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Possibilities of a Movement: Reflections on RNC Organizing

By: 
Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    The demonstrations that surrounded the Republican National Convention (RNC) this past summer were the largest counter convention protests since the two major parties first started holding them way back in 1832 and 1856 respectively.

Half a million people took to the streets on August 29th against 'The Bush Agenda' in a march organized by United for Peace & Justice (UFPJ). The following day the Still We Rise coalition, representing several of New York's most affected and marginalized communities put together an impressive march and rally, highlighting specifically the issues affecting low income and people of color communities.

On August 31st the A31 coalition organized a day of direct action and civil disobedience in which over 1,000 people were arrested bringing the weeks total up over 1,800. These actions were complimented by hundreds of other smaller events ranging from mass bike rides, community speak outs, candle light vigils, and conferences aimed at furthering discussion around long term strategy and vision.

So were the mobilizations against the RNC a success? It depends on who you ask, how you frame the question, and of course how you define 'success'. In an effort to continue the dialogue around the effectiveness and impacts of our collective movements, we asked several activists all of whom played integral roles both leading up to and during the RNC protests to talk about their experiences. We asked them to identify some of the strengths of the mobilizations as well as some things that we need to continue to work on if we are to seriously confront empire within its heart.

UFPJ march assessment
– Hany Khalil

On August 29th more than 500,000 people from all over the United States participated in United for Peace and Justice march to express their opposition to the Bush administration's policies, particularly in Iraq. Media coverage of the [August 29th] march dominated the opening day of the convention, damaging the Republicans' ability to portray their policies as justified by 9/11 and showing the world that Bush's empire-building agenda is far from uncontested at home. The march was incredibly uplifting to its participants, and people left energized to fight the Bush agenda through November's Presidential election and long after.

The main thing I think we got right was aiming to build a large-scale, broad-based, demonstration that would unite the fairly left antiwar movement with a much larger sea of movements and constituencies opposed to the right-wing's domestic and/or foreign policies. Our demonstration slogan "The World Says No to the Bush Agenda: No to War, Lies, Greed, & Hate" engaged people far beyond the active core of the antiwar movement and brought us into relationship with them.

We gave special attention to building with communities most impacted by the domestic side of the "war on terrorism." Volunteer organizers spent many hours contacting and building trust with Latino community-based organizations, Islamic centers, labor unions, South Asian immigrant rights groups, African American church leaders, youth groups, etc. And for months volunteers blanketed all five boroughs with upwards of a million multilingual leaflets. The fact that such a broad range of forces came together reflected a growing recognition that all of our movements have a life-and-death interest in defeating the many-sided, right-wing offensive in order to begin moving the US in a progressive direction, and that can only happen if we unite our power and speak in one voice.

We faced a Mayor, backed by Washington, who sought to lower march turnout first by denying us a permit to end our march with a rally in Central Park and then telling us the rally would either be on the sun-baked West Side Highway or no way. The publicity we got over the battle for Central Park cut two ways: On the one hand, it enabled us to get word of the march out to a much wider audience and helped bring out folks concerned about the right-wing's assault on our rights at home and the ongoing privatization of public space in New York.

However it also scared others away from the march — in particular people of color and immigrants who have good reason to fear encounters with the police, as well as coalitions outside New York that needed lead-time and the certainty of a permitted march to fill their buses. We also faced a full-fledged disinformation campaign from the police and right-wing media to scare people away from all our marches with stories of violent protestors preparing to take over New York's streets.

Ultimately, the fact that our organizing was reaching a large and broad range of ordinary people far beyond the fairly small core of the antiwar movement was the key both to forcing the city to give us a march route through mid-town Manhattan and to limiting the damage of the police and media's scare campaign.

The main area we need to work on is translating our antiwar mobilizing into organizing. United for Peace and Justice made important progress in building ties with groups and movements before the march, but we did not have a conscious follow-up plan for after the march. We also did not have a plan to bring the hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated people who came to the march into sustained participation in our grassroots organizations and to develop their leadership.

Hany Khalil is Organizing Coordinator for United for Peace and Justice. With more than 800 member groups, United for Peace and Justice is the largest and broadest US-based antiwar coalition.

Still We Rise
– Ejaris Dixon

The NYPD, says that it takes about 5,000 people to fill a Manhattan street block, (it's the one thing I'm comfortable taking their word for). And I was just counting, 1,2,3,4,5,6, damn--that was as far as I could see because I'm 5'2--and I was thinking, "all these people are here for our march? For real?" I wondered to myself, "Is this what a movement looks like?"

The Still We Rise Poor People's March and Rally for Justice was an effort of 50 community based organizations in NYC that work on economic justice issues. We organized to say to the Republican Party, "you can not come into our city and get the whitewashed clean version, where all of the people of color are gone, where all the low income people are gone, where all of the homeless people are swept off of the streets." We organized to bring the real New York to Madison Square Garden, because 30% of New Yorkers are living under the poverty line, and because our issues are the issues that New Yorkers face.

I'm not an optimist. Nor am I a theorist. I am not the type of person to hopefully, expectantly, or theoretically throw around words like "movement" or "revolution." And I'm not trying to say that the mobilization that I happened to be involved in organizing created a movement. But the conversations, support, and alliances that the organizing for the RNC generated, have put the left and especially the left of New York City in a much stronger position.

Often community organizing is perceived as not as exciting, revolutionary, or meaningful as other types of social justice work. Organizing the march was our opportunity to confront the oppressive and patronizing ways that activists can engage with community organizations and our members. It was our time to premiere our members also known as "the unorganizable," "the real people," "the masses," as leaders who strategically made decisions out of their own experiences, who had their own movement, on their own terms.

I must give props to the "movement" for learning some important lessons in respect. Throughout the summer, I saw people struggling with their privilege and working on appropriate ways to interact with us more than I ever had before. I experienced a lot more of "tell me what my place is," "how can I get resources for you," and "how can I support you?" from activists. This created a respectful atmosphere which lead to trust and ultimately to the possibility of strategic alliances. We have to address each other with respect, we have to come to the table with respect, we have to create places in which we can enter as our whole selves, and places where our life experiences are invaluable pieces of the dialogue.

We have entered a time where we need each other more than ever before and we need to keep finding more effective ways to build trust and to be able to make strategic, intelligent collaborations, where we can effectively wield our power to make change. For the measure by which we are able to make change is the same measure by which we are able to survive.

Ejeris Dixon is the Lead Child Care Organizer with FUREE and is a Still We Rise Coordinating Committee Member. She can be reached at: [email protected],

Rooting mass mobilizations
– Monami Maulik

DRUM is a membership based organization of working class immigrants fighting state violence on a day-to-day basis. For us the RNC was an opportunity to participate in a large-scale mobilization taking place in our back-yard, something that would heighten our collective resistance as left movements to US imperialism. Unfortunately it also seemed to be another missed opportunity to build genuine cross-movement alliances that we will need if we are serious about taking down empire.

For eight months leading up to the RNC, DRUM was a part of Still We Rise/ Racial Justice 911 coalition which was made up of over a dozen grassroots people of color organizations in NYC building analysis and action in poor communities of color during this election period and beyond. Since our People's Assembly in May, where over 200 people of color (immigrant deportees, families of prisoners, domestic workers, and youth) shared dialogue and strategies on the war at home and abroad, we have been building a People's Agenda through community meetings, surveys, and actions.

Weeks before the RNC began, the police started sweeping the same low-wage immigrant workers who have been detained and deported by the thousands from New York under the "War on Terror." So DRUM organized an Immigrant Justice Mela (Street Fair) & March in Jackson Heights, Queens. Our members wanted to make our demands heard loud and clear and in a way that is safe for families already targeted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Over 200 of our community members were joined by immigrants from Chinatown, youth of color from Brooklyn, and street vendors from El Barrio to share information, speak out against the RNC, and march together.

Our community action energized and emboldened DRUM members to take to the streets the entire week of the RNC; they took much greater risks than most of us, often with nothing left to lose. As we battled police and media intimidation leading up to and during RNC week, we also battled the tangible divide between community-led movements of poor people of color and mainly white direct action or "mass mobilization" activists.

DRUM members planned our community action for the RNC period to bring together direct action activists in solidarity with our community based struggle for global justice. Disappointingly, few to no RNC activists came out to stand in solidarity with DRUM's immigrant community-led action in Queens. However, as some DRUM members spoke at various conferences and retreats about the RNC, we saw these venues dominated by mostly white direct action activists and very few working class people of color from communities.

It is this same old divide that we must actively dismantle if we are to wage strategic struggles against the state. Poor people of color who face the brunt of attacks under imperialism, and our organizations, are generating analysis and strategy, but direct action movements are still disconnected. Privilege (race, class, gender, citizenship, sexuality) still dictates who gets to build political analysis that is heard, write anti-globalization articles, travel cross country or across the globe for actions, 'retreats,' and 'conferences,' and who doesn't.

The RNC in New York City showed us that we need new models. There should be no more direct action mobilizations targeting finance centers of cities alone while community based peoples' movements are isolated and hard-pressed to turn out allies. For mass mobilizations to be effective at challenging imperialism, people's movements waged through day-to-day organizing by poor people of color and Third World people must be actively supported and at the center of global justice movements.

This does not mean calling up community based organizations a week before

Monami Maulik is Co-founder & Organizer at DRUM- Desis Rising Up & Moving. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Direct action organizing
– Mike McGuire, Green Bloc

I think the best of the RNC mobilization was the UFPJ march on Sunday the 29th. It brought over 500,000 people to the streets outside the RNC and it didn't become a rally for Kerry. There was a massive amount of politics in the streets, but little of it found expression within the constraints of our formal political system. This gives me hope for the struggles of the coming years. Even if a few of these 500,000+ do flee the United States of Bu$h, the majority will be here to fight and won't look to the Democratic Party for leadership.

This is especially remarkable given two other marches that preceded the election: the March for Women's Lives and the Million Worker March. The March for Women's Lives was as much a Democratic rally as anything else. They brought out Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeline Albright, Nancy Pelosi, etc. to convince us that Kerry would be our savior. The politics of the Million Worker March, on the other hand, was expressly independent, and for this it was directly opposed by union leadership and in some cases undermined. When UFPJ brought people together to march under their own banners we saw a greater depth in US political thought than seen elsewhere.

The worst of the RNC mobilization for me was the dynamic that developed around the organizing for the August 31st day of direct action and civil disobedience (A31). We are a movement that seeks to be leaderless, but in this mobilization we ended up attributing a lot of power to a few people and then using that to resent them. A lot of blame and concern was thrown the way of a long time and dedicated organizer, effectively shutting her out of the A31 process.

Shortly after we started our spokes councils there was another inappropriate attribution of power. Folks placed blame on facilitators for our collective failures in process. The work was not easy. Rather than finding a room full of helpful collaborators, facilitators often experienced a rather poisoned environment. One facilitator said after a meeting that she felt "set up."

We had a series of very bad meetings and in the end it was hard to get through and recover from that. I think it's good to be critical and to try and correct errors, but one of the challenges and virtues of our movement is that we are all meant to step up to the plate. In spite of all the blame that was hurled after the spokes councils, folks did not respond to invitations to help out with the facilitation/process working group.

Still, we were able to work through this and pull off a decent day of action. We did not achieve what many of us hoped for, but by the end of the day we had shut down mid-town Manhattan and given a clear indicator of our rejection of the Bush agenda.

SIAFU: bringin da ruckus
­– Maria Poblet

SIAFU was the name of a group of activists from the San Francisco Bay Area that came together to protest the Republican National Convention of 2004. The name was taken from a tiny West African ant, ants that work so effectively as a collective that together they are able to take down animals as big as elephants.

We participated in the RNC protests because we thought it was important to oppose the Bush regime and its imperialist agenda at this historic moment. †We thought it was important to have a presence in the streets, specifically as anti-imperialists, as a group composed primarily of people of color and women, organizing in working class communities in an effort to build links between every day base building work and direct action.

SIAFU sought to connect the daily struggles of our communities to a relevant analysis of the RNC and the system of imperialism. We also sought to engage in larger movement building work including and extending beyond the elections. To that end, SIAFU organized a two-prong attack on the Republicans. One part was a march in Oakland, September 2, 2004. Another was a delegation to the RNC protests in New York City that was coordinated with local grassroots and activist groups. In addition to those, we later collaborated with other groups to lead an anti-imperialist march the day after the elections, in San Francisco.

We learned that this bi-coastal approach was effective in strengthening and deepening our movement. †The Oakland march brought together groups fighting for justice in employment, housing, immigration, health, and beyond. †Members of grassroots organizations led this action, together with SIAFU activists. At the same time, the various protests in New York allowed us an even larger vision of movement building. †We worked with grassroots groups in New York, particularly Still We Rise, and learned a lot from their experiences and expertise in combining base building and direct action.

We shared the streets with a broad cross sector of Anti-Bush protesters, from Democrats to anarchists, from communists to community activists. On both coasts, we took the streets with songs and chants in several languages, and integrated the toyi toyi, a protest tradition we learned from comrades in the South African Anti-Apartheid movement.

A key weakness that we noted was our lack of strategy. Beyond the broad vision of "movement building" we have not built a coherent, concrete direction for our movement. Strategy is a crucial question in this difficult period of disorganization/disorientation on the left. The RNC provided valuable lessons about fusing grassroots organizing and mass mobilization.

Now we must ask ourselves some of the deeper questions: What kind of movement can seriously challenge imperialism and win? What role should working class communities of color in the US play in a revolutionary movement and how should concrete solidarity be built between movements in the US and movements in the third world? What campaigns, organizations, and targets should we take on in order to grow this movement? Engaging in these questions and in the struggle on the ground will both be essential in stopping the rise of the right and laying the groundwork for real liberation.

Maria Poblet organizes with the working class immigrant Latino community in San Francisco's mission district. She is a member of SIAFU

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Uhlenbeck is an organizer who works and lives in New York City. For the past year he has been on the program committee for the Life After Capitalism 2004 Conference. He can be reached at max (at) riseup.net