Reprinted From Radical Americas
Towards A Movement for a Democratic Society
This is a discussion piece written for Radical Americas – an online magazine that Paul Buhle and I edit. The purpose of the piece is to encourage discussion around the practical goal of building MDS – this discussion being a lead up to the MDS Convergence being held in Chicago, November 9-11, 2007. I hope the document is useful in the struggle to create a movement for a democratic society.
Introduction: Who Do We Think We Are?
The project known as Movement for a Democratic Society has a number of faces. We initially formed to offer support to SDS but we also exist as an activist organization in our own right. A number of MDS chapters have formed in recent months and our community organizers are actively working to take back our communities from those who would divide and plunder us. Unfortunately, the press – both the mainstream and the liberal press – has not bothered to follow this emergence of a community based movement, preferring to cover MDS in classic gossip columnist style.
Recently, however, this began to change. On March 19, 2007, a number of MDS activists participated in the Wall Street civil disobedience – three MDS activists were arrested along with 40 other activists. Four days later three more MDS activists were arrested for occupying the office of chickenhawk Congressman Vito Fossella – in an action that involved several organizations working together. Press coverage of this action was excellent and the “Fossella Five” continue to get very favorable coverage from both print and broadcast media. MDS remains at the heart of this effort to force Congressman Fossella to meet with peace activists. See fossellafive.org for more about this campaign which is being coordinated by several organizations: Peace Action Staten Island, MDS and World Can’t Wait.
MDS activists in Austin, Texas have been organizing around the issue of a potential US invasion of Iran. At this point an MDS led initiative has produced almost 300 signatories to an online petition – a petition where the signatories pledge to commit acts of civil disobedience/resistance should the US attack Iran. This initiative, called The Iran Pledge of Resistance, is slowing building. In addition, the Austin chapter has been very active in the creation and distribution of lawn signs against the war. This mechanism for a public display of antiwar sentiment is an example of a local initiative that gets the message out and builds a local chapter.
MDS organizers in Orlando, Florida, have built a viable chapter which they call “Central Florida MDS”. This chapter is special in that its membership includes recent University of Central Florida graduates who were part of UCF SDS. Two of the SDS alumni are now working in the movement – for ACORN and ACLU – and active in their local MDS chapter. The chapter itself is currently engaged in an effort to stop Orlando’s Mayor from using tax monies to fund a local developer’s “pyramid scheme”: the building of “community venues,” a massive one billion dollars worth of “public works” projects that includes refurbishing the Citrus Bowl and building a new performing arts center and arena. MDS is calling for a referendum on how local tax dollars will be spent.
A national campaign that originated outside MDS but which represents an opportunity for local organizing is the Iraq Moratorium. Organizers of the campaign are asking individuals to take a pledge: “I hereby make a commitment that on Friday, September 21, 2007, and the third Friday of every subsequent month I will break my daily routine and take some action, by myself or with others, to end the War in Iraq.” This provides an excellent opportunity for local organizers to have a national impact – building their chapters in the process. (See www.iraqmoratorium.org for details about the campaign).
Hampering efforts such as these is the infighting which occurs primarily on MDS internet mailing lists. The participants are generally not activists or chapter organizers but stand alone members united by a desire for some centralized national entity (specifically a decision making body). The questions surrounding the nature of such an entity, its structure and ability to make “national” decisions dominates the occasionally heated discussions. The other issue that has overshadowed MDS community organizing is the controversy surrounding the purpose, structure and internal politics of the “Foundation for a Democratic Society” (FDS), formerly “MDS, Incorporated”. It is my view that MDS needs to untangle itself from both the ineffective and divisive internet mailing lists and the discussion about the Foundation for a Democratic Society which exists primarily to fundraise for SDS and is not directly related to building a grassroots organization predicated on direct action and participatory democracy.
Because of the success of the handful of local MDS chapters and the discord on mailing lists it seems clear that MDS has to look at what we have done right – and what we have done badly. It is my contention that the way forward, Towards a Movement for a Democratic Society, towards a viable MDS, is to adopt a highly decentralized model. Completely autonomous chapters, each in turn addressing the needs and realities of the communities in which they work, are the backbone of such an approach. These chapters should support each other, perhaps eventually forming some sort of national confederation when the number of chapters reaches the point that such a coordinating body makes sense, but for now operating completely independently. At this time the very idea of a national structure is a non-sequitor in my view. Recent events have shown that the at large members of MDS regard a “national structure” as something to fight over (a prize to be seized) whereas the chapter organizers, immersed in local struggles, generally do not participate in these internet based debates as the issues discussed appear irrelevant. MDS does not need a national fund raising apparatus to sustain itself, as we are not students. We do not require a centralized decision making body to be effective in our communities and in fact the struggle to create/control such an entity, while preoccupying the bourgeois press, is largely an impediment to effective organizing. The subtitle of this document might well be “all power to the chapters”. While a number of inspiring and instructive slogans could be utilized to underscore the central idea advanced here (“from below and to the left”, etc.) it seems abundantly clear that the way forward, towards a movement for a democratic society, is a fully decentralized, chapter based MDS – one completely devoid of any national level coordinating structure at least until the number of functioning chapters warrants its creation. One analogy might be that it is irrelevant to argue over who should drive when there is no car.
Building MDS, From The Ground Up
As MDSers we are lifelong students of the revolutionary project. We are seekers too, for a democratic society: looking to restore citizenship to a place where women and men collectively take responsibility for their communities. We would end the rule of those whose greed and avarice have destroyed our society and who would destroy our very planet. We are a grassroots democratic force for social justice and a moral economy – using direct action to build a new society, founded and built upon the theory and practice of participatory democracy. We are ordinary people joining together to do the extraordinary. We are for the direct management of community affairs through face to face democratic institutions. The local MDS chapter could be, and should be, such a democratic institution.
All autonomy, all of our rights as citizens, have been subjugated to the bureaucracy of a corporate state that wages undeclared wars of conquest, enslaves entire communities by denying them jobs and incarcerates anyone who resists – spending billions on weapons instead of healthcare, destroying the environment, reserving education for the rich and mocking the rule of law by creating a police state to violate the human rights of anyone deemed disloyal. The corporate elite rigs elections and ignores public opinion – even the heavily censored nightly news is beginning to grudgingly acknowledge this. The struggle to change our society into a democracy will be a long one – but as MDSers we feel a sense of urgency to get started on the process…it is time to focus on chapter work. I urge all MDSers to turn their focus outward, to their communities and their world, to the issues we need to face. At large members should try to form chapters, however difficult this may be, in their communities. Existing chapters should be supported by at large members and their work should be the subject of discussion – not internecine squabbling.
What derails a mass movement is the disease of sectarianism. We in MDS know a little about this disorder. “We can’t work with Catholics because of the Inquisition” as Tom Keough put it. Mea Culpa – I have succumb to this way of avoiding real thinking in the past. But today I work with Elaine Brower of WCW and even Clark Kissinger of RCP. Heresy some say. But I counter that we need to move beyond sectarianism. Why? Because we are seeing what Al Haber called “an emergent fascism” in this country. It’s time to put aside the quest for the one true line, the correct ideology. To move beyond what Alinsky called personal salvation at the expense of mass salvation. The MDS chapter that I work with includes members of Peace Action, the World Can’t Wait, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party, the Green Party and Veterans for Peace. We manage to get along, to practice the politics of solidarity. How? We focus on our work and on the real issues – uniting around what we hold in common. And working to build a Movement. I believe that this shared struggle facilitates real discussion, even around potentially divisive issues. I believe that most of us have come to accept the idea of “1, 2, 3, Many Utopias” (to paraphrase David Graeber) and to acknowledge that we learn from each other.
To be effective in our community my MDS chapter has behaved in an antiauthoritarian manner, demonstrating our commitment to nonviolence as our tactic but not our worldview, displaying a sense of humor (to preserve sanity and solidarity) and evidencing what Ehrenreich called “the festive tradition” in our protests. We recognize the truth in Dan Berrigan’s comment that “the human imagination was the greatest victim of 9-11.” We recognize that need to confront and shame the irresponsible parties destroying our planet; take back our community boards; radicalize our workmates and educate and emancipate our Selves…and we are doing this in the context of our community. Recently we began taking bicycle horns to our biweekly Honk For Impeachment actions – tooting our own horns. And the response has been very positive – community members driving and walking by are very supportive.
MDS chapters need a presence in the community: they need to do tabling, to hold community forums and meetings, to initiate study groups, to do teach-ins at local campuses, to attend PTA meetings and raise real issues, to engage in discussion with workmates, to connect with others, to do coalition activism supporting comrades in the NLG; CodePINK; VFP; IVAW; WRL and unlikely allies too: WCW and others. We are at a unique moment in the history of the US Left: radicalism is on the rise as a result of the war in Iraq and the assault on civil liberties. We need to live in this moment – building our chapters and building our presence in our communities.
On Internet “Organizing”
I setup the sds website and listservs as well as the mds internet presence. I am very aware of the potential of the internet – I am also acutely aware of its shortcomings. The web is great for a quick start out of the gate but is NOT a surrogate for human interaction and is in no way, shape or form a substitute for activism. It can facilitate activism to a degree. It cannot replace it. Those of us who have spent the last year and a half restarting sds have seen the good and the bad. The students were the first to realize that “internet organizing” is a bit of an oxymoron. All sorts of minor misunderstandings get blown way out of proportion and end up wasting vast amounts of time (as well as damaging interpersonal relationships). This is a particularly true in MDS where we have some folks with very strong opinions and a need to voice them in a venue such as MDS – unfortunately we have seen far too much of the virtual equivalent of road rage as a result of what can best be termed something less than dialogue. I fell into this trap before I decided I simply wasn’t going to discuss contentious issues in email any more. It was interfering with the mission as I see it.
So what’s the role of the Net?? The internet is used as simply another means of communication, not as a self contained social environment. If people are unable to meet face to face I feel that teleconferences are far more useful than internet bulletin boards or listservs if the goal is to get something done. And even better than the teleconference is the face to face meeting in your community.
MDS needs a mechanism to help get our chapters off the ground and to stay on top of what each chapter is up to. I could envision a committee which includes at large members who wish to help with chapter organizing. This effort could use all of our tools to get the job done: internet, telephones, snail mail, face to face meetings, etc. Volunteers could try to effectively link the existing chapters into a loose network predicated on the idea of mutual aid: MDS New York, MDS Philly (Bill Tuttle), MDS Florence Alabama (David House), MDS Arlington Texas (Michael McGeehee), MDS Gainesville (Flora Maccoll), MDS Orlando (Jay Jurie), MDS Denver (Mark Derderian) and MDS Austin (David and Sally Hamilton/Alice Embree). The glue we could use to establish the linkages could be a focus on activism/organizing facilitated by volunteers who help get the word out and who assist with nuts and bolts issues. A chapter committee could assist with announcements of actions/meetings, legal updates, fundraising appeals for specific events/actions, filing FOIA requests etc.
For MDS to be viable, it must adopt a local perspective, the perspective of neighborhoods and communities. It must enter into community-based struggles for everything from affordable housing to reclaiming control of community boards – wrenching control away from realtors and developers. For MDS to thrive it must get its efforts publicized – bringing its grassroots perspective to the attention of the local and national press. This is an area where at large members can help – joining in the local campaigns for peace and justice – choosing those campaigns that have special appeal and making valuable contributions to the immediate goals and the larger goal: building a movement for a democratic society.
Rules For Radicals
Given that this document advocates working at the chapter level it would seem to remiss not to include a brief discussion of actions and tactics that have been successful within my MDS chapter. The most successful campaign has been the Fossella Five effort (so named after the five of us who were arrested for occupying the office of Congressman Vito Fossella) but there have been other successes. It is my view that one of the Left’s greatest tacticians was Saul Alinsky – and his emphasis on pragmatism and flexibility is particularly apt for MDS chapter building. This flexibility and pragmatism is essential for successful campaigns. And as Tom Hayden said recently, it’s ok to win occasionally…
Alinsky always argues that organizers should avoid being trapped by tactics into doing things they don’t want to do. This means that the tactics must evolve, not just from one campaign to the next but within a campaign. Conversely if you spot a tendency within your opponent towards rigidity – exploit it. In the campaign to get Right Wing fanatic Vito Fossella to meet with us, MDSers and Peace Action activists occupied his office declining to leave until he agreed to meet with us. This caught his staff by surprise as previously they would promise to setup a meeting and protesters would leave – of course the meeting never happened. When we declined to leave we were arrested. And complimented by a police captain who said: “This is what democracy is about.” We had gone to the Congressional office dressed in our Sunday best – and the media photographed us and covered the story as what it was: constituents going to see their congressman who then had them arrested. This was something we discussed beforehand. Our demands were phrased in general terms – we knew ahead of time that our demands would evolve and so the core demand was simply that Fossella agree to meet with us. To date he has refused to do so – and this fact is brought up by the press on a regular basis.
Conflict is essential in a campaign, if there is no conflict, there is no campaign so it is essential for MDSers to stir up dissent and controversy. In the context of Pace SDS we saw how effective this approach is – first creating an issue by publicizing how University President Caputo was enriching himself while raising tuition and then by forcing the board of trustees to remove him by publicizing how he had his students arrested for protesting on their own campus. MDS NYC followed a similar course: we refused to accept that our congressman would deny our demand for a meeting, got arrested for this refusal and then later we publicized the arrest in a post arraignment press conference. Realizing that we were in for a long struggle we stepped up the pressure by holding a candlelight vigil outside Fossella’s Staten Island home while he was home from Congress over the spring break. His press secretary called us “increasingly inappropriate” in a news piece that listed our chief complaints: Fossella rubber stamped Bush’s illegal war and refused to meet with us to discuss his position on the war. Most community members we spoke with, and we spoke with quite a few, indicated that they agreed Fossella should meet with us. My own view was that we did a fair job of keeping our main points front and center in news coverage while Fossella appeared increasingly inarticulate.
It wasn’t easy getting everyone on board with all of our tactics: we found it necessary to exercise patience with coalition members – to listen to them and build a multi-issue campaign around their concerns. We also found it useful to raise specific issues, not vague generalities – we were quite specific about which of Fossella’s positions we objected to and we listed how he voted on a number of issues on fossellafive.org. We also used humor effectively, on fossellafive.org we list “Vito’s Swift Votes” which chronicle his anti-veteran voting habits. Similarly, we decided that if our campaign was to remain a focus of media attention we had to be irreverent, to use humor and to avoid predictable tactics, even those that had been successful in the past. Our last effort was a peace rally that featured an appearance by the “Filthy Rich for Fossella” – a fictitious group of Fossella “supporters” with names like “Lotta Bucks” who told rally attendees that you have to pay to meet with Vito which is why Halliburton has access but his constituents do not. All of these tactics have exposed Fossella’s contradictions and we feel he is vulnerable in the next election. We will involve ourselves in this electoral effort as well.
Lessons learned from this campaign include things that validate the decentralized chapter idea: we found that good organizational skills outweigh a hotly debated and lengthy program or mission statement – we spent very little time on defining our ad hoc coalition or issuing statements. The press ignore the majority of formal statements in any case, preferring to cover action. We also learned to polarize issues publicly to motivate people but be to be humane and flexible in our dealings with people we thought would be against us – for example taking flowers and chocolates to Fossella’s secretaries after our arrest to indicate that we didn’t see them as the enemy. They responded by telling us that “everyone should be allowed to express their opinion in Vito’s office.” We found that it was effective to be good organizers, not “leaders” – we spent no time on structural issues or assigning roles, all of our discussion focused on practical issues. We realized that tactics should be fun and that working together should be fun too. Our campaign also evolved as we tried to keep the pressure on but not get stuck in a rut, so as to avoid people getting burnt out. We also realized the importance of declaring victory and moving on to new approaches – rather than getting locked into a tactic that could produce only a stalemate if continued ad infinitum. The campaign is far from over but the press is now running stories against Fossella on a regular basis and an election is looming. Soon we may have a different congressman to meet with.
In the process of running this campaign, while simultaneously running vigils against the war and for impeachment, we have recruited people who are not committed leftys. We have recruited people who are community members and are responsive to the fact that we are addressing issues that are meaningful to them. They could not care less about issues of national structure within MDS – in fact, neither could any of our coalition partners and neither could most of us. In my affinity group (a subset of MDS NYC – MDS Staten Island) we are all agreed that a national structure is less than useless – it would detract from the real work of MDS: local community based organizing.
The fact that I am opposed to a national structure, preferring a decentralized, grassroots, chapter based MDS does not mean that our community based campaigns will not have national impact. It is my view that local battles are winnable and thus have the greatest chance of prompting change at the national level. I’ve never seen change come about as the result of a position paper or a large march. These things play a role but without grassroots actions they accomplish nothing. In my view it is the role of MDS to be that grassroots force for change that makes progress possible. In all the discussion about national structure I have never seen anyone acknowledge that an effective process requires purpose. That silence on a pivotal issue speaks volumes. What’s more it has been amply demonstrated, in my view, that the lack of purpose, the lack of action has produced factionalism – factionalists love inertia. Internal debate, devoid of a real world focus will not produce a viable movement. It will, at best, produce only a sect.
To Build a Movement – Build Activist Chapters
I attempt to keep a few things in mind as I work on building the chapter I am a part of: set an agenda based on available resources and attainable goals, do not focus on issues framed by opponents. Frame issues that unify people – and don’t respond without a strategy. Remember that national campaigns eat resources and require playing by insider rules – local actions are more effective and less prone to cooptation. A national campaign of localized direct action is the best way to “nationalize” an issue – for example, the new MDS Iran Pledge of Resistance campaign – this has been valuable on Staten Island – ennabling us to reach out to the Arab-American community.
Earlier I alluded to Brother Hayden’s comment about knowing how to win. It is critical that chapters take on issues that are winnable. An example of a winnable issue – local school boards should be challenged when their policies hurt schools. A parent and teacher council should be formed to put pressure on the board and to demand recognition as a policy making body. When budget cuts are proposed demand a parent-teacher council investigate and offer alternatives. Take back the PTA! This approach addresses short term issues (funding, etc.) while building a democratic institution that can tackle future issues. Similarly, launch a campaign to take back your local community board. All too often these structures are populated by realtors, developers, local political machines and other anti-democratic forces. They make decisions that affect the entire community – these decisions should not go unchallenged.
In MDS Staten Island some of us are now working on the campaign of left leaning Democrat Steve Harrison. Harrison came to Fossella’s office during our occupation. He came to our arraignment and to the post arraignment press conference. He has been very outspoken on Fossella’s positions and behaviors – and taken very advanced positions on several issues. Nonetheless he is a Democrat and a politician. Our strategy is to help him rid us of Fossella but to make it clear we will hold him accountable should he be elected. I am convinced that it helps a new chapter get going when the nascent entity launches a campaign to hold local politicians accountable:
demanding politicians endorse specific programs rather than issuing empty rhetoric. A specific example: anti-crime calls should be countered with proposals for economic development and access to health care. In a similar vein, we need to praise politicians when they do the right thing – but we shouldn’t hesitate to slam them when they are wrong – MDS should demand political accountability and MDSers should refuse patronage appointments, it is a trap. Instead we must struggle to keep the moral highground – and keep the pressure on. Politicians tend to do the right thing more often when they are being closely monitored.
MDS community organizers should demand action, not task forces…we should point out the biased composition of task forces, the individual agendas of its members and the political pressure on it to do nothing and point out that its recommendations will be ignored if they are worth anything. We must be ever vigilant against cooptation and stalling tactics.
Some prominent naysayers, stand alone members of MDS have decried confrontational tactics. Community organizers, to be effective, must embrace controversy and confrontation. For example, sustained campaigns of heckling irresponsible politicians are very effective – our Fossella campaign is proof of this. Newsworthy conflicts – including confrontations at news conferences – get media coverage and help frame the issues the way the activists would prefer – instead of letting the politician frame the issue and shirk responsibility.
MDS: Dare To Struggle, Dare To Win
All of the campaigns awaiting us will require an effective, local, presence at the community level. All of these campaigns will require a grassroots organization and can potentially have national impact. Conversely, none of these campaigns, none of what you can do in your community, requires yet another national organization that issues position papers, has a small circulation newspaper that reaches only the choir and issues pronouncements that are largely ignored at the chapter level. None of these campaigns require spending months in a divisive debate on a mailing list – debating issues that have no impact on local chapters other than to overshadow the good work they are doing. For MDS to be that vehicle that helps facilitate an enduring Movement, for us to move towards a movement for a democratic society, it is essential that foster the growth of quite a few more local chapters – and respect their autonomy. For chapters to flourish we must reject the ugliness that has dominated our listservs – our public face – and focus on our real work: the bringing about of a participatory democracy in the United States, one community at a time. Join us.