Citizen Action Monitor

Three activists discuss the challenges of building a citizens’ movement in Baltimore

Engrossing conversation — Includes practical tips on movement building of interest to all activists

No 601 Posted by fw October 30, 2012

In the following 15:40-minute embedded video, editors of the book We Are Many: Critical Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation discuss challenges of building a movement in a city with a black political elite. Sub-heading and hyperlinks have been added to the transcript. To access the original transcript and video, click on the linked title below.

Reflections on Occupy Baltimore, The Real News Network, October 30, 2012


PAUL JAY, Senior Editor, TRNN — Welcome to The Real News Network (TRNN). I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our discussion with three activists from Baltimore. Joining us again:

Kate Khatib. She’s a co-editor of the book We Are Many: Critical Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, which just came out. She’s also a founding member of Red Emma’s Collective.

Mike McGuire. He’s also co-editor of the book We Are Many, and he’s been working with the Occupy movement since September 17, when it started. He also works with The Real News Network now, helping build our new headquarters.

Lester Spence. He’s a contributor to the book We Are Many. He’s an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He’s the author of the book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics.

In the ‘60s thousands joined protests; today only a few hundred show up. How come?

So, Lester, I’ll start with you again. So, in 1968 there were thousands of people joined the protest that hit cities across America and Baltimore. I said in the last time, the first Occupy Baltimore was actually the Army or the National Guard, and there were soldiers with guns and tanks on the street, and Baltimore was really an occupied city. But that level of mass protest, that movement that requires troops to come, fast-forward to now where you’re telling me that if a few hundred people show up for a protest or an event, that’s pretty good. Most recently there was a big one around the Trayvon Martin killing, but that was sort of an exception.

So how do you get from a mass movement at such heights in Baltimore to one that’s—you could say is pretty much in an ebb right now?

Spence cites three factors: Growing black political power, Young blacks in prison, and High unemployment

SPENCE — I think there are a few different things to consider. One is growing black political power. I don’t think there’s been a major civil disturbance in a city run by a black mayor. I don’t think there’s—I know there definitely wasn’t one in Detroit. The last one we had was ’67. I don’t think there’s—I know there hasn’t been one in Baltimore since the three black mayors were elected. I don’t think there was one even in New York or Chicago when Harold Washington was in Chicago or Dinkins was in New York. So I think that’s part of it.

The other part of it is that the population that’s most likely to engage in serious activist work is young, and a sizable portion of that population in the black community is now tied up in the prison-industrial complex.

And then a third related dynamic—and there’s other stuff, but I’ll open it up for Mike and Kate—the third related dynamic is unemployment, you know, unemployment drops—I mean, unemployment rises. Right? So to the extent that we’re talking about these ’60s movements that had a sizable labor component, when people aren’t working, you know, they’re not—there’s a certain type of politics that they’re not connected to anymore, because the labor movement was at least one of the funnels through which black politics takes on a certain tenor.

So when those three things happened, you know, the election of black mayors, the increasing election of black political leadership, the movement, the shutting off of a sizable percentage of black populations into the prison-industrial complex, and then growing unemployment, it makes it very hard for a certain type of political activism to take place in places like Baltimore.

JAY — [Addressing Kate Khatib] What’s your take on the same question?

Khatib cites growing black political class and absence of “culture of protest” in Baltimore because of proximity to Washington

KHATIB — Well, I mean, I think Lester has given a pretty good outline of it. I definitely think that the fact that Baltimore has a black political class has a lot to do with the fact that we don’t necessarily see mass activism coming from the black community in Baltimore in the same way that maybe we did in the ’60s either in Baltimore or elsewhere around the country.

In general, I think the question of why we don’t have a climate of or maybe a culture of protest in Baltimore right now, I think, is a bigger question. It’s not something that’s entirely tied to race. I mean, it’s definitely a racial question, but I think there are other aspects to it. I think some of it has to do with our proximity to Washington and the fact that there is always a lot of push for folks in Baltimore to actually go to D.C. to protest. There is, I think, a sense that protesting in Baltimore isn’t necessarily going to accomplish anything. I think a lot of the mass mobilizations that you’ve seen in the United States in recent years, at least in the past couple of decades, have really very much been around conventions, around gatherings, and Baltimore really hasn’t seen a major convention, either a political convention or, you know, a meeting of the WTO or the World Bank or the IMF, which is where a lot of the mass protest has kind of come from.

JAY — Well, Mike, what do you make of Lester’s point from the previous segment of the interview, that the thing that would galvanize people here more is certainly the issue that’s affecting people more, it’s the criminal justice system and the kind of issues that—I guess I don’t know if it’d be the—. Would you say that’s the same for Hispanics as well, and other people? Or is it really something specifically in terms of black Baltimore?

SPENCE — [clarifies before Mike can reply] Yeah. So it’s not—so it’s a similar apparatus, but with Latinos I’d say it’s the immigration apparatus, which is related to criminal justice, but it’s not the same thing.

JAY — And it’s a little sidetrack from where we’re going, but is that not less an issue in Baltimore? I saw that the mayor was saying that the city officials are not allowed to ask people for citizenship and they’re actually trying to get people to move here.

SPENCE — Yeah. I think it’s less a problem in Baltimore. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem; it just means it’s less of a problem.

JAY — Yeah. But in terms of this, I guess, you know, the ’68 protest was really a product of the black political movement. So that’s one set of dynamics why that isn’t at a rise. So maybe we should return to that in a second. But what do you make of Lester’s point that white activists here aren’t as tuned in to the problems facing, in fact, the majority of the city? ‘Cause the majority of the city’s black.

Whites aren’t as engaged. But that raises the question: should whites be organizing blacks? I’d say yes, if they’re inspired to do so

MCGUIRE — Well, that begs another question, which is: should it be the white community that’s organizing the black community around prison-industrial issues? So should we be the ones going out, and should I, for example, be the one that’s going out? And I think the answer is yes if that’s what I’m inspired to do, if that’s what’s driving me.

There’s not a huge culture of organizing in the US. And we’re more in touch digitally than in person

But I think in general there’s not a huge culture of organizing in the United States. We’ve kind of lost those traditions. So we’re talking about not just—like, the difference that you’re talking about isn’t numbers; it’s whether or not it’s a mass movement. And what’s happened in the United States between the ’60s and now, it seems like it should be easier. We’re much more in touch with each other through all of our digital devices. But at the same time, we’re much less in touch with each other, because we’re in touch with each other through these digital devices.

JAY — But it’s interesting in the recent period. The biggest protest that you’re telling me took place in Baltimore was about youth and the criminal justice system. The killing of Trayvon Martin is that, and it so resonated with people here ’cause they say, this is what’s happening to us every day and Baltimore.

“We don’t form strategies well as social movements in the United States right now… We’re immature…” – Mike McGuire

MCGUIRE — Yeah, but then what happened with that? Where did the organizing go with that? And here in the first segment we’re talking a lot about elections or electoral strategies. We don’t form strategies well as social movements in the United States right now. We don’t have venues in which we’re actually coming together and talking through how we organize, what strategies we use, what makes sense, what we need to pursue, what—and in just rational discussions.

We had this debate with—kind of within or about the Occupy movement a couple nights ago that Verso hosted between Chris Hedges and a guy representing CrimethInc and I came away from that thinking, yeah, the situation’s actually worse than we thought. Like, if this is the level of discussion at which we can discuss strategies within a movement, then we’re not going to move very far very fast. So I think that’s actually something that’s very generalizable, that we’re immature in terms of how we organize in this country.

There’s an important difference between “mass action” and “mass movement”

SPENCE — And even in how we articulate, right? So there is a difference between a mass action and a mass movement, right? So what happened in ’68 was a mass action, and it was spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King. Dozens of cities in the United States and cities across the country, I mean, across the world exploded. The same thing happened with Rodney King, right? Dozens of cities in the United States and in a number of cities across the world. Those were mass actions.

But there’s a difference between a mass action and a mass movement. Right? And the things—so mass actions are spurred on by crises. We can’t predict when those crises happen. We can’t predict which crises is going to lead to this stuff. They just kind of explode. But a mass movement or movement-building is a totally different process.

When you don’t distinguish between mass actions and mass movements your change expectations may be unrealistic

So when you conflate them, when you associate mass actions with mass movements, right, then you end up mis-specifying what needs to happen in order to make political change. Right? And then you end up—your time horizon ends up being short. We talked about that in the first segment, where you’re thinking about overthrowing the state, like, within four years, right, and not understanding that this takes 30, 40. Right? You end up misunderstanding the populations you need to be engaged in, how you need to engage them, the whole thing.

The civil rights ‘movement’ didn’t spring up overnight. To expect Occupy to look like a ‘movement’ this soon is unrealistic

KHATIB — But, you know, it’s also important to remember that in the ’60s you do have—I mean, you do have a mass movement, right? You have the civil rights movement. But the civil rights movement didn’t just spring up overnight in ’68, right? I mean, it took many, many years to actually build a strong civil rights movement in the United States. And, you know, I think to look at Occupy and say, well, why hasn’t Occupy managed to catalyze the same kind of thing, why isn’t Occupy looking like a mass movement, I think we’ve got to—you know, as Lester says, I think we have to kind of widen our temporal gaze, we have to be looking even further into the future and saying, this is only the very beginning of a mass movement.

JAY — Yeah, but what I’m getting at is: if you’re talking Baltimore and you’re organizing Baltimore, what Lester said earlier is, if you want to get a movement that’s going to be a mass movement, you’d better deal with the issues that are facing the majority of the people, and he’s saying right now that’s the criminal justice system and related issues. And that’s certainly my experience when I’ve been asking either young people who are activists or even—.

Paradoxically, the best place to start building a mass movement is with local community issues

You know, we’ve been holding and we had a couple of these front-porch meetings where we just went to East Baltimore and sat on the front porch and asked people—we said, we’re journalists, tell us what you want us to do. And it was two issues. It was—number one, it was criminal justice—not just injustice to young people going to jail; it was also how do we have safer streets so I can go to the corner store and not worry about getting robbed. And it’s both sides of that coin. And then the second one was a great one. It says, who the hell owns all these boarded-up houses, and why aren’t they being rented out to low-income families. So those were the issues.

But those are exactly the issues that Occupy Baltimore did address

KHATIB — And I think if you look at where—sorry to cut you off, but I think if you look at where Occupy went after—so in Baltimore, after the Occupy movement was evicted from McKeldin Square, which was the sort of—the beginning of the occupation was the physical occupation of McKeldin Square in downtown Baltimore. And once that eviction happened, it freed up a lot of energy and a lot of time and a lot of excitement and ideas for organizing. Right? So there were all of these people organizing under the auspices of Occupy Baltimore. And where did it go? Well, it went specifically into addressing the situation with the youth jail, and it went specifically into what has now become known as the Occupy Our Homes movement, which is essentially foreclosure defense. So I think exactly the issues that you’re bringing up here really are the issues that Occupy Baltimore tried to address and did address in very real ways.

SPENCE — And is trying, yeah.

KHATIB — Yeah, is trying, is still trying.

SPENCE — Yeah.

The issues may be local but the themes are universal and are necessary stepping stones to a mass movement

MCGUIRE — Another thing. If we look at right now what’s going on in Baltimore and that there’s a bunch of stuff—. And one of the really good things about the occupation movement is that we were all addressing universal themes, but addressing them locally and we were all in our own community.

So here in Baltimore, Occupy Baltimore quickly turned to look at development. We weren’t the only ones. Like, there are a lot of people looking at development, how development is practiced in the city, who’s getting the money, what they’re doing with the money, how we’re using public resources for public good.

Tip – Find out what organizing efforts are going on in your city – you may be pleasantly surprised

And right now some very interesting organizing and one of the more mass organizing efforts going on in Baltimore is in the black community. It’s on the east side, and it’s around jobs, and it’s around development, and it’s around how we use public subsidies for development without any benefit for the local populations in terms of economic development, in terms of skill development, stuff like that.

“And it was shocking to discover that I was completely unaware of this organizing effort” — McGuire

And it was shocking. Like, you know, at the same time that Occupy Baltimore was happening—and I was seeing kind of record numbers in the community that I’m used to organizing and seeing those folks on the street. At the same time, I’m reading in the newspaper—and I was completely unaware of this organizing going on—I’m reading in the newspaper that there were 300 people on the east side that marched onto a job site that was being led by EBDI, East Baltimore Development Incorporated, the group that’s overseeing the largest urban redevelopment program—project in the country; they’re marching on one of their job sites and saying, where are our jobs, this is our community, these are our jobs, and they got their heads beaten in. You know, they just—the trials were just resolved the other day, and it was kind of pathetic, the whole thing.

But, like, at the same time that we were talking about this from Occupy Baltimore, Churches and Communities United in LiUNA [Laborers’ International Union of North America] were organizing hundreds of folks. But they’re turning out overnight. Like, this is probably more important than talking about the Trayvon Martin rally, you know, which was an instantaneous thing; it was, you know, a thousand or a couple of thousand people. But the folks that are organized around the EBDI stuff, they’re turning out hundreds of people every time.

LiUNA started in a church – organizers hoped for 200 tops and 1,000 turned up

And how did that start? LiUNA hosted a forum in a church, and they said, we want—we’re trying to organize around jobs here, we’re trying to get jobs from folks in this community, so come out and talk to us about your job situation. They ended up having folks lined up around the block. They had 1,000 people turn out for that meeting. They were expecting to accommodate a couple of hundred. They had 1,000 people turn out for that meeting. Richie Armstrong, who’s the main organizer of Churches and Communities United now, he went to that meeting looking for a job. He ended up becoming an organizer of Churches and Communities United. And they’re turning out literally—like, they called for a demonstration. They’re turning out hundreds of folks. And they’re organizing in the black community. And, you know, the first rally I went to, I was like, I know no one here. And they thought that I was probably a hostile entity going to EBDI as a developer, and they were like, are you with us, or are you against us? And I was like, give me a sign.

JAY — Alright. Well, thank you all for joining us. And we’ll pick this up in a few weeks and we will—it will be an ongoing discussion, and we will add some more people to it. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network, from Baltimore.

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