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Sunday, February 5, 2012

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING: WHAT ARE CONSERVATIVES AFRAID OF?

Newt Gingrich accused President Obama of being an advocate of Saul Alinsky’s community organizing principles, and therefore, that Obama’s principles and policies are somehow foreign to American ideology and practice.  Is that true?  I don’t think so, and I will attempt to show how Alinsky’s basic principles are deeply rooted in this country’s ideals, and that those principles are, at heart, solidly constitutional.

Alinsky's own words, from his 1946 "Reveille for Radicals", capture his early perspective, his motivation, and his style of engagement:
”A People’s Organization is a conflict group, [and] this must be openly and fully recognized. Its sole reason in coming into being is to wage war against all evils which cause suffering and unhappiness. A People’s Organization is the banding together of large numbers of men and women to fight for those rights which insure a decent way of life. . . .
”A People’s Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness. They are basically the same issues for which nations have gone to war in almost every generation. . . . War is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play. . . .
“A People’s Organization lives in a world of hard reality. It lives in the midst of smashing forces, dashing struggles, sweeping cross-currents, ripping passions, conflict, confusion, seeming chaos, the hot and the cold, the squalor and the drama, which people prosaically refer to as life and students describe as 'society'.”

So let us be clear.  Alinsky looks at community organizing as the way to approach the forces, the exigencies, the conditions - poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair and unhappiness -  that force people into ghettos of the body, mind and spirit.  His language scares the supporters of the status quo because they know that  the vehicles and support mechanisms for these forces and conditions include the very institutions and structures of which they are an integral part.  They are scared, and repulsed by talk of “conflict”, “war”,  “smashing”, “ripping passions”, etc.  

And there is the crux of the problem:  disadvantaged people, who organize to confront the forces that intend to keep them in their “place”, threaten the establishment with changes that the establishment does not desire, so the establishment reacts with vehemence.  Look around: what happened to community action agencies, to people’s lawyer groups, to the civil rights demonstrators of the 1960s, to government support for programs that aid the poor and disadvantaged; or for that matter, what has happened to affirmative action that grew out of community organizations and their advocacy, or lately to labor unions?  You KNOW what happened.  First with Nixon,  but certainly with the ascent of that conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, the neo-cons, with his administration’s help, launched an all-out war against these so-called liberal, socialist, undemocratic, communist-sympathizing radical ideas and organizations.  Today, there are remnants, but they are a  shadow of their former selves.  And today, there is the Occupy Wall Street movement which is experiencing that same ire and degradation that was unleashed upon the community action groups of an earlier time.  (Strange, isn’t it, that the conservative brand of “warfare” draws no ire?)

Gingrich is trying to do to President Obama what conservative Republicans did to community organizing: smear and destroy.  Remember what was done to ACORN?

But let‘s take another look.  In Alinsky’s Prologue to his later book, Rules for Radicals, first published in 1971, we find him trying to speak to the young protagonists of the ‘60s, and to future organizers, and there is a somewhat different tone.  He says he is writing “in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with our lives.”

He says things like:
--”What the present generation wants is what all generations have always wanted -- a meaning, a sense of what the world and life are--a chance to strive for some sort of order…. They are searching for an answer…to man’s greatest question, ‘Why am I here?’”
--”Let’s keep some perspective.  We will start with the system…. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation.”
--”A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values.  They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless.  They won’t act for change but they won’t strongly oppose those who do.”
--”Radicals should keep in mind Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to a reform delegation, ‘Okay, you’ve convinced me.  Now go on out and bring pressure on me!’”
--”People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others.  The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people. The separation of the people from the routine daily functions of citizenship is heartbreak in a democracy.”
--”My aim here is to suggest how to organize for power: how to get it and how to use it…for a more equitable distribution of the means of life for all people….”

Is community organizing any different, fundamentally, from that “spirit of ‘76” that organized farmers, and traders and shop-keepers and other citizens to contend against an oppressive force in order to win “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness?”  Not really, except in method.  The principles are deeply rooted in the American Way.

1.  Give people a voice in their own destiny (free speech and free association)
2.  Organize people to modify their own circumstances (take personal responsibility) 
3.  Utilize organizational power to bring about constructive change (continental congress; the minute men; Sons of Liberty)
4.  Make society more democratic and more equitable (Bill of Rights, franchise expansion, equal opportunity)
5.  Organize groups (like church groups) at the local level to solve community (and individual) problems (transportation; housing; jobs; renter rights, etc.)
6.  Neighbor helping neighbor (barn-raisings; Habitat for Humanity)
7.  Organize demonstrations to push those with power and authority to do the right thing (right of the people to peaceably assemble)
8.  Petition the Government for redress of grievances (first amendment).

In my opinion, those who vociferously oppose community organizing principles expounded by Alinsky and others, are the very ones of whom we have to be fearful.  They are, at their core, opposed to the principles of our founding, and to constitutional rights and principles that are fundamental to our representative democracy.  They are the ones who tear at our democratic fiber when they try to prevent people from using the rights and powers granted to them in the Constitution, and the principles of revolution enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. 

Never forget that constitutional Amendments IX and X support the idea that the people have a unique position in the body politic.  First of all, the enumeration of rights in the Constitution “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  That statement in the Constitution is too often overlooked or kept in check by those who try to have all power and authority reside in their particular views, or their group, or their community.  The word “disparage” here is apropos when looking at those who, like Newt Gingrich, try to “discredit” or “show disrespect for” or “belittle” the principles of community organizing and action.  In so doing, they border on undermining the right of any group of people to organize against, to make demands to, to oppose, to petition those who hold power or authority in governmental institutions.  At the very least, they are demonstrating opposition to the unique rights of the people granted by our Constitution.  

Secondly, Amendment X grants even more power to the people than can be tolerated by those who oppose community action.  “The powers not delegated to the United States… nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  As much as conservatives would like to deny such power to the people, while strongly supporting power to the elite, the Constitution stands in their way.  Again, a unique status is granted to the people in Amendment X, and the power that all those one per-centers want to deny to the poor, or the middle class, or senior citizens, or persons with disabilities, is a power that cannot be denied without denigrating Article X.

It’s the methods - not necessarily the aims -- of community action that most agitate the defenders of the status quo.  I believe the problem here is the concept of “power”, and its utilization.  Those who have power or who are in power are threatened by the rhetoric of community organizing that suggests that seizing power is the key to accomplishing their aims.  But the concept of power as coercion or violence is not what is being presented in Alinsky’s narrative.  “Power gained and exerted in community organizing is…not the coercion applied by legal, illegal, physical, or economic means, such as those applied by banks, syndicates, corporations, governments, or other institutions. Rather, organizing makes use of the voluntary efforts of a community's members acting jointly to achieve an economic or other benefit.”  The development of durable "power" and influence is a key aim of community organizing, in order that people power may confront the “powers-that-be.”

Alinsky is very positive about power indicating that it is the essence, the “dynamo” of life.  Power is “active citizen participation, pulsing upward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose; an essential life force always in operation…changing the world.”  He quotes Hamilton in The Federalist Papers who said, “What is a power, but the ability or faculty of doing a thing?  What is the ability to do a thing, but the power of employing the means necessary to its execution.”  He says that the only choice is between unorganized and organized power, and he indicates that every “organization known to man…has had one reason for being -- that is, organization for power in order to put into practice or promote its common purpose.”  Lobbying done by major multinational corporations is a form of such organized power.

While community organizing groups often engage in protest actions designed to force those in power to respond to their demands, protest is only one aspect of the activity of organizing groups. To the extent that a group’s actions generate a sense in the larger community that they have "power," they are often able to engage with and influence  powerful institutions through dialogue, backed up by a history of successful protest-based campaigns.  As Alinsky said, "the first rule of power tactics" is that "power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have." 

According to Wikipedia, “Where negotiations fail, these organizations seek to inform others outside of the organization of the issues being addressed and expose or pressure the decision-makers through a variety of means, including picketing, boycotting, sit-ins, petitioning, and electoral politics…. This allows them to draw in and educate participants, build commitment, and establish a reputation for winning.”

Community organizers seek to build groups that are democratic in governance, open and accessible to community members, and concerned with the general health of the community rather than a specific interest group. Organizing seeks to broadly empower community members, with the end goal of distributing power more equally throughout the community.  That is the key, and as a matter of fact, is that which gives rise to that ever-present canard used by conservatives to scare or intimidate those who might want to support community groups in their goals, and that is -- “class warfare” (discussed in last week’s Blog).

For now, let us resolve not to let elitists, like the present cadre of Republicans, define community organizing as wholly negative.  It is one of the most positive and constitutional, as well as fundamentally conservative, views of our republic: the people have the right to speak out, the people have the right to organize, to assemble peaceably, and to petition their government for a redress of their grievances.  The people have rights beyond those enumerated in the Constitution, and these shall not be disparaged or denied.  The people have powers reserved to them alone. 

It is past time to acknowledge that community movements and organizations (like ACORN and Occupy Wall Street) that seek a level playing field, greater voice in the decisions affecting people’s lives, and greater power to influence the power brokers, are not to be belittled and demeaned, but to be respected as true inheritors and progenitors of the revolutionary founding and spirit of this country.  It is time to embrace and encourage those who seek to strengthen a system of governing that embodies the hallowed phrase: government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”