the failure of organizing

colist at colist at
Mon Nov 8 20:20:37 CST 2004

[ed: Windy, Ty, Ed, Wendy, and Donna continue the conversation. A quick 
reply to Ed's question from me at the bottom. To cut down on the message 
size, I again have not included the thread. You can get it from ]

From: Windy Cooler-Stith <windy_coolerstith at>

I agree very much with Todd. As a working-class southerner, organizer, 
and as a young mother, I often feel very disconnected from other people 
who call themselves "leftists", "liberals", and "progressives" - even 
though I could probably be classed as a socialist and maybe even an 
anarchist, and I'm most certainly an athiest. My friends, many of whom 
are evangelical, feel even more alienated from the middle-class, 
professional class who dominate leftist political talk in popular 
liberal media, not to mention the democratic party - which is not 
leftist by any stretch of the imagination. I was on welfare when Clinton 
cut it, mind you.

You've got to know your Chomsky to be cool around here. You've got to be 
able to afford to work 60 hours a week for no money at the local 
non-profit to be devoted. And you must live in Honduras for at least one 
year of your life if you are going to understand oppression. And the 
only group of people you can show any open bigotry and hostility to: the 
dumb redneck working class, especially if they are southern and 

When I work against oppression (and I mean all oppression), it's for me 
and my community. When many of our friends in the middle class believe 
they are doing so, they don't think it's for them - it's for the "poor", 
whoever they are, and the "underprivileged." I think we all get tired of 
being the object of someone else's manipulation, no matter how good the 
intention is. And demanding people buy into a prescribed rhetoric and to 
call that rhetoric the words of justice, isn't justice at all.

I think it's funny too that the title of this thread is "the failure of 
organizing." When exactly did organizing happen here? Organizing was 
when working class people fought and died, men, women, and children for 
labor rights - organizing was when blacks refused to ride the segregated 
buses because they did not serve them. And failure was when we stopped 
organizing. We, the working class, failed ourselves when we stopped 
organizing for our rights, I'll grant you that. But not buying into a 
just-add-water liberal message was not where we failed.

I think oppression will only end when we see how our lives are connected 
and learn to understand power for what it is. The middle class liberal 
hasn't done too much to foster that education, no matter how much they 
protest and proclaim their martyrdom. For example, the middle class 
liberal has demanded we vote for Democrats, instead of our 
representation of choice, instead of creating a system where I can vote 
for, and get representation, from David Cobb, and/or Nader, or even the 
constitution party, and/or Bush, if that's the representation I want. 
And representation that represnets is only a very small part of a 
working democracy anyway, a small point we neglect when we base all our 
fears and complaints on one stupid man, instead of laying the blame on 
oursleves. The middle-class liberal, like all of us, is responsible for 
the failure we face as humanity for our safety and liberation.

Many of my friends are middle-class liberals. I've eaten in public with 
a middle-class liberal or two. ;) So, no offense. But, the answer to the 
monstrous problem we have as a country and as the human race isn't to 
find someone fit to blame, it's to take responsibility for our place in 
our community, to learn how to really organize, not just attempt to 
mobilize, and really be interested in pursuing justice, no matter how 
hard that road might be. Though, I don't think it actually is hard. It's 
about having conversations where you listen and you talk and you think 
and you are ready to act.

Thank you,

Windy Cooler-Stith


From: "Ty dePass" <maceito at>

gente - i've been encouraged by most of the responses to this thread: i 
agree w/Randy that it's past time for "rethinking not just our political 
organizing strategy but our community organizing strategy." we need to 
be asking ourselves if what we want is a seat at the table, a piece of 
the action, or a fundamental change in the existing arrangements of 
power, status & wealth.
sadly, too much of what passes for political theory & community 
organizing today seems determined to avoid the obvious, i.e.:

“[T]here really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led” (Gramsci 
after the social turmoil of the 50s & 60s, some among us were able to 
turn movement activisim into tenured appointments or a career in 
nonprofit cbos. somehow, sitting on a commission, being consulted as 
"experts," or brokering services to the poor/disenfranchised suddenly 
became the goal of our efforts.

consequently, in the post-Civil Rights era (i.e., roughly since the 
"white backlash" of the '70s), our organizing practice has tended to 
substitute a focus on "issues"--preferably those considered 
cross-cutting, short-term & winnable--for the vision of a truly 
just/equitable society. we've emphasized compromise, cooperation & 
speaking softly (w/o a stick) to woo antagonists to our cause--playing 
to the "middle class" or the "political center" as if their continued 
comfort were our primary concern. Derrick Bell (1980, 1987) speaks to 
this in terms of the pace & direction of civil rights reforms. we assure 
ourselves that, despite every disappointment/setback, the proverbial 
glass remains half-full--ignoring the fact that half-full/half-empty is 
relative, ultimately determined by who's pouring. MLK warned us that 
putting the cart (programs/reforms) before the horse (power) was 
flirting w/disaster--if the Man can giveth, the Man can certainly taketh 
away. we're living w/the results of our failure to listen & learn from 
our own history.

meanwhile, the reactionary opposition has used issues to unite seemingly 
disparate sectors of society around their idea of the perfect social 
order; a vision based, at least in part, on an unquestioned belief in a 
white American birthright, a legacy devinely ordained & bolstered by the 
literal interpretation (often distortion) of selected religious text.

Todd Harvey chides the left (why in quotes?) "to not demonize religious 
people even if the Republican Party has been relatively successful at 
capturing the imagination of a disproportionate amount of evangelicals." 
hwvr, as we've seen, the evangelicals are quick to declare holy war on 
all alleged non-believers--gays, arabs, hip-hop culture, etc. indeed, as 
Weber (1905) noted, the entire ethos of the christian ascetics was 
founded on a strict adherence to boundaries drawn btw sacred-profane, 
saved-damned, prosperous-idle, etc. is it any wonder that the 
Bushwhackers only see the world in terms of black-white, good-evil, & 
wealthy-undeserving? convince me that exposing these people for their 
smug, self-serving ignorance qualify as demonization by the left? at 
every turn, adherents to the so-called faith-based perspective poured 
the gasoline & lit the first match.

likewise, for Brian Kane, the "key principle of organizing is to start 
where people are at, not where you think they should be." okay, but 
after grudgingly conceding that "Maybe gays should have the right to 
marry," he insists that the "issue is divisive and no one could win this 
election with that on their agenda."

what Brian conveniently glosses over is the fact that organizers start 
where people are at in order to move them to another place--twd a 
commitment to action based on new & better understandings of the world. 
most times this means challenging people to re-examine--& ultimately 
abandon--some deeply-cherished assumptions that just ain't so. in other 
words, engaging in critical dialogue & collective action are means to an 
end: a new vision, a new idea, a reshuffling of the cards. 
unfortunately, some of us cling to the dubious Alinskyite notion that 
ideology-bad. but like the Old Folks say, "if you don't stand for 
something, you'll likely fall for anything." so, when we discuss our 
tactical options for blunting/neutralizing the religious right, we might 
do well to remember that white evangelicals (1/5 of the electorate) 
simply have no use for dialogue w/non-believers: biblical Truth is not 
debatable. our energies might be better placed elsewhere.

what started as a brief comment has balloned into a minor polemic. i've 
a lot more to say--especially around Peter's intriguing, but potentially 
flawed proposal--but i'm late for a community meeting. i'm leaving folks 
w/links to two particularly provocative & insightful articles from 
recent editions of The Black Commentator.


From: Ed Schwartz <edcivic at>


I've found the various comments in this thread interesting, but I think the
indictment is too broad. All organizing didn't fail. Some did. Here in
Philadelphia, a wide range of groups contributed to increasing our turnout
by 19% over the 2000 election and creating a 400,000 margin for Kerry. So
went Pennsylvania--despite the President's dozens of trips to the state.

So the question is why we didn't succeed in other states--which leads me to
a question directed at Randy.

Since Ohio was a key state that we lost, what might have been done
differently to win it? More important: what needs to be done in the future?
Is Ohio hopelessly lost to the Democrats or are there steps that can be
taken to bring it back?

As I understand it, the strategy this year was to build a huge margin in
the Cleveland area that would offset losses elsewhere--parallel to
Philadelphia in relation to Pennsylvania. Here it worked. There it wasn't

As I looked more carefully at the returns, it's also clear that Kerry
carried cities--Columbus, Toledo (I believe), Dayton, Akron. But he lost
the suburbs around them. No surprise there, but it raises the question of
whether these counties can *ever* be brought around and on what basis?

So, Randy, you're in Toledo. What sort of organizing needs to be done in
Ohio to address this problem?

Ed Schwrtz


From: "Wendy Carter" <wacarter at>

I just wanted to bring to light a concern I have with some of the post-
election discussions that I have been reading. As a gay rights activist,
I am truly dissapointed that the left has largely accepted the mainstream
media hypothesis that gay activists pushed too hard and spoiled this
election. This is still a hypothesis, far from a proven fact. While the
exit polls have provided us with some valuable information about voter
attitudes, I think they are causing us to overlook the most important
question, which is - did we really have a fair election? The media did
cover issues of voter intimidation, absentee ballot problems, and
electronic voting machines before the election, but after the news
channels swooped in to color the states red and blue, the public was quick
to move on and talk about what the Democrats and the far right did to ruin
everything. Because I spent the months leading up to the election
researching issues of electronic voting and campaign finance, I went into
this election with some serious misgivings, and I'm far more worried about
the actual mechanics of the election than I am about what the Democrats
did or did not do. Some critical questions are: How many more incidents
were there, like the 3,893 extra Bush votes in an Ohio precinct where only
638 total ballots were cast? (reported by AP 11/5) How many people were
intimidated away from the polls on Tuesday, especially in Florida and
Ohio, which have the highest number of incidents reported to election
hotlines? Were the paperless touch sceen machines really as reliable as
people are saying? Can we really expect and unbiased treatment of the vote
count by Jeb Bush's appointed Secretary of State, using vote-tally
technology produced by companies with a record of providing financial
backing for both George Bush and the Republican Party? Are the margins of
victory - especially the 136,500 votes in Ohio, really that large, when
155,000 provisional ballots await verification and tally??? Are they
large enough that we have no desire for a true audit?

I personally see little use in planning for a new, better popular party if
we do not have a fair elections system in place to actually elect leaders
from such a party. More than anything, I am afraid of letting this most
basic tool of democrary slip away without a fight. I urge all those
concerned to keep the heat on the election process. As many states have
not even begun to count provisional and absentee ballots, there is no
question that the election is not yet over. Let's keep our eyes opened
until it is.

Here are some links if you are interested:

Wendy Carter
M.S. Candidate
Community Development
University of California, Davis
wacarter at


From: "donna hardina" <donna_hardina at>

Although I think some soul searching about the election outcome is
necessary, I don't think we need to beat ourselves up about our failure to
connect with voters on moral issues. Even Karl Rove has minimized the role
that values played in the election:

There was a whole host of issues that explained Kerry's loss including the
Democratic party's failure to frame its message and our inability to get the
newly registered Democratic voters to the polls. In addition, at least some
of the turn out problem had to do with voter intimidation before the
election i.e. the flap in Ohio about challengers in polling places in
African American neighborhoods and county clerks in states with large
student populations threatening (illegally) to charge students who voted in
college towns with felonies.
I also think that at least some of this talk about the liberal elites
failure to connect is manufactured by the Republican party. See for example
Victor Hanson'srecent article in the San Francisco Chronicle.


[ed: Ed asks an interesting question about what we should do in Ohio. 
Those of you who were watching the Ohio state map saw where the blue 
areas were--the cities and the college counties. People did a great job 
of turning out their like-minded neighbors. Now we have to find a way to 
get more people like-minded. The challenge is how. I know there are some 
community organizers out there who can do it--who can work with the most 
right-wing community and after a year or two begin to produce thoughtful 
community activists who can say "I used to think that... but now I..." 
The community organizers are the point people in making that happen, 
because they are the ones who understand those communities. And please 
don't anyone think that is about bludgeoning people into giving up their 
religion, which would play right into the hands of the right. Because I 
am absolutely convinced this election was about the "liberal elites." 
And every time I heard someone in the liberal middle or left belittle 
George Bush's pronunciation of "nookular" I cringed. Because I know that 
much of the southern red zone talks like that. Even my lefty friends in 
the south felt insulted by that (voice of experience speaking here, sad 
to say). The task in Ohio then (half of which is, for all practical 
purposes, the south) is about organizing people, as others have said, 
starting where they are at, in the red zones, but then creating 
opportunities for people to think more deeply about the issues and make 
their own connections. Connections like the following from Pastor Martin 
Niemöller who, as the story goes, was an early Nazi supporter before he 
underwent a conversion and helped lead the German resistance in 1933: //

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Dare we add gays? Or women? Or forests? Or...?

Randy Stoecker ]


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