like how this chapter unpicks the reality behind Rosa Parks, what really happened the day she refused to change her seat, the role of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the various people involved not all talking to each other, Robinson’s frustrations and her immediate jump to action regardless of what Dixon or others said. I never knew a lot of this until I read Danielle McGuire. The lessons learned:

Prioritize relationship-building in every way you can , organize one-on-one meetings, recruit people outside your circle. Develop a shared power analysis — I really like his triangle model — there’s a very cool worksheet here to help structure a workshop.

Knock out those damn pillars! Analysing them, thinking this way helps us understand what we can do, gives us back our own power. I often don’t like analogies and metaphors, I’m not sure I like this one but appreciate the point:

Elimate the smog inside of us: Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity fo oppression is in each and every one of us. It makes us callous to the oppression of others — and even of our own selves. We must detoxify ourselves…create a culture that stands on higher prinicples. (36)

And finally, empower leadership from the oppressed — I write about that all the time. This decentralised method also allows innovation and experimentation, national groups in the spotlight don’t usually have this ability.

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

I have to say, I have never met anyone in the UK who would consider anything but the first damn drawing. Until recently hopefully.

You pick a goal — Hunter gives a range of campaign goals that could be considered to chip away at the system explored in The New Jim Crow, like stopping prison construction and reducing incarceration rates, improving prison conditions, ending re-entry barriers and increasing direct services, tackling the contributing structural issues, and fighting for alternatives to incarceration. The structural issues are important, especially as they intersect with deportations, or with issues of race, class and gender. This needs ongoing discussion and education — he suggests a ‘newspaper game’ to collectively build knowledge by pooling articles.

He describes the process for collectively choosing the campaign, the importance of having a target:

The people who can make the changes are usually quite happy to avoid doing so….. Change will not happen… unless the target is faced with direct, persistent pressure. It;s therefore crucial to identify the appropriate target … the person or people who could implement a new policy. (51)

You can see the old Alinsky influence in a lot of this despite the total difference in style, God I miss people who understand picking targets.

I like the continued emphasis on the tensions between picking campaigns that are winnable without losing sight of the revolutionary goal of what he calls ‘storming the castle’, achieving the broader structural change we need. There’s also some good stuff in here about thinking about allies, recognizing where they are in relation to your politics. moving people from opposition to at least neutral positions.

I also like the emphasis on thinking about how to create alternative institutions, what do we actually want, rather than just what we are against. We need to do this way more, as well as continuously build towards deeper change. Hunter writes

effective campaigns are ones that promote and instill new values. To do that, we should look for all available opportunities to represent the highest moral values of humanity in our words and actions, and encourage others to do the same. (60)

Some of us might need a little more humour here, perhaps, but it’s a serious thing.

He also describes the need to make sure you are growing as a campaign, moving and recruiting outside your easy, comfortable circles, that you are self-reflective on your own role, where you fit within oppressive systems and contribute to them. It all seems simple, it is still very far from most people’s practice. And finally — another key point, particularly in differentiating this book from much traditional civil rights organizing as Alexander notes, as well as many organizing in the Alinsky tradition:

It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity–especailly poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.” (63)

This is not an easy battle, but it is one we must win.

[Hunter, Daniel (2015) Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. Denver: Veterans of Hope.]





Mike Miller: community organizing

Mike Miller’s Community Organizing is exactly what it says — a (very) short book, and a good very practical introduction to the updated basic style of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Area Foundation (IAF)’s kind of community organizing that has its roots back in the 1930s. There is, as always, and emphasis on democracy in the preface:

‘Community organizing’ applied democratic ideals and practices to specific contexts… (1)

First line of the book proper though?

‘Power’: the ability to act effectively in the world. (3)

The focus is on the organizer:

The first organizer in one of these organizations is typically an outsider. Because the people inside the community have histories of rivalry, any initiative taken by a local person or group is likely to leave out some people and groups, heightening conflict. (3)

Miller writes the book developing a kind of real-life example of an organizer coming into a community, which gives a good concrete view of the process as it is supposed to work, and also means it is full of practical advice if you are going to do things this way. While Alinsky himself was quite flexible for much of his career (see his own book, and Myles Horton’s description of his strengths) the IAF model has moved to work only through faith organizations (see more below). After being invited (and paid) they start with an initial set of workshops:

participants learned about community organizing and its relationships to the American democratic tradition, to the teachings of their own religious faith, and to the specific problems facing them. their members, their neighbors and their congregations. More than anything else, they learned, at least in the abstract, that building an organization was more important than any particular issue. In fact, they came to realize that this organization-building was the key to an effective struggle for justice… (5)

What follows is key to the methodology: one-to-one meetings. Out of this, leaders are developed

organizers have a core meaning for “leader.” … someone with a following. (6)

That’s not entirely universal, but a good place to start. Miller talks about social capital and the mediating institutions of civil society, why the IAF focused on most deeply rooted institutions — ie churches and other faith based institutions. He quotes extensively from a document called Organizing for Family and Congregation, published by the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1978, and written by then-director Ed Chambers. It gives  for the theoretical ideas and context underpinning the IAF’s approach with great clarity:

Our country is in…crisis…. The intermediate voluntary institutions including churches–are ineffectual in a power relationship with the powerful. As a result, the middle is collapsing, confused. The economic and political middle is being sucked dry by a vacuum — a vacuum of power and values. Into that vacuum have moved the huge corporations, mass media and “benevolent” government… (10)

This is so much about the middle, seems to stop its analysis of what is wrong with the world at a fairly shallow level. PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) is a spin-off on the Alinsky approach also founded in faith-based organizing. Their 2011 statement of vision and purpose goes rather more to the point:

We pledge to teach, preach and organize to unify people of faith around reducing poverty and increasing economic and racial justice. We will challenge our elected leaders from both parties to put the needs of working families, the poor and the common good of our nation ahead of short-term political calculus and special interests. Join us in making America a land of opportunity for all people. (15)

Miller describes why Alinsky-style organization moved towards this exclusive focus on faith-based organizing — he argues that the 1970s saw other voluntary and community organizations ‘atrophied’ or co-opted in search of funding, thus faith-based organizations became seen as the

only value-based, stable organizations in many low- to moderate-income communities.

And of course, in organizing through such stable institution with large membership bases,

The organizer formula, “Organized people plus organized power” was met. (16)

There is some discussion of ACORN here, Miller notes their work as a different model developing out of Alinsky’s associate Fred Ross’s work, a model which builds membership into the organization directly.

So back to IAF model in progress, the organizer has been doing lots and lots of one-ones, over a few months she ‘knows’ the city. She asks the leaders to come together. Together they pick their first issues, which are ‘Immediate, specific and winnable’ (23), Miller adds they are also believable and non-divisive (24). This is because he argues that skepticism is the biggest problem, the organizer needs a win to show people what they are capable of.

So what does it take to move decision makers? First a political understanding of their position and the political moment:

…they must be very secure and very powerful and thus not constrained by the threat of rivals and competitors. Or, they must see that the price paid to maintain the status quo is not worth paying. (29)

One or other of these will define the strategy. Miller’s organizer Jeanne must prepare for the conflict and confrontation (in traditional Alinsky style).

Almost everything Jeanne had to teach came together in the preparation for meetings with ‘decision-makers,’ the meetings themselves, and the post-meeting evaluation. The drama of a three-act play unfolds, with heroes and villains, the uncertainty of how the plot will unfold, the high point of tension, and the final resolution. (31)

This emphasis on narrative is interesting, the technique of role-playing is of course key in preparation for the meeting or action to pressure those in power. From my own experience, this is necessary (if not sufficient) for success. Miller emphasizes that the organizer must ensure that the leaders are not afraid to press the yes or no question, they must cut through the ‘fogging’. I love that word, it’s exactly what politicians and bureaucrats do. Miller writes

Most powerful people know how to deal with conflict. Most are used to dealing with conflict. It is the powerless who see conflict as somehow uncivilized. Decision-makers know this, and often seek to use this sense of misplaced politeness to control. (30)

So true.

He outlines some key tests for good tactics. They:

  • should contribute toward winning

  • …should contribute to building an organization — involve more people in active roles, deepen skills and self-confidence, recruit new allies and members, broaden appeal to wider public (34)

In a nutshell.

Miller briefly talks about role of education, that community organizing can’t simply be about getting more power and resources for one group or victory will simply maintain power relations intact by simply substituting one group for another. He does works through a sample workshop that helps educate more broadly around political issues.

These are the quick and dirty basics, which boiled down to bare essentials as they are, give quite a good idea of what Miller would consider those essentials to be…of course, his analysis goes much deeper elsewhere, given his decades of work in both SNCC and the IAF, and his current position as Executive Director of the ORGANIZE! Training Center, definitely check out their website:

The purpose of the ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC) is to strengthen democracy by supporting strong, participatory, democratic organizations whose principal constituency is people of low- and middle income. OTC is committed to social, environmental, and economic justice for all, to a democracy that is based on the active participation of all its citizens and residents, and to building strong communities based on the ideas of individual responsibility, solidarity, and our interdependence as human beings.

Since “community organizing” is widely used with many meanings, we place our work in what has come to be known as the “Alinsky tradition” and the work done in the Deep South by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”). More broadly, we place our work in the tradition of radical democracy as expressed in American history by the industrial labor movement of the 1930s, the early period of the Populists, the Knights of Labor, the Abolitionists and those American revolutionaries for whom independence from Britain and democracy were equally at the core of their philosophy. We root our work in the social and economic justice, and moral teachings of the world’s great religions, and the small “d” democratic tradition.

[Miller, Mike (2012) Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction. Milwaukee: Euclid Avenue Press.]


Alinsky on Existing Community Organization

I’ve been thinking so much lately about community and connection and reading so much about poverty and place and feeling so strongly about how wrong most of these authors get things looking into neighbourhoods from the outside and seeing only the absences of things, so I found this little snippet particularly interesting in Saul Alinsky. It’s a lot about seeing what is actually in front you, understanding that you are not operating in some kind of vacuum or emptiness, that organisation exists even if not in the form you expect or recognise.

The ghetto or slum in which he is organizing is not a disorganzied community. There is no such animal as a disorganized community. It is a contradiction in terms to use the two words “disorganization” and “community” together: the word community itself implies an organized, communal life; people living in an organized fashion. These people in the community which concern us may have experienced successive frustrations to the point that their will to participate has seemingly atrophied. They may be living in anonymity and starved for personal recognition. They may be suffering from various forms of deprivation and discrimination. They may have accepted anonymity and resigned in apathy. They may despair and feel hopeless about their children inheriting a little better world. From your point of view they may be representing a very negative form of existence, but the fact is that they are organized in that way of life. Call it organized apathy or organized non-participation, but that is their community pattern. They are living under a certain set of arrangements, standards, accepted modus operandis and a way of life. They may in short have surrendered – but life goes on in an organized form; even if it is as Thoreau described about most lives as being one of “quiet desperation.”

Therefore, if your function is to attack apathy and create citizen participation it is in actual fact an attack upon the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community. Here I would like to state my first proposition; the first function of community organization is community disorganization. Disorganization of the accepted circumstances and the status quo of the arrangements under which they live. These circumstances and arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced with changed patterns providing the opportunities and means for citizen participation. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new.

This is why the organizer is immediately confronted with conflict. (115-116)

I am rather fascinated by this. I think he is missing here all the ways the women at least are more positively organized amongst themselves to work and keep the home together and keep an eye on the kids and find out about sources of support and all those things they have traditionally had to do and that often require help, particularly at the time Alinsky was working. And again, he overplays the conflict, always, there are other ways to go about this. But this is still worth thinking about, making sure you understand the patterns that exist, how people are surviving, seeing the strengths there and seeing what might hold folks back. Particularly important, it seems to me, is understanding that in how disrupting old patterns you better be damn sure you are building stronger, more supportive patterns in their place.

Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy II

So the first post on Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals looks at the big picture, the discussion of the political moment, of ends and means, of how we use words in our Struggle. This is the more practical section of the book, the programme that Alinsky helped build in cities across the country. Much of this practical approach is embedded in community organizing so deeply it is strange to see it written here like this, making it perhaps the most influential aspect of his work. Though ultimately I think that award maybe goes to his ‘non-ideological’ stance that needs to be reckoned with.

Above all there is this specific, privileged role of the organizer, having been one in the US, having attempted similar work in the UK without anyone in this role, I am inclined to give this idea some real credit. I think it is needed, though not quite along these lines.

The Education of an Organizer

The building of many mass power organizations to merge into a national popular power force cannot come without many organizers. (63)

I agree. Also with the below:

The education of an organizer requires frequent long conferences on organizational problems, analysis of power patterns, communication, conflict tactics, the education and development of community leaders, and the methods of introduction of new issues. (64)

And of course, always this:

Everything becomes a learning experience. (64)

The incredibly male, macho, no-balance-whatsoever thing however, that is both bullshit and instructive of a certain mentality that needs to be reckoned with.

The marriage record of organizers is with rare exception disastrous. Further, the tensions, the hours, the home situation, and the opportunities, do not argue for fidelity. (65)

If we move beyond traditional romance and family models that could be okay of course, as long it’s all mutual respect and not the organizer taking advantage of lots of young women or men. This kind of hyper-male organizing role kind of encourages that though, so I dunno.

I like that there is some discussion of the contrast with the old model of CIO organizing in the 1930s (now all but forgotten), where 10% of the meetings covered immediate problems, the rest expanded upon Spanish Civil War, problems around the nation etc. Maybe it’s good that ratio changed around a bit though.

I do really like Saul Alinsky’s list of the characteristics of a good organizer (again, not the relentless maleness, though in this model it would be very hard for a woman to play this role ever given the higher likelihood of her playing some caring roles in addition):

Curiosity: He is driven by a compulsive curiosity that knows no limits…life for him is a search for a patterns… (72)

Irreverence: Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. …He detests dogma, defies any finite definition of morality, rebels against any repression of a free, ope search for ideas… (73)


A sense of humor.

A bit of a blurred vision of a better world. (this allows others to contribute and build — I very much like this idea)

An organized personality. (Has to work flexibly, be organised amongst disorganization, able to manage multiple issues and people)

A well-integrated political schizoid. (Can’t be a true believer because they can’t operate politically enough, but after committing to an issue must commit 100%)

Ego. (Confidence in one’s ability to do what must be done).

A free and open mind, and political relativity.


A whole chapter on this, and small wonder.

One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer–with one exception… (81)

And now we get to some of the nitty gritty, the process from the ground up — there isn’t honestly too much step-by-step in here. But what little there is can be found here, ‘In the Beginning’:

In the beginning the incoming organizer must establish his identity…get his license to operate.  He must have a reason for being there–a reason acceptable to the people. (8)

I loved how Alinsky’s preference was to get the people in power to hate him, get the press to vilify him — then everyday people knew he was on their side. The genius of conflict as I say.

I liked too his flexibility — though again, it would work so much better combined with a conscious conscienticization (see Myles Horton’s analysis of Alinsky style organizing). It is only after you win that you figure out what you want. This is where the organizer has to really have trust, silence that inner doubt and lack of faith in people. (Alinsky admits there might possibly be some doubts among you.)

Then we are back to superman:

From the moment the organizer enters a community he lives, dreams, eats, breathes, sleeps only one thing and that is to build the mass power base of what he calls the army. Until he had developed that mas power base, he confronts no major issues. (113)

But there is an element of single-mindedness needed, and this — this is true:

Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together. (113)

There’s some interesting stuff about disrupting existing organization and patterns in communities that I’ve separated out into a third post because I found it that interesting, but sometimes people need to shake their own ways of being in the world up. Above all you have to overcome apathy, and you do that by picking specific, winnable battles to show that people can win. This is a cornerstone of American community organizing really. Alinksy writes:

…in any community, regardless of how poor, people may have serious problems–but they do not have issues, they have a bad scene. An issue is something you can do something about, but as long as you feel powerless and unable to do anything about it, all you have is  a bad scene. The people resign themselves to a rationalization: it’s that kind of world… (119)

You can’t tackle problems all at once, you have to break it up into issues, the question spawning vast arguments and trainings and some writing is how yo do that effectively so that you are still tackling the big problems.

There is one word that is repeated over and over in this book that is often not found elsewhere — respect. This is all important, I don’t think anyone who hasn’t grown up poor or working-class really understands how this must be constantly defended, and how it is constantly withdrawn.

If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, than his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed… (122)

…when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be dined the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. … Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.  (123)

For those two sentence alone this book would be worth it. And all those (to me) slightly cringeworthy stories that Alinsky tells about being straight with people around issues of class, race or culture, I am sure they only worked at the time because they were told after this respect had been established. I wouldn’t recommend establishing it quite this way anymore though.


More rules! Tactics are all important, and these are quite brilliant and worth thinking through:

  1. Power is not only what you have but the enemy thinks you have.

  2. Never go outside the experience of your people.

  3. Whenever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. (127)

  4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

  5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

  6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

  8. Keep the pressure on, which different tactics and actions (128)

  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself

  10. The major premise for tactics is the development if operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

  11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside (129)

  12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative

  13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. (130)

In this country the left has almost no fucking tactics at all, which has made me appreciate them all the more. Thinking this way becomes a habit, it is confusing when people see none of this.

Having a target also seemed so obvious to me. Apparently that isn’t obvious either.

Obviously there is no point to tactics unless one has a target upon which to center the attacks. (131)

One criteria is vulnerability, I like the point he made about how John L Lewis, organizing great, never attacked GM or Ford, but Alfred “Icewater-In-His-Veins” Sloan or “Bloodied Hands” Tom Girdler.

I liked Alinsky’s three additional points

  • The real action is in the enemy’s reaction

  • The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength

  • Tactics, like organization, like life, require that you move with the action (136)

A little organizing jujitsu. Seems simple, but hard to do and the UK has proven none of these are obvious.

There’s some subtlety here too. Alinsky notes the importance of understanding the competition amongst the haves, their drive to make money to one-up each other that lead them to their own forms of destruction. He emphasises capitalising on that. Some academics seem only now to be recognizing the non-monolithic nature of things like government, the capitalist class and etc.

A pretty cool side note: how useful jail time is (make sure it is only a few days or you’ll miss all the action) to recoup and have space and quiet to think about where you are, what comes next, update your tactics.

Timing is to tactics what it is to everything in life–the difference between success and failure. (158)

And again, flexibility is the key. As it is to everything in Alinsky style:

Accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity, and improvisation dictate the direction and nature of tactics.  (165)

The Way Ahead

Organization for action will now and in the decade ahead center upon America’s white middle class. That is where the power is. (184)

See, this is where we diverge again. Though I wouldn’t be too sad if this suggestion had actually happened:

Middle-class organizers should put their class backgrounds to good use…

He’s right though, if they didn’t move to be with us, they were against us.

His final paragraph.

The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see when we believe it. Afraid, we turn from the glorious adventure of the pursuit of happiness to a pursuit of an illusionary security in an ordered, stratified, striped society. Our way of life is symbolized to the world by the stripes of military force. At home we have made a mockery of being our brother’s keeper by being his jail keeper. When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it. (196)

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]



Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy I

Don’t get me wrong, I have a hardcore critique of Saul Alinsky, but I forgot just how good and smart and hell of committed he was — Rules for Radicals is an important thing to read I think. There is still a lot of room for some of these old school tactics and organizing basics, though maybe not so much for the super-hero profligate organizer and thank god we have some a long way in thinking about intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality…

But damn, is he still a lightening rod for right-wing vitriol or what. My internet search for images turned up some fairly crazy shit. Do we care if he slept with Hilary Clinton? No.

But anyway, I had forgotten just how much Alinsky’s work speaks to its times–it speaks to ours as well of course, but in such a different way. Makes me nostalgic for times I never got to live really, written in 1971, it opens:

The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry, “Burn the system down!” They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world. it is this point that I have written this book. these words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with their lives.

They are now the vanguard, and they had to start almost from scratch. Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the early 1950s and of those there were even fewer whose understandings and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation were just not there. (xii-xiv)

This is perhaps the tragedy of the McCarthy period —  Alinsky himself owes a whole lot to the organizers of the 1930s when he got his start. But the history of struggle in the UK has actually convinced me that it was perhaps not entirely a bad thing to be allowed to reinvent ourselves from the bottom up. But that’s a whole other argument. For now, Rules for Radicals. This first post looks at the big picture, the second looks at the nitty gritty.

The Purpose

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. (1)

Sweet enough, right? He quotes from the Spanish Civil War — better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Nothing more true in life or death, but of course, it was Zapata who said that. The Mexican Civil War did come first, but never mind.

Alinsky always claimed he was steadfastly non-ideological. The more I read about the communist party in the US, their show trials  (I can think of nothing I’d hate more), the great move as dictated by Russia away from what brilliant neighbourhood and tenant and anti-racism organising they did sponsor to the popular front and all of that followed by Stalin and Hungary and…well. I can’t rightly blame him. None of that history sits well with me and he lived it blow by blow.  It’s left its mark, he writes:

We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom… (9)

and also

This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; and different times will construct their own solution and symbol of salvation… I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. (4)

I question this definition of ideology, but like this practical adaptability. Seems like Marx would have wanted it more that way. In truth, this reads something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is about tactics and strategy (never enough on the long game).

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events. (6-7)

Funny how Alinsky becomes the perfect postmodernist. I never see him credited though. I do like his list of characteristic belonging to an organizer, it’s repeated several times.

An organizer…does not have a fixed truth–truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. … Irreverence, essential to questioning, is requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?” … To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents. In the end he has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. (11)

I don’t think all is relative, but building on such community organizing as one strand of work in combination with a revolutionary process of conscientização as outlined by Freire or Horton will get us where we need to go I think. Horton knew Alinksy, discussed some of these issues, you can read more here.

The world operates on multiple levels, you bring in a deeper understanding of hegemony, of intersectionality, of micro-power then you start seeing a very different picture than that painted by Alinsky. But much of the world does actually operate on this basic level, and these kinds of tactics are often most useful.

It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, were morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest. (12-13)

The strides in community organizing since his time have been incorporating all of this into a broader framework. I had forgotten that Alinksy himself had recognised some of the dangers of his style. He notes that the folks from the back of the yards organized under

equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture. (16)

This is the heartbreak, this the thing we have to work to transcend. I think it goes deeper than

It is the universal tale of revolution and reaction. (17)

Moving from how this fails to address race, I think class is more complex too, but this is an interesting way to cut it (and there is always a strategic usefulness in making complex things more simple):

The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. (18)

We have to reach the second two, he argues. If only everyone knew in their very bones that this was true, how much better the world would be:

A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all other’s. (23)

For Alinksy, even so, it all comes down to self-interest. I think this works for some, not all — I don’t think the low road is ever to be found in the great swells of movement and sacrifice that rise from time to time. To not see beyond it feels like a weakness, but this remains a good point for some people among us, and after all, what else is Keynsian economics really?:

I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other. (23)

Of Means and Ends

I find it funny that Alinsky would have seen eye to eye with Trotsky as well as Bismarck on this. We don’t really have fights about this any more in the US or the UK, do we? Except perhaps in the very smallest of groups. This seems so dated, but I realise only because we have given up on revolution in a way, and for all Alinsky’s faults he hadn’t.

That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He goes on to quote Goethe — at the end I have collected a list of all the literature Alinsky quotes, and I swear it will surprise you.

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”… (25)

I haven’t thought about means and ends for a long time, but this is challenging, and I think true. I think about Palestinians fighting and fighting for any recognition of their rights, and decades of nothing and I think so much of this holds true.

The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means… (26)

As do Alinsky’s eleven rules for the ethics of means and ends (he promised us rules in the title, and he always delivers. He also uses a lot of italics):

  1. one’s concerns with the ethics of ends and means varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
  2. the judgement of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment. (26)
  3. in war the end justifies almost any means. (29)
  4. judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point. (30)
  5. concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory. (34)
  9. any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. (35)
  10. you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
  11. goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” (45)

This is a philosophical question most current discussions of community organizing aren’t entering into at all, and maybe we should. Similarly, Alinksy devotes a whole chapter to how we use certain words, and the battle over them that needs to take place.

A Word About Words

He talks about words that are ‘loaded with popular opprobrium’ … words prevalent in the language of politics, words like power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict. (48) This isn’t Voloshinov getting into how we fight for meanings in the most awesome of ways, but it is a level of awareness of how our use or avoidance of certain words shapes our movement. For that very reason I don’t know that I agree with all of his analysis of these words, but I love that he includes this argument with the prominence of a chapter.

Power is a good word though. This may be a bit simplistic in its analysis, but worth thinking about.

Striving to avoid the force, vigor, and simplicity of the word “power,” we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms. We strive to invent sterilized synonyms, cleansed of the opprobrium of the word power–but the new words mean something different, so they tranquilize us, begin to shepherd our mental processes off the main, conflict-ridden, grimy, and realistic power-paved highway of life. (50)

Disagreeing with his analysis of self-interest, I rather disagree with this, though I love the style of that last sentence. But the idea that how we speak truth to power is as much about the form as the content (I know, I know, you shouldn’t separate them) is important, and is often lost. I like this too:

To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. (53)

The next post is on the nitty gritty of being an organizer and actually digging into the process of community organizing.

But first, a look at the books and authors that Alinsky draws from. I don’t know when this man had time to read, but he was no small-time intellectual.

Upton Sinclair
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Bertrand Russell
St Ignatius
Clarence Darrow

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]




Negroes with Guns: Robert F. Williams and the Freedom Struggle

Negroes With Guns by Robert F Williams is really something — as if the name of it didn’t give that away. After Philando Castile, after the shootings that keep happening and happening with impunity this felt so good to read. We watched Fred Williamson stand up to white violence in the N**ger Charlie trio of films over the past few weekends too — such brilliant Westerns in their Blaxploitation way, I can’t believe they’re not available in better quality film. Even if us white folks can never ask for them by name. All of it has been cathartic in the face of despair, though much of that despair grows out of police impunity, and this is probably not the right strategy to end that. I wish I knew what was.

Negroes With Guns sounds badass, and it is, but not in that way that men get when they try and out-badass each other without actually managing true badassness. These are wise and well-considered, well-defended, and well-grounded words from a man who puts most of those others to shame. No wonder it inspired the Black Panthers so much (and I imagine Blaxploitation films just like the one above), if only they’d stuck to a committed revolutionary ethos just a little more…

The book was written in Cuba, which welcomed so many Black exiles of the revolution, and opens:

Why do I speak to you from exile?

Because a Negro community in the South took up guns in self-defense against racist violence-and used them. (3)

I quote his summation of his philosophy at length:

Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle. This means that I believe in non-violent tactics where feasible; the mere fact that I have a Sit-In case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court bears this out. Massive civil disobedience is a powerful weapon under civilized conditions where the law safeguards the citizens’ right of peaceful demonstrations. In civilized society the law serves as a deterrent against lawless forces that would destroy the democratic process. But where there is a breakdown of the law, the individual citizen has a right to protect his person, his family, his home and his property. To me this is so simple and proper that it is self-evident.

When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise. Psychologically, moreover, racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity. This we have shown in Monroe. Moreover, when because of our self-defense there is a danger that the blood of whites may be spilled, the local authorities in the South suddenly enforce law and order when previously they had been complacent toward lawless, racist violence. This too we have proven in Monroe. It is remarkable how easily and quickly state and local police control and disperse law-less mobs when the Negro is ready to defend himself with arms. (4-5)

Nothing could be more clear than that, nor, I think, much more reasonable. Especially after hearing his story. He was a WWII veteran and served in the Marines where he was trained to fight, trained to respect himself — Monroe, North Carolina demanded he do neither. He joined the NAACP on his return there at a time when it was under fierce attack from white supremacists (as all NAACP chapters were after Brown v Board). He writes:

When I joined the local chapter of the NAACP it was going down in membership, and when it was down to six, the leadership proposed dissolving it. When I objected, I was elected president and they withdrew, except for Dr. Albert E. Perry. … I tried to get former members back without success and finally I realized that I would have to work without the social leaders of the community.

So he drew on previous life experience — and that was of northern unions, even though he had not joined he had learned. A lesson in that I think, both in what the union missed, but also in the ripples it set in motion…

At this time I was inexperienced. Before going into the
Marines I had left Monroe for a time and worked in an aircraft
factory in New Jersey and an auto factory in Detroit. Without knowing it, I had picked up some ideas of organizing from the activities around me … So one day I walked into a Negro poolroom in our town, interrupted a game by putting NAACP literature on the table and made a pitch. I recruited half of those present…. We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of working class composition and a leadership that was not middle class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant (14)

Williams continues:

In the summer of 1957 they made one big attempt to stop us. An armed motorcade attacked Dr. Perry’s house, which is situated on the outskirts of the colored community. We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack and the Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community. After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief. (19)

Some pictures.

Self defense worked. To the extent that armed raids of the KKK wouldn’t be happening any more, which was no small thing. It didn’t do anything to integrate the community, make individuals going about their daily business much safer, or improve conditions, but it made a space possible for work to happen to try and do all of these.

I love that Robert Williams wanted to do all of it. Everything.

I was more convinced than ever that one of our greatest and most immediate needs was better communication within the race. The real Afro-American struggle was merely a disjointed network of pockets of resistance and the shameful thing about it was that Negroes were relying upon the white man’s inaccurate reports as their sources of information about these isolated struggles. I went home and concentrated all of my efforts into developing a newsletter … (29)

Robert Williams thought big, his branch of the NAACP would become so inspirational in the way it tried to moved beyond racial integration to the deeper causes:

In our branch of the NAACP there was a general feeling that we were in a deep and bitter struggle against racists and that we needed to involve as many Negroes as possible and to make the struggle as meaningful as possible. … what we needed was a broad program with special attention to jobs, welfare, and other economic needs.

I think this was an important step forward. The struggles of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-In Movements have concentrated on a single goal: the right to eat at a lunch counter, the right to sit anywhere on a bus. These are important rights because their denial is a direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity. … By debasing and demoralizing the black man in small personal matters, the system eats away the sense of dignity and pride which are necessary to challenge a racist system. But the fundamental core of racism is more than atmosphere-it can be measured in dollars and cents… (38)

They had their own 10-point platform — I think I knew that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had read this and done their own ten point platform accordingly, but I’m not sure I did. Such a platform is such a good way to inspire people to join in struggle and to know in broad terms what it is you struggle for:

On Aug. 15, 196 1 , on behalf of our Chapter I presented to the Monroe Board of Aldermen a ten point program that read as follows:
We, the undersigned citizens of Monroe, petition the City
Board of Aldermen to use its influence to endeavor to:

  1. Induce factories in this county to hire without discrimination.
  2. Induce the local employment agency to grant non-whites the same privileges given to whites.
  3. Instruct the Welfare Agency that non-whites are entitled to the same privileges, courtesies and consideration given to whites.
  4. Construct a swimming pool in the Winchester Avenue area of Monroe.
  5. Remove all signs in the city of Monroe designating one area for colored and another for whites.
  6. Instruct the Superintendent of Schools that he must prepare to desegregate the city school no later than 1962.
  7. Provide adequate trasportation for all school children.
  8. Formally request the State Medical Board to permit Dr. Albert E. Perry, Jr., to practice medicine in Monroe and Union County.
  9. Employ Negroes in skilled or supervisory capacities in the City Government.
  10. ACT IMMEDIATELY on all of these proposals and inform the committee and the public of your actions.

Robert F. Williams
Albert E. Perry, Jr. , M.D.
John W. McDow (39)

They emphasise always the economic dimensions of oppression as they connect to racial ones:

we believe that the basic ill is an economic ill, our being denied the right to have a decent standard of living. (40)

Such a difference from the national NAACP office is clearly due both to the character of Williams, Perry and McDow, but also the melting away of the professionals from the Monroe branch of the NAACP under threat of violence, and the recruitment of a working class base. This positionality gave a very different understanding of goals and strategy than those embraced by much of the Civil Rights Movement. Williams writes:

On these peripheral matters, leaders of the Sit-In Movements can meet with city and state officials and win concessions. I believe this is an important part of the overall Negro struggle. But when these concessions are used for propaganda by Negro “leaders” as examples of the marvelous progress the Afro-American is supposedly making, thereby shifting attention from the basic evils, such victories cease to be even peripheral and become self-defeating. When we tackle basic evils, however, the racists won’t give an inch.

He continues — this is not just ideological but practical:

This, I think, is why the Freedom Riders who came to Monroe met with such naked violence and brutality. That and the pledge of non-violence. (41)

He writes quite compellingly about white racism, that will be blog number two on this book. I’ll just end with a little more on how Williams saw Black struggle. First, the chapter title that gives a truth that has bedeviled every movement in the US for the past hundred years:

“Every Freedom Movement in the U.S.A. Is Labeled ‘Communist’ ” (79)

And his final words on self-defense — they echoed something Ella Baker said actually, and made me laugh.

We know that the average Afro-American is not a pacifist. He is not a pacifist and he has never been a pacifist and he is not made of the type of material that would make a good pacifist. Those who doubt that the great majority of Negroes are not pacifists, just let them slap one. Pick any Negro on any street corner in the U.S.A. and they will find out how much he believes in turning the other cheek. All those who dare to attack are going to learn the hard way that the Afro-American is not a pacifist, that he cannot forever be counted on not to defend himself. Those who attack him brutally and ruthlessly can no longer expect to attack him with impunity.

The Afro-American cannot forget that his enslavement in this country did not pass because of pacifist moral force or noble appeals to the Christian conscience of the slaveholders. (83)

Williams quotes Thoreau writing in praise of John Brown, and the need for violence at that point in time — almost makes me want to go read Thoreau again.

And finally, on global solidarity. I love how he broadens out of the civil rights movement, it feels so rare until you get to SNCC, and the drive of the youth to connect to anti-Colonial struggle. His travels meant Williams could flee to Cuba when he realised the nature of the trumped up charges against him from that fateful night (a full account is found in the book,I won’t repeat it here), and the threat his life was under. I am still so furious that he should have had to spend his days in exile though I know charges were later dropped…

In discussion of the global struggle in his newsletter, he writes:

It was clear from the first days that Afro-Cubans were part of the Cuban revolution on a basis of complete equality and my trips confirmed this fact. A Negro, for example, was head of the Cuban armed forces and no one could hide that fact from us here in America. To me this revolution was a real thing, not one of those phony South American palace revolutions. There was a real drive to bring social justice to all the Cubans, including the black ones. (31-32)

And later:

My cause is the same as the Asians against the imperialist. It is the same as the African against the white savage. It is the same as Cuba against the white supremacist imperialist. When I become a part of the mainstream of American life, based on universal justice, then and then only can I see a possible mutual cause for unity against outside interference.” (35)

To end…Robert Williams in Cuba:

And I can’t resist a last look at The Legend of N**ger Charlie. Blaxploitation film isn’t my area of expertise at all nor do I enjoy many of them, but these Westerns were fantastic, sexy, fierce. They embodied much of what Robert Williams wrote. A pride in self against a world of disrespect and violence, and  recognition of the need to fight which was so taken for granted in those times when it seemed perhaps everything might change. Over and over again that fight ends in tragedy, but Charlie keeps fighting. As did Williams, as  must we. If only we could all be that damn fine while doing it.









What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

Ella BakerThis is from an interview Ella Baker did with Eugene Walker in 1974 (the transcript is here, audio is here), who was most interested in the formation of SCLC and the key influences on it, so there isn’t follow up on many of Baker’s responses — but that’s always the way it is with other people’s interviews. Even so, it is a great complement to the various biographies. She was 71 years old, and very focused on the two widely different approaches to the work at play here — the bottom up current which she fought for, and the very very top down…

Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let’s call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let’s call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I’m willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery? (12-13)

When Baker started work for the SCLC she was already an old hand at organising and movement building, but the ministers certainly weren’t — I can’t really imagine what it was like for her.

When you haven’t been accustomed to mass action, and they weren’t… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don’t know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together. (14)

She knew it would be hard, didn’t really choose her role — so for her initially (once she had been bludgeoned into it) she planned to set up citizen committees, and then get out of the SCLC:

I had anticipated being there for about six weeks. Gave myself four weeks to get the thing going and two weeks to clean it up. But they had no one. How did they get Rev. Tilly? They wanted a minister. I knew that. They couldn’t have tolerated a woman.

The personality that had to be played up was Dr. King. The other organizations (if you know this), the executive director was the spokesman. But they couldn’t tolerate having an old lady, even a lady, and an old lady at that. It was too much for the masculine and ministerial ego to have permitted that. [Laughter] There you are. (19)

Asked about her early strategic input on SCLC to bring in more women and youth, Baker replies

I guess my own experience but basically in terms of the church. All of the churches depended in terms of things taking place on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done and you had a large number of women who were involved in the bus boycott. They were the people who kept the spirit going and the young people. I knew that the young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me. The average Baptist minister didn’t really know organization.

She is able to talk a little more about the distrust between the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC — primarily around strategy.:

You see, they couldn’t trust C.O.R.E. [Laughter] in their minds. What you have there is the division between those who have some respect for mass action and pressure and those who believe that your best results came from negotiations from the knowledgeable people. The negotiations from the knowledgeable and the legal action were the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. (29)

Baker underlines the autocratic way she was ordered into the SCLC by Levinson and Rustin, as part of the In Friendship group they had formed to support the formation of a group after Montgomery.

They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let’s say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.

EUGENE WALKER: Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?

ELLA BAKER: [Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn’t have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I’m sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn’t a person of authority.

More about the significant obstacles Baker had to climb over as a woman:

The average attitude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn’t, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn’t try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking. (53)

You like her more and more…The point of the SCLC for Baker:

The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn’t have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it. (63)

But she also emphasis the lack of deeper thought behind the movement —  because of their inexperience, because of the speed with which things happened. And of course, unstated, because of their inability to listen to those who did have experience, primarily Baker herself.:

the personnel who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don’t think there was much—I’ll be gracious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You see, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations (65)

The problem of always responding — who amongst us who has worked in movement-building organisation doesn’t know all about that? Baker’s real strength was in being able to create space to think bigger — and the SCLC did little to appreciate or utilise that skill.

She used that to the hilt in SNCC’s formation, however, and emphasises how important it was that SNCC be free of the others to escape their very real constraints and limits of their political thought — and how this is precisely what was most resisted by other groups:

I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise.

They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C. As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it “Move On Mississippi” and they called it “MOM”. I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn’t want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. (71-72)

There are some nice small commentaries on Black historians — so I love the moment when she says ‘Yes, I love Vincent (Harding).’ Then there’s an aside on Harold Cruse (who has been transcribed as Cruz)

I can look back probably at a book by Harold Cruse —I don’t remember seeing his name mentioned in Cruse’s book.
ELLA BAKER: Cruse is an embittered soul too, isn’t he?
EUGENE WALKER: It’s so evident when you look into his book. Oh, he’s embittered; he’s exceptionally candid in saying whatever he wants to say about anybody. He attacks everybody…
ELLA BAKER: …but himself.

She is very critical of the Baptist ministerial tradition — this was so good for me to read because these comments brought it home to me in a way nothing else has done. She’s critical of King in how fearful he remained of open dialogue — though I know he was better than others of that tradition.

ELLA BAKER: No. I don’t care how much reading you do, if you haven’t had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER: Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER: Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don’t know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum. (77)

I just  I love how she is well aware of how insecurity is not driven away by degrees, position or book-learning. Just as she is aware that being open to others is real strength. That so much was accomplished despite the weaknesses highlighted here… there is so much we owe the women of the South, and especially Ella Baker.


Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974.
Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee



Environmental Justice: Politics, Poetics and Pedagogy

51PGPTD2KZL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_Like all edited collections, Environmental Justice contains a wealth of information on very different struggles and places, but I liked how it brought together politics, poetics and pedagogy. From the introduction by Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein (3-14), this starts with some of the basic history, as how environmental struggle emerged has shaped it and is as much part of the complexities of its definition as anything else:

In the last several decades, environmental justice movements around the world have grown out of convergences between civil rights movements, antiwar and antinuclear movements, women’s movements, and grassroots organizing around environmental justice issues.

It’s defining moments, cited in every background:

1987 report sponsored by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ), that ‘found race to be the leading factor in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities and determined that poor and people of color communities suffer a disproportionate health risk.’ (4)

1991 – First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.

One definition:

Environmental justice movements call attention to the ways disparate distribution of wealth and power often leads to correlative social upheaval and the unequal distribution of environmental degradation and/ or toxicity. (5)

Another good definition [from Environmental Justice Literature to the Literature of Environmental Justice, Julie Sze, 163-180]:

Environmental justice is a political movement concerned with public policy issues of environmental racism, as well as a cultural movement interested in issues of ideology and representation. Environmental justice challenges the mainstream definition of environment and nature based on a wilderness/ preservationist frame by foregrounding race and labor in its definition of what constitutes “nature.” It places people, especially racialized communities and urban spaces, at the center of what constitutes environment and nature (Sze, 163).

Soenke Sehle rephrases this as she writes about pedagogy, I love both of these definitions as they bring together people and place, networks and connections:

One of the core challenges of environmental justice education is to translate the mantra of ecology (all is connected) into a web of concrete relations that includes not only ecological but cultural, economic, and political processes. Different concepts of nature correspond to actual contradictions between different and competing notions of environmental politics. (338)

There is more on the differences between the environmental and environmental justice movements, also between city and country, city and sprawl:

Much of mainstream environmentalism goes hand in hand with an uncritical acceptance of the ongoing cultural, economic, and political shift toward suburbia: many environmentalists have yet to embrace the city as an ecologically sound alternative to the sprawl at the heart of ongoing suburbanization and are, it seems, quite unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Even though the history of ecology is closely intertwined with the history of empire, environmentalism as a social and political concern is often given an exclusively “metropolitan” genealogy, omitting experiences of colonial (settler) states and histories of popular resistance. (334)

These themes of city and wilderness, colonialism and empire and struggle, are picked up in different ways by all of the different pieces in the book.

Devon Peña  from a roundtable on environmental justice on economics, culture and value:

Under the capitalist system we have a very complex set of struggles that are emerging around the commodification and privatization of water. You see, for the Pueblo Indian and the Hispano Mexicano alike, water was not a commodity. It was not the exchange value that was important. So that water was treated not as a private property right, that you could sell and separate from the land. Rather, water was seen as a communal value and an ecological value that sustained a way of life in place. (22)


We need to find a pathway to ecological sustainability and social justice. My answer to that is that those ways are already there. In thousands of local efforts to create democratic workplaces, to create production processes that aren’t based on the destruction of the environment or the worker…. I urge my colleagues at the table to think how environmental justice is, in a way, moving away from the literature of toxicity to the literature of sustainability. (23)

It is hard, no? To move from toxicity? Because it kills, it kills people and it kills communities. I like this call though, to do both. To identify what is destroying lives, and to theorise how we might rebuild them, what we need to create something better. This is Terrell Dixon on the challenges involved — because toxicity works to destroy what is needed to create something better:

I emphasize that what we can call the toxicity chain is not only physical, that the way we have degraded our environment, our own bodies and those of other citizens, also creates a web of mistrust where government and corporations come under suspicion. The result is deep divisions along lines of class, ethnicity, and gender. once they see how all of this stems from how society works, or fails to work with toxicity, students come to recognize how toxicity fractures the potential for community. (24)

I like that this book tries to embody the different ways of knowing and being in the world. It is full of academic articles, but these come after the roundtable of activists, the words of people in struggle. This foregrounding of community voices is also key to environmental justice struggle and engaged scholarship. From Mei Mei Evans:

Personal testimonies have been the lifeblood of the environmental justice movement, bearing witness as they do to the material effects of policy-making, not on the corporation’s or the government’s bottom line, but on human lives. These witnessings, in other words, are not abstractions or analyses; rather, they are the chronicle of the consequences of environmental injustice. (29)

From here on to specific stories. A handful, and not even representative. The story of Point Hope, Alaska made me sick, a painful anger and sorrow in my stomach. A physical thing. This is where the logics of technology for profit divorced from any ethical frameworks of sense of responsibility to human beings or the earth lead.

In 1957, far away from Point Hope, nuclear scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) established Project Plowshare, a national program to explore “peaceful” uses of nuclear bombs. Plowshare intended “to highlight the peaceful application of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that [was] more favorable to weapons development and tests.” In order to create favorable world opinion Plowshare advocates proposed the use of nuclear bombs for civilian construction projects. Nuclear bombs could improve a “slightly flawed planet” to allow for easier extraction of natural resources and to create waterways. (106)

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=316321
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=316321

They wanted to test this, and settled on using bombs to create a new harbor at Cape Thompson, 30 miles South of Point Hope. I found a graphic online.

The Atomic Energy Commission called the plan to create the harbor at Cape Thompson “Project Chariot.” The original Project Chariot plans called for the equivalent of 2.4 million tons of TNT to excavate the mile by half-mile harbor and the mile by quarter-mile entrance channel, an amount of TNT 160 times that which was dropped on Hiroshima. (106)

I can’t even write that without wanting to throw up. Project Chariot was not actually carried out as planned, instead they used the site to study how radioactive materials dispersed through waterways. The military and defense implications of that are clear. And ugly.

To find out, the USGS scientists constructed twelve plots demarcated with two-by-fours. On some plots they sprinkled the radioactive sand transported to Alaska from the Nevada Test Site…. On other plots the scientists sprinkled pure forms of radioactive isotopes… (Edwards, 107)

After the experiments they bulldozed everything into a huge mound. They didn’t tell the Inupiat tribe hunting and fishing in the area anything.

The tribe is still fighting. The many forms of cancer that emerged? Doctors would consistently blame those on lifestyle choices, like smoking. The complicity, or perhaps just blindness, of doctors is visible in case after case. They are so geared to seeing medicine as an individual problem, health something we must take control over as if we lived in neutral spaces. But there are no neutral spaces.

There is a lot more to find if you begin digging into the generation and disposal of nuclear and other toxic waste.  Like the way we are dumping toxic waste on the Pacific islands. This made me physically sick as well, not least because this is the kind of thinking facilitated by development capitalism:

Here, at different times, the previous colonizers and others in the nuclear arena (governments and commercial operatives) have proposed that nuclear and toxic waste be thought of by Pacific Islanders as a form of development — as a way to enter the global economy. It has been presented as their niche market, as they say in globalization discourse. (Kuletz, 130)

I didn’t know how the Western Shoshone at their annual protests of the Nevada nuclear test site (whose sands were used to poison Point Hope) created solidarity around the issue of nuclear waste, inviting people from Kazakhstan (victims of the USSR’s bombing tests) and the Pacific Islands. This Fourth World indigenous network gives some glimmers of hope.

In describing the Marshall Islands’ decision to accept waste from the US, as opposed to all those nations part of the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement (NFIP), it is interesting how Kuletz describes a new geography:

We need to see this situation spatially because it is quite literally a reorganization of space (not to mention identity) linking the Marshalls to the United States and thereby breaking the unity of Pacific Island resistance to Western neocolonial power. Space here is organized along missile corridors, training theaters, and restricted zones, as well as the construction of radioactive contamination zones, such as the Bikini Atoll or the Kwajalein lagoon, which has been polluted by depleted uranium as a result of the missile tests. (Kuletz, 137)

I found much to think about in terms of what I am working on in ‘Sustaining the “Urban Forest” and Creating Landscapes of Hope: An Interview with Cinder Hypki and Bryant “Spoon” Smith, by Giovanna Di Chiro. I very much like the format of interviews as a way to bring activist voices into conversation. In describing Baltimore — and these divisions of race and class that are so central to environmental justice, that are capable of fracturing community:

Baltimore, Maryland, one of the nation’s oldest industrial cities, is characterized by its residents as a “city of neighborhoods.” The friendly descriptor “neighborhood” invokes the notion of commitment, connection, belonging, and investment; the positive side of “community.” However, “neighborhood” also signifies the potent racial divisions — sometimes degenerating into communalism — that characterize the city’s social climate. Baltimore’s neighborhoods are primarily delineated by race and income, and residents of each neighborhood clearly recognize the unofficial boundaries that demarcate the separate sections of the city. (de Chiro, 286)

And a few words on how to move forward:

I don’t think we can transform broad political systems until we know we can transform a little bit of our own neighborhood. (Cinder Hopki, 298)

…you know how you referred to neglected and abandoned urban areas as “geographies of sacrifice”? As a poet, that term really catches at my heart. I think of all these wastelands that we’ve polluted…I would like to say that art and greening can help create “geographies of possibility,” and “geographies of hope.” (Hopki, 306)

I really liked the poetics section, I like reading about novels. Yet it always makes me feel that I would rather be the novelist than the critic, that I would be better going to the source. I have a longer list, now, of books to read, starting with Solar Storms by Linda Hogan. My next post is looking more closely at the chapter on ecocriticism by T.V. Reed but really, this section set me working harder than ever on the short stories and new novel. You know, the things I do in my free time. Being a self-supporting writer seems even crazier than becoming an academic. But both feel far away, though I did earn $10 this month for a story.

And finally the section on pedagogy. I loved this, the discussions of creating a curriculum and thinking through how to teach environmental justice brought to life far better the key ideas and themes as well as the central debates than any literature review I have read.  And as a teacher, I loved thinking about ‘Teaching for Transformation’ as explored by Robert Figueroa, and the openness of Steve Chase’s article on teaching environmental justice at Antioch. I loved how they built off of popular education, and how Chase turned a moment of crisis is turned into a moment of learning that we all can share and use to improve our practice. This was invaluable.

All together I love the ways that this volume embodied a holistic approach — not just in bringing together politics, poetics and pedagogy (which would be a lot), but in bringing many voices and worldviews and struggles together through talks, testimony, articles and interviews. It is definitely a volume to learn from.

Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein (2002) Environmental Justice: Politics, Poetics and Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Chapters quoted:

Environmental Justice: A Roundtable Discussion with Simon Ortiz, Teresa Leal, Devon Peña, and Terrell Dixon, by Joni Adamson and Rachel Stein (15-28)

‘Testimonies’ – From Mei Mei Evans (29-31)

Radiation, Tobacco and Illness in Point Hope, Alaska: Approaches to the “Facts” in Contaminated Communities, Andrea Simpson, 82-104

The Movement for Environmental Justice in the Pacific Islands — Valerie Kuletz, 125-144

Sustaining the “Urban Forest” and Creating Landscapes of Hope: An Interview with Cinder Hypki and Bryant “Spoon” Smith, Giovanna Di Chiro, 284-307

Notes on Cross-Border Environmental Justice Education – Soenke Sehle (331-349)








Power and Powerlessness: John Gaventa on Appalachia

John Gaventa Power and PowerlessnessI loved John Gaventa’s book on power. I read it a good while ago, but it came to me as I read more and more about social movement analysis that it would be good to look at it again — and the more I love it. Because it does not start from the question of why do people organise and challenge power, but from the question of why they don’t do it more often.

This is a study about quiescence and rebellion in a situation of glaring inequality. Why, in a social relationship involving the domination of a non-élite by an élite, does challenge to that domination not occur? What is there in certain situations of social deprivation that prevents issues from arising, grievances from being voiced, or interests from being recognized? Why, in an oppressed community where one might intuitively expect upheaval, does one instead find, or appear to find, quiescence? Under what conditions and against what obstacles does rebellion begin to emerge? (3)

That, I think, is the right question. Not surprising, I suppose, from someone who was the director of the Highlander Center after Myles Horton. Gaventa names some of the theories that help explain this before replacing them with something much better:

…the sociological literature of industrial societies offers an array of explanations for its roots: embourgeoisement, hegemony, no real inequality, low rank on a socio-economic status scale, cultural deficiencies of the deprived, or simply the innate apathy of the human race…Rather than deal with these directly, this study will explore another explanation: in situations of inequality, the political response of the deprived group or class may be seen as a function of power relationships, such that power serves for the development and maintenance of the quiescence of the non-élite. The emergence of rebellion, as a corollary, may be understood as the process by which the relationships are altered.   (4)

It looks to the question: what is that nature of power? Bases its analysis not on Foucault, but on Steven Lukes in Power: A Radical View, and the way this debate on power has expanded C. Wright Mills.

Lukes (& Gaventa) on Power

Lukes argues that power consists of three dimensions. Gaventa summarises as do I — given that Lukes is still on my stack of books unread:

One-Dimensional Approach: the pluralists, like Robert Dahl and Nelson Polsby. Quoting Dahl:

My intuitive idea of power is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that he would not otherwise do.’*

This definition is focused on behaviour, on doing, on participating.

It makes the following assumptions

  1. grievances are assumed to be recognized and acted upon
  2. participation is assumed to occur within decision-making arenas, which are open to any organized group (5)
  3. because of the openness of this system, leaders may be studied, not as élites, but as representative spokesmen for a mass

Gaventa describes the consequences:

Political silence, or inaction, would have to be taken to reflect ‘consensus’, despite the extent of the deprivation… To make plausible inaction among those for whom the status quo is not comfortable, other explanations are provided…because the study of non-participation in this approach is sequestered by definition from the study of power, the explanations must generally be placed within the circumstance or culture of the non-participants themselves. (7)

We know the list: apathy, political inefficacy, cynicism or alienation…amoral familism (I think I knew that was on the list).

Gaventa asks:

What is there inherent in low income, education or status, or in rural or traditional cultures that itself explains quiescence? If these are sufficient components of explanation, how are variations in behaviour amongst such groups to be explained? (8)

Groups do sometimes rise up, fight back. Something else must be going, so we move to the two-dimensional approach, introduced by Schattschneider, further developed by Bachrach and Baratz (again, none of whom I have read).

… power’s ‘second face’, by which power is exercised not just upon participants within the decision-making process but also towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether. (9)

Thus, power’s second dimension and

The study of politics must focus ‘both on who gets what, when and how and who gets left out and how’** (9)

Here’s another good explanatory quote from Michael Parenti ‘Power and Pluralism: A View form the Bottom’ Journal of Politics 32 (1970)

‘One of the most important aspects of power is not to prevail in a struggle but to pre-determine the agenda of struggle…

But still, this is not sufficient to explain the patterns in resistence and acquiescence that we see. Lukes brings in the three-dimensional approach, here he is quoted by Gaventa:

A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests.

A may exercise power over B by getting him to do what he does not want to do, but he also exercises power over him by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants.

Gaventa continues, his own commentary puctuated by quotes from Lukes again:

the analysis of power must avoid the individualistic, behavioural confines of the one- and to some extent the two-dimensional approaches. It must allow ‘for consideration of the many ways in which the potential issues are kept out of politics, whether through the operation of social forces and institutional practices or through individuals’ decisions…the three-dimensional view … offers the prospect of a serious sociological and not merely personalized explanation of how political systems prevent demands from becoming political issues or even from being made.

this allows considerations of social forces and historical patterns involved in hegemony per Gramsci, and Ralph Milliband’s work on the engineering of consent (in The State in Capitalist Society which I maybe should read).

No dimension cancels out the others, they work in combination and each level represents a mechanism of power:

1st — ‘who prevails in bargaining over the resolution of key issues…political resources–votes, jobs, influence–that can be brought by political actors to the bargaining game…(14)

2nd — same as above, and in addition a ‘mobilization of bias’. Continues to quote Bachrach and Baratz

A set of predominant values, beliefs, rituals, and institutional procedures (‘rules of the game’) that operate systematically and consistently to the benefit of certain persons and groups at the expense of others. (1970, p, 43)

Some of the forms of non-decision making: force, threat of sanctions, invocations of norms and precedents, manipulation of symbols (like ‘communist’ and ‘troublemaker’), establishing of new barriers. These are easily identifiable, others exist that are not so observable, like institutional inaction, or B deciding not to make a demand of A for fear of anticipated reactions.

3rd — least developed and understood

Their identification, one suspects, involves specifying the means through which power influences, shapes or determines conceptions of the necessities, possibilities, and strategies of challenge in situations of latent conflict.

could include

‘study of social myths, language and symbols’, ‘study of communication of information’, ‘focus upon the means by which social legitimations are developed around the dominant, and instilled as beliefs or roles in the dominated’, ‘locating the power processes behind the social construction of meaning and patterns that serve to get B to act and believe…’ (15)

Thus we have direct and observable forms: control of information, mass media, processes of socialization. Indirect: psychological adaptations to the state of being without power, adaptive responses to continual defeat, extensive fatalism, self-deprecation, undue apathy. Greater susceptibility to internalization of values and beliefs.

This understanding develops from Freire — people are unable to engage actively with others, denied ability to reflect upon actions or act upon them. Gaventa quotes Gramsci:

…it can reach the point where the contradiction of conscience will not permit any decision, any choice, and produce a state of moral and political passivity. (Gramsci 1957, p 67)

Gaventa argues

the dimensions of power, each with its sundry mechanisms, must be seen as a interrelated in the totality of their impact. (20)

Thus all of these dimensions of power insulate A from challenge from B, but — and Gaventa looks always to how these injustices can be overcome, which is again why I think this is so useful:

as the barriers are overcome, so, too, do A’s options for control lessen. And, just as the dimensions of power are accumulative and re-enforcing for the maintenance of quiescence, so, too, does the emergence of challenge in one area of a power relationship weaken the power of the total to withstand further challenges by more than the loss of a single component. (24)

Methodology for studying power

Gaventa writes:

rather than assuming the inaction or inertia to be ‘natural’ in the mass and activism as the phenomena to be explained (as is done in the pluralist methodology), this approach initially assumes that remedial action upon inequalities by those affected would occur were it not for power relationships. (26)

How do you see it? Understand the mechanisms by which repressive power relationships are operating? This

… requires going outside the decision-making arenas and carrying on extensive, time-consuming research in the community in question. (27)

Thus it is necessary to:

1 — look at the historical development of an apparent ‘consensus’, whether this has actually been a choice, or shaped by power relationships

2 — look at processes of communication, ideologies and actions

3 — to posit or participate in ideas or actions which speculate about or attempt to develop challenges — response will shower if power relations operating (27).

Like Stuart Hall, Gaventa has a poor opinion of the idea of ‘false consciousness:

The unfortunate term ‘false consciousness’ must be avoided, for it is analytically confusing. Consciousness refers to a state, as in a state of being, and thus can only be falsified through negation of the state itself. If consciousness exists, it is real to its holders, and thus to the power situation. To discount it as ‘false’ may be to discount too simply the complexities or realities of the situation…To argue that existing consciousness cannot be ‘false’ is not to argue the same for consensus. (29)

To illustrate both this understanding of power and this method of its study, Gaventa then goes on to destroy any possible belief that the ‘acquiescence’ of coal miners in the Appalachians is due to their own lack of intelligence, culture or because they are happy and smiling in their work.

First he details the precise ways the American Association first came to own 80,000 acres of land in the Cumberland Gap — and the way this first key encounter of people losing their lands through essentially a combination of brute force and fraud had been internalized as their own fault. He outlines the power this company came to hold over its tenants and local power structures. He oulines the ideology developed to support this power:

  • the notion of ‘a common purpose’ in mining and development
  • the idea that benefits were attainable by all through hard work
  • the idea that the new structures represented progress, civilization
  • rewriting the old ways of mountaineer, which were shaped by their relationship to nature and their harmony with it, to be seen as man’s role as a conqueror

Where there had been a solidarity of family and farm there was now an industrial solidarity…Although life had involved work before, it had not been so gloried — nor bought as a mass product. Where there had been a sense of contentment, there was a progress that transformed. Where there had been a struggle to obtain a harmony with nature, this civilization would dominate nature and free the creating capacities of man. However, for the study of power it is not enough to say that this was a different ideology; one must look at the processes or mechanisms through which it was instilled. (62)

Gaventa sees this as a complex process of colonialism, one  occurred driven by the initial mining boom in Middlesboro in at least 4 observable ways:

  1. A distortion of information: the industrial order was introduced to the mountaineers’ society by conspicuous consumption, with an exaggerated demonstration of its benefits (63) Made into a resort, attracted the wealthy. —
  2. The exaggerated attractiveness of the industrial order, on the one hand, carried with it the degradation of the culture and society of the mountaineers, on the other. (65) Similar to process of racialism in colonization process. Glorification of the one culture and degradation of the other could combine with the ideology of openness and hard work to help ensure a ‘choice’ by the mountaineers to pursue the new values. (66)
  3. More direct appropriation of local culture — replacement of old names in places of cultural development with new names from foreign cultures, while places of work and mines retained old labels. ‘By the imposition of one identity over another in the cultural arena…the development of a counterhegemony was made less likely…(67)
  4. connected to socializing influences of government, church and school controlled by the Company.

Gaventa notes an increase of violence, but horizontal against each other (refers back to Freire who also describes this). Compares to other similar regions, shows that:

the ‘consensus’ of the miners in Yellow Creek was inherent neither in their conditions nor in their nature, but grew from the effective wielding of power–in all its dimensions–by the new ‘instruments’ of civilization. (75)

Gaventa continues through the historical formation that elads us to the present. After the initial boom and destruction of previous ways of life and though came the rise of unionisation, the violence of its destruction, and the maintenance of power relationships into the present (of the book’s writing of course). He gives several case studies.

Throughout the book Gaventa focused on the articulation of structure and culture (though articulation is not a word he uses, and comes of course from Stuart Hall, but this is exactly the relationship Hall is trying to examine as well). He looks at how local politics is entirely within the control of the power structure. He returns to the various approaches to power and how they illuminate current conditions, showing the interrelated nature of these forms of exercising power.

He ends with an account of a current (1980) struggle, a campaign that began organizing around garbage collection, then started to move towards land reform given that the land was not owned by those who lived or worked there, but by people living far away. Those in struggle found that this was the crux of the problem. You want to see power relations in action, you try such a challenge. Gaventa describes the repression they faced: twenty-bullets through a community worker’s home, office of health and development group burned down, alternative school also destroyed by fire (214). People branded as communists, ignored by local government and agencies.

A later campaign against the multinational company owning the land couldn’t even discover where ownership actually resided, much less how to make them accountable.

I loved the dark humour of this:

Although the power of decision and non-decisions may allow the powerholder to remain beyond protest, the powerlessness of the protestors does not protect them from repercussions from their actions. (249)

Also this:

The fact that the discontent is so often overlooked says less about the Valley than it does about the methodological biases found in the dominant approach in American to the study of power (252-53)

A historical approach is needed to  reveal

the shaping of patterns and routines which underlie the power relationships of the present … just as a ‘view from below’ allowed a unique perspective of ‘power’s hidden faces’ (253)

He continues:

Only as these multiple aspects of powerlessness are overcome may the conflict that emerges in power’s first dimension be said to be amongst relatively competing groups, upon clearly conceived interests, in an open arena.

Rebellion, to be successful, must both confront power and overcome the accumulated effects of powerlessness. (258)

To end on a high note with hope for the future:

While the notion of universal democracy in America may consequently be a myth, it is not an impotent one. As long as the belief in ‘openness’ can be sustained, the phenomenon of power may continue to be separated from the understanding of non-participation. And as long as the roots of quiescence can continue to be blamed upon the victims of power, then democracy of the few will continue to be legitimated by a prevailing belief in the apathy or ignorance of the many. (260)


*’The Concept of Power’ in Bell, Edwards, Harrison Wagner (eds) (1969) Political Power: A Reader in Theory and Research’ p 80

**Bachrach and Baratz (1962) and (1970)

[Gaventa, John. (1982) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.]