Confronting the Democratic National Convention and Working to Build a People?s Movement for Justice
Going to Los Angeles for the Democratic Nation Convention was an amazing experience. The actions and events themselves were generally speaking, very powerful. More than the actions themselves, the questions about organizing, tactics, strategy, anti-racist practice and movement building have been profoundly challenging as well as exciting.
I had a lot of mixed feelings going down to LA from San Francisco. I grew up about half an hour from LA, in a suburb called Whittier. While living in LA, I went to lots of rallies and marches in the city ? from anti-vivisection/animal liberation protests, to large actions against the Gulf War, to demonstrations against police brutality. I grew up with a lot of the organizers who were working with Rise Up!/LA Direct Action Network. I was looking forward to working with friends, but I was also excited to be part of a mass mobilization in the streets of LA.
I was also very interested to see how the organizing was happening in LA. My political focus over the past year has been anti-racist organizing in the movements against global capitalism. I?m a co-trainer with Sharon Martinas in the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop in SF. Sharon and I were part of an anti-racist organizing study group which examined how white supremacy is a system that creates and maintains ruling class power through racial oppression against communities of color and white privilege in white communities. Our studies included reading Robert Allen?s Reluctant Reformers to get a sense of how white supremacy has divided and undermined progressive social change movements historically. From white abolitionists who segregated themselves from Black Abolitionists, to the Labor movement that championed anti-Asian immigration legislation and excluded people of color from American Federation of Labor unions. Our studies also looked at anti-racist white organizing over the past 30 years; from Students for a Democratic Society; to anti-imperialists supporting national liberation struggles led by people of color; to various anarchist projects of the 90?s.
The historical study and reflection in the study group helped prepare Sharon and I to initiate a new project on anti-racism and the struggle against imperialist globalization. Our project, which is a workshop, was directly inspired by Elizabeth ?Betita? Martinez?s widely distributed essay ?Where Was the Color in Seattle?. Our workshop is called ?Beyond the Whiteness ? Challenging White Supremacy in the Movements against Global Capitalism?. The first series was 4 parts, 3 hours each. There was about a hundred pages of readings, role-plays, small group discussions and presentations. The workshop is focused on white radicals, but participation from organizers of color is welcomed. In order to bring down white supremacy, white folks need to be able to recognize and challenge white privilege. White privilege is the major barrier to multiracial, anti-racist movement building and so we believe that white radicals have a responsibility to take it on. In the workshop, we define white privilege as, ?an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of: 1. preferential prejudice for and treatment of white people based solely on their skin color and/or ancestral origin from Europe; and 2. Exemption from racial and/or national oppression based on skin color and/or ancestral origin from Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Arab world.? The workshop also focuses on working in solidarity with radicals of color to end racial oppression and work for collective liberation.
I knew that Rise Up!/LA DAN consisted predominately of organizers of color and that anti-racism was a major focus of their work. LA is also home to one of the most multiracial anarchist communities that I know of in the United States. I knew that I would learn a lot and I was excited to get involved.
The week of actions around the DNC were packed. There were 3-6 marches and actions everyday. Each day was organized under a different theme. Monday, August 14th was ?Human Needs Not Corporate Greed?, with a march in solidarity with the U?wa of Columbia against Occidental Petroleum (which is the source of Gore?s family fortune). Tuesday was ?An Injury to One is an Injury to All? which had a youth march, a women?s liberation march and a queer liberation march. Wednesday was focused on the prison industrial complex and police brutality under the theme ?Stop Criminalizing Our Communities?. Thursday?s theme was ?Global Economic and Environmental Justice?, 15,000 marched through LA?s garment district, protesting sweatshops and demanding immigrant rights.
The Convergence Space was a four story warehouse that provided space for meetings, cooking, banner and puppet making, a room for child care, a medical area, a very welcoming info area with tons of good literature, and an elaborate hydraulic (non-fluoridated) water filter system that kept us hydrated in the blistering heat. The Convergence Space itself was a brilliant example of anarchism in action. Meetings for the tactical, medical, communications, security and media teams took place alongside training workshops in non-violent direct action, legal, media messaging and anti-racism. Next to signs announcing the next spokescouncil meeting were enlarged photos of civil disobedience actions from the LA Civil Rights movement and Justice For Janitors. This is smart for two reasons. One, it helps create a more welcoming and empowered space for people of color. Two, it pushes white radicals to remember the struggles of people of color for justice.
There was a strong commitment to anti-oppression organizing at the Space. When you first walked in, next to the welcoming table, there was a large sign that listed LA-DAN?s principles of anti-oppression organizing. They read as following:
- Power and privilege play out in our group dynamics and we must continually struggle with how we challenge power and privilege in our practice.
- We can only identify how power and privilege play out when we are conscious and committed to understanding how racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of oppression affect each one of us.
- Until we are clearly committed to anti-oppression practice all forms of oppression will continue to divide our movements and weaken our power.
- Developing an anti-oppression practice is life long work and requires a life long commitment. No single workshop is sufficient for learning to change one?s behavior. We are all vulnerable to being oppressive and we need to continuously struggle with these issues.
- Dialogue and discussion are necessary and we need to learn how to listen non-defensively and communicate respectfully if we are going to have effective anti-oppression practice. Challenge yourself to be honest and open and take risks to address oppression head on.?
I quote these principles at length, because I believe that LA was a major jump forward in terms of organizing and that the lessons are critical. The Convergence Space was located in a predominately Central American immigrant community. Organizers went door to door throughout the neighborhood to hand out literature in both English and Spanish. Organizers explained what the Convergence Space was, what the actions against the DNC were about. Additionally, people in the community were informed about how they could participate. This kind of work takes time, patience and dedication to building a people?s movement and it should be recognized and remembered.
The actions that took place throughout the week were mostly marches. From the first march for Mumia to the last march for immigrant rights, they generally ended at the Staples Center where the Democrats were meeting. Many of the marches connected local issues and struggles with national and international issues and struggles. Like the march and civil disobedience action at the Ramparts police station. Ramparts is currently under federal investigation as a result of police brutality scandals. The march and action had demands that were specific to LA, but the connection to police violence (particularly against communities of color) throughout the United States was made clear.
The actions were also organized with the context of a certain strategy. The strategy was about building the local activist community in Los Angeles, as well as the larger movement for social change. The organizing actively worked to bring together a much more diverse movement on the streets of LA than in Seattle or in Washington, DC. The focus on community organizing and local issues put into the context of global capitalism was one part of the strategy, and the other was tactics. The marches in LA mostly had legal permits. There were action guidelines for the marches which emphasized non-violence and refraining from property destruction. There was an enormous amount of controversy about tactics. There were arguments about violence vs. non-violence, what the role of property destruction is or isn?t and what is radical and what is reformist. However, most of these debates lacked analysis of strategy, or a sense of goals. Mostly white activists argued with each other about who is more revolutionary and who is more ethically correct. The debate often looked like this ? those who denounce property destruction are reformist, those who encourage property destruction are violent and morally questionable. Neither of these positions is grounded in strategic thinking. While these debates are perhaps interesting over beer or coffee, they are not the most useful when organizing with thousands of people (or even four). Our debates over tactics should be framed by goals.
The tactics utilized in LA had thought behind them, ?How can we bring a radical and diverse movement to the streets during the DNC?? LA organizers repeatedly explained that confrontation with the police has different consequences depending on who you are. For undocumented immigrants who get arrested in a march, the punishment involves the INS, detention and/or deportation. For people who have a criminal record, the punishment could include another strike in a ?3 strikes and your out? state or longer jail time. The number of people who have prior records with the police jumps disproportionately in communities of color (i.e. Driving While Black or Brown). For people who are transgendered, the LAPD deny you the ability to define your own gender and sexuality and tell you what gender they think you are and put you in jail accordingly. Furthermore, for people of color, the experience with the police is different from what largely middle class white activists experience. Police violence is a major way that racial oppression impacts communities of color. White people, generally speaking, are not assumed by police to be criminals when walking into a store or when driving in a ?nice? neighborhood ? this is how white privilege operates. White radicals who don?t challenge their white privilege, will not be able to see what is profoundly radical about communities of color mobilized, regardless of whether or not the march is legal. For example, one of the Latino organizers of the permitted march against the Ramparts police station, has had his house raided by the police for his work and he expected more heat from them for this march (legal or not). In Los Angeles it wasn?t just about how to bring out immigrants, trannies and queers, and people of color into the actions. In many instances, these were the people actively involved in the organizing.
Helen Luu, an anti-global capitalism organizer, explained how she sees white privilege operating in the movement. ?The clearest example may be the (usually sole) focus on direct action, which almost always also means direct police confrontation. While I do support direct action, I think that the emphasis on this method alone often works to exclude people of colour because what is not being taken into account is the relationship between the racist (in)justice system and people of colour. The white standpoint used in organizing also works to marginalize the activism that people of colour are involved with because other forms of activism are looked down upon as not being radical enough. Who gets to decide what is ?radical? anyway?? She explains further that, ?People in positions of privilege (white, male, straight, etc.) have to know when to step back and acknowledge that they can learn a lot from marginalized groups, that these groups don?t just need to be ?taught?. Genuine solidarity is something that is essential if we want to further this movement. We have to support each others? work.?
This debate on the streets of LA demonstrated several things to me. One, the role of anti-racist white radicals in multiracial organizing. In LA, there should have been more white organizers who actively worked to explain to other white activists why certain tactics had been chosen. I talked with a lot of white activists who understood the strategy once it was explained. The responsibility to explain this should not fall on the shoulders of already overworked organizers of color, who already spend too much time explaining racism to white people. Two, the need for more movement-wide discussions about strategy, vision and goals. What do we hope to accomplish, using what tactics, in what situations? Connecting tactics to goals is useful, as it helps us think about how we want to get from this world of injustice to a future of collective liberation. It can also help us move from attacking each other?s beliefs and focus on organizing and winning. It?s also important that we set our own goals. In LA, the media constantly referred to our goals in the context of numbers of people at marches (if there was less than 10,000 we failed). In the absence of our own goals, the corporate media decides them for us. We can?t fall into that trap. When we set our own goals, then we can have a basis to evaluate our own successes and mistakes. Then we can also discuss our tactics in relationship to how they help us achieve our goals.
The goals that I thought a lot about in LA, and continue to think about are as following:
- to develop our ability to critique existing society, developing our analysis of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism and authoritarianism.
- to develop our ability to create and hold onto vision, a vision of a radically transformed society based on cooperation, justice and ecological sustainability.
- to develop our sense of power (challenging both the ways that we are privileged and the ways that we are oppressed) in order to shape history and make our visions a reality.
- to actively participate in the building of radical multiracial, anti-racist, feminist, queer liberationist, anti-capitalist movements dedicated to solidarity and self-determination.
- to work for collective liberation, remembering that my liberation is interdependent with your liberation.
- have a damn good time.
Through our goals we can develop strategies that go beyond immediate actions or campaigns. Where do we want this movement to be in a year, or five or ten? What can we do to move in that direction? Here?s an example. Pauline Hwang is an organizer in Montreal, Canada. She has been working against global capitalism and wants to see a stronger multiracial movement. The summit to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas will be taking place in Quebec City, Canada in April 2001. Pauline helped start a loose network of activists called Colours of Resistance that is beginning to create space to discuss, research and analyze global capitalism and its particular impact on communities of color. The group?s first event will focus on immigration. The network?s focus is primarily on organizing within communities of color. What is needed is white radicals doing anti-racist work with white activists and predominately white groups. This is also part of the strategy of Colours of Resistance, as both racial oppression and white privilege must be dismantled.
The organizing that took place in Los Angeles was not flawless, but it did grapple with major questions of movement building and resistance. My hope is that we learn from those experiences and continue struggling with these questions in our day to day work. Looking for the important questions and lessons is most times better than thinking we have all the answers.
An excellent book that has lots of nuts and bolts organizing ideas is Organizing For Social Change: a manual for activists in the 1990?s by Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max. For more information about the Direct Action Network check out www.directactionnetwork.org