A Public Forum Organized by the Anarchist Communist Union of Boston (the Boston Chapter of the Northeast Anarchist Communist Federation)
Saturday, October 13, 2007, , at the Encuentro 5 space, 33 Harrison Avenue, fifth floor, Chinatown, Boston. The event was well attended.
By James Herod, October 17, 2007
There were three panelists. I’ll take them in order.
Dave, from Montreal
Dave described his work organizing in Montreal’s East End, which is a poor, white working class district. There was a lot of organized racism in the district, by skin-heads and neo-nazis. The district residents had been beset with violent personal assaults by these groups. Dave and his friends decided to do something about it. They eventually recruited about fifteen activists who were interested in launching and conducting a campaign to deal with the problem. The group right away decided not to deal with it in physical terms, that is, they decided not to fight the neo-nazis (I guess I’ll refer to them as fascists, although Dave didn’t), as had been the practice of some anti-fascist leftists/anarchists in the past. Instead they decided on a community approach. They wanted to try to involve the whole community. They took as their model tactics used by certain Irish neighborhoods to drive drug dealers out of their communities. Most East End residents were at least mildly progressive but there was a substantial minority who were attracted to the fascists. These people were hurting from economic and other forms of oppression and were angry. The fascists offered them a certain kind of solace. So Dave and friends started organizing cultural events, and appealed to punks, hip-hop artists, and various other music groups. At these events they would hand out leaflets and make literature available to educate the neighborhood about the problem. They also eventually studied out the areas and groups which the fascists were targeting for recruitment. So they focused on those groups too, like skate boarders or graffiti artists, and would hang out with them and try to neutralize the appeal of fascists. Also, since the actual physical attacks were an ongoing problem they organized community patrols which would try to defend individuals who were being attacked. All these tactics worked to greatly reduce the violence in the neighborhood. The Neo-Nazis are still there, but they are pretty much confined to certain bars and hangouts, and no longer are able to recruit very openly or freely among the youth, let alone attack individuals at will as before.
Diana, from East Boston
Diana’s talk focused on the importance of actually participating in social movements and ongoing social struggles, and of building up personal relationships in them. She said that she used to work a lot just as an anarchist but eventually decided that this was going nowhere. So she started participating in other things. She described a number of these activities, including calling meetings in East Boston to deal with various community issues and working with the Jericho group. She organized solidarity support for the victims of the ICE arrests in New Bedford. She has also done immigration work in Chelsea. There have been ICE raids there, with about thirty arrests. Certain groups are being targeted. Diana stressed the need to build broad-based alliances to deal with this oppression. She has also done a lot of union support work, in particular, helping out with the ongoing labor struggle at a local popular restaurant. She and friends go out there every Saturday to support the picket line, and to talk to people, make contacts, and build up relationships. She stressed how important it was for her actually to be involved in social movements like this.
Shaun, from Philly (?)
Shaun talked about his work as a union organizer (but I didn’t catch which union he was working for). His talk was on a more general level, mostly recounting some of the things he had learned about effective organizing. Among the points he mentioned were:
** If you don’t actually ask someone to join the union they probably won’t.
** Although you may not like the idea (as an anarchist) it is important to recognize that there are leaders in every shop, persons others look up to. It is necessary to work with these people.
** Take baby steps. Focus on the immediate issues. Aim first just for solidarity with co-workers. Maybe later it will be possible to make public statements.
Shaun felt that he often needed to put his politics in the background and just deal with the issues on the floor. His aim was to help people to learn how to self-organize. Down the road a ways perhaps he would find opportunities to talk about his anarchist politics, he said.
There was a lively discussion after the three talks. Right off the bat someone asked the panelists how the organizing they were doing related to their long-term revolutionary (anarchist) goals. They replied that it was a matter of building self-empowerment. The only way to build a cooperative society is for people to work together. People working together can drop a lot of bad habits, as they gain a voice, and shed nonproductive anger. People lose their fear of speaking up. Undocumented workers, for example, realize that they are being mistreated, and learn about their rights. They learn that the bosses, and the state, shouldn’t have power over them. Also, the panelists thought that issue-based organizing makes it easier to deal with race and gender issues because people have to cooperate to deal with the issue at hand.
Then someone asked what empowerment meant. One of the panelists replied that it was the distinction between ‘power to’ versus ‘power over.’ These kinds of organizing efforts helped people to gain control over their lives and communities. Someone asked Diana directly how she reconciled her anarchist beliefs with her work in a non-anarchist organization like Jericho. She replied that she thought the work Jericho was doing, and the issues it was dealing with, were important, and that she was able to quietly argue for anarchism while doing this work. Then someone (me) challenged union organizing per se, saying that 150 years of such work proved that it was a dead end and that it didn’t help defeat capitalism or build a free society. This comment provoked a vigorous defense of union organizing by a member in the audience, saying that it was necessary to distinguish between trade unions and revolutionary unions. Not all unions are the same, he said. The union movement is not monolithic. He also said that anarchists should get over their hang-up about leadership.
Then someone asked the question which I had thought might be the actual focus of the evening, or at least part of it, namely, what are the pros and cons of organizing specifically as anarchists? Someone said right off that, well, we have to do both – organize as anarchists and also participate in all these other movements. Various people reiterated their belief that it was important to work in issue-based (reformist?) campaigns, because they at least were “doing something.” (Doing what? Is the question.)
I am definitely the odd man out in discussions like this. The role I seem to have fallen into is that of the wet blanket thrower. I may get a name for myself if I’m not careful. I may already have gotten one. My second wet blanket of the evening (the first being to question the value of union organizing) was to make a distinction between anarchists organizing themselves as anarchists and the anarchist social forms that will be needed to establish an anarchist society. This blanket fell considerably short of getting fully deployed because I stopped short of really making my point. Virtually no work is going into setting up actual anarchist social forms, even by anarchists who are setting up anarchist organizations. More work goes into keeping the organization going than into creating anarchy. Of course we need anarchist organizations. The question is: What are they doing?
The newly created Northeast Anarchist Network so far has focused on three general areas: protest politics, identity politics, and IWW-type union organizing – three dead ends. The older Northeast Anarchist Communist Federation puts a lot of energy into union work. I think this is a complete waste of time. As for all the anarchists who are going over to a sort of popular front strategy (of ‘forming alliances’ – actually just working within an organization as an individual -- with single-issue, often quite reformist, campaigns), I think they are deluding themselves that a few anarchists in these organizations will ever radicalize them (that is, convert them to anarchism). They may win over an individual or two but the organizations themselves will in all probability continue working toward the goals their founders set them up to achieve.
We anarchists are so few in number. We should be working on campaigns that directly benefit the struggle for anarchy. I think part of the problem is that so few anarchists see anything revolutionary that they can do and so they settle for working in reformist projects. But there are plenty of projects we could be undertaking. I will just list here seven of the most obvious.
(1)Agitate for the establishment of assemblies (at work [by-passing unions], in households [expanded], and neighborhoods)
(2)Agitate to persuade small family businesses to convert to co-ops (worker-owned)
(3)Agitate to persuade NGOs to convert to direct democracy
(4)Agitate to persuade small towns to convert to direct democracy
(5)Agitate to establish extended households and co-housing
(6)Agitate to discredit representative government and foster direct democracy
(7)Agitate for solidarity and networking with existing worker-owned businesses
At least these campaigns would be getting anarchist ideas into the air and where successful would actually be creating anarchist forms. We would not be pouring our lives into reformist projects that, however valuable or ameliorative they might be, do nothing to take power away from the ruling class, defeat capitalists, and establish a free society.
October 17, 2007: A Report on Nefac's Public Forum on Organizing and Liberation