Event Looks at the State of Radical Grassroots Social Movements in Michigan, Chicago

Solidarity & Defense Hosted an Event that Looked at Radical Grassroots Movements in Michigan and Chicago

On February 7, a group called Solidarity & Defense “a small but growing alliance of anti-authoritarian militants active in both the workplace and the community,” hosted an evening of speakers and discussion at the International Institute in Detroit. The theme was “Renewing the New Years Promise” and it featured regional organizers speaking on their organization’s vision of social change. A variety of topics were covered, from gentrification to police repression.

The night began with a panel of six organizers. The first panelist, Robert, is a member of the Railway Work Unit of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Chicago Four Star Anarchist Group, and was involved with the Republic Windows occupation in December. He talked about the importance of pre-figurative organizing – counter institutions, citizens councils, and Cop Watch — in order to put pressure on formal institutions. Robert spoke of the importance of focusing on specific issues at hand in communities, rather than broad ideas. One way to do this is through the IWW, pinpointing which industries are suffering (such as the auto industry) before people are laid off, and making decisions “horizontally,” then bringing them up “vertically” by workers placing pressure on executives.

Lacey, who is currently based in Detroit but organized in Lansing for several years and is involved with Solidarity & Defense, spoke of the importance of solidarity within communities and defending communities when they are attacked by legislation or policies. She noted that we are currently in a unique political situation of new found enthusiasm – the last election drew a lot of people into the idea of change and motivated them. According to Lacey, the job of community organizers is to find a place for people to plug in. She addressed the police repression at the RNC, emphasizing that “you have to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” and stressing direct action as a strategy for change.

Bill and Robert spoke on their involvement with Y.O.U.T.H. Inc (Youth Organizing to Uplift Tomorrow’s Humanity), which provides programs for youth, tutoring within schools, a gym space and food to emphasize health, and provide training for specific trades. They also talked about the need for goals, and the importance of connecting different projects and working together.

Carmen, who is involved in the Detroit public school system, spoke of the needs of the Latino community in Detroit: legal clinics, health and safety classes, and immigrant support. She spoke about groups organizing in Detroit for border support, posting bail for undocumented workers, and translating Spanish classes by ESL students.

Brie, who is from Chicago and involved with the Four Star Anarchist Group talked about the importance of art in the movement. In the past it has been used to pacify us through the entertainment industry, but art is a strategy activists can use to empower people. Brie also talked about veterans’ issues, saying that anarchist groups can be used a means for support, to combat the common feeling of always being on the defense. Activists can being to take a more pro-active stance on these issues, which Brie cited as a goal of the Solidarity & Defense group.

Melissa, the final panelist of the evening, is involved with NorthStar, the collective/infoshop based in Lansing. She spoke of the need for activists to build connections amongst ourselves, and the importance of being engaged in the community. Melissa also discussed facilitating empowerment – we can build a radical capacity for people who are generally disempowered, so they can take control of their own lives and situations.

Following the panel was a discussion with the audience. One critique is that some thought the discussion dominated by older white males, despite the fact the audience was made up of many women, Latino/as, and African Americans.

Organizing for America: Not Really a Movement


In the wake of Barack Obama’s election, there was considerable discussion about how “the movement” that supported him would continue on following the election. In a video message in January, Obama said that his supporters “built the largest grass roots movement in history” and that it was important to continue to grow the movement into his presidency.

The campaign transitioned its network–a staggering 13 million email addresses and two million active volunteers–into a new entity, Organizing for America. The organization is now housed within the Democratic National Committee and has an open communications channel with the White House. According to various media reports, it will be used primarily to build public support for legislation and to pass that legislation. Obama’s administration has said that it will not be used to pressure members of Congress.

With the Passage of the Stimulus, an Opportunity to Reflect

The Congressional fight over the stimulus package–trumpeted by Barack Obama–offers an opportunity to reflect on how Organizing for America functioned and how it will likely function in the future. Aside from the continuation of its social networking functions and blog postings updating supporters on what the Obama administration has done thus far (all of which are favorable to the administration), the stimulus package debate was the organization’s first organizing effort.

Organizing for America essentially worked to establish public support for Obama’s stimulus package. Supporters were encouraged to host a meeting about the package, which the group described as Obama and Congress’ “plan to put nearly four million Americans back to work.” Supporters could ask questions that might be answered in a video in support of the plan featuring Governor and DNC Chair Tom Kaine. Organizing for America also publicized “talking points” in support of “President Obama’s Economic Stimulus Plan” and circulated a state-by-state analysis of the plan. The group tapped into Obama’s campaign network, sending at least four emails asking supporters to help build support for the legislation. All of the efforts were aimed at building support for “Obama’s plan” not promoting a back-and-forth interaction between supporters and the President. Nor did they discuss intricate details of the package.

While both legislative bodies eventually passed the legislation, it passed without the bi-partisan support that Obama sought.

Not a Movement in the Traditional Sense

Looking at how Organizing for America campaigned for the stimulus package, it is clear that Organizing for America is does not function as “a movement” in the traditional sense. In the tradition of community organizing, one typically thinks of a movement using bottom-up, grassroots structures. For example, you might picture residents of a town banding together to campaign for the removal of a police officer with a violent history of unjustifiable targeting people of color. As a part of this effort, they might target a civilian police review board, the mayor, or a city council to achieve their goal. Another example would be a group campaigning to get a city government to divest funds from an investment company that funds destructive coal mining practices. In both of the aforementioned examples, the key is that the movement–the residents making the demands–has decided together to make demands for change on officials who have the power to make the change they are seeking.

However, in organizing around the stimulus package, Organizing for America has not featured this bottom-up, citizen-driven organizing. Instead, the goals and work have been dictated from the top. The group asked people only to work to get Obama’s legislation passed, not to shape the actual legislation. While this was discussed above, a specific example is the meetings that Organizing for America called for around the stimulus bill. Supporters were asked to host “house meetings” to discuss Obama’s plan and the economic crisis in their communities:

“That’s why supporters are opening their homes to talk with neighbors and friends about how the plan will work — and what it means for their community.

The video will outline the basics of the plan and how it will impact working families. It will also include answers to questions from folks across the country. Invite your friends and family to watch the video, discuss the plan, and help build support for it.”

However, they were not asked to come up with their own solutions to the problems, instead they were asked to simply drum up support for Obama’s plan. Supporters were not to be used to generate the actual legislation; instead, they were simply seen as a pressure group to ensure its passage.

A Disappointing Step

Unfortunately, this removed the kind of grassroots discussion and bottom up organizing that characterizes “movements.” It is also a step away from the “movements” that we traditionally think of and is a step away from the notion of people-powered politics.

Although I’ll be the first to admit that I was quite skeptical of the idea of Obama’s campaign as a movement (it seemed more like just a more efficient way to win electoral campaigns and to make people feel empowered through that process that borrowed from community organizing techniques), Organizing for America’s work on the stimulus package was a step back from previous efforts. Most notably, the Change.gov project–with its method of soliciting feedback from supporters and asking them what they thought their priorities should be–reflected a more “bottom up” approach to the presidency (although simply inviting feedback is still a long way from being responsive to that feedback). Similarly, the MyBarackObama encouraged more networking and dialog–at least between supporters and campaign staffers–than the effort to pass the stimulus bill.

Organizing for America has said that it is a new and untested model and that mistakes are bound to be made. However, if its work on the stimulus package is an indicator of its future work–it will be a rather disappointing entity.

Obama, Bill Clinton, and the Possibilities for Change

News that Obama has appointed a number of former Clinton officials should be taken as a signal that progressive movements need to stay alert and remain ready to pressure Obama if his administration takes a rightward turn like Clinton’s.


With the news last week that president elect Obama has appointed a number of former Clinton administration members to his transition team and the selection of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, we thought it would be pertinent to highlight a series of articles that MediaMouse.org wrote last year on Bill Clinton’s legacy.

While we hope it isn’t, we see a possibility that the Clinton era may be emerging as parallel for the Obama presidency. When Clinton was inaugurated there as great hope that his administration would bring a number of progressive policies, but instead his administration had few–if any–progressive gains. As early as his picks for his cabinet, Clinton turned his back on the progressive movements that had supported him. During his administration, there was little pressure on Clinton from the left. Many progressive groups held their tongues and did not criticize Clinton, while Democrats cooperated in helping him shift to the right.

The articles in the series explore Clinton’s policies on a variety of issues:

The series was written raise important–and occasionally difficult–questions about Clinton’s legacy before a speech he delivered in Grand Rapids.

New GRIID class on History of US Social Movements

The Mediamouse.org affiliated Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) is offering a six week class on the history of US social movements.

The Mediamouse.org affiliated Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) is offering a six week class on the history of US social movements:

History of US Social Movements

What actions in the United States history have caused the greatest social change? Who were the actors and what were their tactics? Join us as we explore the history of social movements within the United States. Movements that we will cover are the abolitionist movement through the civil rights movement. The labor movement. Women’s suffrage through modern day feminism, as well as anti war movements though out the United States. We will be using Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States as our text, as we discover what has forced social change through out our nations history. Part of the 6 weeks will be devoted to discussing how previous social movements inform how we can work for change and build movemwents now.

The class is $20 you’ll need a copy of The People’s History of The United States.

The 6 week class, meets weekly on Wednesdays begins October 1st from 7pm to 9pm.

For more information contact Jeff Smith jsmith [@] mediamouse.org or 459-8423

or Mike Saunders outobol [@] gmail.com .

The class will be held at:

Tanglefoot Building

314 Straight Ave SW

Door M

Grand Rapids, MI 49504

In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement and Movements


A new one-off online publication called “In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement and Movements” has been released. The publication explores radical anti-authoritarian organizing in the United States across a variety of issues with the immediate focus being the upcoming mobilizations against the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC). Through a series of interviews with groups organizing against the conventions and articles by people involved in radical movements across the United States, “In the Middle of a Whirlwind” provides an inspiring look at where we are at, where we have been, and where we need to go.

Here are links to interviews with groups organizing against the conventions:

* RNC Welcoming Committee

* Recreate 68

* Unconventional Action

There are also a number of articles offering examples of solid radical organizing. Some of the ones we particularly really liked were:

* The Precarious Economy and Its Discontents: Struggling Against the Corporate Chains Through Workplace Organizing

* Liberal Mayors & Liberal Funders: A Case of Racism, Classism, and Ideological Warfare

* A Look at Resistance to Interstate 69 (I-69): Past, Present, and Future

* Media and Activism: Creating and Maintaining Effective Movement Media

* Getting to know your city and the social movements that call it home

* Anti-Authoritarian Organizing in Practice

* Philly’s Pissed & Philly Stands Up: Collected Materials

Moreover, the publication encourages people to become involved beyond simply reading the interviews and articles asking “will you join us in the middle of a whirlwind?” To that end, they encourage readers to:

* Communicate with the coordinators and contributors.

* Utilize materials contained within Whirlwinds in your own organizing.

* Participate in our discussion forums to critique or dialog around Whirlwinds contributions (forthcoming).

* Host or attend one of the many “Of Friends and Whirlwinds” events.

* Make a contribution toward the effort and sign up on the email list.

* Distribute this announcement and “Will you join us in the middle of a whirlwind?” posters and postcards; available at your local radical infoshop and from Team Colors.

* Create an affinity group to prepare for the upcoming convention protests this summer.

* Inquire into, research, investigate, document, organize around and amplify the winds – refusals, struggles, activities – circulating through your everyday lives and communities.

Standing Up to the Madness

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Movements for social change have always relied on common people to stand up and face an injustice. These people do not possess super human strength or abilities that the rest of us don’t have, they just decide at some point that they have to take a stand and say no more, or as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been saying for decades, “nuncamas – never again!” These women, mothers in Argentina, were not unusual in any way. These women had all suffered when members of their family had been disappeared by the Military Junta in the 1970s. Their acts of defiance were to stand in front of the National Palace and hold pictures of family members that were taken by the military or to beat on pots and pans in order to be a nuisance.

Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times is a collection of stories about people in the United States who are also choosing to take a stand against injustice. In their third book together, Amy and David Goodman have brought to life a wonderful collection of stories that tells us there are plenty of people in this country who are willing to take risks in order to stand up for justice. Many people have not heard these stories since they are generally not considered newsworthy by the commercial media outlets in this country. Amy Goodman, host of the awarding winning radio/TV show Democracy Now!, knows too well that the corporate media doesn’t think it is profitable to tell stories about people who not only show courage, but also challenge beliefs that those in power would rather have us ignore.

The book starts by profiling the amazing work of people like Malik Rahim in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Malik, a former member of the Black Panthers, was confronted by how racist the local, state, and federal government responded to the poor and minority residents of New Orleans. Malik realized that not only was the government not interested in rescuing the poor black people from the community he lived in, they were actually an obstacle for those who wanted to help. Malik and other eventually founded the group Common Ground Relief and started not only to assist people during the rescue, but also to figure out ways to empower people to challenge what the government response. Malik and others began to listen to those displaced from the hurricane and to offer help in the form of childcare and emergency housing, health care and the ability for people organize and demand that they be treated fairly.

Two of the areas of injustice that Common Ground Relief began to identify was the government’s desire to restructure New Orleans that would exclude many of the City’s poor and minority populations and that many of the government relief funds were going to corporate America as kind of a kick-back. One example from the book is that Carnival Cruise Lines was awarded $236 million dollars from the federal government to house people on their vacation boats. It was discovered later that the amount they were charging the government to house people who had been displaced was more than double the cost the company would charge people who were on vacation. The other thing that Malik and others were discovering was that those in power were using the hurricane catastrophe as a way to restructure the city. The City wanted to tear down housing that once belonged to poor Black families so that new development could be proposed. This kind of restructuring is what author Naomi Klein has called disaster capitalism, where economic elites use a catastrophe to put in place the kinds of projects and policies they could not under normal circumstances. Malik and Common Ground Relief have been fighting these policies and through education, organizing and Direct Action, a fight that continues today.

Another story that is brought to life in Standing Up to the Madness is about the courage of students at one high school to perform a play about the US war in Iraq even after they school administration said they couldn’t. Students at Wilton High School were scheduled to put on a play that was in large part based upon the writings and reflections of US veterans of the Iraq war. The play was censored at this high school after some parents complained that it was too anti-war. The administration stepped in and said that it could not be performed, but students decided to continue to rehearse. Eventually word got out and other venues offered to have their play performed, most notably the New York City Theater. As the momentum built the students began to get support form all kinds of civic organizations, from veterans groups and from the National Coalition Against Censorship. What was inspiring to read about this story was the impact it had on the students who stood their ground. One Wilton High student Natalie Kropf said, “I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much from anything I’ve done.” This is the kind of outcome you can expect when people stand up for what is right.

It is so rare that we get to hear these kinds of stories even though they happen all the time. Amy and David Goodman have done us all a great service by documenting these stories and communicating the message that it is possible to stand up against the madness. Amy Goodman will be in Grand Rapids on Saturday, May 10 while on tour promoting the book. The doors open for this event at 6pm, with Amy Goodman speaking at 7pm at Plymouth Congregational UCC at 4010 Kalamazoo SE in Grand Rapids.

For downloadable flyers and more event details click here.

Amy Goodman and David Goodman, Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times, (Hyperion, 2008).

Indigenous Politics in Latin America: From Movements to Parties to Power

On Friday, Donna Lee Van Cott gave the opening talk at GVSU’s Latin American Studies Symposium. Van Cott discussed the recent mobilization and ascendancy of indigenous peoples in the Americas.

On Friday, Donna Lee Van Cott gave the opening talk for Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Latin American Studies Symposium, “Persistent Divides: Marginalization and Exclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean“. She began by saying that the recent mobilization and ascendancy of indigenous peoples is pretty amazing considering that even as recent as the 1980s these movements didn’t really exist. This is manifested in part by indigenous people being elected to local office, and in the case of Bolivia, to the presidency.

About 11% of Latin Americans are indigenous, with Bolivia and Guatemala having 71% and 66% of their populations of indigenous origin. The general stereotype of indigenous people, Dr. Van Cott said, is that they are subsistence farmers, but the reality is that many must migrate for work both within their own country and at times outside of their homeland, particularly to urban areas.

Historically, there were 50-100 million indigenous people prior to the European invasion. The colonial rulers did provide some protection for native people, but with greater independence from Europe the new Liberal governments began to encroach upon native lands. There was also a push to forcibly assimilate indigenous people as well. Beginning in the 1960-70s indigenous people became the target of numerous brutal military regimes throughout Latin America. Even in countries that had formal elections, there remained roadblocks for indigenous people who were often disenfranchised by the political structure.

Early on in the electoral era for indigenous people, they would often vote for candidates who made promises for services to the community. Indigenous people also used to join leftists parties, but often were excluded from any decision-making and were only used by the parties to achieve party goals. Because of this exclusion indigenous groups formed in the 1970-80s that were specifically indigenous focused. Their demands not only included land rights, but cultural rights and even sovereignty rights. In the 1980s, many of these groups broke off from the traditional groups that were organized through the entities like the unions or the church.

During the 1980s, indigenous movements did make significant changes. Some groups got bi-lingual education passed in their countries and in some cases ran those programs. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that indigenous people began to see some improvements on living conditions. Part of this was due to greater NGO (non-governmental organization) interest and international lending institutions. Transnational links began to be formed, which helped in sharing information about indigenous groups.

One of the biggest changes in the 1990s, according to Dr. Van Cott, was the constitutional reforms that favored indigenous rights. Colombia and Bolivia in particular were implementing these changes. To some degree elites in countries were beginning to pay attention to indigenous rights, with the hope of modernizing the constitution. “If the most excluded are not included, then it demonstrates the benefits of the rule of law,” said the speaker in reference to how elites saw the indigenous question at the time. In Colombia, indigenous groups began to be more a part of the electoral process, giving speeches and traveling abroad and this model influenced other countries in the region such as Bolivia and Venezuela. These success were not realized everywhere. For instance, in Guatemala, the government did not ratify the indigenous rights accords after the 1996 cease-fire. Even in Mexico, with the EZLN, the government stalled and then only adopted a watered down version of what indigenous people put forth.

What was significant for indigenous people in some of these constitutional changes were that indigenous people were now formally recognized. Secondly, they were granted the right to resolve internal problems their own way. They also gained more land rights and more cultural rights in the 1990s. She cites Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela as the countries that made more changes in favor of indigenous groups. Other countries such as Bolivia and Brazil have made only moderate changes. The speaker did mention recent constitutional reforms in Bolivia, but they still haven’t been fully realized despite having an indigenous president.

One outcome during this push for constitutional reform was the creation of indigenous political parties. She gave examples of indigenous groups or movements that eventually formed political parties. The average length of time was 14 years from organization development to forming political parties. Dr. Van Cott gave examples from Colombia, where numerous local electoral races were won and several Congressional seats were also gained by indigenous political parties. In Ecuador, the indigenous groups won 10 seats in congress in their first participation in electoral politics. In Bolivia, the indigenous groups in coca-growing regions got involved in electoral politics and won several seats. In 2002 their party came in second in the election and then in 2006 Evo Morales was elected President.

The rise of these indigenous movements in certain countries was really tied to the growing influence of the Left in those countries. This new Left was providing a better critique of neo-liberalism and had been forming better alliances. As indigenous movements have moved from social movements to political parties, to actually being decision makers with governments, it has created new tensions and in some cases divisions. People who were traditionally movement organizers are leaving to be political candidates, which means movements have suffered by having their best spokespersons leave.

Dr. Van Cott concluded by looking at some challenges that indigenous movements face, particularly now that they are more involved in electoral politics. She said that they have to minimize the divisiveness, not dilute resources and must not allow hierarchies from forming in these parties. At the same time, these indigenous parties do promote social justice more than traditional parties, they stand up to international entities and they promote equality.

An interview with Van Scott was also published by Mediamouse.org

Making Sense of US Foreign Policy: A 6-week Workshop

griid logo

Do you want to make sense of what the US is doing globally? What motivates US policy in the occupation of Iraq, why does the US unconditionally support Israel, why is the US trying to overthrow the democratically elected government in Venezuela?

These questions and many more will be explored in a 6-week workshop with the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID). We will use Bill Blum’s book Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, plus additional handouts, documentaries and online resources.

The workshop is designed to discuss US foreign policy since WWII, politically, economically and militarily. We will discuss issues such as US intervention, torture, sanctions, use of proxy forces, war crimes, trade policies, the US relationship to the United Nations and other international agencies like the IMF and World Bank. Included will be an investigation of how US media factors into what we know about US foreign policy.

Part of the 6-week workshop will also include discussion about how our understanding of US policy determines what kind of actions we take to resist those policies. We will discuss the difference between tactics and strategies and look at the importance of social movements for bringing about structural change.

* The class will meet Mondays from 7-9pm beginning April 7 at 1134

Wealthy SE, in the Bloom Collective space.

* The cost of the workshop is $25, which includes the cost of the book.

* Workshop is limited to 10 people, with a minimum of 4 participants.

For more information or to sign-up, contact Jeff Smith jsmith@mediamouse.org or 616-459-8423.

Election Madness

by Howard Zinn

There’s a man in Florida who has been writing to me for years (ten pages, handwritten) though I’ve never met him. He tells me the kinds of jobs he has held-security guard, repairman, etc. He has worked all kinds of shifts, night and day, to barely keep his family going. His letters to me have always been angry, railing against our capitalist system for its failure to assure “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness” for working people.

Just today, a letter came. To my relief it was not handwritten because he is now using e-mail: “Well, I’m writing to you today because there is a wretched situation in this country that I cannot abide and must say something about. I am so enraged about this mortgage crisis. That the majority of Americans must live their lives in perpetual debt, and so many are sinking beneath the load, has me so steamed. Damn, that makes me so mad, I can’t tell you. . . . I did a security guard job today that involved watching over a house that had been foreclosed on and was up for auction. They held an open house, and I was there to watch over the place during this event. There were three of the guards doing the same thing in three other homes in this same community. I was sitting there during the quiet moments and wondering about who those people were who had been evicted and where they were now.”

On the same day I received this letter, there was a front-page story in the Boston Globe, with the headline “Thousands in Mass. Foreclosed on in ’07.”

The subhead was “7,563 homes were seized, nearly 3 times the ’06 rate.”

A few nights before, CBS television reported that 750,000 people with disabilities have been waiting for years for their Social Security benefits because the system is underfunded and there are not enough personnel to handle all the requests, even desperate ones.

Stories like these may be reported in the media, but they are gone in a flash. What’s not gone, what occupies the press day after day, impossible to ignore, is the election frenzy.

This seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.

And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. We are all vulnerable.

Is it possible to get together with friends these days and avoid the subject of the Presidential elections?

The very people who should know better, having criticized the hold of the media on the national mind, find themselves transfixed by the press, glued to the television set, as the candidates preen and smile and bring forth a shower of cliches with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry.

Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is an exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining the major candidates. An occasional bone is thrown to the minor candidates, though everyone knows our marvelous democratic political system won’t allow them in.

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Let’s remember that even when there is a “better” candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.

The unprecedented policies of the New Deal-Social Security, unemployment insurance, job creation, minimum wage, subsidized housing-were not simply the result of FDR’s progressivism. The Roosevelt Administration, coming into office, faced a nation in turmoil. The last year of the Hoover Administration had experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army-thousands of veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to demand help from Congress as their families were going hungry. There were disturbances of the unemployed in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle.

In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out all over the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the South. Unemployed councils formed all over the country. Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.

Without a national crisis-economic destitution and rebellion-it is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.

Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.

They offer no radical change from the status quo.

They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.

They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.

None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.

So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left.

Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For instance, the mortgage foreclosures that are driving millions from their homes-they should remind us of a similar situation after the Revolutionary War, when small farmers, many of them war veterans (like so many of our homeless today), could not afford to pay their taxes and were threatened with the loss of the land, their homes. They gathered by the thousands around courthouses and refused to allow the auctions to take place.

The evictions today of people who cannot pay their rents should remind us of what people did in the Thirties when they organized and put the belongings of the evicted families back in their apartments, in defiance of the authorities.

Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.

Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” “Voices of a People’s History” (with Anthony Arnove), and most recently, “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.”

Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Numerous books have been written that look at how the US government has responded to popular movements throughout this country’s history. Many have documented in great detail the suppression of organized labor while others examine the tactics used against the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States takes a somewhat different approach to its analysis of the many ways that suppression has been used against those who dissent in the United States. The author states in the introduction that the aim of this book is to address these questions:

“How has the state taken action to squelch the practice of dissent in the United States? How has the state interacted with the mass media to achieve this goal? How do these state actions get individuals and groups to stop participating in social movements or opt to never join them in the first place?”

The book is laid out in chapters that deal with what author Jules Boykoff has identified as categories or tactics of suppression including: Direct Violence, Public Prosecutions and Hearings, Employment Deprivation, Surveillance and Break-ins, Infiltration, Black Propaganda, Harassment and Harassment Arrests, Extraordinary Rules and Laws, Mass media Manipulation, Bi-level Demonization, Mass Media Deprecation, and Mass Media Underestimation. There is also a closing chapter on suppression after 9/11 which I won’t address since most of what the author identifies has been addressed in numerous other publications. Boykoff states that most of the attention by scholars on the issue of suppression by the state has tended to focus on outright violence. This is not to say that direct violence should be ignored, but that there has not been adequate attention paid to all the other forms of suppression, particularly in a way that presents them as part of a larger strategy of state-sponsored suppression. To view each of the previously mentioned tactics in isolation prevents us from having a more comprehensive analysis of how the state works to eliminate, limit, or prevent public dissent.

In the chapter on Direct Violence, the author looks at two examples – the Kent State University shootings and the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. What was instructive about his discussion of Kent State was the background information on the shootings and well as the pronouncements by the state after the shooting. For two years Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Black United Students (BUS) had organized sit-ins and numerous other actions to not only challenge the war machine on campus, but to get African American Studies as part of the curriculum. The level of campus organizing involved hundreds of students and faculty. After the May 1970 shootings the Governor of Ohio began a massive propaganda campaign against the students, as did President Nixon. Nixon’s White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler issued this statement after the shooting, “this incident should remind us that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” The Army National Guard shot and killed 4 students who were protesting. No charges were ever put on those soldiers and no one was ever tried for the killings. Even US Attorney General John Mitchell refused to investigate the killings.

With the assassination of Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton it was even worse. The trial was a complete sham since not only were the Chicago police were involved, but also the FBI. In this case, the FBI used an agent provocateur named William O’Neal to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and advocate that they move in the direction of more armed resistance. This advocacy of armed violence led some of the Panthers to become suspicious, leading in turn to more mistrust in the group as a whole. Some members advocated less group information sharing and others more of a hierarchy to limit who made decisions. To make matters worse, the FBI engaged in “black propaganda” by trying to undermine the efforts of the Black Panthers to unite with a black street gang known as the Blackstone Rangers. Letters, flyers and cartoons were created to give the appearance that these groups were talking trash about each other, which led to more suspicion and infighting. The last tactic that sealed the fate of the Panthers nationally was how the news media framed this movement. For example, Harpers magazine used the Chicago shootings as an opportunity to discredit the Panthers nationwide. Harpers made a comparison between Panther leader Bobby Seale and Adolf Hitler. Liberal writer Tom Wolfe even went so far as to demonize those who were public supporters of the Black Panthers. Jane Rhodes, in a study of media representation of the Black Panther Party concluded that “the media by and large depicted the Panthers as wrong-headed, anti-social, and a national threat and that the national press failed to provide the historical context that gave rise to the Panthers.” The example of the Panthers is good for analytical purposes, since multiple tactics were used by the state not only to suppress Party members, but towards supporters and even the general public who might have been sympathetic to their struggle.

The book provides numerous other examples, such as the Palmer Raids, the anti-Communist crusade during the McCarthy era, and suppression of movements that have been challenging corporate globalization in the US, especially since the WTO protests in 1999. The author has several chapters just on the role of mass media and suppression, a topic that too often is addressed in isolation or not at all. These chapters focus on 1999 to the present. Here Boykoff provides some important analysis on not only how much coverage protestors received and the location of the stories, but also how the stories were framed. Some of this data and analysis has been provided by other writers and organizations who monitor the media, but what the author has done that was a fresh technique that expands on the notion of framing and how it is manifested in news coverage. Boykoff identifies numerous types of framing that tremendously influences public perception of those protesting war and trade policies. The types of framing he identifies are: the violence frame, the disruption frame, the freak frame, the ignorance frame, and the Amalgam of Grievances frame.

Ever since the WTO protests in Seattle, the news media tends to begin reports of protest on whether or not any violence occurs. It is important to note that when they refer to violence, it is violence perpetrated by protestors. Rarely does law enforcement violence receive media attention. By beginning a story with a violence frame it already sets up the reader/viewer with a bias towards those who are dissenting. The disruption frame dovetails with the violence frame since it usually depicts protestors in a negative or disrespectful light. Violence and disrupting frames take up a tremendous amount of space and always precede any information as to why people are protesting. The freak frame is when news coverage focuses on individual protestors who many have what they perceive to be an unusual appearance or vulgar signs. This type of framing is an attempt to trivialize the seriousness of any actions and dismiss the protestors as nothing more than social misfits. The ignorance frame and the Amalgam of Grievances frame are linked in that the news media will often try to find people who either don’t know for sure why they are protesting and have a difficult time articulating their motives or have positions that are different that those presented by the organizing group(s). Boykoff’s assessment of the mass media’s role in state suppression was well thought out and confirmed the importance of dissenting groups having a media strategy.

Beyond Bullets is important on many levels and is an important book for those interested in organizing and movement building. It is important because it provides good historical examples of consistent tactics used by the state against those who dissent, thus a reminder of what any groups are likely to face in the future if they are seen as a threat to power. The book is also important, since it helps the reader to see what lengths the state will go to suppress dissent, marginalize their cause, and potentially prevent new people from joining. A better understanding of these dynamics are extremely useful for those who are struggling to get more people involved in organized campaigns and how to create group dynamics which can resist the tactics used by the state to attack movement building.

Jules Boykoff, Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, (AK Press, 2007).