I’m always interested in how some activists throw around the words “organize” and “organizer”. The words are often used as mostly undefined buzzwords. As Matt Bruenig Tweeted today, “If I didn’t [know] better, I’d think some people are in it for social status, and attaching the label ‘organizer’ boosts status.” I think that’s part of it. But sometimes there’s just an honest lack of clarity. Many mistake event-planning for organizing. To organize, in the political sense, is not to organize an event or even a protest. It is not just a creative project. Political organizing may very well involve all of the above activities, but its essence is not itself these activities — all of which can be carried out without necessarily building or being accountable to a substantial social base. Organizing, in the sense we mean here, is to organize a social bloc into a political force. It is to name, frame and narrate the formation or progression of a group; to articulate its goals, grievances and targets; to move it into strategic action; …
This essay is a chapter in the new book from AK Press We Are Many: Critical Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation. The book is 450 pages with contributions from 50 authors — most of whom have been active in Occupy Wall Street. Order it here! — Occupy Wall Street audaciously claimed to be a movement of “the 99%,” challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is little more than a handful of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America. They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement. What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist—as a means to …
Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an “outsider” force.
Good problem to have
In the wake of the initial successes of Occupy Wall Street, establishment Democrats—including the White House—started clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave. Some Democratic Party strategists asked what electoral use they might get out of the new movement. Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress (CAP) told the New York Times in early October that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”
The hypocrisy of a party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street trying to ride an anti-Wall Street surge was widely ridiculed. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald scoffed at efforts “to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA [Organizing For America].” Greenwald was right, and was echoing a widespread sentiment inside Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country. Very few of the committed folks sacrificing time, safety, and comfort to make the occupations and street protests happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.
And yet, something important is missing in many movement conversations about the threat of Democratic Party co-option: namely that this is a good problem to have. This is what political leverage looks like. Grassroots social justice movements haven’t had much leverage for a very long time, and over the past months we’ve finally gotten a taste of it. Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull things in a social justice direction. In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.
Someone recently asked me to jot down some communications, media and messaging tips for folks engaged in grassroots social justice organizing efforts and campaigns. So, that’s what I’m doing in this series. I’ll be breaking down some specific techniques and also exploring deeper communications concepts and frameworks.
This is the landing page for this series. You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.