Pivot To Mass Struggle: A Lesson From Ferguson
We are entering a terrifying and daunting time that requires a change in approach and tactics.
“The situation calls for a shift from casework to mass politics, and a pivot away from the presidential race.”
In a seven-week period ending, a staggering 33.5 million people have lost their jobs, and those numbers are expected to soar as companies begin to enter a deep economic crisis and more businesses permanently close. In 2008, over 37 million Americans were food insecure and that number has increased to 54 million due to rising food prices and supply chain disruption. Almost 50% of states have already exhausted almost half of the funds set aside for unemployment payments. This calls into question how unemployment insurance programs will last and the extent of the wave of budget cuts that is looming. We are entering a terrifying and daunting time, which also requires a change in approach and tactics from the period of low struggle but rising class consciousness.
These unprecedented conditions will involve changes in the way we have been organizing. The situation calls for a shift from casework to mass politics and a pivot away from the presidential race. Thankfully there have been fight-backs, which are an indication of the wave of struggle ahead. Amazon warehouse workers and Instacart grocery delivery contractors, for example, walked off their jobs in March to demand PPE, sick leave, hazard pay, disinfectant, and other protective measures. Instacart’s 350,000-person workforce won sick-pay for workers diagnosed with COVID-19, and on 2 April agreed to send its shoppers’ health and safety kits — which have yet to be received by most employees. Other employers like Target promised to provide PPE to avoid workplace actions themselves.
Role of Reformism
These workplace actions, as well as the objective economic situation, have inspired local governments around the country and federal politicians to propose far-reaching demands and, in some cases, to actually institute them. On 13 March, Tulsi Gabbard introduced a bill, H.Res.897, that calls for an emergency Universal Basic Income (UBI) of $1,000 per month to all adult Americans. On 17 April, Ilhan Omar introduced a bill that would cancel all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis. On 21 April Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area suspended evictions and rent increases amidst the coronavirus shutdown. As well, the New York City Council introduced an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” which includes many worthwhile reforms. These include hazard pay, paid sick leave, and protection from evictions for up to a year. It also requires the city to provide single-room shelters to all homeless New Yorkers who need it.
Even Republicans are proposing Keynesian type policies. In Florida, Senator Rick Scott proposed a moratorium on rent, mortgage, and utility payments for those making less than $75,000 a year, while various Trump administration heads and senators have also proposed UBI type policies. After a fight, they agreed to the stimulus checks for individual workers and dual family members with social security numbers, as well as a $600 unemployment bump for all weeks of unemployment between 5 April 2020 2020 and 31 July 2020.
“Various Trump administration heads and senators have proposed UBI type policies.”
All of these proposals and reforms, which should be welcomed, serve two immediate purposes for the ruling class and their political representatives. Progressive Democrats and populist Republicans in the House and Senate are proposing these reforms to look like a ‘balance’ to the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus, and $4.2 trillion of additional benefits and an $82 billion in tax breaks doled out to big business and Wall Street last month. They are looking to avoid creating the mass anger that came after the series of bailouts within the 2007/8 crisis. That crisis marked the beginning of years of radicalization and political polarization that has contributed to the tinderbox situation that exists now.
These proposals and reforms are welcome, but a sober analysis shows that it has the potential to delay mass movements, much like the shelter in place and social distancing policies. Some ordinary people are hesitant, for example, to engage in rent strikes at the moment because they are waiting to see if their unemployment and stimulus checks will allow them to cover this month’s rent. For many ordinary people, talk of relief is inspiring a “wait and see approach.”
Ordinary people will first try to fix their issues within the confines of capitalism, whether through individual solutions debt or looking for electoral solutions like Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Ordinary people typically only look to mass struggle and the need for socialism after exhausting all other routes.
Limitations of Case Work and Mutual Aid
This ‘wait-and-see’ approach for most workers will not last forever. The political representatives of capitalism will issue even more colossal debt to bail out Wall Street and big business and give token reforms to ordinary people. On the other hand, they will deliver massive budget cuts, wage freezes, privatization to pay for their crisis. Capitalism, after all, no longer has the stores of social fat it possessed in the post-war period, which allowed social democratic governments and administrations in Europe and the United States during the Golden Age of capitalism. In fact, the global economy is resting on approximately $250 trillion of debt, which is ever-increasing at the moment. As well, the Federal moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, which overs public housing and federally back mortgages, ends on 25 July, and many state and local government imposed protections are temporary, tied to the end of stay-at-home and shelter-in-place periods.
There are signs of the budget cuts ahead: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $400 million worth of cuts from New York hospitals; Harvard University’s announced cuts and hiring freezes; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announcement that “a state of fiscal emergency [is a part] of the 2020-2021 budget” are signs of the cuts ahead. After the disappointment of the Sanders political campaign and experience of the pandemic, a massive wave of workplace and struggles on the streets is on the horizon.
For service-oriented organizations doing casework and client work like those specializing in tenant organizing, handling workplace grievances, and providing nonprofit legal services, work has been steadily picking up as this crisis plays out. Many service organizations and nonprofits, especially during times of low struggle, focus primarily on day-by-day issues and significant immediate relief – whether it’s dealing with a bad landlord, property manager, state official, etc. The effect of this emphasis is that many volunteers or members may not see the root of their issue as related to a system but between individuals. It may reinforce the idea that the best way to resolve the issue(s) that affects them by working within the nonprofit or service organization.
“A massive wave of workplace and struggles on the streets is on the horizon.”
The emphasis on casework may not be a significant impediment to solving the everyday issues facing their clients during periods of low struggle, but it will likely result in missed political opportunities if there’s not an orientation towards mass struggle as it develops. The emphasis on casework may miss the opportunity for clients to bring their issues and concerns to a movement and connect their demands with the problems that other participants face. This process helps people see how singular problems of, say, rent are also connected to issues in the workplace, and so forth.
They may also miss opportunities to fight for more significant concessions like rent freezes for thousands of rents through mass mobilization by instead emphasizing the day-to-day issues of their clients. As well, as courts reopen and start to process evictions, mass mobilization at courthouses and outside the homes of those facing eviction will be needed. This is at a higher political level than casework. Movements are built on victories, and missed opportunities, or opportunities not used to its full extend such as demanding less than workers are willing to fight for, may cause a period of demobilization.
As revolutionaries, we must try our best to listen to ‘ground’ (the consciousness of our clients and objective conditions influencing it) and understand how willing peoples are to get active and around what issues, and the openings and opportunities that we can take advantage of. A fight for demands, whether in the workplace or outside, will deepen political consciousness. The day-to-day work and help activists learn how to organize and gain the respect of those involved. As Malcolm X said: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound.” Our goal is to heal the wound – to take power from the billionaire class.
“Movements are built on victories.”
To win the far-reaching demands that progressive Democrats and other groups are proposing, it will take mass mobilizations at the levels not seen since the 1930s. Even before a mass movement develops, activists can use mass tactics like occupations of city hall to push for demands, home occupations to prevent evictions and foreclosures. When it is a question of saving their system, the capitalist class will, at least temporarily, make concessions to the working class. The reforms won through the New Deal, for example, were the result of concessions due to labor pressure in one of nation’s biggest strike waves. It also included labor and socialist initiatives like the Unemployment Councils, that used mass demonstrations to push for demands like unemployment benefits and used direct action, which prevented an estimated 77,000 people from being evicted in New York City alone. The Communist Party not only built party infrastructure to deliver food to meet immediate needs but through its Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), organized hundreds of black and white sharecroppers and local planters to negotiate better contracts and benefits.
In the long run, of course, if the working class fails to change society, the ruling class could organize a far-right countermovement
The nationwide rallies encouraged by Trump and organized through groups linked to billionaire investor Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers, calling for an immediate ‘reopening’ of the economy and an end to social distancing policies, gives us an indication for the potential of the ruling class to organize a far-right opposition to a resurgent left. The organizers went beyond the suit and tie, respectable right-wingers, and included the Proud Boys, far-right militia groups and white supremacist organizations. Trump also announced that he would institute a “temporary halt to immigration,” a familiar tactic to use nativism, xenophobia, to scapegoat immigrants, which will only increase as unemployment continues to rise.
The right-wing reaction against the broad New Black Freedom Movement (popularly known as #BlackLivesMatter) and Standing Rock should also serve as a warning to activists. New Black Freedom Movement was a nationwide movement that transformed the national conversation about race and class in America, radicalized millions of young workers, especially the most vulnerable among them, and won some minor reforms. On his last day in office, Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the opportunity to crack down on social movements and empower law enforcement, by curtailing the ability of law enforcement officials to use court-enforced agreements to create change within local police departments accused of civil rights violations as his last act in office. Trump used his bully pulpit to encourage police abuse and defend mass incarceration policies like the War on Drugs and militarization of police. From 2016 to 2019, twenty states enacted anti-protesting laws that included heavy penalties. Seven states have passed laws that ratchet up the sanctions for activists protesting or even planning protests of oil and gas pipelines
Despite the limits of its accomplishments in terms of tangible reforms, there are essential lessons from Ferguson that are important today.
Some Lessons from Ferguson
During the first month of the Ferguson movement, it appeared to a lot of folks that the revolution was on the horizon: the number of people coming to protests was increasing; activists were invited to the White House and to other institutions of power; there seemed to be ever-increasing media attention and media presence in the city, and the radicalization was occurring quickly. Between approximately September through October 2014, media attention began to reduce, and something needed to be done to sustain the movement.
Some tactics that were utilized during that period were long marches at night especially on roadways, and highway and mall shutdowns. Those tactics brought increased local and national press and attention, but the fact that it was organized by small groups of protestors, without precise demands, unintentionally reinforced a division between those who engaged in the direct actions and those who didn’t. In the end, it did not solve the problem of bringing new people into the movement. As well, actions that are not connected to a clearly understood strategy to win tangible victories will eventually exhaust a movement. It was necessary to strive to counter this by campaigning to mobilize the broadest possible layers of working-class people in the movement and using every action as an opportunity to develop people’s confidence and political understanding.
Democratic Structure and Organization
Because of the long hours and competing priorities that exist for ordinary people, they need to understand the goals, agree to the demands, and feel connected to movements. In many cities during the Black Freedom Movement, an issue of police brutality or murder by a police officer spurred spontaneous actions that sometimes lasted days or months, or episodically rose and fell based on media interests and the timelines of court cases. The broad movement’s emphasis on spontaneous action in some cities did not take the movement beyond the level of the immediate issue(s) and inherently increased the illusion that those issues could be resolved without profound confrontations with power, whether within the workplace or streets.
What helped the Ferguson Uprising last for two years was that activists were able to build democratic structures within the movement. The People’s Assemblies, influence in part by Occupy and the People Assemblies of Jackson, MS, were intended by some in the movement to provide a space for ordinary people to buy into and decide the demands, funding, orientations, and tactics of the movement. This isn’t to say that all decisions within the movement were done democratically, but the space we did have allowed for various levels of coordination, accountability, debate, and space for ordinary people to plug into.
Without democratic structures, key decisions would become the decisions of small groups of activists and organizations, who often are the most politically connected and usually moderate. As well, the structure allowed service-based organizations to be integrated into the movement and serve the immediate needs of people in the movement and community. Most importantly, the democratic structures provided space for people to evaluate and discuss tactics and strategies. Democratic forums within movements are another space where activists can evaluate where political consciousness is and argue for proposals that will escalate political struggle and our ability to control. It also allows activists to impart lessons from past struggle to guide the movement
Like the financial meltdown of 2007–08, the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression and a period of political radicalization, this period will dawn a new epoch in struggle. The transition to a new period of struggle is always difficult due in part to the changes needed to adjust to a new political situation and orient to new developments. The process of adjustment will involve discussion and debate within and amongst activist, labor, service groups, and others on the current situation, studying past struggles to discover insights that could provide guidance for activists today and deepening an understanding of capitalism and nature political struggle. It will also involve changes to the individual group’s decision-making structures to allow for flexibility in light of rapidly changing conditions. The work that we do today will put us in a better position to take advantage of the political opportunities that this situation will bring.
Ashton Rome is an organizer with Socialist Alternative Bay Area (facebook.com/SABayArea ) and Tenant and Neighborhood Council Bay Area (baytanc.com). Ashton can be reached at Ashton.Rome@protonmail.com . Written in an individual capacity.