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"Outreach" or Alliance Building?

by Michael Novick Tuesday, Jul. 22, 2008 at 11:50 PM

At the end of June, I participated in the "Los Angeles Social Forum," an attempt to hold a unifying gathering of people from many different movements and organizations in Los Angeles (and other parts of southern California) on the model of the World Social Forum and the first US Social Forum held last year in Atlanta.

Those national and international gatherings have attracted large numbers of grassroots organizers from groups that identify with the concept of "civil society." The Atlanta gathering was particularly noteworthy for being predominantly people of color and women, and seemed to signal the emergence of a new generation of activists "in the trenches" of community resistance around issues like gentrification, AIDS, violence against women, Hurricane Katrina, and the war.

But the Los Angeles event did not draw large numbers of local activists, and most of those who participated were from the self-identified left and peace movement. The majority of the large number of workshops scheduled were

sponsored by an alphabet-soup of socialist and communist organizations (FSP, RCP, PSL, WWP, ISO, etc.) and a smaller number by various solidarity activists around Latin America and the Middle East and peace groups such as Interfaith Communities United for Peace & Justice (ICUJP) and Iraq Veterans Against War (IVAW). A separate set of workshops were held concurrently under the auspices of the LASF at a different venue, associated with the Center for the Study of Political Graphics' "Prison Nation" poster exhibit. Those workshops, also sparsely attended, focused on criminal justice issues and gang truce work and included organizations such as Homies Unidos, the Youth Justice Coalition, and Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS).

In the wrap-up discussion, as participants who came to Sunday's "mini-assemblies" and stayed to discuss what the LA Social Forum had accomplished talked, it became clear why the LASF had fallen far short of organizers and participants hopes and dreams. As they summed up their long months of hard work and the small (and demographically narrow) turnout that resulted, organizers repeatedly talked about the need to do more and better

"outreach." This is a self-defeating conception of what it would take to achieve an authentic forum of the people currently engaged in community activism around diverse issues such as gentrification and housing, health care, police abuse, prisons, education, migrants' rights and legalization, labor rights and a living wage, and the host of other struggles that are raging in Los Angeles.

The inadequacy of that conception helps explain how so few people would come to a unity-building conference in a city in which hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets on May 1, where recent rallies by families

and friends of a few of the 14 or more people killed by the LAPD so far this year have drawn hundreds, where 40,000 teachers and an almost equal number of parents and students took to the streets at every school in the district

against budget cuts just 3 weeks prior.

What the peace movement and the self-proclaimed "left" needs is not "more and better outreach," but a fundamental strategic reorientation to grassroots community-based organizing and base-building, and to alliance-building with other social forces who are in motion in this city. Finding allies requires learning about the different communities within this megalopolis and the issues that are of concern to them.

First and foremost in what is essentially a 'third world' city inside the U.S., this means communities of color: people of African descent, Chicano/Mexicano/indigenous people (including migrants and residents from Central America), Asians in all their diversity, (Arabs, Muslims and South Asians as well as Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Khmer and others). Building alliances means paying attention to the intersections of the issues

affecting these communities, and the self-organizing that is taking place within them, and the policy issues and protests the (predominantly-'white') left has focused its energies on. But building alliances also means bringing

some social weight to the table – not the weight of a self-proclaimed ideological vanguard, but the weight of grass-roots base-building of our own.

The kind of unity the organizers of the LA Social Forum were seeking is possible only on the basis of respect and support for self-determination: acknowledging the right of colonized people to define their own struggles, resistance, priorities and timetables. It is possible only on the basis of

mutual solidarity, not charity, but fighting –really fighting side by side against a common enemy. It requires people in the peace movement and those working for ameliorative social reforms, "clean" money elections, or universal health care to recognize that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction between the needs of the people and those of the Empire.

Failure to recognize this has led to defeat after defeat, and demoralized many activists and community people. After 40 years of environmentalism, the environment is in such distressed condition that the planetary ability to sustain life as we know it is threatened. After 40 years of prisoners'

rights, prison reform, even prison abolitionism, the U.S. now incarcerates 25% of all the prisoners on earth, with no sign of stopping. After decades of peace activism, the U.S. is actively engaged in two land wars in Asia and has a military budget larger than the rest of the planet combined and still growing.

*Calls for "peace and justice" and plans for "more and better outreach" are not enough. The only way to overcome this unadorned litany of "progressive" failure is a self-critical transformation of the weaknesses of elitism,

racism, acceptance of the empire's legitimacy and identification with the oppressor that have thwarted our initiatives. *

* *

*What is needed is a commitment to decolonization, and to following the lead of the resistance and liberation struggles of colonized people. *

*Nothing less will do.***

*[emphasis mine …]*

Michael Novick, *Anti-Racist Action-LA/People Against Racist Terror


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