A few more pages…
With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men, I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.
- William Lloyd Garrison
During the anti Vietnam War movement a debate continually surfaced. Did it make sense to have events in Washington, NYC, and SF to which everyone went? Or did these national events drain local energy and focus? These concerns reprised over and over in years since as well, most recently with the anti corporate globalization movement and the recent anti war movement. Did having events at meetings of elites in big cities like Seattle, Prague, and others help organizing or did emphasizing those demonstrations focus everyone on a jet set mentality that was episodic and distant for most people, and that interfered with creating lasting movement structure? What about the new antiwar movement going to Washington? Did that help or distract from lasting movement building? Another variant of the same debate involves the social forum phenomenon. Does emphasis on the World Social Forum move the whole process forward, or should the emphasis be entirely on local forums and associated local organizing?
This debate always seemed senseless to me because it made a conflict out of what ought to harmonious. Central gatherings had the obvious benefit of assembling a large constituency. This in turn made dissent visible both to dissenters, which helped morale, and to elites, which pressured them. The large central gatherings had the disadvantage, however, of pulling energies from local neighborhoods and schools to central cities. By pulling people from a huge span of states and regions to places like DC, NYC, and SF, such events made it possible to seem to succeed without reaching a high percentage of people from any one place. Dissenters arrived and left. The process did not produce lasting infrastructure or did so only in the same few places over and over.
In contrast, local organizing, whether for events or just for consciousness raising, had opposite characteristics. Success depended on outreach into a larger percentage of a smaller region. It created or at least it could create lasting local ties, relations, and structures. But local dissent, when small, was largely invisible both to elites and to distant dissenters too.
The resolution always seemed to me to be not either/or, but both/and. In that sense some of us wanted to build the movement so that over time regional and then local demonstrations would have the scale that only national ones had previously had. The travel and assembly from large distances to central sites becomes steadily less important the larger the numbers of people available to assemble locally. But as long as local numbers were modest, massive assemblies were also crucial.
It is easiest to see this, perhaps, in the WSF phenomenon. At the beginning there was only the international assembly. Shortly later, however, there were local versions, and then regional ones. Without the massive international event, the local events would not have been spurred or fed regional ones. But, over time, the massive international event began to tire and wane in its impact. As the locals grew, why not have the international one, I wondered in print a few times, become more representative?
Imagine instead of 100,000 people traveling large distances to a central place, the same number of people but now a higher local proportion traveling only a small distance to a local regional or national assembly point, and having many of these size convocations around the world or even around a large country. Of course that is vastly better than one big bang. But, likewise, imagine trying to have a large number of local events when each is very tiny and all are invisible to one another and there is no larger assembly to provide energy, momentum, and a vision of what is to come. The solution to local or global seemed to me at the time of Vietnam, and later at the time of the WSF too, to do both where each becomes a means to generating an ever enlarging and ever more sophisticated movement of opposition and, finally, of affirmation.