Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are We Missing Our Own Party?

On Friday it was sunny but cold out, so I decided to go eat lunch in the Ferry Building, where I could stay warm but enjoy the view of the Bay and the boats. As I crossed the median strip between Market and Embarcadero, I noticed a Palestinian flag. I looked to see what it was and realized there was a small group of people – maybe 20 – with a number of different flags, all in the red, black, white and green common to the Arab world. I didn’t know but assumed that one was Egypt, one probably Libya, maybe another Tunisia. I got closer and realized that they were friends of mine, women from Code Pink and people from the various Palestine solidarity groups. I stopped for a moment, gave them a fist pump, but I was still in lunchtime mode, only 45 minutes left to eat and do an errand, so I wasn’t going to join the demo. Someone was talking through a bullhorn. I tried to understand what she was saying, but the bullhorn mike was too close to her mouth and the sound was muffled. I heard a number, like 700,000 something, but I wasn’t sure what it referred to. At first glance, I didn’t see any signs in English. When I looked more closely, there were some, no doubt saying “End US Aid to Israel,” “Down with Dictators,” all the things we typically say.

I understand that earlier there were a record number of journalists and the media coverage was great. Maybe there were also more people and the message was clearer. But for me, as a passerby, it was incomprehensible. Well, that’s unfair. Someone who wanted to comprehend it would be able to, but someone just walking by who was not Arab and not engaged in the issues would not be clear about who these people were or why they were standing there. I didn’t see anyone handing out leaflets, and there was certainly nothing that they were encouraging workers in the area to do.

Yesterday, I mentioned my impression to one of the organizers, which I probably should not have done. She said, “Well, that’s okay because we really just did it for ourselves.” Now I have said many times that cheering ourselves up is a perfectly legitimate reason to do actions. I do it all the time. There are times, lots of times, most of our times, when that’s the best we can do. This is not one of those times. This is a time when having a strategy could really pay off.

This is a moment when we should be able to build our movements by the tens of thousands. Whether we’re organizing workers or promoting international solidarity or confronting police violence or fighting budget cuts, we should be able to use the rising tide of mass mobilization and people power to get people to join us and support us. But there seems to be a perception or belief on the left that that is going to happen spontaneously, or even that it is already happening, that we don’t have to do anything but go out there and people will be inspired and connect with us. In meeting after meeting, I ask, “Does anyone else work in a corporate setting?” If anyone nodded, they would presumably know why I was asking. But in fact, no one ever does nod. My coworkers, who are mostly nonengaged leftists, are certainly interested in and supportive of the uprisings in Egypt and Libya and the protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest, but they neither hear about the solidarity protests before they happen nor would they consider going if they did. But they could, if someone asked them to. During the early part of the Iraq War, I saw many of them at protests. Even a few years ago, a group of workers from the copy center went to an anti-war protest on their lunch hour, because one of them had gotten a flier from The World Can’t Wait outside of a bookstore on Market Street. The conclusion I’m forced to draw is that most activists in this area, at least, do not regularly interact with nonactivists.

I spent most of yesterday at a meeting about boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, so I wasn’t able to join my friend, who works for the State of California, at the San Francisco demonstration in solidarity with public workers in Wisconsin. I guess it was pretty big, but none of the local people at the meeting I was at seemed to know about it. The thing is that you can have a pretty big demonstration attended by mainly public workers, because there are a lot of them. But that can also make you think that you are building a movement that extends beyond your interest group, and you’re not.

The actions in Wisconsin (which sadly do NOT (yet) comprise an uprising or a revolution, inspired as they may have been by the uprisings in North Africa), give public sector unions an unprecedented opportunity to gain support from nonunionized private sector workers. This is the time when union organizers in every city should be leafleting outside every transportation depot that carries people to their jobs in the morning, reminding workers that the unions are fighting for them, even if they don’t know it. If I were them, I would be making a palm card or a sign that said, “You have an eight-hour day [5 day week, minimum wage, sick pay] because of us.” Moreover, I would be printing up fliers that say, “Don’t ask why we should have benefits you don’t, ask how you can get them too.” Maybe the unions are doing that somewhere, but they are not doing it at the carpool drop-off point where I and thousands of my fellow San Francisco workers pour out of cars every day, or at the entrances to the BART stations in the evenings. They’re not even out there suggesting that we join their solidarity protests or send a pizza to the Capitol in Madison. They seem to be satisfied with opinion polls showing that 60% of Wisconsinites support the unions. 60% doesn’t actually seem that good, given what they have been doing.

For us in the international solidarity movements, particularly solidarity with parts of the Middle East, this is a time when we can really capitalize on the positive images of Arab people that are for once appearing daily in our media. But we cannot imagine that people are going to leap from those to coming out to our actions or telling their representatives to oppose U.S. aid to Israel. We need to think about what would get us from what we are: a pretty insular, but steadily growing, minority voice, to a serious factor in U.S. policy. One small idea that came up at our meeting last night: posters featuring identical photos of protesters in Egypt and Palestine being greeted with the same weapons, both provided by our tax money, with the caption, “Support Democracy in the Middle East, End U.S. Aid to Egypt and Israel.” And a website where people could actually find out how to do that.

This is a time when if we had a clear, simple target for boycott/divestment, we could make huge inroads, especially if we could show that it was connected both to repression in Palestine and in the Arab world (which many of them are). Because we haven’t done the ground work, we may not be poised to take advantage of this moment. But if it tells us anything, it is that there will be another, and the next time, we have no excuse not to be ready.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

We Are All Egyptians

I started writing this last Monday, but I couldn't finish it. A type of awe built inside me as I watched the events in Egypt unfold. They speak for themselves and any effort to interpret or encapsulate them feels inappropriate. At the same time, all of us who are activists anywhere in the world need to ask, "What can we learn from their example?" The people of North Africa have created an opportunity for activists all over the world, by showing that change in a progressive direction is possible. The Egyptians forced the United States government to change its allegiance. And that in itself is just a humongous accomplishment. We have an obligation to them, as well as to ourselves, to look for a way to capitalize on it.

Some local activists respond by doing the same things they always do, stubbornly insisting that there's no magic bullet, that it's just a matter of doing it over and over again. Jeff Mackler, from Socialist Action and the new United National Action Committee, said that on KPFA's Morning Mix the other day. ANSWER has embodied that belief by calling solidarity demonstrations fastly and furiously, or perhaps by putting their name and their signs in front of demonstrations that were going to happen anyway. San Francisco Women In Black, my group, did it by holding our regular monthly vigil and adding a few signs about solidarity with Egyptian women.

Other activists of my generation and older have seized on the media analysis of these revolutions by saying "We have to use Facebook and Twitter." I can save them the trouble. I use Facebook and Twitter and it gets me nowhere. No one signs up for my events, no one retweets my tweets. It's hard not to take it personally, but I don't really think it's a reflection on the wisdom or relevance of my posts (though I could sure be wrong). It's that most of my friends are not spending much time logged into Facebook, and they won't log in just to sign up for my events. Only a few of them are on Twitter, and if they know how to follow me, they might read my tweets now and then but they don't retweet. Neither do I. I follow about 20 people, fewer than follow me (and let me apologize to anyone who does follow me because they don't get much, I generally remember to tweet every two months or so), but I have never once retweeted any post, however profound (and it's hard to be profound in 140 characters).

Last Saturday, my friend Preeti and I were on the way to UN Plaza for the demonstration in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising. She mentioned that all her friends said they were going, and commented, "If this were about some local issue, none of them would be going." We were just on time, and there were a lot of people in the plaza already. Some people said 5,000 or more. I am not good at crowds so I won't even try to estimate, but I know that the largest demonstrations I attended last year demanding single payer health care, or even the more moderate call for a public option, had about 200 people at them. I repeated Preeti's comment to some of my friends. They all said the same thing: "Well, but there wouldn't be a million people out there."

I said, "Well, the only reason there are a million people in Tahrir Square is because everyone came."

That seemed a truism to me, but the people I said it to apparently hadn't thought of it. Some of them looked confused.

A couple days later on Democracy Now!, I heard the video created by social media activist and April 6 Movement member Asmaa Mahfouz. This is the video callout that has been credited with kicking off the Egyptian uprising, although doubtless it was only one strand of the social braid that converged on the square. But the line in Mahfouz's video that especially caught my attention was this one:

"Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people, I want to tell him, 'You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets.' Your presence with us will make a difference, a big difference."

Okay, you may say, but really she knew that they would not just be a handful of people. She was just responding to the type of thing people usually say.

You'd be wrong.

Earlier in the video she tells this tale, "Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying, 'May God forgive him. He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.' … I posted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I'll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor. I even wrote my number so maybe people will come down with me. No one came except three guys—three guys and three armored cars of riot police."

No one came except three guys. That was on January 18. So what changed between that day and January 25? In another video she posted on the 24th, this is what she said.

"Tomorrow is the 25th, the day we've been waiting for, the day we all worked so hard for. The most beautiful thing about it is that those who worked on this were not politicians at all. It was all of us, all Egyptians. We worked hard. Children no older than 14, they printed the poster and started distributing it after prayers. Old people in their sixties and seventies helped, as well. People distributed it everywhere they could—in taxis, at the metro, in the street, in schools, universities, companies, government agencies. All of Egypt awaits tomorrow."

Asmaa didn't say anything about Facebook or Twitter. It's not that they didn't use it. It's been well documented that they did. But those media were supplemental to the old face-to-face ways of organizing. They are great for mobilizing the wired generation, the ones who never go more than a few seconds without checking their iPhones or Blackberries. But the key was the handing it out after prayers, in taxis, at the metro, in schools. That's the piece that we seem to have forgotten. Many actions these days are organized without even a paper flier. Email blasts have replaced phone trees. Admittedly, some actions organized exclusively online work out better than those where we try to use all the methods we know. Our actions for single payer in 2008 are an example – we did phone calls, we did fliering, we had trainings, and ultimately, we had the same 200 people that we can usually get. I can't explain why exactly. Some combination of people not having belief that it would do any good and not feeling the issue was a priority.

And the fact that their friends were not doing it. I know this for a fact. More than any other factor, what makes people decide to participate in something or not is whether or not their community – friends, family, church groups, whatever – is doing it. That's what Facebook is great for among those who use it for their social as well as their political networking. (Remember, it is a "social network.") It lets people know that they won't be showing up alone, it makes it a happening thing among a crowd of friends. But even virtual friendship is not something you can fake. Lots of people have "friends" on Facebook who are not their friends in the world, and those people are not going to follow them to a protest or other activity unless they're famous. Most of my Facebook friends seem to wait until they see who else has responded that they're coming to something to make their own decisions. Which is of course part of the problem. In a sheep society, the shepherd has all the power, and with apologies to those of you who have been trying in vain to lead a mass movement for oh, so many years, we have no shepherds that many people want to follow.

We can't copy the Egyptians or the Tunisians. We certainly don't want anyone copying them by lighting themselves on fire. We should not cynically invoke their struggle every time we are trying to get anyone to do anything, hoping to bathe ourselves in their reflected glory. We need to look carefully at their situation and our own, and discuss the differences and the similarities. And then we need to act on them, and not let this moment – like so many others – pass us by.