Monday, March 27, 2017

Don't just Fight, Build!

March 25, 2017
I work with Cooperation Jackson, based in Jackson, Mississippi, which comes out of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New Afrikan People’s Organization. I bring up both the local and national groups to give you a sense of the broad movement I’m coming from, and also the more specific work going on in Jackson. That’s important because I believe we have to be rooted somewhere firmly on the ground in order to have a base on which to stand, and from which to organize.
After Trump was elected, it took two or three weeks for many people to get out of the fog. There are some losses that we’re going to take in this next period under Donald Trump. We have to get ourselves mentally prepared for that, and do the organizing that is necessary to withstand the assault against what little democracy has ever existed in this country, as they try to take us back to the sixteenth century.

Don’t be confused about what the Republicans are really trying to do. Part of it is about profit. But they also want to make sure that those who were supposed to stay in their respective places get back in those places. And that’s virtually everybody, once you really think about it. Being white is not necessarily going to protect you.  
If you can engage in actions, engage. If you can’t, that’s OK, there will be other times. The question really is, at some point we can’t just mobilize, we’ve got to start organizing. After the first 100 days, people need to sit down and come up with a plan or we are all wasting our time and we are going to be summarily defeated.
We have to develop a serious program and that starts with dialogue—amongst us. On a national level, we have to develop what I call a framework of ungovernability. Fundamentally, that means not giving any legitimacy to Trump, and more importantly, to the neo-confederates, who I would argue are actually far more dangerous than Trump himself.
We’ve got to get ourselves profoundly more organized than we are now. And we are not an organized force. Let’s not kid ourselves. With the unions, with our political parties, we’re not even as organized as we were twenty or thirty years ago. And by organized, I do not mean creating a great Internet platform.
We need to be so organized that you can call me, give me two days, and I can move fifty people, and put them in action on the ground in my community. That’s the level of organizing that I’m talking about. We’ve done it before. And we can do it again. It’s not magic; it’s just a bunch of hard work.
I hear people say, “I can’t believe what’s happening.” But what’s happening now has been happening to indigenous people and black people all along. The older I get, the more appreciation for my people’s history and culture I have, and what my ancestors did to survive this bullshit. I am seeing that more and more as a vital piece we can’t overlook.
I’m glad people have woken up. But understand that it can get worse, and we have to get prepared for that. We don’t yet have a serious conversation between what is left of organized labor and what is emerging as the cooperative movement in this country. We aren’t in deep enough conversation with each other about how as workers we’re going to shape our own future.
A big part of Cooperation Jackson is based on black reality. Ain’t nobody creating no jobs for us. Those days are long since past. In Jackson, Mississippi, I think the real unemployment rate is easily over 50 percent. I can knock on almost any door in a black, working-class community, any day of the week, and there’s an able-bodied adult, typically, who will answer the door. Any time of day. That gives you a real sense of what I mean by a deep level of unemployment.
That is a challenge, but it’s also a great organizing opportunity.
You have some time and energy. Can we use that to do something collective in our community? Can we bring your skills, time, energy, resources, and talents together with other folks under similar circumstances and transform our reality?
It takes a lot of convincing of people. But we are starting to see some results, getting people to just start doing small things.
Let’s pull together some time and energy to fix the cars and bikes in the neighborhood, to deal with our city’s transportation crisis. Jackson has a few public buses. But we don’t have much of a public transportation system. If you don’t have a car, you can’t get a job or go to the grocery store, and there are a lot of people in that situation.
But that’s an opportunity also for us from an organizing perspective, because it helps us to put people in relationship. I have a car, I have some time. You know how to fix cars, you have some time. Let’s work together and we can create a mutually beneficial system.
How do we create our own kind of cooperative cab company? We are looking into that on a deeper level—how that would fulfill not just a transportation need but a social need in our community.
Rather than see the limitations, we are seeing there’s more space from the decay of late capitalism to actually do some things to push back and start seizing the means of production. That is a big part of our project in Jackson. We call it organizing for “community production.”
The city is in profound debt. We are faced with the threat of losing control of our water system. Our public education system is going to be seized this summer by the state—primarily through the orchestration of state-mandated testing that has changed the goalposts every year to produce the outcome the Republicans wanted.
Our governor is very close to Trump. The Tea Party basically runs our state. Our governor is a member of the Tea Party. There’s a Tea Party supermajority in the legislature in both houses, and also within the state court system. So we’ve been living under the kind of one-party rule that the whole country is now experiencing for six years. We’ve learned a few lessons that perhaps we can impart.
Our governor says President Trump has promised he can do some things for Mississippi that the Army Corps of Engineers has spent twenty-five years saying are impossible. He’s been bragging and boasting since the Inauguration that they’re going to create a whole new water system for Rankin County, which is a predominantly white, working-class county and one of the bases of white reaction in Mississippi.
It’s right next door to Jackson. The county only has 140,000 people. But they’re going to build a whole new water system for them. They don’t even have the density to pay for the system that will be created.
It’s pure politics: Jackson receives much of its annual revenue from the sale of water to the greater metro area. So if you take water away from us, basically you destroy the ability of the municipality to function.
The state is also planning to annex a critical part of the downtown area, where 60 percent of the jobs in the city of Jackson are located in this new district that they’re creating. They will turn that over to the state. And then they want to flood a good portion of downtown Jackson to create a lake, and a casino district.
The long-term objective is to break the political back of Jackson, which is 80 percent black. State Republicans and the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce believe they can take Jackson back politically if they’re able to reduce its current black population to between 60 and 65 percent.
If they are able to reduce the city’s black population to that degree, they will have the power to both split and dilute the black vote. So this is all part of a long-term, coordinated plan and strategy. It gives you an example of what organization looks like. We need to get to that level of coordination, strategy, and organization. Their side can do it, and our side can do it.
The Democratic Party is not going to save us. We’ve got to organize something different. It may use some remnants of that old structure, but we’ve got to organize something new to reach the vast majority of those who are oppressed, exploited, and excluded in this society.  

It’s going to take a lot of hard work. But we have to remember that all of the Tea Party folks and Trump only represent a minority from this point forward. That is all they can ever represent. That doesn’t mean they can’t rule effectively as a minority. Look at South Africa to understand how a minority can effectively rule an overwhelming majority.
But if we organize in a different way, there’s a profound new majority which is largely black and brown that we can tap into. That majority is more than willing to be politically engaged, but it doesn’t see electoral politics as the only viable way, or even the most expedient way, to address their real life circumstances.
And so we must think outside the box, those of us on the left, instead of just trying to channel most of our energy into electoral fights.
What are the other things we have to build? How can we actually build power in our communities and organize people to exercise that power? People’s assemblies are one way, cooperatives are another. But that’s not all. 
I would argue that we should give as much time to the building as we give to the fighting. And we must give equal time to actually sitting down in our communities, having meetings with our neighbors, whether they agree or disagree with us. And constructing a real political and viable program going forward. If we don’t, Trump is going to be the least of our concerns.
This is a hell of a time. I think we should embrace the fluidity of the time, and not be afraid of it. If, like me, you consider yourself a socialist, it would have been hard to believe a few years ago that we could publicly identify ourselves as socialists in so many places. But that space is now open, and it’s one we need to seize. We can’t let this moment pass or fade. Because there are millions of people out there looking for alternatives.
This is a very fluid moment. It may look bleak. But in the end, the other side has a few economic things, levers they can pull which shouldn’t be underestimated. But we know they must resort to force to keep this thing together. And that’s a losing strategy. So let’s seize the time and opportunity. Don’t be weary. Get to work. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Why Popular Assemblies Sweeping the Country Are Building Blocks of the Resistance

From Raleigh to Los Angeles, communities on the frontlines are building the movement infrastructure for a coordinated fightback.
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March 1, 2017

“One thing that is very clear under the Trump administration is that we do not have the luxury of remaining in our silos and organizing around individual issues,” Manzoor Cheema, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based organizer with Muslims for Social Justice and Project South, told AlterNet. “Attacks are happening across the board against immigrants, refugees, Muslims, black communities, workers and Jews.”

Cheema is one of countless organizers across the country working to pull off large popular assemblies to empower and connect the communities caught in the crosshairs of this multi-pronged assault. With roots in the U.S. Black Freedom movement, Latin American encuentro and left formations across the globe, such forums appear to be gaining steam, as growing crowds cram into packed community meetings to plot out strategies for resistance. While the issues and tactics may vary, organizers from across the country emphasized to AlterNet that the aim is to fortify independent social movement infrastructure to enable a broader and more effective fightback—and determine the needs of the most-impacted communities during this harrowing political moment.

In Los Angeles alone, at least 10 popular assemblies since November have drawn crowds ranging from 900 to dozens. “We've gotten together to discuss the current political moment and to remind folks that they are not alone, and there are other people who will be working and struggling with them,” Armando Carmona, spokesperson for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told AlterNet in January. “Out of those assemblies, there have been mobilizations, know your rights workshops and other convenings to discuss neighborhood defense committees.”

These formations are part of a larger ecosystem of resistance to Trumpism that continues to build on a large scale, as millions around the world take to the streets,  stage direct actions and use their bodies to resist the ongoing spike in immigration raids. “With this whole political crisis going on, reaction isn’t enough,” said Reed Ingalls, an organizer with the Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition, one of numerous bodies that has been organizing popular assemblies in districts across the city since election night. “Right now the aim is building support, mutual aid and community power. The basic idea is, let's start helping people get organized and let's do it neighborhood by neighborhood, connecting to where people live and connecting to issues they're facing.”

'Growing deeper'

While some popular assemblies are connected to regional organizations like the Atlanta-based Project South, others are springing up independently. “People are building new mechanisms of community power,” David Abud, regional organizer from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told AlterNet. “This is coming from an understanding that there will continue to be state violence against our communities. The state isn't going to be the one to stop that violence coming to us; we are the ones that will be able to stop it.”

For Cheema, whose organizing of People’s Movement Assemblies (PMAs) is informed by Project South, it is critical to create meaningful spaces that center people most impacted by oppression and injustice—an aim that takes significant leg work. He noted that local PMAs date back to the early 1980s, with the group Black Workers for Justice laying the groundwork for the processes in motion today.

“We have what we call an anchor coalition that launched the PMAs in North Carolina’s triangle area,” he explained. “It was founded on May Day of 2016 by 15 organizations that are led by workers, people of color, latinxs, Muslims and Jews.” Groups in the mix include Black Workers for Justice, Muslims for Social Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace, Fight for 15 and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) Local 150.

“Our first assembly in December was led, organized, convened and facilitated by these organizations,” said Cheema, who noted that the PMAs provide translation and free childcare. “We are very particular that the leadership should rest with the communities most impacted by the struggles we're highlighting. At the same time, the meetings are open and transparent.”

“Out of that meeting, we developed working groups that will sustain the process and maintain the focus of the assembly,” continued Cheema. Since December, the coalition has organized three more PMAs attended by at least 100 people each.

An announcement for a January PMA in Raleigh addresses local and national issues, proclaiming, “Trump has appointed corporate and Wall St. executives and enemies of the working class and oppressed peoples to his cabinet, wealthy elites that hate the very people their departments are designed to safeguard. The right wing in Raleigh is trying to maintain their control of the governor's office and has made power grabs altering control in many state departments.”

According to Cheema, there is still work to be done to center the people most impacted by these trends. “We recognize that we need to do focused outreach to impacted people, which we call ‘growing deeper.’ At the last PMA we were reflecting on the need to reach people who are impacted but don’t have resources, and might not have transportation.”

“My understanding is that, since Trump, there is a bigger interest in the PMA model to build stronger coalitions and networks across the country,” he added. “But this movement is not geared towards getting Democrats elected. We need independent structures rooted outside political parties in the grassroots, where people hold accountable whoever is in power.”

From Alabama’s Black Belt to Zapatista Autonomous Zones

While the current iteration of Raleigh PMAs may be new, the model stems from deep-seated traditions.

“There is a history here,” said Kali Akuno, the co-director of the Mississippi-based group Cooperation Jackson and an organizer with the nationwide Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Akuno, who has been organizing popular assemblies in Jackson, underscored that “the history of the mass meetings tradition really goes back to slavery. Here in Mississippi, right after the Civil War, you had these well-organized and planned popular assemblies among formerly enslaved black people to spread information, spread news, try to find family and recreate community. That tradition and memory lived on into the 1950s and 60s, particularly around Freedom Summer.”

Project South looks to mid-1960s Black Freedom organizing in Alabama, led by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during Jim Crow. The effort focused in Alabama’s Black Belt, where white plantation owners maintained socio-economic control over black residents, many of whom they employed as sharecroppers. When black residents in Lowndes County began organizing against near-total suppression of the African-American vote, many faced retaliation in the form of evictions from white landowners. Organizers held mass meetings and erected tent cities to house the newly homeless, an infrastructure that lasted two years and included community defense against white supremacist violence.

At the age of 85, Nellie Nelson, a former sharecropper in Lowndes County, told journalist Connor Sheets in 2016, "I was very interested in the mass meetings because I wanted to learn all I could and do all I can because we needed better assistance here in Lowndes County and we needed to get together.”

But organizers also look beyond U.S. borders, including to the Sixth Pan-African Congress Congress held in Tanzania in 1974, as well as the Zapatista Movement for National Liberation, which launched an offensive against the Mexican government and the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The Zapatistas, who continue to organize and hold territory in Chiapas, Mexico, built community assemblies into their political tradition from the outset, as a form of self-governance and aotonomy for historically oppressed indigenous communities.

Meanwhile, World Social Forums date back to 2001, when people from across the globe gathered in Brazil to stage an alternative convergence to the World Economic Forum, a gathering of the global capitalist elite. Inspired by the Latin American encuentro, social forums have since been organized locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, including in Iraq, which held its first social forum in 2013 under the banner of “Another Iraq is Possible with Peace, Human Rights, and Social Justice.” Some of the first PMAs in the U.S. took place at such gatherings, including the 2006 Border Social Forum in El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juarez.

Project South began escalating its efforts to organize Southern Movement Assemblies in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, and the organization cites public assemblies at Tahrir Square as a source of inspiration. Groups at the helm of this resistance in Egypt, including the April 6th movement, today are aggressively persecuted and hunted by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with the backing of the United States. Nonetheless, Project South notes that Tahrir Square constituted an important site of resistance, writing: “The government suspended communications services, but people used other methods and set up medical tents, cultural events and political discussions.”

The 2012 launch of the Southern Freedom Movement was inspired, in part, by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Gulf Coast communities. "After witnessing and experiencing the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the inability of movement to respond effectively, Southern leaders initiated regional strategies to build stronger infrastructure to ensure capacity to respond to growing crises on every frontline," writes Project South.

Project South co-directors Stephanie Guilloud and Emery Wright told AlterNet over email that, since 2008, there have been at least 400 People's Movement Assemblies across the United States. “Organizations across the South facilitate what we call Frontline and Community Assemblies at the local level,” they explained.

“In the lead-up to the sixth Southern Movement Assembly in October of last year, anchor organizations that are part of the Southern Movement Assembly organized a dozen frontline Assemblies across the South, organizing formerly incarcerated people in Alabama, young people in Atlanta, and rural folks across the Black Belt,” Guilloud and Wright continued. “Project South and the other anchor groups expect that number to increase, possibly double, this year. Assemblies will be taking place throughout the summer and early fall.”

‘How Do We Fight Our Way Out of This?’

PMAs have played a critical role in connecting currently and formerly incarcerated people with each other and movements on the outside. In 2011, Montgomery, Alabama, hosted the the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Movement Assembly, described by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance as a "historic gathering committed to three shared strategies to challenge key areas of the prison industrial complex including discrimination in employment, shackling of women prisoners during labor, and voting disenfranchisement after time served.”

Kenneth Glasgow is an organizer with The Ordinary People Society and the Free Alabama Movement, which is led by incarcerated people and coordinated last September’s national prison strike “to end slavery in America.” He told AlterNet that people across Alabama have continued to organize PMAs “related to the criminal justice system and the drug war.” This includes assemblies led by formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families, which is accomplished via conference calls and going inside prisons.

“We put out questions and get feedback on what we need to address them, when and how,” Glasgow said of the PMA structure. “Once we do that, we are able to do some kind of action. Usually it is some kind of rally, march or protest to address that particular issue. We’ve been to prisons to protest and been in front of the Department of Corrections to hold marches and rallies.”

It was at such a PMA in January that the Free Alabama Movement decided to launch a boycott of Aramark, a leading distributor of food to prisons, and Corizon, a key medical company that profits from prisons. “PMAs work so well because they’re simple,” he said. “People come up with questions. We answer those questions with solutions. Everyone has a buy-in and a tie-in.”

According to Glasgow, who lives in the town of Dothan, Alabama, PMAs across the state and southern region “have grown tremendously since Trump was elected. People are really scared and want to get involved and get engaged.”
The PMAs are gaining steam as people across the country experiment with new formations. Ayako Maruyama and Kenneth Bailey work with the Design Studio for Social Intervention in Boston. Since November, their organization has created a "Social Emergency Response Center," modeled after natural disaster emergency response centers, but designed to respond to the current political crisis. The space, open to all, provides opportunities for communal food sharing, collective healing, political discussion, political art creation, film screenings, radical library perusing and music. “We need ways to train civil society to address social emergencies as part of our civic practice,” said Bailey.

Akuno underscored that “it is a constant struggle to build popular assemblies, keep them functioning, keep them vibrant, keep them responsive to the issues of the day and keep them from being sectarian vehicles. When done right, when done at its best, I think assemblies are the most profound tools of bottom-up, participatory democracy that holds the interests of the communities, unlike any other vehicle I have ever worked with.”

“Right now they are critical because so many people in our society are socially oriented towards being individuals and being individuated,” he continued. “This breeds an atmosphere and political culture where there is no solidarity. But solidarity is an absolute must right now. An assembly is a practical way to build solidarity and ask questions like, ‘How do we resist, how do we fight our way out of this and what is our program to create the future we want?’”