It’s a bewildering, and for some, demobilizing time. The pandemic has upended all our usual ways of organizing, or even participating in public life. The suspension of Bernie Sanders’s campaign is a political defeat, and a steady stream of news — whether from the White House, or for many, our own lives — is unrelentingly horrific.
Normally in such times, the Left turns to our sharpest intellectuals and asks, “What is to be done?” — a fair question, but one that can easily lead to abstractions and bland exhortations, including: “Organize!” Since some of our best socialist thinkers are also organizers and activists, we thought it might be more fruitful instead to ask them: “What are you up to, and why?”
Adolph Reed recently retired from a long career as political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s continued his lifelong labor activism, however, as well as his prolific writing output. In his work in the New Republic and Nonsite, he’s been sharply critical of neoliberal identity politics and argued for militant organizing for working-class demands like Medicare for All.
As we talk by Skype, his phone keeps ringing. South Carolina is calling.
Reed had been in South Carolina before the lockdown, working on the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute’s Medicare for All South Carolina campaign. (Named for Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, and Frederick Douglass, the institute is dedicated to mobilizing working-class people for Medicare for All. Reed is an organizer and also on the group’s board.) Between December and the February primary, the campaign got more than thirteen thousand signed pledge cards from South Carolinians saying they would only support Medicare for All candidates.
Since then, even in lockdown, “we’ve been trying to build on that,” Reed says. The next step is to get more institutional endorsements. That call he just missed, Reed explained, was from the president of South Carolina’s AFL-CIO, Charles Brave, a longshoreman who was arrested along with the Charleston Five, the group of picketing longshoremen notoriously rounded up by police at a 2000 protest. Brave and Reed have been working together closely, and Reed is one of the union leader’s political advisers.
Bernie’s defeat shouldn’t surprise us, Reed observes, but “what did happen was that Medicare for All won most of the primaries. In South Carolina, what we saw was that this is what can happen when you do real grassroots organizing, and that’s what you have to do all over the country. So, I’ve been trying!”
He hasn’t been to South Carolina in more than a month, of course; he’s sheltering in place in Philadelphia, where he lives. “I’m kind of chomping at the bit to get back,” he says, laughingly adding, “but only when it’s safe to get back! I’m not demanding they open the beaches.”
Earlier this year, Barbara Smith, a founder of the Combahee River Collective, a hugely influential group of black socialist feminist thinkers and activists, was active in the Bernie Sanders campaign. “I don’t need to say a huge amount about that,” she says, “because I think your readers understand why that was really important!”
Now, Smith mostly works on releasing people from jails, detentions, and prisons, an effort that has taken on lifesaving urgency with the horrifying spread of COVID-19 among the confined. The day we speak, she notes, protesters are at the prison in Fishkill, New York for two days of actions.
Smith is part of Albany’s Parole Justice Committee and has been involved in criminal justice — “Well,” she laughs, “that’s the wrong word, let’s say, ‘our failed system of policing and incarceration’” — for years. “One of the things that we see in this period,” says Smith, “is that everything that was terribly wrong, unjust, and criminal about the status quo is just really exacerbated by this unprecedented public health crisis.”
Yet, for Smith, the horrific risks to prisoners in this crisis are personal as well as political: she has a friend in prison, David Gilbert, a Weather Underground activist convicted in the famous Brink’s robbery of 1981, in which two police officers were killed. Not only is he at risk of COVID-19 due to his prison conditions, but Gilbert is also seventy-five.
Smith has adapted to the Zoom era of politics, for now. “In some ways it’s easier to participate,” she observes, comparing it to the usual whirl of meetings that make up activist life. “There are things that either I wouldn’t be as involved in or I wouldn’t be involved with the same level of consciousness of what’s going on in other places.” She plans to log in to the press conference at the protest in Fishkill after we get off the phone, for example.
The day before our interview, Smith participated in a car caravan, part of a set of coordinated actions around the state protesting solitary confinement. Last year, a proposal to end the practice gained enough support to pass in New York’s increasingly progressive legislature, but, shamefully, the leaders of both houses conspired with Governor Andrew Cuomo to kill it.
A lifelong activist and organizer, Smith says, “I’m doing the same things I’ve always done! I just don’t have to run around as much! As a retired person, Liza, every year, for the last however many years, my New Year’s resolution is two words: ‘Do less.’” She laughs. “I’m never, ever able to keep to that, you know? Well, now the circumstances are that I’m actually doing less!”
Smith’s version of “less” still looks pretty busy. She’s also campaigning for Matt Toporowski, a progressive running for district attorney in Albany County, part of the national effort around the country to elect progressive prosecutors (among them David Gilbert’s son, Chesa Boudin, who became San Francisco’s district attorney in January).
“Some astute people are saying that this is an opportunity to make and shape something different,” Smith says. “We had a fragmented left before. Will a unified, well-functioning, organized left emerge under these circumstances? I do like hearing people say that this can be an opportunity. And to listen and think about what that might look like.”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a historian and New Yorker columnist whose recent book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (University of North Carolina Press) was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. She’s also the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Reached on the phone at home in Philadelphia, she echoes and reframes my question: “What can we do when there’s nothing that can be done? I’ll say something about myself, but I do think surely that people have continued to find ways to protest, to express disagreement with what is happening, which is really important.”
For her part, Taylor is writing thousands of words a week, including on housing and COVID-19. She notes that even in this country with its miserable safety net, a person in sudden economic distress can get at least a modicum of unemployment insurance, Medicaid, or Food Stamps. But if your housing falls through, if you can’t pay your rent or mortgage? “Then you’re just screwed, you know? So, there’s an immediacy,” she emphasizes. “I mean, it feels like there’s an immediacy to everything, but I think with each passing week, we get closer to the first of the month when these bills come due again.” As well, the ends of these eviction and mortgage moratoriums draw closer.
Taylor has been talking with tenants who are organizing, as well as people active in Homes Guarantee, a national campaign on affordable housing, “to see what people are up to and if I can amplify some of that organizing.”
Usually, she notes, “the contradictions of US society are buried beneath Hollywood and popular culture and sports. There are all these distractions that usually exist and now there aren’t any. And so right now. . . we’re just witnessing all of it, you know? The rich white dudes of Congress who are running the country, ordering the poor and working class and black people and immigrants to go back to work, even if it kills you. The idea that this is the best place on earth is really being pulled apart in a thousand different pieces right now.”
Jodi Dean is a political theorist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. In her recent writings, including the book, Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging, she explores how the political party can help the individual move past neoliberal ways of being in the world and become part of something collective and also transformative.
Without being part of a political organization, she says — Dean is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) — this difficult political moment might have overwhelmed her. As soon as the shutdown hit, however, the PSL assigned her to lead online study groups. “I would have been sucked into misery,” she says. “But the party gave me a sense of duty and responsibility.”
Normally, Dean travels a lot, speaking to socialists all over the world. Now, grounded at home, her activism is almost entirely local. She’s active with the Geneva Women’s Assembly, organizing “Solidarity at 6,” a nightly celebration of essential workers, with retired nurses and other community members. She’s also been working to support essential workers in other ways, too, whether through protecting noncitizen workers through ICE defense or organizing the community to bring donuts to local farmworkers, “building these relationships within the class,” she says.
Jane McAlevey is as horrified by the news as you are, whether it’s Governor Andrew Cuomo rushing to invite Google’s Eric Schmidt to “reimagine” the state’s economy and school system, or Mitch McConnell’s latest attempt to punish ordinary Americans for a global pandemic. “These motherfuckers are so much more prepared to take advantage of this than the Left,” she fumes.
But McAlevey, a veteran organizer and the author of several books about organizing to build power and win, including No Shortcuts, is working to change that.
In a remarkable piece of timing, she piloted a training class for online organizing last fall for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS). She hadn’t been confident that Zoom organizing could work; “I was really skeptical about it,” she admits. It drew 1,400 participants across the world from forty-four counties, mostly trade unionists with some climate activists. She marvels, “I had no idea how prepared it was going to make me for what was coming.”
Using multiple translation tools, McAlevey and the RLS figured out how to do role-play-based organizer training in four languages simultaneously. “It was completely mind-blowing,” she marvels, “showing you can build a worldwide workers’ movement.” The model attracted union interest around the world. McAlevey recruited a team of organizers to expand the program. They’d planned to take months preparing the relaunch, but when COVID-19 hit, they sped everything up, getting ready in six days. Three thousand three hundred people logged in every week.
But McAlevey had a more ambitious goal than that. Could they do more than offer basic organizer training to thousands? “How could we model to people that the principles of bottom-up organizing are the same, but the tools have to change during the COVID-19 crisis? How could we show that just because we’re locked in our houses doesn’t mean we can’t build power?” The answer was that they could demonstrate that by doing it. Union members went back to their unions and let them know that not only did they have new organizing skills, but they wouldn’t have to wait till the end of “social distancing” to use them.
McAlevey is working with California’s largest teachers’ locals to help them get ready for the austerity fight. Before COVID-19, they were, with California Calls, a coalition of unions and grassroots organizations, building support for a ballot initiative to get rid of a loophole in Proposition 13, the state’s infamous anti-tax law, exempting corporations from commercial property tax increases. That initiative will generate $12 billion for local governments in its first year to fund the very institutions that will be hammered in the coming austerity: public health clinics and schools. The ballot initiative leaves homeowners untouched, which is smart because it wouldn’t pass otherwise. During the lockdown, McAlevey is working with the teachers’ unions on bargaining strategy, as well as on an internal petition which is serving as a “structure test” in the effort to build school-site-based organizing capacity and assess their members’ readiness not only for the ballot initiative but also for the likely budget cuts.
“It’s a busy time, that’s for sure,” McAlevey says. “Need to get tens of thousands of people skilled up to fight.” In this Zoom moment, McAlevey says, “real organizers are realizing that it’s a challenge for us since we are such face-to-face people, but you can master these tools and you can make it work.” We are facing “disaster capitalism on steroids,” she emphasizes. “People understand there’s a war coming.”