Organizing Upgrade

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LEBLANC: Interview about #occupy

Erica Smiley, new contributing editor wth Organizing Upgrade, interviewed Judith LeBlanc, Peace Action Field Director, to get her opinion on how labor and other mass organizations should strategically relate to Occupy Wall Street. Peace Action is the largest grassroots peace organization in the US. Judith is currently helping to coordinate the activities of the New Priorities Network, a newly organized national network of community, labor, faith and peace groups who are working to reduce military spending to fund human needs programs. She is a member of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma.


Given your existing efforts to make Wall Street pay, how do you think the Occupy Wall Street developments open the door on sharper demands or more focused strategy, if it does at all?

At the October 5 labor demonstration on Wall Street, a labor leader said , “We have found each other.” A new kind of 21st century solidarity is being born. It began in Tahrir Square, spread to WI and Ohio and continues now on Wall Street and in over 900 cities and towns. The era of single issue organizing is beginning to end. The occupations are drawing movements together in solidarity that are not always willing to stand together without a lot of negotiations and pre-planning.

Although the search for strategic allies has always been a part of an effective organizing strategy, what is new is that we must connect with spontaneous actions. We have to be able to meld what we have been organizing to the spontaneous rejection of the status quo and strengthen our organizing with solidarity. Solidarity is as old as dirt. But lifting up and supporting the spontaneous actions by others not a part of the movement we, as organizers have been building, is not.

It is a recognition that we cannot win without responding to new movements, especially when those actions are pointing to the systemic nature of the crisis problems we face.


There has been a lot of commentary either critiquing or defending Occupy Wall Street, when what we really need are thoughts on strategy.  It is clear that this is a movement moment.  Based on that understanding, how should mass organizations relate to Occupy Wall Street?

It’s an “ah-ha” movement moment or a “magic” movement moment not of our own making. For some of us and our movements, it may have come as a total surprise that people were ready to take direct action against the “the system” in a way that leaps beyond what we have organized so far. That is the new kind of solidarity we have to step up to organize, “finding each other”, going beyond our organizing single-issue silos.

We must find every possible way to support Occupy Wall Street. For those of us who work with the  movements that have a history of an organizing culture and struggle, we need to utilize the infrastructure of our movements to mobilize and popularize the significance of the occupations.

We have to encourage our movements to participate in the grand, widespread debate about the significance of the occupations. We need to affirm that together we, the people, can find a way out of the crisis we are in.

We need to find political ways to support the indignation that is at the heart of the occupations. It means helping our movements to be represented and it also means looking further down the road to build the political power that comes from challenging “the system.”

Every time the labor movement joins in solidarity and speaks out in defense of the occupations it ups the ante in the ongoing political struggles because it links labor’s organizing to the outrage against “the system.” When the peace movement stands with the occupations it links the militarization of the federal budget to the anger against “the system.” Unless we have the long view and understand that linking our ongoing organizing to the peaceful, spontaneous outrage the occupations symbolize, we will miss the opportunity to strengthen the grassroots, rank and file understanding of what we are really up against.


How should mass organizations maximize the current political opportunity to make some clear gains in their existing fights to make Wall Street pay, whether through divestment, taxes, demilitarize the economy or other means?

Peace Action is working with others to build the New Priorities Network (NPN), which bringing together racial and economic justice groups, peace and faith and labor to change federal spending priorities.  It’s abundantly clear that 58% of yearly federal discretionary spending going to the Pentagon war reflects wrong priorities.

What Occupy Wall Street highlights is that there needs to be strategic relationships between racial and economic justice groups, labor and the peace movement.  The solutions are clear, and in the minds of many, the causes of the economic crisis are as well. Poll after poll shows that people believe that the tax cuts for the rich and the corporations and the costs of the wars have driven up the budget deficit. And they are right.

It is not a deficit crisis, it is a revenue crisis. The money has been going to the wrong people and places.   Look at the Congressional Super Committee; they are working on over 1 trillion dollars in federal budget cuts. The fact is all they need to do to deal with the budget deficit is end the wars and begin to cut the 58% of discretionary spending that goes to the Pentagon, a budget that has doubled in the last 10 years while only 2% of spending goes to education, 3% to transportation…single-digits to basic needs.  So NPN is developing strategic relationships to build a long-term movement. It’s taken years for the military industrial complex to get control of 58% federal discretionary budget.  So we need a long-term movement to loosen its grip on it.

The Wall Street occupation is a shot of adrenaline which will energize this strategic alliance/relationship building—building the confidence at the grassroots and at the national level.  We’re talking about taking on Wall Street, the banks, this huge military industry that has for decades controlled political decision-making and spending.  It re-invigorates the political struggle—stirring up this huge public debate in communities and in the movement about society wide solutions, not simply what the problems are.

We have to ride this wave into the 2012 elections and leverage a highly politicized and educated electorate in defeating the rightwing agenda. We have to organize it into a political movement that “occupies” the ballot box on Election Day.  Occupy Wall Street, planned or not, is providing the popular education that can help organize a very politicized electorate to defeat the Right in the elections.

Now, we have a “which side are you on” scenario—including among local electeds like in LA and NYC where city council-members who are taking a stand in support of Occupy Wall Street.  We need more of that—local electeds weighing in on national issues and the decisions made on the national level. The occupations are a social movement, not a political movement. Our job is to provide a bridge to take what this social movement has stirred up into the political arena.

We have to continue supporting the occupations, the debates happening in the public arena, but we also have to play our own role as organized movements.  We have to play the larger political role to drive home the issues/demands that are compelling people to occupy downtown locations all around the country.  Our role, the role of the organized movements, is to amplify the politics of the moment.


Are there any flags that we should be aware of in engaging Occupy Wall Street moving forward?

This is a social movement that has been in the making for some time now—people who are concerned about the environment, who reject the status quo, the 99% who understand that the system is not working for them.  It is a rebellion against a system that is dysfunctional and broken.  The energetic support that the organized movements are giving is essential.  But it would be a mistake to try to replace the role that organized labor and the economic and racial justice movements has played over the years, with the tactic of the Wall Street occupation.

Nonviolent direct action is one tool we have, and we have many others. They’re all important in the fight for justice. We should join the Occupy Wall Street movement because it puts “wind in our sails” as we continue to organize for jobs, prevent cuts to the social safety net and compel Congress to cut military spending and end the wars.  But we still have to do the work in compelling Congressional action, preparing for the 2012 elections. We should be in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, but we can’t stop doing what we’ve been doing to defend our communities or in the political arena.


Do you have anything else you want to add?

In Seattle during the WTO in 1999, we had labor and environmentalists and anti-war and land movement , all the justice movements marching together.  And there was the beginning of a grassroots movement to change the culture, the politics of global capitalism. Then 9/11 happened and derailed the movement and all that unity. The movements were fractured and people were afraid to protest.  Protesting was unpatriotic to some.  Under the Bush Administration the anti-war movement galvanized the movements for peace AND justice, and the unity we had then has come around full-circle. The movements are stronger now because we are in a worse mess. Now, the majority of people in the country understand that the rich and corporations should pay their fair share, and we need to bring the tax dollars home from the wars and reduce military spending.

We have to build a ” Move-the-Money” movement that is as social as it is political, and Occupy Wall Street is reminding us that the social aspect of political organizing is critical.  It’s about modeling new behavior and developing new relationships with the people who are suffering from the problems of “ the system.”  They’re trying to create a society in a microcosm.  Given this, the organized movements have to wage a fight to change the political system in the macro.  We need a solidarity economy that works for the people not the banks, corporations and the rich. Power to the peaceful!

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