(a report from Rhode Island on the the struggle for social change)
by Duane Clinker
Since the election of Donald J. Trump I have been one of many participants in the Resistance to his Presidency and agenda. As an older community, labor, & faith based organizer I have participated in many struggles of earlier years.
Something has troubled me about the Resistance. Something has gone missing in the way in which people wanting change are working together. This is the story of what I discovered when I began to notice, not just what was happening, but what was not.
1 I am a revolutionary. By this I mean that I desire, and work for the rise of an organized movement in these United States and beyond, that will be popular enough and powerful enough to make fundamental changes for the better in the way we live and organize ourselves. This means the eventual establishment of a much deeper community-based democracy, the outlawing of exploitation based on human greed, and the opportunity for all people, in all our diversity and color, to choose full, secure, peaceful, and free lives; lives lived out in honesty and balance with the earth and each other.
For me, these aspirations were claimed long ago as a young adult experiencing the revolutionary upsurges led by persons of color in the civil rights and black power movements, by Native Americans, Chicanos, Latinos and others struggling against the colonization of their heritages and cultures, by veterans for peace, and resisters to the draft demanding the end of unjust wars, by women demanding respect for their inherent full rights to humanity, gays, lesbians, and the differently gendered fighting for rights of their own, and among all of these by working class people generally in organizations and rebellions, of all colors including white, who were all and often together struggling for decent jobs and workplaces that honored human rights and collective power.
Those were heady days. My own path since those times has been a kind of linear quilt. It has included factory work, neighborhood, labor, and faith-based organizing, followed by a call to serve as a radical Christian Pastor. Mine may seem an unusual path, but it has given me the huge privilege of seeing things from a certain angle of vision. It has helped me to see from among those at the edges of power, which helps keep my desire for change alive. Some things stand out in bold relief. Seeing from bottom up and from the borders, rather than top down is a good and helpful way to understand.
We are not all the same. The young see with new eyes and see new things. They are absolutely critical to our collective understanding. But, seeing the direction of things over time is also important and in that, older eyes are also needed.
In revolutionary change and practice it is necessary to see, both what can be and is coming, and also what has been lost and gone missing. In the work for social change, it is crucial to notice who is not in a room, along with who is, and what is not on our agendas, as well as what is.
There is no such thing as winning liberation on auto-pilot, or inside a comfort zone in which our beliefs are not challenged.
I live and attempt to practice my faith in Rhode Island. As in other places, things have been very active in “The Resistance” here to the Trumpian rule. As I have participated in and reflected on the Resistance so far, I have come to notice something has gone missing in how we organize. Since the 1970s there has been a slow and subtle shift in our preconceptions about life and change, which has slowly changed how we think and work for change - and not for the better.
We are at an important tipping point in America. It is a critical time. And tipping points can tip either way. What happens next will affect hundreds of millions for good or ill. We had better get this right, if we can.
2 There is a recipe for fundamental change. The process of revolutionary social change which takes power from elites and gives it to the many includes many ingredients, but it isn’t some kind of scientific formula that can be practiced mechanically or done robotically without variation or thinking. Real life is never that clear. Organizing bottom up change is more like good cooking with lots of people tweaking a general recipe here and there. Musically, it’s like good jazz. There are always new flavors and twists, based on culture and time; new artistic takes in the theme and direction; new things to learn and build on. Still, there are certain key ingredients that always are necessary. When things come out right, each of these key ingredients are needed and each reinforces the others.
I have over time, among many ingredients large and small, come to see three things as essential in the way we organize around a vision for fundamental social change.
Creating participatory membership organizations of ordinary people, especially among people of color and the working class generally, committed to acting in the interest of the common good.
Mobilizing broad movements that come together in their multitudes at moments of crisis to visibly break open new ground for change.
Developing ever broader networks of communication and relationships between ordinary people in all their amazing diversity who are engaged in different specific struggles.
These three requirements must be worked out in actual communities that decide things together in ways that empowers militant love and caring, that enables the group to choose for itself which issues around which to mobilize, and the tools and strategies that best fit both the immediate struggle and long-term goals of empowering ordinary people.
I’m convinced something has gone missing in the recipe in recent years. I began to notice in for myself in the struggle since the election of Donald Trump.
3 Trump shock stimulates powerful mobilization and networks.
On November 8, 2016 Donald J. Trump was elected President and sent a lightening bolt of warning across the skies of America (and the world). The next day four women, unknown to each other, and living in different states, spontaneously created pages on Facebook calling for a Women’s March on Washington DC on the day after the new President’s January inauguration to protest the direction in which he promised to take the country. Those FB pages were reposted and reposted and reposted again. People, and then organizations of people began to notice. On January 21, 2017, one day after Trump took power, approximately half a million marched down the streets in the capitol, but that wasn’t all. They rallied in towns and cities large and small around the globe. When it was over it had become one of the largest US protests in the nations history. In total, across America and around the globe an estimated five million marched. All this, was started by the individual posts of four women, and the networking and mobilizing that happened in answer. (1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Women%27s_March) What was born at the Women’s March continued in protests in the days that followed and quickly became known as “The Resistance.”
The Resistance movement was significantly more than just backlash against the destructive force of Donald Trump and the Republicans. Many also rose against the corporate mainstream of the Democratic Party which seemed incapable of effectively pushing any significant progressive agenda which didn’t benefit or protect the long term interests of the global elite. People networked and mobilized against both conservative and liberal congress members in town meetings in every region of the country. The smell of fascism was in the air with Trump, and people were acting to stop it but also to demand an alternative beyond more of some were calling the “neoliberal” same. The public square was again, but in a different way from years earlier, being “occupied.” Public accountability with even “liberal” politicians were frequent, in which they found themselves being called out for timidity or betrayal of the public interests. And as for Trump and his movement, they seemed unable to mount any effective counter demonstrations at all in the public square for months.
Buoyed by the Women’s March and using the instant message systems of the digital media, ordinary citizens who had rarely before been active in politics continued to show up in large numbers at rallies. Often, on their own or in small spontaneous conversations, they would call their own demonstrations and protests.
I and some of my family, joined the upsurge and the Resistance in Rhode Island.
4 Resist Hate: A fire was burning in Rhode Island.
Providence, RI, a young, progressive state representative and a handful of student and community organizers issued a call on Facebook for a public meeting to discuss what to do. They expected a few dozen to show up. Instead, on November 12, 2017, one thousand people showed up.
The organizers suggested the name Resist Hate RI. The room seemed to agree, and over the next few weeks many of the people that signed-in accepted invitations by Working Families and other connected organizations to come to rallies and accountability sessions with the state’s liberal congresspersons. Other groups organized networks too. Among them Bernie Sander’s Our Revolution, Indivisible, and one named RI Progressive Collaboration. (Bernie Sanders had earlier shocked the Democrats’ mainstream by winning 60% of the vote, in the Rhode Island Presidential Primary. That event had earlier already bolstered several groups and bred the creation of one or two more. One transitioned into a network of agencies and groups called the RI Progressive Collaborative. Indivisible hives formed but limited themselves to mobilizing locally around their national agenda. Bernie’s Our Revolution also publicized local actions.)
In December Resist Hate, with by far the largest numbers of any of the local groups, met again. Another 1000 signed in. In January at a third meeting, there were another near thousand in the room. By February 2017, during snow, the number dropped to about 850.
Between the meetings other, more direct actions and mobilizations of Resistance continued. Some were led by other groups or simply called by individuals who created a Facebook page. One of the most exciting for me was a demonstration to protest several anti-immigrant bills that had been filed at the RI State House. Right before a legislative session was to begin demonstrators marched into the House chamber. Persons in the crowd began calling out legislators who sponsored the offensive bills, as they entered the room, where they were suddenly surrounded and questioned by crowds of people, who demanded explanations, and then that they remove their name as a sponsor. One or two immediately did so. One or two who refused left the chamber to jeers. The crowd then withdrew when asked to do so by police and there were no arrests. But a powerful point had been made.
I have seen a lot of organizing in my lifetime The numbers showing up for public meetings and actions during these months were greater than any I have seen in my life.
Yet for me there was a vague sense of unease. As I attended meeting after meeting something seemed a bit off.
One problem was immediately clear to any who looked around that first meeting room. The numbers of people there was tremendous, but the diversity of those in the room was much different that the urban area in which that room was situated. We met in a pubic high school in which the student body was 82 percent persons of color. Over 77 percent of all the students’ families represented by the school have incomes low enough to qualify them for free or discounted school lunches. However, persons of color in that first Resist Hate meeting probably represented less than 15% of the numbers in the room, and the crowd in general was not a gathering of the poor and working class as such.
Both the legacy and reality of racism was in the room.
Sparks flew when the organizers of the meeting invited the Mayor of Providence to speak. He used his time to misrepresent his role in an effort to weaken a campaign to pass a strong public safety act to create more accountable and transparent policing in the city. Core activist in that effort were a small minority in the large room, but they were justifiably angry that the Mayor would utter what they saw as lies to a captive audience gathered to “resist hate.” Shouting broke out in the hall along with militant chants, to the to the confusion of some whites who were not yet aware of the details of the issue.
The initiative of the white organizers that called the meeting was good. but the outreach and planning for the meeting was obviously clumsy and missed the mark at best. The meeting was large - but it was spontaneously large. It seemed that the organizers had not specifically taken the time to connect with organized persons of color and to give them input and leadership in planning. On top of that, giving the Mayor the opportunity to speak and allowing him to attack an campaign so important for civil liberties in poor communities of color with respect to policing issues, was just plain stupid or worse.
All humans make mistakes. But mistakes have to be corrected. I knew and respected the hearts of several of the people who called and led the meeting, so I expected and hoped that this issue of diversity, and the Mayor’s words that only made things worse, would be quickly addressed and corrected.
In the following meeting in December, these mistakes around racism and outreach were spoken of from the front of the room. But that meeting was less racially mixed than the first. Still people were invited to choose workshops on white racism among others to attend during the event. But, each meeting seemed to become even whiter, (and also older), and less diverse. What was going on? Couldn’t the organizers see what was happening. Why weren’t corrections being made quickly? Why were the professionals organizing these meetings seemingly unable to address the issue?
At each meeting organizers, mostly from Working Families Party, a foundation funded group organizing to “elect progressive candidates” to office in RI, would step forward with an agenda. Persons of their selection would make brief reports on actions or facilitate the meeting. Then the audience would choose workshops on specific issues or skills. In the early meetings especially, these groups included ones on issues of racism, immigration, and sanctuary cities and labor. Often, activists of color at these workshops testified that others simply didn’t feel either safe or comfortable in the group, or that they lacked confidence that Resist Hate RI was serious about really becoming diverse.
Still, the meetings remained large. And Resist Hate Facebook announcements and reports at these meetings helped boost turnout and advocacy for the Community Safety Act, creating new transparency for police/community relations, and for the defeat of some of the most racist legislative proposals. The many wanted to act. And the actions remained strong and effective.
By April 2017, Trump supporters in RI finally attempted a Make America Great Again rally at the state house. People on Facebook disagreed about what the response should be. Resist Hate held no participatory meeting to try to reach consensus. So some organized a counter demonstration distant from the site of the Trump demonstration, while the largest number of persons chose to confront the issue directly by calling a counter demonstration at the state house itself.
Scattered people in digital networks and a few membership organizations gathered to form a crowd. Music and chants and a kind of loose discipline formed. Some stood boldly face to face with the Trump authoritarians and the police who formed a line in front of the MAGA rally facing the counter demonstration. The Trumpians were literally overwhelmed in both numbers, militancy, music, and noise as they were surrounded on the State House lawn by resistors.
Despite successes in the streets and with respect to some specific progress in pushing or stopping legislation, the issue of Resist Hate’s lack of diversity continued. On the Facebook page, questions and criticisms about what sometimes seemed weak understandings and responses with respect to racism boiled over in angry strings of comments. It was clear that Resist Hate RI had to develop a broader base to be really effective in terms of big social change but matters seemed only to be getting more difficult to resolve on Facebook with angry denunciations and hurt feelings. A decision was made to move the next Resist Hate meeting from the more affluent east side neighborhood to the south Side neighborhood where the majority of people were persons of color. (While the South Side is often seen as a concentration of persons of color by whites, actually, every neighborhood in Providence was majority persons of color except the East Side. )
However, as with the very first Resist Hate meeting, it was obvious walking into that April meeting that successful groundwork hadn’t been done. Preparation included a marching band to greet attenders, and a list of minority owned restaurants to visit in the neighborhoods, but no evidence that the many community groups, churches, and ethnic organizations in the community had been effectively invited or consulted. Only 250 persons instead of the usual 1000 showed up, those that attended lived almost entirely outside the neighborhood, and the crowd was whiter than ever. Looking around the room as a person who had lived and worked in those neighborhoods, it felt more like an invasion of paternalism rather than an attempt build a neighborhood base that could help give leadership to the group.
At this meeting the organizers from Working Families (finally) announced that they would be forming a Steering Committee to guide the work. Instead of an election, they announced an on-line application process with selections to the Committee apparently to be made by the organizers. (Working Families Party’s agenda in RI, focused almost exclusively on elections and legislation at the state level of government.)
It seemed to me that time was very short to change course, diversify and organize in a way that could be powerful for the future. The group was rapidly loosing momentum. Desiring to help, but wary, I decided to fill out the application and in a few weeks received notice that I had been accepted.
By the time the new Resist Hate Steering Committee had its first meeting and met each other, it was almost six months after that first 1000 person gathering. The selected committee included fifteen persons. One-third were persons of color. Most were young to middle aged. There was a decent balance of male and female. Two of us were older. But strangely, I thought, at least three of the members were professional organizers with the Working Families Party, including the State’s director. There were no elected leaders of any unions, ethnic, or community organizations or churches in the mix.
I knew by this time that the group most responsible for the direction, such as it was, and the day to day work of Resist Hate was the paid organizers, and perhaps an equal number of significant-time volunteers that worked with them, of the Working Families Party. These were the people who had been preparing agendas and designing the Resist Hate meetings. I knew that such domination by the organized personalities, and mission of one group on a board
would almost always carry the day in terms of winning votes among an equal number (or less), of unconnected members with unconsolidated goals and strategies. Still, I hoped that this unusual approach, (the Director of Working Families Party and two of her paid staff all on the board as individuals), was simply a temporary necessity caused by the sudden needs to resist the unexpected Trump election. I had hoped the formation of a much needed Steering Committee by organizer selection instead of immediate election was only a step in the planning out a process for an emerging democratic structure for the new organization. I imagined that surely our first tasks, then would be something like this . . .
* Find an effective way to address the absence of real diversity at our meetings, and develop leaders and strategy through a broader community.
* Clarify the mission, the membership, and the strategy for building a participatory organization, rooted in poor working and middle class people, that could exercise actual long term power in social change.
* Develop a democratic structure and elect a diverse leadership.
However, as the organizers passed out an agenda for our first meeting, I noticed that these things were mostly absent. Instead, we were asked to focus on more immediate housekeeping, as opposed to house designing duties. The diversity and inclusion question was on the agenda - sort of. But it was largely, not on expanding our base, but how to control the angry tone of conversations on Facebook. Who could monitor the page? Should comments be open or closed? (They had been closed a week or two earlier because things were getting very “personal” and people were being upset and turning off to the whole Resist Hate project. It was a painful discussion and after it there was no time nor much energy for the more fundamental question.
One more thing puzzled. In answer to a direct question I was told that Resist Hate had already accumulated over 5000 names and contact information of persons that wanted to be involved! But strangely, the new Steering Committee was not presented with an agenda item regarding how to break down this list to find the people we already had contact with who might help us resolve diversity, strategy, and organizational concentrations.
All of this was troubling. There was something here that seemed to link these things, but what was it? What was the de-facto strategy of the organizers? Or was there any? What explained the emerging difficulties and what stopped even real fundamental discussion about what to do? There was something here that I didn’t yet understand.
Are second meeting most of our time was again spent on the still unresolved concern about the shut down of the comments option on the Resist Hate Facebook precipitated by sharp charges of racism. Other points on the agenda focused us again on various duties that needed to be accomplished (securing meeting rooms, figuring out the next public meeting, etc.) in order to just keep Resist Hate going, as opposed to mission, strategy, building a more racially inclusive group, or electing leadership. However some of us, including myself, began to speak directly on the need for discuss and develop solutions to these larger issues. For several of us, the whole thing had to begin with mission/vision. Who were we? What did we really want to accomplish over time? One member, actually organized a house meeting for some who wished to come an learn about organizing models used in an earlier period in RI.
The Steering Committee met for the third time on June 12. There had been no mass meeting now since April. Based on the request by members of the Committee for discussion of what the mission and vision of Resist Hate should be, twenty minutes was set aside on the agenda. In opening the discussion the person leading this session proposed that we simply accept a general descriptive statement posted months ago on Resist Hate’s `webpage as our mission statement. This described Resist Hate as a “hub for organizing,” and had ever been discussed or approved at any mass meeting. In explaining this the chair of the meeting noted explicitly, that Resist Hate was not and was never imagined as “an organization.” Instead, she argued, “ We are a network,” that was designed to work “like a funnel.” Resist Hate was to act as a “hub for organizing” not as an organization itself. It would thus take people in who were activated by the Trump election (presumably at one end of the funnel), and help them to find the organizations and issues which they wanted to work with. Thus, Resist Hate would not need to be organized as an organization itself, with official members and structure. It’s job would be coordinating volunteers, scheduling events, and assisting people in finding their niches in the Resistance.
My concerns grew. Imagine a “funnel” with 5000 people at one end, and dozens trickling out to existing pre-Trumpian organizations with already existing agendas and goals, almost all of which, like Working Families Party had no real democratic structure. In such a vision we are left with marginally stronger agencies and organizations doing limited positive work. That’s good, but it doesn’t take us to another level, doesn’t help us think through the new period we are in. Now imagine that list of 5000 as one in which hundreds come forward in their diversity, and with the goal of bringing others too, in discussions and their own decision-making to develop new power and strategies for change based on conditions and needs in this new Trumpian era. I began to realize that we are trapped now in a kind of illusion and assumption of “progressivism.” But it is a form without the practice of people learning to lead, learning to wrestle directly with the kind of questions that are needed to collectively shift things and respond to the things that ordinary and poor people are facing now, at the workplaces, in our homes, in our schools, and more. We have to be able to have multi-issue organizations that can respond, and which we can control.
I was not the only Steering Committee member who desired discussion about these things, or who seemed at first to support a different, perhaps more fleshed out vision. There seemed to me a certain unease in the room. As we discussed the issue another factor became clear I think, although unspoken. The paid organizers on the Committee and a handful of others were the ones that were doing much of the day to day work. The professional organizers were pretty clear about favoring the network model, which would me that a change of direction based on a less than near unanimous vote might be very difficult to actually implement. Those doing the core work of an organization must carry, understand, and have some enthusiasm about the vision or the work rarely gets done well. Everyone was working hard, and there was already a lot to do just to make the necessary arrangements for the public meetings and events. So, the simple acceptance of a mission statement already in use, which could always be theoretically revisited in the future, seemed what consensus demanded at this point by almost all of us. When the vote was taken after our twenty minute time slot, the proposal to adopt the status quo was accepted, and Resist Hate moved on.
Reflecting on things after the meeting, I felt we had just passed through a clarifying moment around several issues. Resist Hate, would not be moving to recruit its massive contact list into form membership. There would likely be no elected Steering Committee. A structure that could take strong action and shift focus and put real energy into the development of a strong diverse working class base for the work was unlikely to develop under the present terms. not. Resist Hate would not itself develop as a multi-issue organization but rather, the groups and agencies already focused in particular areas would continue to specialize. Resist Hate would help with lobbying against “hate” legislation. It would train and orient. It would assist in electing lesser evils and occasionally a positive good. It was all good, just disappointing to me because of the greater need and potential. I would want to move on, still looking and hoping for that other option to develop somewhere, but didn’t want sabotage any energy in the group by a sudden resignation.
Besides, there was still something that itched at me, something I didn’t have clear words for in this process; something I had seen before in recent years, even before Trump came down that elevator at Trump Tower. and which seemed to be seeing again in this new Resistance. Groups began with enthusiasm, got up to a certain invisible line, and then failed to cross it. Was that line only in my imagination? What was its exact nature? Why didn’t things move more naturally toward building real organization, focused among the diverse working class? Why couldn’t Resist Hate’s address racial issues and diversity questions beyond its Facebook page? Was there something else that caused a group of this initial size and energy to be unable to overcome and to live up to its potential to build power for change?
I resolved to keep trying to find the words for this as I stayed on for a few meetings more and then step back. Shortly after the “vision” meeting, however, two board members emailed in resignations. A third who had never attended a meeting and was now already running for office, was placed on leave-of-absence. It seemed Resist Hate would have to seek new Steering Committee members now and therefore I submitted my resignation so that any necessary changes could be made at one time. I resolved, however, to maintain new friendships, to attend the next general meeting, and to help out if and where it seemed right.
Finally, on June 25, 2017 another (the sixth) general meeting of Resist Hate RI was held. We returned to the original meeting place on the East Side of the city. Now, only about 125 persons showed up at the original meeting place. The crowd was also noticeably even older, and even less diverse crowd
The approximate attendances at the Resist Hate mass meetings were: 1000, 1000, 1000, 850 (in the snow), 250, and perhaps 150 persons at most. At this meeting the Resist Hate organizers started by introducing the “new” Steering Committee, (from which over one-fourth had already resigned). The meeting then followed the usual agenda: reports and announcements, and an array of workshops from which individuals could choose to attend as they wished. After the meeting people were invited to march a mile to the deserted and locked State House, where State Police stopped the few dozens who made the march from writing messages to the State Legislators on the sidewalk in chalk.
I expected that scene reported later to me and didn’t march this time. Walking back to the car after the meeting, I reflected on this sixth mass gathering (with much less “mass”). The workshop I had attended on the now victorious campaign to win the community safety act with respect to police violence was very good. But I thought again about the time when we were all together for announcements and reports. And in a moment, this unease that had been gnawing at me seemed to snap into focus. Words came that seemed to describe what had gone missing in this Resistance.
In all those months of meeting as Resist Hate, we only met as a crowd of individuals. At none of the six open meetings we had never been invited to become a “body public.” We had not a single vote or action based on actual collective discussion, debate and voting as a community. This had only happened in an unelected Steering Committee dominated by the view point of the professional organizers and persons appointed presumably by them to vote.
The vote at the Steering Committee intentionally and clearly to reject Resist Hate’s formation as an organization as such, instead of being simply a organizing hub and network, and witnessing this, the sixth public general meeting, helped me to finally connect the dots in my mind.
In the 1970s our method was the building of labor and community and other organizations through which people could act for themselves - fundamentally not as agents of another’s agenda, be that as a progressive non-profit, or a political party or not. This we saw as our principle task. And the groups we sought to organize always had to do with one way or another, the working class, common folks whose communities or jobs, or freedom was in peril. These were principles that I and my peers doing that kind of work assumed as basic.
As I reflected back on numerous conversations with young organizers over the last several years in various struggles, I realized that I always assumed they were coming from the same place. But when individually asked to simply describe what they did, it really never involved this at all. Essentially they described organizing as more of a sales operation. They found people who would go along with the agenda they were given by the group they were “organizing” on behalf of. Now it hit me. We did not share the same world view on this thing at all.
The method of democratic organization building was one in which they were not trained, nor which most of them were experienced. The idea of ordinary people forming an organization through which they themselves decided and acted had seemed abstract to the organizers. And, I did not at all believe that was because they were bad people, or cut from a different cloth than I. Their experiences were different. Of course they did not immediately resonate with a vision they had not yet experienced, nor saw as necessary. It seemed to be abstract to them, and kind of confusing to what they saw as their immediate goals, rather than as a part of those goals.
The process of organizing ordinary people into a “body public” that can act for itself in social change has gone missing.
We were no longer organizing to create body publics. “Body public.” But where did this phrase that suddenly came to mind come from? It seemed a term heard somewhere long ago, I suspected in my own initiation to social change organizing. I thought it a universal concept.
When I got home from the meeting I began searching for the term “body public.” To my amazement I couldn’t find the term in any current or old dictionaries. But long google searches did turn up some references - just enough to know I wasn’t crazy in remembering the term from political discussions long ago.
I started asking friends. Younger friends had no recollection of the term. But a few older “baby boomer” friends born in the period immediately following World War II, remembered hearing it.
The practice of organizing such groups is not the only thing that has apparently gone missing, I thought. The phrase itself seems to have disappeared in the sense of its meaning I learned long ago.
In life it is hard to see things that have gone missing when we ourselves haven’t experienced them, and especially when we have seemed to loose the language that describes them.
We have networking. We have mobilization. We rarely have real organizing. Organizing is an intentional effort to develop new bodies public.
A “body” is sometimes defined as a “physical structure of an organism.” And “organism” is the key to this. It is a multifaceted thing that lives. “Public” of course refers to a “community of people.” From this we get ideas such as “the public good.”
So then, a “body public”
may be defined as a group of individuals that have been transformed into a community; into a living thing in which individuals function, but in which they can take action as a new thing; a collective thing. Because the organized community can take care of itself and act, it in that sense “lives.” A body public is an organized community that has a structure through which to decide and act. It can act. It can decide things. And it can act as a thing for itself or on behalf of another. (Philosophers would say it has “agency.” It can become a thing “for itself,” and take actions beyond those of an individual.)
When a crowd of individuals forms itself as a body public it has the potential for power that transcends that of the same-sized group of individuals.
A body public can be a union or community or religious group, that has organized itself with a governing structure and a collective purpose.
A body public is more than a network.
A body public is not necessarily a mobilization, though it may be in one, or may initiate one.
And, if movements are to be more than momentary things, there must be structure. They must form something like a body public, that can sustain them over time.
Other visions of the body public.
The critical nature of the body publics is revealed in various sources under different names but describing the same king of thing. Early in the 1800s a French intellectual travelled broadly in the new United States to describe what was happening in the development of its still incredibly limited and slave-bound new republic. Especially in the non-slave areas, Alexis de Tocqueville, witnessed and described the body public by other words in the astounding multitude of associations, committees, and popular organizations forming in the those first years of independence among the people who were able to do so. He was struck with the way these organizations created the real basis for democracy itself. People in these associations were seizing the power to act for themselves outside formal government. DeTocqueville noticed the difference in the existence of this kind of association which was largely absent from among the ordinary people under the old royal systems with which he was familiar in England and France.
In the middle of the 20th century, theologian James Luther Adams, who had experienced the totalitarian rise of Nazism in Germany, wrote passionately of the power and importance of these organized alternatives to the rise of top down fascism. It was critical, he argued, for these “voluntary associations,” to form and work from the bottom-up in the process of social change. Adams believed those who rejected working with others in organized forms for change would find themselves ultimately powerless and “idiotic” in the face of social evil. (James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, George K. Beach, Editor, Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, 257-262.)
Around the same time the great organizer Saul Alinsky, whose work inspired many in my generation, wrote a clear pivotal statement that I think needs to really be heard:
“it is self-evident that a disorganized people cannot formulate a philosophy representative of their many diverse loyalties, traditions, and sentiments unless they get together and through a process of interaction achieve a philosophy representative of themselves.”
The painting, “Freedom of Speech” by Norman Rockwell, of an ordinary worker, standing to speak his mind was often seen on the walls of unions and community groups in the mid-20th Century to inspire the work of organizing associations through which ordinary people could change things.
Alinsky then called for the formation of bottom-up, radicalizing, “peoples’ organizations,” united around the multi-issues of peoples real needs and for the common good. (Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, Vintage books 1946; 1969, 46-56. In some very fundamental ways, Alinsky failed to see and understand the deep bondage of US politics. His views were not in my thinking truly radical, in terms of getting down to some fundamental roots. But he saw clearly that diverse organizations built from the bottom up were essential.)
You may call them clubs, or councils, community associations, or people’s organizations. You may call them unions, or assemblies or even soviets. They are all, when actually they function with a participatory, decision-making structure for the common good acting as bodies public. At their core is a conscious, democratic common life. People meet in them face to face.
They are people organized, and speaking for themselves. They are living bodies of ordinary folks in all their beautiful culture and colors, learning at last to trust each other, and how to run things based on a kind of radical and fearless love. They are the enfleshment of vision and hope for another, better, world.
A body public is freedom of speech in a room where it has power.
In such organizations we build the actual power, not just to protest, but to change things for ourselves. We are taking power ourselves from the bottom up.
In these body publics we are something more than individuals gathered together as mere bits of data, or microns of pressure for another organization we do not control. In these body publics we learn to act as a living thing together, for the social and collective good as a human species - or not.
Systems of oppression can only be conquered by actual human beings willing to unify collectively and decide and act together to disconnect the cables, and dig up foundations, that will topple the present structures of privilege and domination, that serve the interests of the few. The longed for rise of a greater democracy must mean the rule of the people, not as a mob, but as a thinking, reasoning thing acting in common interest, based in love and freedom.
In Resist Hate RI, in all those six months, thousands attended meetings, and many more appeared on contact lists. But never had we been offered the chance to form ourselves simply as a democratic, living and breathing bottom-up organization, or to think or decide or to strategize as a group. We we saw things go off the rails from the first meeting with respect to race and diversity, not a single one of us had the presence of mind to stand and shout, “I would like to make a motion! I would like to discuss something and decide something together as a group!” We never learned that in our trainings, and we had never done it. We had lost the words.
We never voted except with our feet to choose what issue or rally we wanted to visit. We had no real way to struggle through resolution of the critical issue of race and diversity except as individuals in workshops. We never were invited to attack a problem as a collective, thinking, struggling body - because we were never organized and constituted as a collective body.
We operated instead as a kind of political “free market” in which we, one thousand strong in some meetings, were offered the individual choices of consumers: “which rally; which workshop do you prefer?” Our menu options were being chosen de facto by staff organizers and by leaders of several “progressive organizations,” who had important, but more immediate (and narrow goals), than the formation of a broad organized body public speaking and acting as common truly diverse people for itself.
The leadership structure which we accepted without thought or struggle in those rooms was exactly the same as in the corporate-culture now in place in the the non-profit world from which the well-intentioned organizers trained and worked. We accepted those philanthropic and non-profit but hierarchal business models of authority as legitimate leadership because, I think, it is all most of us have ever experienced. But we need to experience something else to have a fighting chance against this anti-democratic beast that rises now again on the American scene.
In the early days of the Resistance, meeting together and astounded by our numbers, we were a people hungry for the power to resist. But instead of choosing to cook a feast for ourselves as in new found collective power, we accepted the offer to graze instead a the salad bar of actions and training we were offered. We chose them or not; and went to them or not as individuals. We did not learn to act or to feed ourselves as a body.
Nelson Mandel once wrote, The freedom struggle is not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions and sending deputations, but of meticulous organization. . . “
We must now recover the more basic organizing practice that we have lost.
It will be a clumsy process for us kind of like learning to walk. . . and see. . . and name things. But what we will really be doing is recreating community based on mutual love and empathy, and from more or less, the bottom up.
We cannot not rise, for ourselves, unless we rise from this base and from the bottom-up.
New body publics must be called into existence in all their color, all their diversity, all their pathos, and all their power. They must be founded on mutual need, mutual caring, mutual defense, and mutual vision they will form a Resistance that is militant, and disciplined; that goes to the roots of things, and that can think for itself.
And. . . they will be.
End of Part I
Part II will discuss. . .
* What did organizing in Rhode Island look like in the last revolutionary moment?
* What happened in history in the US to virtually destroy an organizing world view?
and a little more about. . .
* How build empowered communities of regular people can actually be built?