People keep resisting illegitimate power, even when it feels hopeless. Eric Garner, the African American man who died in a police chokehold in July, couldn’t have known he was about to die in the minutes before he was tackled by police. But he must have known he was in a battle that he could not win. And still, as police converged on him, he insisted, “This ends today.” Apparently, the police had harassed him too many times, and he made up his mind it wouldn’t happen again. His last words were, “I can’t breathe.”
On a much larger scale, the people of Ferguson, Missouri, are also resisting. Penned into demonstration areas, shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas, threatened with tanks and armored vehicles, they persist – just like Eric Garner did – in saying, “This ends today.” It’s partly rage at the killing of Mike Brown, and it’s partly rage at the fact that “black people in the greater St Louis metropolitan area and nationally – are marginalized economically and physically from day one.” As Steven Thrasher wrote in The Guardian, that is the “real looting of Ferguson.” Whatever merchandise might have been stolen from stores during the Ferguson protests, that loss pales in comparison to the systemic looting of people’s lives that comes with disproportionate incarceration rates in communities of color, inadequate health care, reduced life spans, chronically lower wage rates, being targeted for predatory loans, etc. etc.
People keep resisting, even when they are being choked and looted, and even when they are facing the most emotionally wrenching challenges they could ever possibly face. In a protest on August 14 against the effects of the foreclosure crisis, City Life/Vida Urbana member, Marie Bain, told the crowd about losing her home while her son was dying of a brain tumor. “They came to auction off my home while my son was still alive, but he was very sick. He was in a wheelchair at that point.” As dire as her situation was and continues to be, she is not alone. She is part of an organized resistance – the anti-foreclosure movement happening across the country.
“I will continue fighting,” she told the crowd, and the protesters cheered her. Through her efforts and the efforts of thousands like her, there is a very good chance that the “chokehold” that the for-profit housing industry has put on millions of people in the U.S. will loosen slightly. Thanks to pressure from an organized movement, foreclosed homeowners are being allowed to stay in their homes while paying rent to the banks or by negotiating with banks to get their debt lowered.
This is the good news: people resist; against all odds, even when outnumbered and overpowered. Further good news: people are joining with others in an organized resistance that actually has the power to push back against the chokehold of oppressive institutions.
As I wrote in my last commentary (“Step 1: Identify the True Criminals among Us,” available onTeleSUR and ZNet), this type of grassroots resistance is happening all over the country via thousands of organizing efforts. Whether it’s about housing, immigration, workers’ rights, the right to water, or the right to not get killed while surrendering to the police (to name just a few), people are learning how to explain what’s wrong and they are joining with others to fight for relief.
But there’s a problem with this picture. As people resist, as they fight to relieve the chokehold, what happens next? People join the struggle. They learn about how our economic system is based on systemic greed and growing inequality. They get more information about how racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are institutionally reinforced. They see that no matter how they entered the struggle – whether via housing or workplace issues or police violence or any number of other entry points – their fight is connected to the fights of other disenfranchised and marginalized people. They realize that they are not alone, that it’s not their fault, that they can get their voice back, and that organizing works. Then what?
NTanya Lee and Steve Williams are two people who asked themselves a similar question. Working in the Bay Area in California, they had both been active in grassroots, base-building organizations. They had been part of many victories, but noticed that life for people in their communities was only getting worse. They were frustrated with occasionally winning short-term gains; they wanted to be able to develop the power needed to make “fundamental and transformative changes in the world.”
In 2012, they set out to try to understand how other grassroots activists felt about this problem, namely, that we need to shift our struggle from one that focuses on resisting the latest onslaught to one that seeks fundamental transformation. They embarked on a new project they called Ear to the Ground, which involved traveling all over the country and interviewing over 150 activists from diverse sectors of the movement. What did participants say they most needed to be more effective in their work? These were the top four recommendations:
1. Develop a shared vision of a healthy, just and sustainable society.
2. Deepen the political development of all movement activists and leaders.
3. Craft a multi sectored strategy for lasting social change.
4. Create new organizational forms in order to break out of issue and sector silos.
One exciting aspect of their report is that there is so much unity across diverse sectors of the movement. Many activists agree that we need to do something different, that we need to do more than resist the chokehold. We need to transform it into something completely different. And we need education, strategy, and new organizations to be able to undertake this transformation. Knowing how creative and resilient activists are, this is an exciting prospect – to move ourselves from reacting to the status quo to constructing a better world!
Another exciting aspect of their report is what came afterwards. They didn’t just gather this information. They have acted on it. In the summer of 2013, Steve and NTanya and scores of others activists in the Bay Area attended the founding assembly of LeftRoots, a national organization of activists who want to “connect grassroots struggles to a strategy to win liberation for all people and the planet.”
Their structure and membership reflect their commitment to internal democracy and to staying rooted in the communities most affected by oppression. 90% of their members are people of color. 75% are women or transgender. There are two levels of participation, both of which pay dues based on income, but only those actively engaged in social justice work are allowed to vote. To ensure that everyone has shared access to information, history, and analysis, they ask members to complete a 7-week “boot camp.” They currently have one branch in the Bay Area and are planning to develop more branches and to host a national conference in three years.
LeftRoots is a worthy project, and activists in the U.S. should take note. While there have been many calls for a national structure that could help us unite our movements into something more powerful than the sum of our parts, this is the first effort I have seen that would be so thoroughly grounded in grassroots struggles. We know the desire and the ability to resist is there. We’ve seen it in Eric Garner and Marie Bain and millions of others who are fighting back. Activists all across the country are heroes for their ongoing commitment to organizing this resistance into something powerful enough to challenge institutions and to bring relief to those who are suffering the most. LeftRoots provides these activists with a way to take their organizing to the next level – where we can join with Eric Garner and say, “This ends today.” And the “end” would not mean dying. It would mean collectively figuring out another way to live.
Cynthia Peters is the editor of The Change Agent. She is a longtime activist and a member of City Life/Vida Urbana, and she serves on the board of a youth justice organization called The City School and the alumni board of Social Thought and Political Economy at UMASS/Amherst. She lives in Boston and writes for ZNet and TelSUR.