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.