Do we know our power in the US?

In reflecting on the question of collective power in the United States I have begun to think that power is not so much in the knowing but in the doing.

I got to thinking about the question of movement power the other day, and specifically where we look for it and how we look. I am visiting Brooklyn, currently spending most of my time in Europe and Latin America, though having been based in New York most of my adult life. I say this both to ground my observations on the political communities here in the US, and New York particularly, and also to reflect my other recent vantage points.

While walking in Prospect Park, I bumped into a long time activist and writer, someone who I have known in our various organizing capacities for twenty years. Within two minutes we were talking about the state of politics and organizing in the US. She reflected that there have been some amazing and inspiring movements developing over the past year or two, and specifically talked about Black Lives Matter. I asked something about climate organizing and she responded that the problem here in the US is that we “do not know our own power yet”. I nodded, agreeing without thinking about it, maybe used some example by way of agreement, and the conversation moved on. I then got to thinking some more about this question.

Do we really not know our own power? What does that mean? Who doesn’t? When don’t we? And more important, when do we?

I then began to think of places where I feel people for sure know their power – and began to conclude that people who I see manifesting power do not come to it as a question, not asking is it something they have, but as a necessity. Movements that I believe are more aptly referred to as societies in movement and not social movements. Communities and groupings that is that respond to a collective need, organize together using direct action and directly democratic assemblies, and make it happen as best they can. Movements that look first to one another for power and not institutions or governments. These are also often movements that in the same space of their resistance open up alternatives ways of relating and being.

In my recent trip to Argentina I met with people and communities defending the land, water and air. They were and are doing this by organizing together first as neighbors, deciding what they do not want, ie Monsanto to build a seed processing plant or a mining company to come and strip mine their mountain, and then the organize to make this thing not happen. In both cases they have won, the assembly of Malivinas has forced Monsanto not to build, and the town of La Rioja has protected the mountain La Famatina. They did not do this as “political” activists organizing a campaign or learning first that they can do it with trainings and workshops (not that these things are bad). But they needed to come together to prevent what would be the destruction of their land and water and eventually their survival in their towns. People I met spoke as neighbors, as mothers, teachers, grandfathers, cobblers, grocery store clerks, daughters etc. They did not speak as the powerful group, but as regular people who had to accomplish something – and did. After they did this, after they won, they now reflect more on their identity as political agents, learning through doing that they are powerful, but it was only by doing. Power in the land defense movements is something that is not the starting point of the conversation or organizing, but the result of it.

Similarly in Greece, when the government imposed a cost on what had been free medical care, and in the context of a horrendous economic crisis, people came together to figure out how to make sure all were protected. Some assemblies and villages got together and on particular days blocked the cashiers at the health clinics and hospitals so that people needing care did not and could not pay (with the prior agreement of the medical staff). Others came together, generally with the medical people leading the way, and organized what are now known as Solidarity Clinics, free full service medical clinics that treat all people and are run by volunteers and through horizontal assemblies. The people who organized the clinics did not come together and ask how they could build power – they came together to make sure health care would happen for all and using direct action and democratic processes make it happen. There are 60 such clinics in Greece today. Many of these clinics are developing alternative forms of care and ways of seeing health. Now, today, when I interview people they speak of the power of their actions and the clinics. In the interviews I did only four years ago no one spoke of power but of necessity and the forms needed to best facilitate it.

Not coincidentally I think these are movements that reflect on how they did not know how what they were doing was so “important” or the impact they would have, especially to those on the outside. Their gaze was towards one another. Their strategy was first geared towards making the thing happen or not, stopping Monsanto or creating a health clinic, and not looking towards those in power to see if they would do it for them. People even spoke about feeling like someone held up a mirror to them once they interacted with the national and international political community and it was only then that they could see what they did and the power in it.

A mirror. This came up a number of times in the same way in different parts of the world. At first I thought that the idea of someone holding a mirror to you as a movement was about not seeing your own power and someone else having to show you yourself so as to see it. I don’t think that anymore. In fact, I think it is the opposite. It is the lack of need for a mirror that is where our power is. It is not looking at ourselves from the outside, from someone else’s perspective that gives us power, but only by looking to ourselves and one another – horizontally.

Back to the United States. Of course we have had movements that have recognized our power, in the past and in the present. From the few conversations I have had with participants in Black Lives Matter and the observations I have from what I have read and watched from abroad this seems like the movement most full of power – people are looking to one another and not asking or demanding first. It is still a movement in question, if it deepens the beginnings of what appears to be a society in movement or moves in the direction of a traditional social movement, meaning with demands and a perspective on institutions of power and their reformation first – before the social and community change. It is a moment in question, and if there are things to learn from our sisters and brothers in movement around the world – those who are full of power and don’t have to say it – it would be to keep our gaze horizontal – to keep deciding together those things that we want and need, and only then make demands or engage with institutions of power.

Our power and knowing our power then is about where we look, how we look, and actually, not needing to say we are powerful – but acting our power – it is in the doing and not the saying. Similar to the concept of living and relating as if we are already free – acting as if we are going to accomplish whatever it is that must be done and doing it. Refusing to stop the blockades of trucks until Monsanto leaves – not debating if the government really will make good on their promise to make them leave. Building the clinic and running it with self organization, not waiting for funding that might or might not come from the government. The power is already ours, we just have to manifest it.

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