Movement Building Is the Only Match for the Emergency at Hand

Movement Building Is the Only
Match for the Emergency at Hand

By Cynthia

It’s inevitable. At
the end of every lecture that Noam Chomsky has ever given—in which he spells out
the workings of U.S. institutions and how they foster inequality and
injustice—someone gets up and asks, “But what do we do?”

His answer’s
always very similar. “I can’t tell you what to do. You have to figure it out.”
Recently, at an MIT lecture in October, he strayed from his usual reply. “You
know what to do,” he said. “You join organizations, or start them.”

For those who
walk away from lectures, books, magazines, and websites with a fairly fleshed
out understanding of how powerful institutions exercise their authority, but who
have little sense of what individuals can or should do in response, I offer the
following story. It’s my own entirely subjective account of how one part of one
community developed a collective response to the events of September 11 and the

Our neighborhood
peace and justice group was probably born on September 21, 2001 when friends and
family from around Jamaica Plain (a Boston neighborhood) came together for a
spontaneously organized event that included an open microphone, music, dinner,
and sign-making for the kids.

Few things are
really spontaneously organized, of course, so maybe I should back up a little. A
conversation between me and my next-door neighbor helped us start thinking
beyond our own private responses. She wanted to know if my partner Paul, a
carpenter, would make a post for her so she could display a hand-made sign in
her yard. The sign read, “Help each other with a tender loving hand.”

Why make just one
post, I thought? We should make a lot. I know plenty of people who might be
interested in some personal peace message at a time like this. In fact, why not
bring families together for food, sign-making, conversation, and music. Every
neighbor and acquaintance I had run into in the previous week had been anxious
to talk. People who hardly knew each other were engaging in heartfelt, probing,
even tearful conversations. It seemed like a good time to bring all these folks
together in some sort of structured way.

I called
Spontaneous Celebrations—a community-based arts center in Jamaica Plain that
hosts festivals, classes, an after-school program, dances, teen events, and
numerous political meetings.

“Could we turn
one of your Friday night dinners into a community event for talking, listening,
and reflecting on recent events?” I asked the executive director. He agreed. The
arts director was about to make a trip to the recycling center; she offered to
pick up extra large heavyweight paper for signs. The guy who coordinates the
after-school program offered paints and brushes and asked for a $1 donation per
sign to help defray costs. A couple of artist friends took charge of the
sign-making. A few phone calls yielded an agreement from a neighborhood singing
group to bring a sound system and instruments.

In the end,
around 100 people showed up. They were friends, acquaintances, neighbors, fellow
dog-walkers, parents of our children’s friends, people we know from other
political work. Dozens of peace messages were colorfully drawn on large posters
and the kids paraded them through the dining room—to great applause. Kids and
adults spoke into the microphone—sharing information, grief, uncertainty. We
passed a sign-up sheet around and collected names of people interested in
exploring how we might proceed to a more organized response.

It was a chaotic
night. The drumming circle that was meeting upstairs made it hard to hear. There
wasn’t enough food. The clean-up was immense. I forgot to ask for donations.

But it was moving
to have people come together and the event felt like the beginning of something.
People called, offering money. A friend of a friend called to follow up. “So
what happens now?” she asked. “Let’s use this momentum.” She volunteered to set
up a database of the names we collected on Friday and offered to start calling
everyone on the list.

The bombing had
not even started yet on October 1, the night of our first meeting, but the
threats were real enough, and thanks to information disseminated over the
Internet, many understood the human rights catastrophe that awaited Afghanistan
as the U.S. asked Pakistan to seal its borders and aid workers could no longer
safely deliver food and blankets to the millions of Afghans dependent on it.

So what really
nudged JPAN into existence? Was it a flash of inspiration? A herculean effort on
the part of a few brave souls? No, though inspiration and effort don’t hurt.
What seems to have happened is a web got activated. Some of us decided to move
beyond private gestures to collective action. Starting with who we knew and the
organizations we had histories with, backed up by information and analysis
easily culled from progressive media, we created a community event that became a
venue for channeling people into more structured organizing.

A larger
Boston-area ad hoc coalition—United for Justice with Peace (UJP)—was forming and
some of us were participating in their weekly vigils and organizing meetings.
Mobilizing on a city-wide scale is difficult to say the least, but UJP was
rising to the challenge. Hundreds of people organized subcommittees; a steering
committee started to take shape; weekly vigils, teach-ins, media outreach,
demonstrations, and conferences were organized. Still, the weekly organizing
meetings seemed doomed to dwindle. It was hard to make sense of them. They were
too large to be effective. It seemed like a slightly different crowd at each
meeting so there was little continuity.

How could a
person newly moved to activism fit in when the culture of the meetings seemed to
be shaped by people who have been doing political work for decades and seem to
have all sorts of impenetrable ongoing debates and tensions? Even with admirable
efforts to welcome people and create a democratic participatory structure, it
was hard to imagine that this large ad hoc coalition could be an ongoing
political home to a large diverse crowd. Acknowledging this, UJP formed a
community outreach subcommittee to help support the development of
neighborhood-based groups. We would provide materials, training, and support so
that activists could do grassroots outreach in their own communities, where a
variety of real ties knit people into long-term relationships.

Meanwhile, back
in Jamaica Plain, starting in early October, 15 to 30 people began meeting every
Monday night. We started tabling in front of neighborhood grocery stores—sharing
information, discussing the issues, and inviting people to join our meeting and
our free list serve (easily set up at Some people swept by
ignoring us and some took the opportunity to vent their anger at us. But most
people responded thoughtfully. We met and talked with people from unions,
schools, and all walks of life. A few neighbors and colleagues translated some
documents into Spanish so that we had something to offer the large Dominican and
Puerto Rican populations in our neighborhood. We knew many of the people
we were talking to. They run the cash register at the drug store; work at the
health clinic; serve ice cream to your kid; stand next to you on the sidelines
while your kids play soccer.

subcommittee explored the idea of asking stores to create a space for an
“information binder” stocked with points of view not readily available in the
mainstream media. They got agreements from a bookstore, a café, a CD shop, a
convenience food store, and a hairdresser. Now the people waiting to get their
hair cut could explore a peace and justice-based response to the events of
September 11 in addition to (or perhaps even instead of) glossy salon magazines
featuring models with impossible haircuts, unachievable complexions, and Barbie-
esque figures.

The “information
binder” featured articles about worldwide peace and justice—much of it culled
from websites, which put timely reports from all over the world at our
fingertips. It also includes pieces generated by local organizations that
describe neighborhood issues and organizing challenges, and offer perspectives
about the connections between foreign and domestic policy. We got this
information by meeting with people involved in local organizing and asking them
what they would want us to disseminate on their behalf. Our strategy is not just
to get bigger ourselves, but also to support and channel energy into all the
organizations that are contesting illegitimate power in all its manifestations.

Our community
might be unique in the number of organizations it has with deep roots in diverse
communities. But I doubt it. Almost every community, even in conservative areas,
has groups of people in it who come together for various reasons to address
their needs—whether it is a crime watch group, a faith-based group, or people
concerned about local zoning, school issues, playground safety, traffic-calming,
or pesticide spraying. These groups are ready-made networks for us to get to
know (if we don’t already) and to work with.

“Work with”
doesn’t mean going to them with an appeal for help. It means spending time with
them and listening to their concerns. When the Latino Committee of City
Life/Vida Urbana—a local tenants’ rights organization—told us about their desire
to have a forum about immigrants’ rights in the post-September 11 era, JPAN
offered to help. We handed out their flyers during our tabling session and
shared emergency grant money that we were able to raise. JPAN members attended
the forum and we learned directly from our own neighbors the domestic costs of
Bush’s campaign. When three Somali girls at a local high school were attacked,
we attended an afternoon meeting of Somali parents to listen to their needs and
to offer our help.

Are schoolyard
attacks on Somali high-schoolers and curtailment of rights for immigrants as bad
as millions of Afghans potentially starving to death this winter? No. But they
matter. They remind us that the world’s greatest superpower has to repress the
domestic population in order to justify and enlarge its exploits abroad. People
who care about worldwide peace and justice should know something about whether
there is equal access to peace and justice in their own neighborhoods. If
there’s not, they should be thinking about why, about what to do about it, and
about how to interact with the people already engaged in those struggles.

Bush’s “war on
terrorism” has aroused organizing energy, money, and resources from some
privileged pockets of the community. We should not just suddenly emerge on the
neighborhood scene with an agenda, but learn what the long-held agendas of
community activists have been over the years. Ideally, we know our neighbors,
read our local paper, and are acquainted with and active in community
organizations, and thus have ways to plug into the networks around us. But if
not, then surely we know people who know people who can help put us in touch. In
any case, it does not take much effort to start showing up at the neighborhood
council meetings, arts festivals, “friends of the local library”—whatever it
takes to be operating in the context of our communities. We can organize most
effectively when we care about the people we are talking to; it helps if the
feeling is mutual.

Another JPAN
subcommittee pulled together a teach-in, held in a local church, attracting 250
people, as well as two local newspapers and the Boston Globe. We
publicized the teach-in by going door-to-door with flyers—inspiring more
conversations, more neighborhood presence. People stayed and listened for nearly
three hours. They ran into people they knew from the neighborhood. Now, next
time they see each other at the playground or the post office, they’ll have
another thing in common—shared knowledge about alternatives to war and a sense
that they can speak out about it. One attendee told the Globe reporter,
“This is my government dropping bombs on other countries. I want to have an
influence,” she said. “I want to have a voice” (Boston Globe, 11/25/01).

subcommittee wanted to support the American Friends Service Committee’s
humanitarian aid campaign. A friend of a JPAN member with access to free
xeroxing made hundreds of copies of City Life/Vida Urbana’s six-page “Know Your
Rights” leaflet (in Spanish and English) oriented toward immigrants. A
commercial graphic artist and a local printing company donated labor and helped
to create 1,000 copies of a flyer describing JPAN. The Somali group wanted us to
write letters to the attorney general pressuring him to find ways to make it
possible for Somalis to send money home—something that has been cut off recently
by concerns about how funding travels from the U.S. to terrorist organizations.
We are spreading the word through “crime watch” groups and the Jamaica Plain
Neighborhood Council.

When UJP called
its first big anti-war demonstration on October 14, JPAN played a role in
mobilizing our neighborhood to participate. Again, we distributed flyers,
activated phone trees, and called everyone we knew. A few people got together
and created a banner so that at the demonstration we would have a neighborhood
presence. We brought JPAN flyers and sign-up sheets with us so that people could
get in touch with us and come to our meetings. We left with a renewed sense of
purpose around organizing in our neighborhood. The only way to make these
demonstrations bigger and more effective is to go back home (or to our schools
or workplaces) and talk to people, create ways for people to be involved and
connected with others doing peace and justice work, educate, learn, develop
links to other social change efforts.

There are new
people at almost every JPAN meeting. They learned about us by word of mouth,
from the teach-in, or through our tabling efforts. A number of people say, “I’m
so glad I found you. I’ve been wanting to do something, but didn’t know what to

As people read
more and learn more, a certain urgency takes over. “I am just realizing how many
Afghans are at risk of starving to death,” says one JPAN member. “We have to do

“This is what
we’re doing,” somebody replies, indicating the work of our small group. Indeed.
Urgency is correct, as well as the desire to do something, but we have to give
expression to those feelings in the day-to-day work of movement building—much of
it tedious and seemingly no match for the emergency at hand. Yet movement
building is the only match for the emergency at hand.

Maybe it’s here,
in this disconnect between horrific conditions all around us and the slow
plodding work of changing those conditions, that we lose so many potential
activists. The hardest conversations I have with people when I’m tabling don’t
have to do with whether the war is just or not, but whether there’s any point in
doing anything about it. As activists, we must offer viable strategies for
taking a stand against the pain and we must incorporate our vision into our
political work.

Do we have
internal structure that inhibits certain people from dominating the agenda? Are
we recreating hierarchies along race, class, and gender lines? Have we created a
space where people can benefit from mutual support, sharing, and growth as
opposed to societal norms of individualism, profit extraction, and domination?
Furthermore, do we allow time for envisioning alternatives? The pessimists are
right to wonder what the point of stopping this war is, if we are left with the
exact same institutions that gave rise to it in the first place. We don’t just
want to stop this particular war. We want to replace our warlike and
profiteering institutions with something else. If we don’t make time to talk
about that something else, then we’ve cut ourselves off from the future, ceded
to the cynics the point that there are no better alternatives.

We can’t
accomplish all this in a weekly meeting, but we can make a start. At JPAN, some
people see the gathering as a chance to talk, share concerns, and learn more.
Others want to use the meeting time to plan actions, events, and outreach. Quite
a few people bring small children. We spend part of the meeting discussing some
topic agreed on in advance. We disseminate articles and information through our
list serve so that we start the discussion with some shared knowledge. The other
part of the meeting is dedicated to subcommittee reports and planning.
Throughout, the older children hang out in an adjoining room, the toddlers
explore around inside the circle of knees, and the babies are jiggled on laps.
Usually, somebody brings food to the meeting. It ends promptly at 8:30 PM—which
some people regret but others are grateful for. The chair and notetaker rotate

Without talking
about it too much, we seem to have created a meeting culture that most people
enjoy and feel comfortable in. We have struck a workable balance between talk
and action. We learn from each other. We keep coming back because it’s the right
thing to do, but also because we care about each other, and gathering together
has value in and of itself. The kids have come to think of it as a family
outing—a chance to see their friends and be with their parents who seem to be
doing something important.

Our current
challenge is to continue nurturing connections with community
organizations—building bridges between local and global struggles, and giving
peace and justice activists who came together around this new war in Afghanistan
a chance to hear directly from peace and justice activists who have been
fighting battles on the local scene for decades. The world’s reigning superpower
will use September 11 and the “war against terrorism” to consolidate power for
ruling institutions both at home and abroad. This is bad news for anyone working
for justice, freedom from terror, participatory democracy, and compassion over
marketplace values. Many of the working poor, people on welfare, immigrants, and
those who don’t have access to race-, gender-, and class-based privilege know
who will end up fighting Bush’s war, who will bear the brunt of the economic
downturn, who will do the low-paying jobs that service and provide for the
privileged, who will end up in prison, and who will work to make neighborhoods
safe and livable only to get shown the door when the gentrifiers show up.

To create a
sustained successful challenge to Bush’s “war against terrorism,” we have to see
our work as part of a continuum. We have to identify the institutions that give
rise to and support the U.S. government’s latest foreign policy atrocity and we
have to fight those institutions at every level. Racist practices at home make
it more palatable to put a third of the Afghan population at risk of starving to
death. Capitalist values turn “protecting our way of life” into “preserving
profit margins.” Gender politics margin- alizes women’s participation in
decisionmaking and puts them in patriotic service of father, country, and the
consumer confidence index. If the newly aroused anti-war movement could do the
serious work of joining forces with long-term organizations with deep roots in
communities, we could all grow. We could make it harder for those in power to
throw their weight around, assert their power, and squash dissent. We could
widen the range of debate. We could create alternative institutions that are
attractive to people, and viable. We could gather strength slowly but surely. We
could win.

In the end,
Chomsky’s right about not being able to tell us what to do. We each bring our
personal desires, inclinations, skills, resources, and connections to the task
of political organizing. It’s our job to decide how to activate that web. One
thing we can be sure of, however. The web is there for everyone. It’s just a
matter of how we put it to use.

Peters is a longtime activist, writer, and freelance editor. She has worked on
the staff of South End Press and Z Media Institute and is currently director of
the East Timor Action Network in Boston.