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Activism in America: Bonding over more than suffering

April 2000, Knoxville, Tennessee

I was working a series of activist groups in this place and time. We planned a labor teach-in, which included speakers such as Richard Trumka, now AFL-CIO president. We wanted to use the event to confront the University of Tennessee on their exploitative labor practices. In the weeks leading up to the event, we held meetings, publicized the event around campus and the community, and held actions preparing for the big protest. We also spoke to the lowest-paid workers. These dormitory housekeepers, maintenance workers, and library staff jumped on the chance to protest their poor wages and unsafe working conditions.

That April morning witnessed an event never before seen at that conservative southern university. Approximately 400 people came to the university’s plaza. They included a couple of hundred workers, students, faculty, community members, and visitors to the event. Trumka spoke, others spoke. Even I spoke. The energy in the crowd grew each second. We ended by marching over to the administration building and demanding a meeting.

The administration put us off for that day. But that protest led to a growing series of actions and organizing that created the first union in university history. Now affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the union still has to fight for survival because of Tennessee’s anti-labor laws. But that protest started a process where long-suffering workers began standing up for their rights and claiming power over their workplace.

Nothing binds activists together like a shared history of suffering. The most vibrant and successful activist groups over the past century have organized around this history. This was true with the labor movements of the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the gay rights movement, as well as the workers at the University of Tennessee, today.

For example, the Chicano/Latino rights movement has flowered since the 1960s. Latinos have organized around defending their rights ever since the United States stole half of Mexico through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War. Like many underprivileged groups, Latinos, inspired by the African-American civil rights movement, experienced an upsurge of organizing for their own rights beginning in the 1950s. Individuals like Corky Gonzales, Reies López Tijerina, and César Chavez led the Mexican-American population in the Southwest in fighting for their locally specific issues. Meanwhile, organizations like The Young Lords led the Brown Power struggle in northern cities until the FBI’s anti-radical COINTELPRO program crushed them.

Ever after the African-American civil rights movement lost steam in the 1970s, the Chicano movement only gained strength. Increased migration from Mexico and Central America and the terrible treatment these migrants often face in the United States galvanized the movement into the present.

The annual May 1 immigrant rallies that began in 2007 as a response to increased racism demonstrated Latinos’ increasing power. In 2010, Latino communities began facing their greatest challenge in many years, as racist whites in Arizona passed SB-1070, the draconian anti-immigrant law that gives law enforcement the power to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect may be undocumented.

But I think the Latino community is going to put up one hell of a fight against America’s resurgent racism. Latinos are already well organized. As opposed to labor unions whose complacency after World War II made them completely unprepared to deal with the challenges of globalization, Latinos already have an active and ever-evolving organizing architecture that will help motivate their community into action.

To explore this further, let’s look at a single group. The Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, started organizing the region’s Latino community since 1980. Nationally, they are most famous for calling out the environmental movement for ignoring people of color and environmental racism. But SWOP has made a greater difference by organizing the Albuquerque poor on a variety of issues, including environmental racism, housing, police brutality, bilingual education, voter registration, and immigrant rights.

None of these campaigns made national headlines, but this kind of community organizing builds networks and personal connection, allowing people to react quickly for new crises. SWOP has responded strongly to America’s recent xenophobic surge by playing a leading role in Albuquerque’s immigrant rights rallies and loudly announcing that they will do everything to ensure New Mexico does not emulate Arizona. My last column fretted over the extent to which we can rely on internet organizing as opposed to face-to-face organizing in public spaces. SWOP has an important online presence, but its effectiveness ultimately rests upon its ability to get people in the streets, into city council meetings, and to the gates of corporate polluters.

Like with the University of Tennessee workers, the immigration protests galvanized people previously afraid to stand up for their rights. The chants, the spirit of feistiness, and the shared solidarity between people who had never previously met helped create long-term activists.

While shared suffering provides a base of common interests that supports much organizing, it isn’t a necessary ingredient for a successful movement. Maybe it was the zeitgeist of the 1960s, but what made activism so dynamic during those years was how those who organized around their historical suffering had support from hundreds of thousands of people who joined social movements not because they personally suffered, but because they saw the pain of others and felt moved to create change. Whites joined the civil rights movement because they were sickened by racism. People unaffected by the draft fought against the Vietnam War because they didn’t want Americans or Vietnamese to die.

The environmental movement is a prime example of this kind of organizing. Environmentalism became a popular movement in the 1970s because people were fed up with pollution in their communities, but in the conservative decades since 1980 it has relied on wealthy white people interested in protecting the world’s last wild places. Despite environmentalism’s less than ideal racial and class history, it serves as an excellent example of organizing outside of the shared suffering paradigm. We can debate environmentalism’s ultimate effectiveness in fighting climate change and other systemic problems. But I bring this movement up not to relive its history, but to note how powerful a movement can be even if most of its supporters don’t share a history of suffering. In Tennessee, a great deal of our movement’s success came from tenured professors who had nothing financially to gain by our union but who provided invaluable knowledge about the workings of the university and how to pull the levers of power.

People’s tepid response to the economic crisis inspired me to write this series on the state of activism. We have an ever-growing community of people suffering from the extremist capitalism that has reigned over the world economy in the past three decades. Not only have the vast majority of Americans failed to recognize that their suffering is part of a structural problem inherent to global capitalism, but labor unions haven’t either. It seems that those who are screaming loudest about the structural problems with free-market capitalism are, like environmentalism, those who are less affected by the economic downturn—academics and left-leaning journalists.

Only when people recognize that globalization and free-market capitalism won’t take care of them, that buying into free trade, cheap consumer goods, and houses as a sure profitable investment won’t lead to the good life, can we effectively organize to take the system back. Hopefully, labor unions and the rest of the activist community will be prepared for this scenario.

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