Since the day Obama walked into the White House, people have been quoting the story, which he himself told on the campaign trail, about FDR’s alleged challenge to A. Philip Randolph to “go out and make me” end discrimination against African Americans in government hiring. (The story may be apocryphal; it was apparently told to Tavis Smiley by Harry Belafonte who heard it from Eleanor Roosevelt.) Every left-wing commentator points out ad infinitem that if we want Obama to do anything, or if we want Congress to do anything, we need to create a movement to make them do it.
That goes without saying. It did before Obama and it will long after Obama.
What I don’t hear people talking about nearly enough is what it takes to build such a movement. It’s not as simple as 1-2-3. Okay, we need a movement, let’s go buy one at Wal-Mart or log on and sign up at createamovement.org. Wanting it doesn’t get it done, and neither does believing it’s necessary.
One thing I had forgotten, is that Obama told the story in response to a question about finding a just solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. That’s pretty significant, because that is one issue on which we know Obama has flip-flopped since coming into public life. So we can assume that the policy he’s pursuing, of total appeasement toward Israel, is based on opportunism and not deeply held belief. Does it matter? Well it might, especially since policy toward Israel, as people like Walt and Mearsheimer have pointed out, is one area on which elite interest and the interests of justice could be made to, or made out to, coincide. And on the other hand, it’s one issue on which the interests opposed to justice are highly mobilized to stop any change from occurring. But so were the Dixiecrats. Kennedy and Johnson and their allies were deeply beholden to the southern Democrats, and for years they tried to ignore, marginalize, criminalize and defuse the civil rights movement until they couldn’t any more. The civil rights movement made them do it.
It’s also a popular myth – professor Chomsky, among others, spreads it – that U.S. policy toward South Africa changed in the 1980s because the government simply changed its mind, that the U.S. government was an early opponent of apartheid. Not true. U.S. policy towards South Africa changed because of several years of intense organizing following the Soweto uprising in 1976, and that organizing built on decades of less intense but no less critical organizing by groups such as the Committee of Americans for South African Resistance (AFSAR), of which Philip Randolph incidentally was an active member, and the Congressional Black Caucus. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was only passed in 1986 (by overriding a veto by president Ronald Reagan), 14 years after the first anti-apartheid legislation was introduced by Ron Dellums, 25 years after the first boycott legislation was passed in Europe, and 24 years after the International Olympic Committee voted to exclude South Africa.
So by that standard, the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions to end Israeli apartheid is doing pretty well right now. But what hasn’t happened, at least certainly not in the Bay Area, is any upswelling of activism aimed at, or with a prayer of, making Obama (or anyone else in officialdom) change his policy toward Israel.
In thinking about this question, I Googled “How to make a successful social movement” and the first thing that came up was something I’ve read a bunch of times before, “8 Stages of Successful Social Movements” by Bill Moyer. Well worth re-reading. One of the things that’s helpful about Moyer’s movement trajectory is that he incorporates down-turns as well as up-turns. So Stage 4 is “Take-Off” at which time “A catalytic (“trigger”) event occurs that starkly and clearly conveys the problem to the public” – think the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 or the assault on Gaza a year ago, or the threatened collapse of the U.S. economy – as a result of which, building on previous organizing by the movement, “The problem is finally put on ‘society’s agenda.’”
Most of us assume that once that happens, it’s full steam ahead. We think of the Montgomery Bus Boycott as the trigger and wiping out six years of ups and downs before the lunch counter sit-ins began, we see an inexorable urge toward the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Stage 5, in Moyer’s outline, is "Movement Identity Crisis — A Sense of Failure and Powerlessness,” during which time “Those who joined the movement when it was growing in Stage 4 expect rapid success. When this doesn’t happen there is often hopelessness and burn-out.” And, says Moyer, “It seems that this is the end of the movement; in fact, it is now that the real work begins.”
So if I look at any of the movements I’ve been focusing on in the last few years: Palestine solidarity/BDS, anti-war, anti-torture, health care, I would say they’re nearly all in Stage 5 right now. Okay, so what does Moyer say to do in Stage 5? “Recognize that movement is nearing Stage Six and pursue goals appropriate to that stage.”
What’s Stage 6?
“Winning Majority Public Opinion. The movement deepens and broadens, finds ways to involve citizens and institutions from a broad perspective to address this problem. Growing public opposition puts the problem on the political agenda; the political price that some powerholders have to pay to maintain their policies grows to become an untenable liability. The consensus of the powerholders on this issue fractures, leading to proposals from the powerholders for change (often these proposals are for cosmetic change). The majority of the public is now more concerned about the problem and less concerned about the movement’s proposed change. Often there is a new catalytic event (re-enacting Stage 4).”
Wait, so if we’re at the stage of hopelessness and burnout, dwindling numbers at actions, that means we’re on the verge of winning majority public opinion? Maybe, maybe not. But part of the equation is that “new catalytic event,” and I think we can pretty much count on those. Israel will for sure take some new aggressive action before too long, because when has it not? The U.S. economy is too unstable not to have another, bigger crisis (not that this one is anywhere near over). Certainly Haiti could have been a trigger if the movement were in a position to remind people about Katrina.
So the real question is, what do we need to do to be ready to respond to the next catalytic event in a way that pushes us forward, instead of backward?
One of the things that occurs to me in looking at the movements that have been successful in this country is that nearly all of them have been strongly rooted in a specific community and culture. So, for instance, I looked at the website of the Building Movement Project, which looks at case studies of five nonprofits which moved to incorporate a social change agenda into their social service work. The stories are fascinating and inspiring, and one of the things I noticed about them are that they are all working with or in a very specific community. Several are primarily immigrant-oriented, all are limited to a pretty narrow geographic area (a city or neighborhood).
When I think about social movements in this country that have succeeded in bringing about significant social change, I think of the anti-apartheid movement, the civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers, the women’s movement, the AIDS treatment access movement, the retirees movement. And all of these movements were fairly culturally homogeneous, not necessarily in terms of who participated, but in terms of where their leadership was coming from and having a strong cultural base in one community or another. I mentioned this to a friend who said, “What about the labor movement?” But I think that the labor movement actually illustrates this point perfectly. We call it “the labor movement,” but in fact, it was many different movements. It’s not like “labor” suddenly rose up and demanded respect and contracts and got it. Every industry, often every workplace, had to be organized uniquely (and still does) and the organizing had to take into account who the people were who were working in that industry. The UFW involved thousands of organizers from many different backgrounds, but its heart and soul were in the Chicano community. The New York garment industry was organized by Jewish and Italian immigrant women, drawing on Eastern European and Italian traditions of labor militancy. The civil rights movement, of course, was rooted in the Black church, the anti-apartheid movement in the African American intelligentsia. The feminist movement had its base in primarily educated middle-class women, the AIDS movement among middle-class white gay men.
I am not trying to say that movements should be homogeneous, but I think one problem nowadays is that too many of the movements I’ve been part of have had as one of their goals being something they are not. We’re embarrassed about being who we are, we are not coming out of a place of pride in our community and wanting to flex our power, the way that the immigrant rights May Day marches have been. Instead we are well-meaning people who want to help others, or we are people who are ashamed of what our country is doing, or we are professional organizers “working with” a population we are not part of, or we are trying to become part of another culture because we don’t have one we identify with, or we are leftists who basically feel alienated from our whole society. And I just don’t see any of that as a recipe for success.
One of the things I always try to do with groups I’m in is look at who we are, and then try to figure out who we can influence. I think the trend in social movements right now is to do the opposite – to do power mapping, to look at who has the power to change the policy we’re focused on, who has influence over those people, and then try to craft a strategy to reach those influential people. So, for instance, I’ve sat in too many meetings where everyone insisted that the key to a successful movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is campus activism, and we talked about that for two hours before recognizing that we had no students in the room. Or people were determined to target Lockheed Martin, which is really hard if you don’t know anyone who runs an airline. On the other hand, QUIT! (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) set a goal as getting our local queer film festival to stop taking Israeli money, and we’ve been successful in getting them to take the issue seriously and recognize that it is not going away.
If FDR in fact told Philip Randolph to make him act to eliminate federal job discrimination against African Americans, he knew that Randolph had the constituency and the clout to do that. Randolph was the leader of the first African American trade union, and together with Bayard Rustin and A.J. Muste was threatening to organize a March on Washington in 1941 to demand integration of the armed forces. Obama, on the other hand, knows that we don’t have the base to make him change his policy on Palestine or on health care or end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We can’t bring a million people to Washington, not for single payer, not for justice for Palestine, not against the war. So why should he listen to us?
Either we are going to go home and wait for someone who does have a base to build a movement we can cheer from the wings, or we’re each going to give some thought to who we are and whom we can bring with us. I don’t mean the kind of “What 5 people are you going to bring to the next meeting?” exercise that the Organizing Institute people always make us do, but that we all do come from somewhere, we all live somewhere, almost all of us work somewhere, we all have people who care about us, and it’s time we start thinking seriously and strategically about how we can get those people into our movements. Because that’s what it will take to “make them do it.”