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Bridging Community Organizing and #Occupy

One significant aspect of the relationship between community organizing and Occupy movement in New York City is the synergy between Occupy Wall Street and several community organizations that have been organizing around revenue issues for the past year.   This piece is a dialogue between organizers from two of the organizations – Community Voices Heard and VOCAL New York (formerly known as New York City AIDS Housing Network / NYCAHN) – that have been active in that revenue organizing. This organizing around revenue issues – which included a civil disobedience action at the Capitol on March 1, 2011, a Wisconsin-inspired overnight occupation of the New York State Capitol in late March and the May 12th Mobilization on Wall Street – has put CVH and VOCAL in closer relationship with larger community organizations and labor unions on the one hand and, on the other,  with many of the direct action activists who helped to initiate Occupy Wall Street.  Since the occupation began in September, VOCAL and CVH have related to it in several different ways.  In this interview, CVH and VOCAL organizers reflect on those experiences and discuss their vision for how those relationships should unfold.

SONDRA YOUDELMAN: Sondra is the Executive Director of Community Voices Heard (CVH) in New York State, a membership organization of low-income New Yorkers fighting to influence policy change around issues that affect low-income families.  She serves on the Boards of the Pushback Network and Grassroots Global Justice, and she is active in National People’s Action and the Right to the City Alliance.

HENRY SERRANO: Henry is the Lead Organizer of Community Voices Heard (CVH) in New York State.  He is also on the Boards of both the North Star Fund and the Progressive Technology Project.

JEREMY SAUNDERS:  Jeremy Saunders has been organizing in New York since 2001. He has worked at ACORN, Community Voices Heard and the North West Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition. He is currently the lead organizer for VOCAL New York, formerly the NYC AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), which organizes low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS, the formerly incarcerated as well as active and former drug users.

CHRIS KEELEY: Chris is the Coordinator of the New Deal for New York Campaign, a collaboration of community organizations across the state of New York that are working collaboratively to lift up the need for new revenue raising and increased investment in job creation and critical social services.

JEREMY: VOCAL got involved in the revenue fight when our flagship AIDS housing bill – which would have ensured that 10,000 low-income New Yorkers who are living with HIV/AIDS would not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent – was vetoed by Governor Paterson. Paterson had been supportive of the bill, but he said he couldn’t approve it because it would cost too much, and the state couldn’t afford it during a crisis.  So then, we found ourselves stuck in these reactive fights to defend AIDS services in New York City. It was clear that these dynamics were only going to get worse – that we were going to end up focusing on defending a smaller and smaller pool of services – unless we fought on revenue issues.  So, on March 1st of this year, VOCAL New York and CVH organized a big action in the hallways of the Capitol building to protest the fact that the government was cutting services for poor people at the same time as it was giving tax breaks to New York’s wealthiest.  Seventeen people were arrested that day, and it got a lot of attention. Everyone – from the media to the police to elected officials – said that they hadn’t seen anything like it in a long time.  That action put us on the map. It was what got us working with these larger community organizations, unions, and direct action activists. It helped to build towards the overnight occupation of the Capitol in late March and the May 12th actions on Wall Street.  As we started to plan more and more actions together over time, we’ve built up good working relationships.

Bridging Community Organizing and #Occupy

SONDRA: Community Voices Heard started getting involved in organizing around revenue and the big banks about a year ago.  Recovery funds were dying out very rapidly. Everything that we were demanding was based on a proactive plan that would require more money, but instead we were having to fight against budget cutbacks. We felt like we needed to move into working on revenue issues and to really think about proactive revenue fights and alternative taxation campaigns if we were ever going to be able to win and fund any of the stuff our members wanted.  At first, it was this weird wonky set of issues around taxes that seemed too disconnected.  It didn’t resonate well with our members.  Then, when the recession started to get talked about in the media, and there were tons of stories about inequality, our members began to react. “Recession?  It’s a depression!  And we’ve been experiencing this for years.  But at least people are talking about it now.” The fact that government needed to be forced to invest back in people and communities if we were going to turn things around was pretty clear to our members.  And, when government kept saying there was no money, that’s when the need to get it from the institutions and people that have more to give started making sense as something to work on. This recession put us in a moment where everyone needs the safety net, so we have a chance to build broader alliances around safety net fights.  However, our members had hesitancy about what it means to build that broader front: will our issues get lost?  When we fight for the broader safety net, our constituencies – like African American and Latino workfare workers – are not the main-ticket items that are going to get the press. But we knew we needed to build this broader fight around revenue if our issues were going to have any chance of winning.  So we started working on the revenue campaign, which made it clear that we needed to do statewide work, perhaps with some new partners.  It was during the May 12th actions that our organizations met some of the people who helped to initiate Occupy Wall Street.  There were working relationships across our organizations and the activists, which has made it easier to integrate our work since it all exploded.

HENRY: There has also been a realignment of some of the other political forces that we’ve been working with: labor and some of the other community organizing alliances. Some of those   broader forces have been humbled over the last several years, and – at the same time – we’ve been growing, so we’re more powerful than we were in the past.  That doesn’t at all mean we have more people than they do, not even close.  But there’s a perception that we have power.  What was happening with some of those broader forces?  The former ACORN forces have been in a period of transition because they were attacked organizationally and Bridging Community Organizing and #Occupyshut down; they have been rebuilding.  The unions were humbled through the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) fight.  They tried to pass EFCA proactively and instead they had their collective bargaining rights shot down across the country.  Even Wisconsin – which is an important part of the inspirational narrative over the last year – was a reactive fight to defend collective bargaining.  Labor has had to reconsider what they have been doing.  At this point, union members have had to fight to defend basic quality of life issues, so it’s still a “self-interest” fight.  But what’s changing is that it can’t just be a fight for a narrow self-interest. Even a fight around self-interest has to engage broader issues because of the crisis.

At the same time, things started shifting internally. Our members’ sentiments started changing after Egypt.  We started to get calls from our leaders around these kinds of actions.  I’ve been organizing at CVH for ten years, and this was the first time that our members started talking openly about being willing to take arrests.  During a statewide strategy meeting, we talked about this spectrum of actions that went all the way out to more militant actions including civil disobedience. When we got to the point in the spectrum that talked about civil disobedience, at first everyone was silent.  And then one woman stood up and said, “We just need to go Egypt on their ass.” I saw a real change in the sentiment in the leadership during that meeting. They had been going through these long, slow struggles, and now they were ready to get more aggressive.  That was around the same time that we connected with VOCAL to start this statewide work around revenue.

SONDRA: So our work was shifting externally around our issues and we were shifting internally in terms of tactics. And there was a realignment of the groups that we were working with.  All of that positioned us to be players at a state level in a way that we weren’t before.  And then the Occupy moment happened, which opened a whole new amount of space. We were on this trajectory of building statewide power, and then suddenly there’s this massive shift in public consciousness that we could take advantage of.

HENRY: We have been working on issues related to revenue and the big banks for about a year now. In that work, we have been working on parallel tracks with the activists who initiated Occupy Wall Street, and our work intersects.  About six weeks ago, we started planning a week of action around the banks that was largely driven by labor, and then Occupy Wall Street pops up.  We’ve continued to work with them, and what they have been adding is scale and media attention.  For example, we had been planning this “Millionaires Tour,” and we expected to have about 150 people participate.  We got 700 people.   And, for the first time that I’ve ever seen, our action became a joke on Saturday Night Live: this guy who was playing Bloomberg started giving addresses to other rich peoples’ houses so they’d leave him alone. That kind of attention impacts our members.  Our membership has always felt isolated in their fights.  They feel solid in directing the actions and doing some incredible work, but they have always felt isolated and like no one pays attention to them.  And now suddenly the media is paying attention to us.  We have gotten more media hits than we’ve ever gotten.  That came under the banner of “Occupy Wall Street” but – when that banner comes together with our organizing – it can have a more tangible policy impact.  Occupy Wall Street…they aren’t trying to have a concrete policy impact, and I think that’s fine.  They bring general frustration about the bigger issues. I wouldn’t actually want them to put more structure on that or develop more concrete demands.  I would discourage them from taking on a specific issue or a structure.  What they bring is a different level of scale and media attention to a wide range of issues.

JEREMY: We had the same experience.  VOCAL went down to Occupy Wall Street with five members, and they had turned that into 300 people within 48 hours.  Our five members worked with a handful of Wall Street organizers to organize somewhere between 300 and 500 people to march to the District Attorney’s office and then to march on Cuomo.  We went down there that day because we had this leader from VOCAL who had participated in the OWS actions when they were trying to evict them. He got the shit knocked out of him by a cop, and his attack became one of the most prominent attacks by the cops because of how blatant and, probably more importantly, because it was widely captured on video. So we organized a march to the DA’s office calling for the investigation of all OWS attacks, an end to all police attacks and to demand the NYPD stop listing our leader, Felix, as wanted. Here was this low-income person living with AIDS who’s homeless and who is  a highly marginalized  person at the protest that day.  Just yesterday, we found out the charges have been dropped. After the DA action we mic-checkedBridging Community Organizing and #Occupy to the crowd that Gov 1%, Cuomo was going to get a “Gamechanger” award from HuffPo across town, so we led about 200 to 300 people across town to protest Cuomo as well.  There is just a huge shift in the kind of scale and an energy that you can mobilize quickly right now.

HENRY: That may start to change now that OWS doesn’t just want to be a “mob for hire.”  They don’t just want to show up to action to be there.  They may start organizing their own stuff and stop showing up at ours.  We’ll see.

SONDRA: That’s their strength, not ours. Our strength is not in having thousands of people in the streets or holding one big march. It’s consistent action around the public debate – whether that’s through media or hitting a target strongly or creatively enough to get attention.  You don’t actually need thousands of people to do that.

HENRY:  We should take the relationship between our work and theirs as far as it goes. We shouldn’t try to decide what they’re going to do. It’s a different constituency with different class issues and different racial issues.  I’m not big on critiquing Occupy Wall Street for being a bunch of white people. White people should do these kinds of things. They have specific issues.  They’re 63% of this country. Yes, they are entitled in a way that we will never have among our membership. But that kind of entitlement isn’t bad.  We could use more of it. They are more entitled in their demands and in their approach to confrontation. Right now, white people are the majority while we’ve always represented a strong minority. You’re going to approach politics differently when that’s the situation.

JEREMY: There is a certain level of absurdity to people – including progressive groups – saying things like “Wow. This is amazing. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”  Organizers have always known that if you did crazy shit, you’d get media coverage.  Earlier this year, we did this occupation in Albany, and we got a ton of media. We’ve shut down the Capital. Other organizers have taken over highways and shut down cities. Another part of the absurdity is how much people forget when these kinds of militant actions have happened before.  Like ACT-UP marching down the street with a dead body, or the May 1st immigrants rights march or the time when Justice for Janitors took over the freeways in Los Angeles. The World Trade Organization demonstrations and the FTAA protest in Miami were also good examples of a moment when there was strong (though usually off the record) labor-activist support and collaboration. There’s such a forgetfulness on our part, to read this moment like nothing like this that has ever happened. There’s been an anger in this country for a long time that we’ve seen explode in a number of ways. It may have been stifled but that doesn’t mean that we should forget about it.

SONDRA: There are some things that are different about this moment though.  I think that occupying a physical space for an extended period of time adds a new element. Of course, not everyone is focused on occupying that space. There are many community organizers and leaders that are going in and out of the physical occupation over time. But it’s significant that they have created a space where people can go and – just by going – they can feel like they are part of a movement, whether they sleep there for a month or go down there for an hour.

HENRY: We’re looked at as part of the political system.  They are looked at as organic.  The fact that they don’t have an issue is an advantage.  We say, “We want money for public housing.”  They are saying, “I’m angry at our government.”  That’s great.  They should do this broad messaging and visioning stuff. We can do the policy stuff. That’s fine. They can take care of organizing on emotion; we’ll organize on policy. We have to keep doing our own very specific policy and campaign work.  No one else will take that on, and the issues of our constituencies will get lost.  The best way to interact with the Occupy movement is that we need to occasionally interact with each other, connect in specific moments around specific actions.

SONDRA: It would be stupid to reorient everything around Occupy Wall Street. And it would be stupid to not realize that we can’t do the same old thing in this moment.  It’s a fluctuating environment. We need to keep our focus on the place where were trying to get to, keep our eye on where we’re headed in terms of building power for low-income families (like we’re focusing on a point far in the distance) and be ready to navigate reality as it changes and shifts.   My hope is that this moment helps us shift that long-term vision to the left.  That’s my hope for Occupy: to shift everything to the left. Occupy Wall Street creates a moment when we can push for more around policy, more in terms of our demands. If we need to do anything with respect to Occupy Wall Street, it’s to push them to make sure to keep pushing. Because even the radical organizing groups have been limited to fighting around crumbs.  We don’t need them to consolidate into a 501c3 and consolidate their issues into specific demands.  They need to do what they’ve been doing: to focus on the public discourse and create a climate where it’s not crazy to call for bigger things.

JEREMY:  My general feeling is that this collaboration is great and needs to continue. When it comes to our organizations’ involvement I do have concerns. I’m worried that this can detract from all ongoing work that has major impact on our membership/constituency. We’re being asked by progressive allies, funders and a few OWS work groups to engage in various ways, like meetings, actions and so on. We want to stay connected. We want to continue to find moments where we can support each other, but we have to realize that the amount of time we dedicate to OWS takes away from other work. There’s just no way around that.

We’ve got to keep doing our work. We can’t let go of the campaigns we’re working on, which are all about addressing specific issues impacting our membership that others aren’t going to take up (and don’t necessarily need to) like the AIDS housing bill or changes to welfare. At the same time, we have to find moments to connect with and support Wall Street with our members when it’s around issues that we both support. This has been happening pretty well. We have to think about building a core team of people from OWS who want to help support and build community organizations that haven’t been able to grow to scale in the past because they lack a broad base of volunteers. There’s a number of OWS protesters who’ve shown that they’re willing to dedicate time and energy and want to support building stronger grassroots organizations.

I’ve heard this continued call by the progressive community, prior to OWS, to get out of our silos, to build collaboratively, to build a broader movement. We at VOCAL feel like we’ve done that in a serious way. We’ve gotten out of our silo, dedicated serious time and resources to fighting for a fair economy. We rarely ask for our agenda to be included, because we realize it’s not the space for that and that there are moments to put that to the side for the larger cause and to accept that we’ll have to fight for our specific campaigns on our own.  We get a small amount of resources to do this work, and it often doesn’t feel mutually beneficial. It often feels like we’re being asked to take action by much larger, better-resourced organizations, without recognition of our ongoing work. I don’t mind joining coalitions, breaking out of silos, and I don’t even mind others not taking on our issues, but it has to come with some acknowledgement of what’s at stake and why some of us may feel hesitant to drop everything to “join the 99%.” I think this is a moment when those dynamics can start to change and – regardless – we know that we need to throw in on the fight around the economy.  So we’ll be down there.  We just hope it will play out differently this time.

HENRY: The next step is that we have to open up the political opportunities for our membership, so our membership can get more engaged in this sense of entitlement that happens at OWS. OWS is hungry to have conversations with the communities that we work with. We haven’t gotten our members down there enough to have interactions so they can engage and help to move what’s going on down there. In some ways, staff may have even acted as a barrier for our members going down there. It could be important to figure out how to engage our Bridging Community Organizing and #Occupymembers in the organic process down there.  Our members have been fighting in their individual lives forever, and they’ve been fighting collectively with us for a few years. But being down there will give them a sense of being part of a much larger movement.  Our leaders have experience in direct action, in campaigns, in not being intimidated by people in power. The people down at Occupy Wall Street could benefit from that. And our members could benefit from this sense of entitlement.

CHRIS: Getting members to go down to Wall Street is an important part of the political opportunity.  Occupy Wall Street is seen as the anchor for the broader Occupy movement around the country.  If we can build relationships and they acknowledge the members and leaders of the community organizations that have been part of this fight for a long time, Occupy Wall Street could serve as a model for other occupations in other cities and help build some important relationships.

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