Ashley Smith contextualizes the Biden administration program, and argues that it represents a Keynesian break from decades of neo-liberal policy. However, it is a break driven in the first instance by the imperative to rehabilitate the profitability of U.S. capitalism and U.S. imperial power.
Archive for category: VIEWPOINT
“Industrial agriculture, habitat destruction, global commodity chains and the travel network have set up this perfect storm of conditions, not just for COVID, but also for future pandemics.
How can we get a wider systemic perspective on the current crisis? How vulnerable will we continue to be when we hopefully vanquish COVID-19?”
The working class in the United States has not been quiescent during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The field of social struggle has included strikes, walkouts, sickouts, fights against evictions, grassroots-led union drives, and a host of other labor actions (including the rebellions this past summer).1 Most encouraging have been the direct confrontations with non-union employers and battles waged outside established syndical structures, like those that have already occurred among farmworkers, meatpackers, warehouse pickers, gig workers, municipal employees, education workers, and grocery workers, as well as at countless other worksites. While self-activity and close bonds of comradeship between co-workers have and will be the vital factors in these conflicts, there is always a place for networks of communication and defined strategic courses that show new paths forward. Militants are constantly gathering knowledge and insights to share with other workers beginning to mobilize. The 2019-2020 wildcat strike for a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) at UC-Santa Cruz was in many ways a precursor to the types of organizing that have taken root among labor activists since last March. In this article, Jane Komori, a participant and organizer in the COLA strike, examines the ins and outs of running a strike fund (especially difficult when the action is taken while under contract), an often overlooked yet essential task in strike logistics.
In the early months of 2020 it became clear that the University of California, Santa Cruz graduate student worker wildcat strike for a cost of living adjustment (COLA) was part of a wave of strikes erupting across the country. In our first days on strike we were in touch with organizers from the 2018 West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, the 2019 LA Teacher’s Strike, and CUNY Struggle, seeking advice and encouragement. But after only a few weeks other graduate student workers, themselves demanding COLAs or trying to unionize began reaching out to us for support. When wildcat strikes were launched at other University of California campuses including Santa Barbara, San Diego, Davis, and Berkeley in February and March, I began to get calls about how we started our Gofundme fundraiser and how we were managing our strike fund. I received even more of these questions as workers from a host of industries began to organize in the face of unprecedented unemployment with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I spoke to baristas in New York organizing a fund to replace lost wages and strippers in LA fundraising for mutual aid. As our fund grew and workers all around us began their own strikes, we used our fund to support striking workers in City Waste Union, striking graduate student workers at Columbia, and most recently to workers fighting for a union at Bookshop Santa Cruz, among others. I often included notes about how grateful I was to the fellow fund organizers, because handling our own strike fund has been an ongoing, ever-developing challenge, not to mention a critical dimension of the COLA struggle as a whole.
Part of the difficulty was, and continues to be, a lack of resources and advice for workers about how to start and manage their own strike fund or fund for labor organizing or mutual aid.2 Particularly challenging was the fact that a strike fund for a wildcat strike is a strange beast, in the eyes of the IRS and every accountant and tax attorney I have talked to. It also presents unique challenges to workers, who have a lot of other things to do when organizing a labor action, and who, like me, might have no experience handling large sums of money or dealing with the vagaries of tax code. For the UCSC wildcat, on top of figuring out the technicalities of accounting, it has meant coming up with a whole system for prioritizing, allocating, and dispersing funds. As the de facto treasurer for the movement for the last year and the foreseeable future, I still have many questions and am often doubtful about how to proceed. But I have also learned a lot about matters I did not realize could have any bearing on labor organizing. The following is therefore meant to be a practical, albeit imperfect and incomplete, account for anyone considering starting a fund like ours. It is also meant to offer some insight into how a strike fund, especially where you would not usually find one, (as with a wildcat strike or other organization of workers not represented by a union with deep pockets) can shape the form and capacity of labor actions. While there are a number of critical ways to narrate the development and conclusion of the UCSC wildcat strike, I have in no small part come to understand the COLA struggle through our strike fund.
1. Set your fundraiser up yourself and consider the language you use to describe it carefully.
A really generous and thoughtful comrade at another university started our Gofundme for us when we first went public with our wildcat grading strike on social media and some smaller news outlets in December of 2019. I am so grateful that she did, because it started getting attention right away, and I do not know when it would have occurred to us to create one ourselves. I would however advise any other group to have the person who is going to act as treasurer start the fundraiser. Gofundme restricts access to certain functions to the creator of the fundraiser, and it is easiest if whoever is overseeing the fund can add other users, manage withdrawals, post updates, raise the fundraising goal, and most importantly, carefully write up the description of the fundraiser.
Our comrade named our fundraiser “Support Fund for Striking Workers at UCSC!” This is descriptive and correct – for the most part. While we used the bulk of our strike fund to replace lost wages, we used about a third of it feeding and providing first aid, toilets, sunscreen, and picket signs to thousands of picketers for an entire month; providing bail money and support with legal fees and tickets; covering medical co-pays for those injured on the picket line; and donating money to other workers, student groups, and community organizations on our campus and across the country. Not everyone will need to do all this, but when creating your Gofundme, try and think expansively and carefully about what you might do with your fund. How you define it at the outset will determine, in part, how you administer it and how you report it to the IRS about it later.
2. Consider scale.
The nature of grassroots labor organizing can mean that the scale of actions and their outcomes are difficult to predict. Our strike certainly was – we had no idea that we would raise nearly $300,000, or that we would need it when eighty strikers were fired. Nonetheless, I think considering the size of the action (how many workers are involved?), the potential risks (do you think you are going to get pay docked? For a day or a week?), and other costs involved (how much is the pizza that you like to have at your meetings, and are you going to be having a lot more of those soon?), is something that should be done ahead, even if you end up being totally off the mark. If your answers to the questions above indicate that you only need to fundraise $1000, then you probably do not need to read the rest of this guide, and Venmo is a great tool for you! If it is more, this will help you anticipate the kind of infrastructure you’ll need to build. It might also help you think about a timeline for fundraising and how to set fundraising goals with your Gofundme. (I am not a fundraiser, and we never had a set fundraising goal or a plan for reaching it. When we had considerable media attention, we bumped the goal on our Gofundme page up by $10,000 every time we got close to meeting our previous goal. Frequently linking to the Gofundme page on social media and in press coverage was helpful.)
3. Start thinking about banking, accounting, and taxes right away.
There are a lot of mixed messages about whether or not Gofundme will issue tax forms to beneficiaries of fundraisers and whether or not money paid by Gofundme’s third-party payment processor, WePay, is taxable income (the tax question here is, is the money received “personal gifts” or taxable income?). This is a really crucial consideration for scale: how much is the beneficiary going to receive from the fundraiser, and how much are they going to pay others from it? While Gofundme states on their (bewilderingly limited) taxation information page that they will not issue tax forms, this does not match up with the advice of the accountants and tax attorneys I have talked to. Plenty of sources suggest that even if Gofundme does not issue tax forms, WePay will issue a form 1099-K to any “payee who receives more than $20,000 and has more than 200 transactions during a calendar year. A copy of this form will also be sent to the IRS.”
Whatever amount you are planning to raise, open a separate bank account for WePay direct deposits, even if it is still the treasurer/beneficiary’s personal account, to help keep things organized. Gofundme and WePay will not hold donations in the fundraiser for more than 30 days, so you need to be prepared to do this quickly once you have launched the fundraiser. And, if you are planning to raise $20,000 or more, consider getting in touch with an accountant right off the bat about what you are doing. After having an accountant with experience working with nonprofits salvage some information from my chaotic Google Sheets ledger, we are now using QuickBooks Online. We have also been advised to save all physical receipts for purchases made from the fund for ten years, which we did not start doing soon enough. In short, to make sure that you can convince the IRS that this is not income that your beneficiary can be taxed on, you’ll need to have good records.
4. Consider a fiscal sponsor or another structure to hold and administer the fund
Or, to make things even more complicated (but ultimately to make things less complicated), consider having some entity other than your beleaguered treasurer hold the fund in trust and administer it. This will help you ensure that the fund remains tax-exempt and relieve you of some of the burden of handling the fund by trusting it to an organization that already has systems in place to manage it. This should be a non-profit organization with tax-exempt status. But, this is also where things can get tricky, and where I am still not sure what the best path to take is.
A typical fiscal sponsor is a charitable organization (501c3) that will hold and distribute the fund for a cut of the funds raised, usually around 15%. This amount is to cover their own staffing, accounting, and other associated costs, but here scale is important again: if you think you’ll raise $100,000, then spending $15,000 to not worry about money and get back to the organizing work you want to be doing seems pretty reasonable. But if you think it is realistic that your fund will be larger than that, the amount spent on the sponsor (however wonderful a sponsoring organization you find) starts to look more significant and other options become more appealing. It is notable that a comrade of the West Virginia strikers used their non-profit organization to administer their strike fund for free, which sounds like the best possible arrangement, if a rare one.
In the second week of our picket, our strike fund swelled to $100,000, and I started to panic. I had never contemplated having that much money in my bank account, and I had no idea how I could explain this all as personal gifts to the IRS when I got my 1099-K, even if, as an accountant initially advised me, I was only a “beneficiary” who aggregated and redistributed further “gifts” (for smaller funds, those are your keywords for your tax filing if you do get a 1099-K that you need to report). I also desperately wanted a better structure to handle the fund in a transparent and collective way. So, we formed an ad hoc strike fund committee (another thing I wish we had from the start) to oversee decisions concerning the fund, communicate them to the rest of the strikers, and to figure out how to get the money out of my personal bank account.
When it became clear that our strike fund would reach $200,000, and then nearly $300,000, the $45,000-$60,000 we would spend on a fiscal sponsor pushed us to consider other options. Further, potential fiscal sponsors we talked to had good questions and concerns of their own. For some, our fundraiser dwarfed their annual operating budget, so they did not really have the structure necessary to handle it either, and for others, they were not sure that a strike fund, typically held by a labor organization (501c5) could be held by a charitable organization (501c3) without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. It seemed at the time that we could actually more cheaply establish our own non-profit organization. With filing fees ringing in at around $20,000, we could have rescripted our fund as a charitable fund, that is, one for a population in need, like poor graduate students. This would have created a foundation, or something of the like, rather than a strike fund (which is for a specific group of workers engaged in a labor action, and not considered a charitable fund for tax purposes). Or, we could seek out a sympathetic labor organization to hold our fund. Of course, our union, UAW 2865, would not do it because we were on a wildcat strike and the university had already filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the Public Employee Relations Board against them for not doing enough to stop our strike. Local labor councils and other unions were also unwilling to support us – a lot of them just never wrote me back or returned my calls. And so, in wondering where we might find a labor organization that would actually want a wildcat strike fund, we finally arrived at our structure: we established an industrial union branch for education workers with the Industrial Workers of the World.
The process of assembling and chartering a branch, and then opening a branch bank account and establishing dispersal guidelines for it, took about two months, which is around the same as the timeframe for establishing a new nonprofit organization, but it cost next to nothing, which was a huge perk. We spoke with IWW headquarters, assembled the requisite ten members in our industry (education), and drafted and ratified bylaws, which provide for a graduate student worker committee with sole discretion over the spending of the strike fund. We wrote the first checks for lost wages from the Santa Cruz Education Workers Local Industrial Union Branch 620’s bank account in May. (We used Chase Bank because they had a business account with lots of benefits for the amount we were opening an account with. There are also banks that offer accounts specifically for non-profit organizations – it might be worth spending some time comparing banks and accounts when you open one.) We now have monthly meetings where we vote on strike fund spending as well as other business. It is worth noting that we were not trying to get people to rescind their union membership or even to get everyone dual-carding by forming a branch of the IWW (this has been bandied around as an idea by student-worker organizers in the UC for years when our union has disappointed us, but has never caught on). As per the IWW’s constitution and industrial labor organizing ethos, any education worker, including students, in Santa Cruz County can join our branch by taking out a membership, and my hope is that eventually our branch will serve as a useful structure for other education workers in the region, too. It does take work to keep up with reporting and organizing for the branch – we have had to collect W9 forms for all recipients, and we will have to issue them all 1099 forms for the 2020 tax year. We will pay our accountant roughly $10,000 over the next two tax seasons to help issue these forms and file our taxes.
5. Set up priorities for how your strike fund will be distributed.
In late February 2020, eighty strikers were fired from their spring quarter (April to June) teaching appointments. Before they missed their first paychecks, we had to establish a system for distributing funds to them. Initially, we were able to have a needs-based system for distribution. People reported how much they would need from the fund, with a lot of people reporting modest amounts and drawing on faculty and department support, other jobs, savings, or family support to reduce the use of the strike fund, so that everyone got what they asked for. We spent roughly $140,000 supporting around forty people for three months, with the rest finding fellowships, research jobs, or other support.
We realized later that our needs-based model for supporting fired strikers is actually not how a conventional strike fund held by a 501c5 runs, and this became an important problem in terms of taxation later on. Usually, a union pays a set wage to workers spending days on a picket line or replaces precisely the amount of wages lost. I tried to debate the difference between straightforward wage replacement and our needs-based model with our accountants when I later learned that income from a strike fund of over $600 is subject to tax as self-employment earnings. This means an additional 15.3% of taxes paid on the income, on top of the federal and state taxes paid for the recipient’s specific income tax bracket. In other words, if we had run our strike fund through a non-profit organization, defined and termed it differently, or taken other steps to avoid its tax classification as union-paid wage replacement – because it really was not straightforward wage replacement, after all – we might have avoided the heavy taxation of strike fund recipients. I wish we had calculated for this from the outset, because in many cases it will mean that the IRS nets roughly 25% of our strike fund, which might all have been considered tax-exempt if we had been able to define it as personal gifts or support funds from a charitable organization. This is a crucial way to consider the question of an organizational structure to hold the fund and your funding priorities: you’ll likely end up losing a big chunk of your money to taxes, so what structure and priorities will best help you minimize that loss?
Nevertheless, after covering lost wages and other needs for spring, we had roughly $75,000 left in our fund. After holding aside $10,000 for accounting, $5000 to donate to other wildcat strikes taking off all around us, and $5000 for an operating budget, we decided to use the remainder towards summer funding, as 41 strikers were not reinstated until August, and so lost their summer employment as well. It goes without saying that alternative employment options for many of these strikers also evaporated. With a more limited fund for this round, we had to actually set up priorities for allocating funds to strikers. We were still aiming for a needs-based system, yet there the concern lingered that we would not be able to fully meet everyone’s needs. The priorities we settled on for providing funds for summer were basically:
- Those at risk of deportation
- Those facing housing or food insecurity
- Parents and caregivers
- Those with less support from their departments
- Those without other jobs or familial sources of income
We created a Google Form to circulate with questions like “Have you already received support from the strike fund?” “Do you have other financial support for the summer?” “What is the minimum amount you can request from the strike fund for summer support?” and “What is the maximum amount you would request from the strike fund for summer support?” There were also questions about what people were making requests for (rent, childcare, debt, etc). Again, we were fortunate to be able to fill most of the requests to nearly their entirety. Having clear priorities that we circulated in advance helped us to make decisions about how to stretch the remainder of the fund in a transparent and fair way.
6. Be prepared for the long haul
Even with our strike fund exhausted, the Santa Cruz Education Workers Local IUB 620 will continue to remain active for a long time. I am still wrangling receipts, filing monthly reports with IWW GHQ, writing checks, collecting W9s, and communicating with our accountant about how to manage all this. And I’ll be doing this well into 2022, and possibly longer.
Our strike fund shaped the capacity of our movement and the form of our labor action. At crucial moments workers made decisions about their involvement in the strike based on the availability of the strike fund. For instance, when our number of strikers in the winter quarter had dwindled after the mass firing, and when workers who had not previously participated were considering withholding their winter grades, I had many inquiries about whether they too would be covered by the fund. I noticed myself feeling an acute responsibility to express, again and again, that the fund was limited, and that people should not count on it. At the same time, it was not how I thought strikers should be calculating strategy and risk; indeed, it was a very different calculation than the one that had moved us to strike in the first place, before the idea of a strike fund had occurred to any of us. Rather than, “Will there be enough money in the strike fund for me?” being the question that preceded strategic decisions, “Will withholding my grades at this moment help us win a COLA?” should always have been the guiding question. But granular conversations about how much money was in the strike fund, how quickly it was growing, and how rapidly it was being spent happened at every general assembly, organizing meeting, and in nearly every conversation I had on the picket line, especially when people were feeling vulnerable in committing to actions. It indexed to me just how difficult it was for most workers to take collective action without also calculating it through personal considerations of risk.
We also had plenty of internal conflict about who had control over the fund and how it was being spent, particularly at the height of our picket line when thousands of undergraduate students and allies from the surrounding community were joining us every day. There was considerable frustration about how quickly we could move money, and to whom. As the fund grew and as new groups of students and workers organized themselves at our picket line with related but unique agendas, different demands on the fund and conflicting priorities for it often sparked larger conflicts about what the money should do for students and workers, and what it could mean for our movement. From my view, we never really resolved those conflicts, because as much as people expressed legitimate frustration about the strike fund, very few people (there were a few, and I continue to be very grateful to them) were interested in being on a committee that would devise spending plans, let alone in researching the details of a viable accounting system.
The problem of a general unwillingness to become involved in the minutia of accounting among organizers of a militant labor movement is related to a larger problem to do with funding and wildcat strikes. The problem is essentially the one I sketched out in parts 4 and 5 of this guide: grassroots labor movements that receive and redistribute more than roughly $20,000 in a calendar year are pressed into one of two structures. These are non-profits (501c3) and labor organizations (501c5), which are both structures ill suited to the ad hoc, fluid nature of wildcat and other militant, spontaneous labor movements. And the fact that these structures are so difficult for wildcat strikers to navigate is by design. There is considerable literature on the repressive function of non-profit organizations, which have grown exponentially in number since the 1960s. Dylan Rodriguez and Ruth Wilson Gilmore both point out how the “non-profit industrial complex” is a soft power twin of the prison industrial complex. Rodriguez places “restrictive tax laws on community-based organizations” on a spectrum with “arbitrary enforcement of repressive laws banning certain forms of public congregation” to emphasize the link between the increasing bureaucratization and professionalization of political movements and more spectacular forms of repression and state violence.3 Gilmore points out that the enormous transfer of wealth to the baby boomer generation has allowed for new fundraising schemes, such as crowdfunding platforms like Gofundme, and that these have
Encouraged grassroots social justice organizations that otherwise might have continued their work below the Internal Revenue Service and formal-funding radar to incorporate as non-profits to make what they have consistently hoped to be great leaps forward in social justice. In other cases, unincorporated grassroots groups receiving money under the shelter of existing non-profits have been compelled to formalize their status because auditors have decided that the non-profits who sponsor them have strayed outside the limits defined by their mission statements.4
This is almost a perfect description of the problem for the administration of our crowdsourced wildcat strike fund: in order to continue to collect the money we came quickly to need, we had to establish an organization where we never intended or wanted to have one, especially when it became clear that working with a fiscal sponsor to avoid those circumstances would be financially and legally untenable for both parties. But in the case of a Gofundme strike fund, we have two further considerations: first, the practical and political difference between a non-profit and a labor organization, and second, the understudied but rapidly emerging prevalence of Gofundme fundraisers for labor movements and workers at large.
Erica Kohl-Arenas’ analysis of the changes in the United Farm Workers’ position on outside funding is enlightening. Kohl-Arenas describes how in its early iterations, the National Farm Workers Association drew on Mexican traditions of mutualistas, not unlike the mutual-aid networks and organizations that have bloomed across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd rebellions. Even after embracing a labor union structure and forming the United Farm Workers alongside the Delano Manongs in 1965, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and other organizers maintained a heterogeneous set of means by which they fought for self-determination for their communities, including considerable “self-help” operations. Nonetheless, Kohl-Arenas charts a pivot from a refusal to accept outside funding and a commitment to a member-funded organization to the incorporation of non-profit organizations to carry out the movement’s service work – organizations that could capture the philanthropic dollars of the Ford Foundation and other formidable funders who eagerly sought to exert influence in civil rights movements and other militant political organizations of the day. In conclusion, Kohl-Arenas writes:
Working under a professionalized and privately-funded model, the staff of the new non-profits became preoccupied with fund development and administration. Originally inspired by the alignment between civil rights and the struggle for farmworker justice but unwilling to address change in the economic sphere, funders set up untenable institutional structures. Consumed with developing his new organizations, Chavez ultimately accepted a translation of farmworker institutions that required philanthropic charity – but not a movement in struggle for self-determination and collective ownership among workers.5
The inability for a robust movement-oriented union like the UFW to maintain a multiplicity of organizing structures, strategies, and principles in the face of taxation and funding related pressures continues to be an issue for militant political movements today. But, contemporary labor movements are not necessarily contending with the restrictive reporting requirements of the Ford Foundation. Instead, they are navigating the vagaries of crowdfunding and the proliferation of fundraisers hosted on Gofundme.
The use of Gofundme to raise funds to support labor movements is not entirely new – much like for the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, the 2019 LA Teachers’ Strike was supported by fundraisers to feed them at labor actions, and the platform has seen traffic from labor organizers and unions as well as non-profits since it launched in 2010. However, in contrast to other crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, which are targeted at entrepreneurs and consumers of their prospective products, a full third of fundraisers on the platform are for individual medical expenses, while others raise funds for suffering animals, churches, honeymoons, voluntourism travel, and so on. What is new is the proliferation of fundraisers initiated for and by workers, unionized, self-organized, or otherwise, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The boom in these fundraisers (with 22,000 of them already drawing in $40 million by March 20, 2020), has spurred Gofundme to introduce a new category of fundraisers (“Fundraising for Coronavirus Relief”) which it promoted heavily on its home page in 2020. Aside from these fundraisers, often launched by the bosses of laid-off workers, being radically insufficient stopgaps for social and economic crises, their proliferation makes them increasingly competitive, pulling in smaller and smaller amounts for only the wealthiest and most well-connected. And, if a few lucky groups of workers do rake in much-needed funds on Gofundme, how to handle them is preeminently confusing. What should be non-taxable, personal gifts from some workers to others quickly forces a host of questions about organizational structure that make a profound difference not only for how much of these gifts the workers get to keep for themselves, but also for if and how their militant actions might be reshaped and disciplined by the organizational structures that they are forced into.
Some weeks after our strike concluded, I realized that the total amount that our fundraiser pulled in ($291,900, or $281,614.80 after WePay fees) was just a few thousand dollars shy of the monumental $300,000 that UCSC’s administration spent per day to police our picket line. While the UC’s $300,000 budget bussed in police from UC San Francisco, Berkeley, and Irvine, as well as California Highway Patrol and the National Guard, equipped them with military surveillance equipment, sheltered them in local hotels, fed them, and paid their overtime wages for a single day, our $281,614.80 fed thousands of picketers several meals a day for four weeks, and housed, fed, and often paid some tuition for, roughly forty strikers for about six months. The comparison of these numbers has had, of course, a special resonance since the George Floyd rebellions.
All of these considerations have caused me to reflect on what we might have done differently with our fund, not only in terms of the practicalities of its administration, but in terms of how we spent and shared it. It is a meager sum when held up against the UC Police Department budget, but still an amount that you can do a lot with. It has also pushed many of us at UCSC to think differently and more creatively about funding moving forward. Some workers created a system to redistribute the ten percent raise that we did win during our strike so that those who are benefitting now from the strike can share it. By directly exchanging funds between ourselves, we might also dodge the constrictions of the IRS this time around. And, by continuing to take account of the COLA movement, we might figure out how to keep fighting, with or without funding.
|↑1||For just a few central resources on these extensive efforts, see sites and newsletters like The Payday Report, Strikewave, and Labor Notes.|
|↑2||Since drafting this article, Michael Haber has published a useful document, “Legal Issues in Mutual Aid Operations: A Preliminary Guide,” which covers financial issues and considerations for mutual aid funds and funds raised through crowdfunding platforms. For those administering mutual aid funds, Haber’s guide might be more useful than this one, and is a useful resource for anyone receiving any funds from Gofundme.|
|↑3||Dylan Rodriguez, “The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, ed. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 26.|
|↑4||Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, 46-47.|
|↑5||See Erica Kohl-Arenas, “Can Social Movements Tackle Inequality With Foundation Funding? The Case of the Farmworkers’ Movement,” Histphil, August 28, 2015.|
An interview with Daniel Tanuro, author of the book Trop tard pour être pessimiste ! Ecosocialisme ou effondrement, published this year by Editions Textuel. An ecosocialist activist and member of Gauche Anticapitaliste in Belgium, Daniel Tanuro is one of the main voices at the international level when it comes to understanding the ecological crisis from a radical point of view.
The Floyd rebellion is changing the world before our very eyes. What type of change and to what degree it will shift the balance of forces between rulers and ruled, haves and the have-nots remains to be seen. What is clear is that there is an active and open political contest to shape the outcome. For the moment, the right wing and the Republicans have been relatively sidelined in this debate. The real contest as it stands is between the liberals and Democrats on the one hand and the radical mass that has taken the streets all over the country and the world, which is increasingly examining and advancing critical left demands emerging from anarchist, communist, revolutionary nationalist, and socialist analytical and organizing traditions, such as police and prison abolition, economic democracy, and decolonization. This debate is being played out in the streets, in mainstream media, and through social media.
Following trends in all of these venues, it appears that the liberals and Democrats have gained some significant ground in the narrative war, the war of position, on several points. One critical point is making distinctions between “good protestors” and “bad protestors”. The dominance of this narrative will have consequences, negative consequences. Some of these negative consequences include: (1) narrowing the focus of the rebellion, (2) reasserting the myths of “democratic” reform and capitalist correction that only reinforce the perpetuation of the system, and (3) limiting the scope of the revolutionary possibilities and potentialities of the current rebellion.
The net effect of the positional gains of the liberals is that the rebellion is showing some clear signs of being defused, such as the serious policing of the movement on the streets that is occurring in many places. This is starting to isolate the left in many critical ways and put it and its proposals on the defensive. This is best expressed in the hardcore efforts to water down the abolitionist demand of “defunding” and “abolishing” the police, to which we will return shortly. The aim of the liberals and the Democratic party is to redirect this mass movement towards electoral politics, particularly the 2020 elections, and a limited set of cosmetic corrections and reforms.
Where the liberals and Democrats appear to have made the most significant advance is narrowing the scope of the rebellion in the mainstream media. If you believe them, this is fundamentally just about reforming the police and the articulation of an obscure iteration of the “Black Lives Matter” demand framework. This downplays the clear calls to eradicate white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and settler-colonialism that have been on clear display. Without addressing this it is hard to make sense of the removal of all the statues and symbols edifying settler-colonialism and enslavement, or the targeted acts of redistribution that have occurred, and the forced dismantling of the institutions of repression, exploitation, and gentrification. Their reasoning should be obvious. The liberals and Democrats do not support revolution. They have no interest in dismantling the systems of oppression that confine humanity. Their interest is doing what is necessary to preserve the existing capitalist system. To this end, they are willing to bend a few things, as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break or alter the social relations that shape society, particularly who owns and controls the means of production. The distorted “Black Lives Matter” framework they are pushing is about trying to shore up their electoral base for the 2020 elections, particularly amongst Blacks and Latinos, who they have to rely upon to have any chance of winning. Thus they can support police reform, while condemning the effort to dismantle the institution and its social function as absurd.
On the demand of “defunding the police” or “abolishing the police,” it must be noted that this question is being raised in the absence of a revolution — which the current moment is not, not yet anyway. Most of the responses are being cast in this light as well: “What will happen to communities without police?” This question assumes that capitalist relations of production and social reproduction will continue to exist — i.e., the same ole shit. Neither capital nor the state have been dismantled or destroyed, and few are proposing this possibility (i.e. revolution) or preparing for it in the present moment. If the fundamental social relations don’t change, then this reform could only serve as a temporary appeasement measure, which the operatives of the state would quickly attack and undermine. They would turn it into a fiasco to create a negative example to dissuade folks from thinking that an alternative is possible. In any case, anything the ruling class giveth, it can take away.
And if you don’t think that this is the case, there are several historic and ongoing examples of how the capitalist and imperialist system has successfully twisted limited efforts to break out of the system and turned them into propaganda tools through various means of strangulation and negation to create the impression that there is no alternative. This is how they use the examples of Haiti, Cuba, and now Venezuela, Chiapas, Rojava, etc., as whipping posts.
To be clear, I think the demand for abolition should be raised to heighten the contradictions. But, it must be accompanied by the call for revolution, and the organizing effort to dismantle the entire system. Short of accomplishing that, the empire will strike back. Of that there is no doubt.
Again, the consequences of this narrowness should not be downplayed. State agencies all over the country are waiting for the rebellion to subside so they can hunt down thousands of young partisans and put them in jail in the name of justice and restoring law and order. This history should be instructive. Following the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, the Los Angeles police and sheriff departments hunted down and arrested over 15,000 people who were captured on footage breaking the so-called “rules.” So, if they succeed, it will be the effective negation of the rebellion.
We on the left — anarchists, communists, indigenous sovereigntists, revolutionary nationalists, and socialists — have to resist the elevation of the liberal and Democratic party narratives and positions. We have to assert a counter-narrative in all arenas — one that aims towards transforming the Floyd rebellion into something potentially transformative. This must include upholding autonomous action (with principle), the diversity of tactics, the sanctity of life over property and profits, and the building and execution of instruments of dual power to transform social relations and the balance of forces. And let it be known that should we fail, the left will be the first victims of the targeted execution of the state’s hammer, which is here and will advance whether we like it or not.
Despite the challenges we are confronting in this contest of power, the alternative of revolution yet remains. A pathway to revolution does currently exist. In my view it rests with the advance of a strategy anchored by the further politicization of the mutual aid, food sovereignty, cooperative economics, community production, self-defense, people’s assemblies, and general strike motions that already existed and that emerged in embryonic form in the midst of the pandemic. This could be harnessed through democratic efforts to federate these initiatives on a mass level to lay the foundations of dual power.
Cooperation Jackson and the People’s Strike coalition we’ve been working to build with various organizations and allies are working to advance a program of this character to interject left counter-narratives into the mass movement. One of the central things we are proposing as our next contribution to the movement is the call for mass People’s Assemblies. Building on experiences from the Occupy movement, Assemblies have started spontaneously developing in New York city, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle. These are groundbreaking developments. But, we need more. The People’s Strike is calling for Assemblies to be held everywhere, and in particular calling for a first strike national day of action on July 1st. What we have been proposing, and will offer in this process, is that we organize and build towards the execution of a general strike. The beginning of a general strike under current conditions starts with People’s Assemblies in the streets debating and voting on having a general strike. This is how a largely street protest movement can blossom into an instrument of dual power that could radically transform society.
Unite and Fight, Build the General Strike!
Before it was even built, Barclays Center in Brooklyn was a matter of contention: it was opposed by grassroots groups, which correctly feared that it would end up further driving the racist gentrification of an area already undergoing rapid change. These groups further denounced the $1.6 billion in public funds swallowed up by the project, and Barclays was generally hated by drivers who saw the enormous construction site transform Atlantic Avenue into a years-long nightmare. These days, Barclays has become a hot site of conflict again. For the past week, an ever-growing crowd of protesters, young and multiracial, has been gathering in the square in front of Barclays like clockwork, every day at 6pm. While initially there were official announcements, most days people simply went to Barclays at 6pm, trusting that a crowd would be protesting there even in the absence of an announcement. They have not yet been disappointed.
On June 4th, the Barclays meeting point appeared to undergo the legendary transformation of quantity into quality, possibly as a consequence of the repeated contact and exchange, over the course of days that felt like months, among protesters on the ground. In fact, at Barclays on June 4th, one could glimpse the first signs of a political subjectivity emerging through still-embryonic and spontaneous processes of self-activation. Around 6pm, as groups of people continued to join the 500-strong crowd, the gathering rapidly morphed into a sort of improvised general assembly or open mic: speeches followed one after another, but these were not the routine and often predictable speeches of members of political groups at organized rallies. They were mostly spontaneous expressions of rage, love, solidarity, hope, gratitude, and radical political analysis, from random protesters, people at their very first experience of struggle, and a few leftist veterans. Among the cheers of the crowd, which was carefully listening despite the absence of an amplifier, a homeless Black man in his fifties gave a perfect materialist analysis of the dynamics of the social unrest: “For the first time in years we are seeing a mass revolt of white people in support of our struggle, and this is happening because of the economic crisis, because white people are now getting declassed.” A brown transwoman passionately addressed brown cismen: “If you can’t stand for your trans brown sisters, get the fuck back home. Our enemy is the same, we need to stand in unity.” Her speech was welcomed with an enthusiastic ovation. Had someone organized this open mic? Most likely not, or at least no leadership was recognizable except for the leadership of young Black and brown women and men organically emerging over the course of the evening from the protest itself.
At 8pm, a crowd of 3000 people joined with a splinter march from as far south as Sunset Park, and started chanting in unison: “Fuck your curfew.” The intention was clear to everybody there: they would hold their ground and stay in the streets as long as possible, until mass arrest if necessary. With this intent, the march started to move, changing direction at every turn, playing a game of cat and mouse with the police. The more the NYPD tried to get ahead of the march in order to kettle, disperse, or arrest protestors, the more unpredictable its route became, from Barclays to Cobble Hill, back to Barclays and then Fort Greene, and finally Clinton Hill. Who was leading it? Probably a group of protesters who had been going to Barclays over the past several days, who had then decided to take charge of the tactical coordination of the protest. Perhaps a provisional affinity group. Maybe simply a collection of individuals who decided to take charge for the evening.
At Barclays a group of protesters had a little table with fruit, snacks, legal information, Gatorade, and hand sanitizer; others had bags filled with care packages (with a face mask and hand sanitizer in addition to food and energy drinks) which they distributed liberally to the crowd. At some point during the march, a car arrived out of nowhere and stopped in the middle of Atlantic Avenue, and a Black man descended and opened a trunk filled with cartons of water. More people could be seen distributing water and energy drinks in the streets of Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, and Boerum Place. Who had organized this impressive mutual aid infrastructure, which made sure that protesters would have the energy to carry on for as long as possible in New York City’s terrible humidity, and the vitamins to fight off Covid-19? Nobody and everybody: it was likely a combination of the work of some grassroots groups, a spontaneous expression of solidarity with the protest, and the coming together of groups of friends, acquaintances, and comrades to raise funds, prepare care packages, and position themselves along the ever-changing route of the march.
This collective act of care — or of radical (and mobile) social reproduction from below — was matched by the overwhelming solidarity expressed by the city itself. Cheers welcomed protesters from every building of every street through which they marched, and people stood outside of their homes, in defiance of the curfew, to watch, raise their fists, and be as noisy as possible. An ambulance stopped in the middle of the street and the Black first responder in it grabbed the intercom to salute the march and chant. An artist arrived with her car to distribute beautiful black-and-white signs, and then left. And, then, in a bizarre and ambiguous moment, a traffic police in a tiny little car honked her horn and threw her first up, encouraging protesters to ‘keep going. As the march kept snaking through the streets, hour after hour, the whole city seemed to want to embrace it, salute it, give it strength, tell the protesters that they too would be in the streets if it were not for the pandemic, if they had not already been at another of the multiple daily NYC marches, or if they did not have kids at home. And then there was the comic absurdity, the situationism, and the creativity (from absurdist outfits to hilarious signs) that only gets unleashed in moments of collective liberation, where capitalist normality gets suspended and people get a taste of a different kind of freedom. Beauty was back in the streets.
These ten days, which are shaking the country in a way that has not happened for fifty years, have condensed and accelerated time: it is only ten days, but it feels like ten months. The state of suspended tension of the long months of the lockdown has given way to collective exhilaration, rage combined with beauty and love: for fellow protesters, for the more than 100,000 dead of the pandemic, for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jamal Floyd and the countless Black lives taken away by a militarized and racist state, and for our future, which we thought had been stolen from us and which we are now re-appropriating for ourselves through the struggle.
And yet, the challenges ahead are many, and difficult to tackle. Barclays saw the spontaneous emergence of the conditions of possibility for a collective process of self-organization and subjectivation. But these are only conditions of possibility, potentialities to be realized. Self-organization, however, is key to the durability of this social revolt, to its expansion to additional social sectors (beginning with organized labor and workplaces in general), to its capacity for self-defense against brutal repression, and to its ability to maintain political autonomy from the forces of cooptation and absorption that will inevitably try to tame the revolt and perhaps transform social rage into votes. While another Trump presidency would be a disaster, not least because of its galvanizing effect on the far-right worldwide, from India to Brazil, it is also the case that ten days of social revolt have done more to dismantle institutionalized racism than eight years of Obama’s presidency. It is this collective power that is being rediscovered by this social revolt. And it is the political autonomy of this collective power that we must zealously preserve.
The post Of Beauty and Rage: Dispatch from a Protest in Brooklyn appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.