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How to stop an oil train: Looking back to construct a social movement

It’s clear this state of ours is in trouble. We have a governor and legislature refusing to fund basic education even in the face of a contempt order from the Washington State Supreme Court. At the same time, the governor and the legislature refuse to face the fundamental threat to our communities from BNSF oil trains even as one video after another show these same Bakken oil trains lighting up a small town in West Virginia. All we get from them is a bogus safety bill while the governor facilitates five new oil terminals and expanding oil refineries. And, on top of all that, the Democratic Party and its environmental front organizations want to give new property rights for carbon emissions to our biggest fossil fuel burning corporations.

Meanwhile at the national level, corporate rulers like Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson and Thomas Steyer plan on how to use this new risky environment of flooding coastal real estate and rising temperatures to make new profit centers and the National Academy of Science legitimates research on how to send sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect back the sunlight since it doesn’t appear any real effort to stop the burning of fossil fuels will be successful.

Naomi Klein says only a new social movement can get us out of this mess, but how does one construct such a movement when we remain fixated on the ever increasing environmental disasters and a non-responsive political class extracting profits from our public resources.

Social movement construction

Social movements arise out of a perceived failure of the political class to remedy some social injustice, like when farmers saw that the railroads controlled the production and distribution of their produce. Or when WWII vets faced the contradiction of having defeated a racist Nazi regime only to be confined within a racist system at home. Or, when those same vets came home thinking the end of war meant peace rather than continuous war. Or, now when our political class refuses to face the climate crisis with anything other than how can they make money off this new risk.

Perception of a social injustice is not enough, however. Some people believe social movements arise only when things get a lot worse. I don’t think so. Social movements don’t arise simply because an injustice gets worse. They arise in specific contexts: when organizers apply resources or charismatic leadership emerges or indigenous leadership attached to a community base moves against the injustice.

Whether it is any one of these or the combination of all three factors, social movement organizers need to answer four questions: who, what, with whom, and how? Who is the movement, the “we.” What does the movement want, its vision. Who are they going to get it with, the strategy. And, what is its method of enforcement, its tactic.

In order to answer these four questions, social movements need to be constantly creating and re-creating several key social movement components.

Autonomous Space

An autonomous space, within which movement participants can come to some new social analysis of the situation they are confronting, as Lawrence Goodwyn says. Sometimes that’s all I felt we could accomplish at the Labor Education Center I ran at Evergreen. A space that pushes out all the distractions that keep working people from thinking and planning. The Farmers Alliance used the cooperatives for this space. The Grange used their halls. The IWW used their reading rooms. The Knights of Labor used their Assemblies. The Civil Rights Movement used Highlander Center in Tennessee. Labor in Wisconsin used their School for Workers at the University. The US Social Forum promoted Peoples Assemblies for this space, as did Occupy Wall Street. Somewhere there has to be space for thinking not dominated by the corrupt political class, a space where analysis and strategy can be thought out.

New organizational forms

You don’t get new policy with the same institutions. Social movements create new organizational forms. And, the extent to which these forms mirror the society they want, they are successful. The Congress of Industrial Organizations was a new form to organize industrial workers across race and gender lines. The Civil Rights Movement created new local alliances that went beyond the existing ministerial structures. SNCC was a new organizational form parented by Ella Baker. The Women’s Liberation movement came out of consciousness raising groups. The Seattle WTO protesters rejuvenated “affinity groups”and developed convergence centers. The OWS utilized governance assemblies, like the Peoples Movement Assemblies of the US Social Forums. Rising Tide is a new formation linking indigenous struggles to environmental justice, as is Idle no More. Or, the Cowboy Indian Alliance fighting the Keystone XL. Or the newly formed Solidarity Roundtable on Oil in Washington State.

Recruitment devices

There needs to be a mechanism to attract people to the movement, to the organizational form. The farmers alliances used roving “lecturers”. The Townsend movement used a commissioned sales staff. Much of the organizing in the mid-1930s used radio programs. The AFL-CIO unions used hired organizers. The Black Panther Party used free breakfast programs and free health clinics. The alliance of unions and environmental groups used the March to Miami cross country bus trip. Indigenous nations are using reinvigorated traditions, like the Lummi Totem Pole Journeys.

Internal communication

Without a strong internal communication system, one that is owned and controlled by the movement itself, the movement will be defined by its enemies. Sending press releases to media outlets owned by your enemy is beyond counter productive. The Farmers Alliance sent out “lecturers.” The Seattle Union Record, which announced the Seattle General Strike of 1919, was a daily newspaper owned by the labor movement itself. The key communication device that linked the sitdown strikers at GM’s plant in 1936 to the community was the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Many of the CIO union drives were assisted by foreign language newspapers and cultural associations. The people who shut down the WTO Ministerial in Seattle used the intimacy of the affinity groups, impenetrable by provocateurs, as well as flags to denote levels of danger.

Independent finance

Successful social movements need money and it does make a difference where it comes from. If it doesn’t come from the movement’s base, independence and the movement itself is jeopardized. The labor movement had union dues. The Civil Rights Movement had church donations. The Townsend movement had fan club purchases of booklets, pins, etc.

A major difficulty with social movements resourced by external funders is that movement priories get distorted and disconnected from its potential base. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

A new political voice

The pinnacle of social movement development is the creation of a new political voice, one that articulates the movement’s social vision emanating from that “autonomous space.” Practically all social movements eventually created such a voice. The Populist movement’s Peoples Party, the Progressive era’s Progressive Party, Huey Long’s Union Party, the Civil rights movement’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Black Power’s Black Panther Party, the anti-nuclear Citizen’s Party, the environmental movement’s Green Party or the neo-conservative’s Tea Party.

A difficulty with many resource-based movements in the US is their attachment to an organizational form with a federal IRS 501 c3 designation or to an existing political party, both of which stymie the development of an independent political voice. Nevertheless, as is clear from the recent Wisconsin movement or our own contemporary fight to stop oil trains, absent a new political voice the movement will get suffocated in the existing framework of two-party politics.

Capacity to withstand governmental repression

As is obvious, the capacity and enthusiasm for governmental repression of social movements is growing by leaps and bounds. The post WWI Red Scare, Hoover’s FBI, the post WWII McCarthy era, the Red Squads and Cointelpro of the 60’s and 70’s, or today’s ICE police and Homeland Security state all represent the government’s protection of the political class. We saw this most recently in the nationally coordinated police attack on the Occupy Wall Street encampments. One of the greatest accomplishments of social movements is their ability to continue to build and expand their infrastructure and their community base knowing that repressive forces are acting against them.

Transforming existing resources into power instruments

This is a concept I learned from Aldon Morris, author of Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s something that movements do. The Farmers Alliance transformed cooperatives into representations of the economy they promoted. Radio programs became recruitment devices. The Civil Rights Movement transformed a church into a movement center. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the language of the Church into an immediate demand. Greyhound buses became Freedom Rides. Breakfast programs became schools. Parks became general assemblies. What will trains become?

…the more things stay the same

Social movement history seems to have come full circle. The great populist uprising of the 1880’s and 90’s focused on finance, on creating a financial system attached to the existing economy. Here we are 100 plus years later and we are faced with the same problem. Finance has disconnected itself from the real economy and accumulated massive wealth selling debt to the rest of us. Now they are planning on creating new financial instruments to buy and sell pollution, steal indigenous land for “carbon sinks” profit off adaptation of coastal cities to rising sea levels or building new energy capacity for air conditioning in the Northwest.

I was asked a couple of years ago to give a talk about how local history informs modern social movements. I’ve always been amazed by this intersection.

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, for example, focused on the 99% and the 1%. That’s what made it so extraordinary to read a Farmer’s Alliance song book from the late 1870’s, and see a song entitled, “Labor’s Ninety-Nine.” Here’ the first and final stanza.

There are ninety-nine that live and die in want, hunger and cold.

That one may revel in luxury and be wrapped in its silken fold.

The ninety-nine in their hovels bare. The one in his palace with riches rare. The one in his palace with richest rare.

The night so dreary, so dark, so long. At last shall the morning bring.

And over the land the Victor’s song of the Ninety and Nine shall ring.

And echo a far from zone to zone. Rejoice, for labor shall have its own. Rejoice, for labor shall have its own.

After 140 years we are back to the same 1% controlling it all. But we also have 140 years of historical struggle to create new social movements and challenge their hold on our future.



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