Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Movement Strategy

Today, I participated in a panel discussion about the war in Iraq and its connection to domestic policy. Since my own research is on movements around law and prison, I spoke about the history of wartime civil liberties repression and the Guantanmo detentions after cramming a couple of informative books and websites. My reading list included: Giorgio Agamben's State of Exception,
the Patriot Act Debates web page, the ACLU's patriot actinfo, Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray's book, Guantanamo:What the World Should Know, and Roger Daniels' Prisoners Without Trial, about the Japanese Internment. I learned a lot fast.
The scariest thing to me about all this stuff is the arbitrary executive power that's been seized under the presumed "state of emergency" created by an indeterminate "War on Terror." As Ratner's book points out, the claims made under vaguely defined "common law war powers" are much bigger than those handed over to the government in either version of the Patriot Act. There were two other panelists, one who talked about corporations' role in setting US foreign policy, and another about Rosa Parks and the Black freedom struggle in the streets.
However, despite the three panelists all arguing that organizing a mass movement is the way to make a change, the question of "what do we about it?" dominated the discussion. Students in the audience, instead of getting their heads together about to create productive strategies, by asking questions such as, "how do we publicize and rally people around the idea of protections of the rights of people who are generally stigmatized and hated in the United States?" or, "how do we effectively combat corporate-driven foreign policies?" we got into an argument about voting, third parties, running for office, and, briefly and bizarrely, for boycotting CUNY for an entire year in protest of proposed tuition hikes. This really got off the ground when one member of the audience began the question period with what sounded like a plug for third parties and Ralph Nader, which in my opinion derailed the discussion entirely.
I sympathize with people's frustrations about organizing, and I think the conversation of tactics is an important one. When people hear "get out the streets," they hear "march around the capital," and I agree that this strategy is of limited value; marching around Washington, DC or other public places, while it shows that large numbers of people support a given cause, does not create a serious obstacle to the forces of power. Cindy Sheehan, with her Crawford campout was much cleverer, but will also need to developnew tactics, although the use of arrests against Crawford protesters will keep the group in the headlines and adds momentum to the Crawford campers' efforts. These efforts alone, however, merely publicize the issue and gain supporters, but do not create an effective obstacle to the war effort itself.
So, after thinking for a while about this discussion, I have to admit that I feel more committed to the notion that educational fora and talking about the issues in groups of sympathetic (and unsympathetic) people is vital to building a strong social movement. After all, if someone's idea of a revolutionary strategy is boycotting a cash-strapped City University, it's clear that the problem is not a surplus of education and knowledge. If this idea strikes you as brilliant, think about it for a few minutes: even if you could get everyone to do this "boycott CUNY" idea, (which you wouldn't be able to because the economic incentive for education is too great), how would a successful boycott against CUNY challenge the power structure? It seems to me it would provide justification for the people in authority to say , "Poor, urban, minority kids don't want to go to school, so let's get rid of the whole place. Let's use that money to fund something for rich people, or to fund a new jail to put all those unemployed kids in." Asking NYC high school kids to boycott CUNY is like suggesting that flood victims in New Orleans boycott FEMA or the Red Cross because of corruption and cronyism. Ain't gonna happen, and even if it did, what would the result be, besides hunger, exhaustion and the undermining of services?
To any readers out there who say, "more action, less talk!" I agree that the "more action" is needed, but it's vital that the action comes out of a place of thoughtfulness and creativity if it's going to make a significant difference. "action" otherwise either will get sucked into the electoral arena, into individualistic efforts around "buying green," or other lifestyle strategies, or it will perhaps go into futile revolutionary posturing that doesn't approach the real institutions of power. I'm not saying that people have to read a bunch of books to figure out how to organize, but it would help if people could analyze the situation broadly when they went about planning their actions to unseat power. Everyone learns these things in the process of activism, however, if only out of necessity, so maybe my immediate reaction to one student's cockamamie "direct action" strategy is excessive.
While the energy of the students was stimulating on one hand, I left the forum feeling concerned that the left has failed to demonstrate any kind of effective leadership, at least in New York City. The sectarian left has continued to fight smaller battles over preferred strategies that seem to promote particular organizations more than build movement unity. The non-sectarian left, including groups like CODEpink and UFPJ got completely neutered by their focus on the 2004 elections and have yet to find their footing. Meanwhile, students at places like CUNY ping-pong these strategies around. If Cindy Sheehan was this generation's Greensboro sit-in, what role will students play in this anti-war movement?

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