Writers and activists Dan Berger and Andy Cornell spoke with a group of about 20 people about local organizing around progressive causes Tuesday at the Wealthy Street Theatre. Berger is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity and an editor of Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out; Cornell was a contributor to the latter.
Both read selections from the books and led conversations about organizing in Grand Rapids. The first letter was Cornell’s, a letter to the punk rock community. Although his letter had relevance to only a few people in the group, it was particularly poignant as it addressed the frustrations of many who became radicalized through the punk rock scene yet have had little success organizing within it–one member of the group stated that he had “been meaning to write that letter [to the punk rock community] for a long time.”
The second letter spoke to the entire group as it dealt with relationships between young and old activists and the need for cross-generational activism. Far too often, Cornell read, there is mutual demonizing of each other by the old and young, with the older generation being viewed as rigid, narrow-minded liberals who have little younger folks can learn from, while younger activists are viewed as reckless and do not have a firm grip on the reality of organizing yet. Such self-righteous attitudes, Cornell read, must be dispensed with if we are to have a sustained radical movement.
The last selection from Letters dealt with leadership in radical movements. Berger read that while nonhierarchical activist structures certainly are essential and good, it is possible and desirable for leaders—“many leaders”—to emerge within those structures. The letter noted that in the run-up to the Presidential elections of 2004, because of the absence of progressive leaders, celebrities such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Ben Affleck took on those roles and were predictably bad at them. A compromise can be found, the letter said, between a complete lack of leaders and hierarchical structure in activist organizing, and that compromise can be nonauthoritative and nonhierarchical.
After Berger read the conclusion to his book on the Weather Underground, a dialogue began on organizing in Grand Rapids. Many different groups were represented, and a variety of opinions given. Several people expressed the opinion that organizing in Grand Rapids is segregated, saying this is a “major barrier to developing the movement.” Another organizer stated that organizing in Grand Rapids is “not a community conversation,” and needs to be. One organizer from the Michigan Organizing Project stated that she is continually frustrated with white activists who expect people of color to operate on the same premises as them, the whites. Another organizer stressed that activists must always speak about issues from a systems-level analysis. The conversation on Grand Rapids organizing was a good one that should happen more often. Events like the grassroots organizing fair held last September at the Wealthy Street Theatre should be utilized as excellent opportunities to be in dialogue with, learn from, and collaborate with other Grand Rapids progressives in order for all of our causes to grow.
The discussion was cut short by the scheduled viewing of the film The Weather Underground. The film showing was followed by a discussion led by Dan Berger. Berger, having spent a good part of the last six years researching the group, gave insight to the group and its relevancy today. He fielded many questions by a small but obviously interested group of viewers. When asked about the difference between Iraq and Vietnam, he spoke of the support for the Viet Cong in the United States and around the world—a factor that is clearly not the case in Iraq. A cursory glance at mainstream media coverage of Iraqi resistance to US occupation shows a very one-dimensional projection, with all fighters referred to as “insurgents” and painted as Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, which allows for easy demonization; in addition, the climate is intensely unconditionally supportive of US troops (a sentiment which can be seen in the many yellow magnetic ribbons adorning scores of cars in Grand Rapids and around the country)—these conditions and others make mass-based support for Iraqi resistance like the support for the Viet Cong in Vietnam much less likely.
The predictable question on the use of violence as a means of social change was asked of Berger. Did he think, the questioner asked, violence was acceptable by groups seeking social change? Philosophical questions on whether or not destruction of property can classified as “violence” (as the bombs never killed or injured anyone besides the three Weather Underground members whose bomb accidentally went off in their New York City townhouse in 1970) aside, Berger did not respond with a yes or no, but rather brought up the issue of context. He spoke of groups’ “need for audacity” in their actions, and that this means different things in different contexts. The question for all groups seeking social change to consider, Berger said, is “How do we as a group remain politically relevant?” He pointed to the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 which helped launch the Civil Rights Movement as being particularly audacious and militant in their historical context. Regarding Weather, they emerged in a context in which a largely non-violent antiwar movement had failed to end Vietnam, the US was committing unparalleled atrocities and innocent civilians were dying by the thousands weekly, and violent struggles for liberation were happening all over the world. Rather than condemning political violence wholesale, Berger said it must be understood and considered in its context. He also stated that it is crucial to remember that the state, particularly the US government, is far and away the biggest purveyor of death, misery, and destruction in the world, and that this is also a part of the context necessary when thinking about violence. For further discussion on this topic, see Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology.
Berger’s talk was an important one, for it both opened up dialogue about a subject frequently portrayed as though all on the left are in agreement, which is far from the truth, and shed some light on a frequently misrepresented and misunderstood group which can provide important insights to activist groups today.
Outlaws of America, Letters from Young Activists, and Pacifism as Pathology can all be checked out from the lending library at the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy.