Monday, August 7, 2017

Direct Action

L.A. Kauffman’s Direct Action : Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism describes organizations and movements that have employed direct action tactics from the 1970’s to the present.

Our book group – which included people who have participated in the movements and organizations covered by Kauffman – began by discussing the positive aspects of the book – the in-depth coverage of the history, dynamics and tension of specific movements and organizations. We appreciated the detailed history of a specific segment of organizing over the last 50 years, as well as the analysis of some of the internal struggles and contradictions within that organizing.

Most of our discussion however centered on what was missing from Kauffman’s account. We agreed that despite claiming to tell the story of “the reinvention of American radicalism,”  Kauffman centers her attention on white middle and upper-middle class movements, organizing, and organizations generally defined as “progressive” or “left.”  Kauffman leaves out a rich organizing and movement history led by communities of color, immigrants, undocumented people, indigenous communities, and poor and working class people of all races.

Kauffman notes in her introduction that she will not discuss the labor movement, but offers no rationale for that decision. No attention is paid to either traditional labor organizing – and the multiple forms of direct actions like strikes, picket lines, and other work actions – or to more recent efforts to organize low wage workers, undocumented workers and other marginalized workers.

The history told by Kaufman effectively erases working class struggles and struggles by communities of color from the last 50 years, by giving only marginal attention to Black Lives Matter, indigenous climate justice groups, and the effort to fight mass incarceration and police brutality, while leaving out very significant movements over this period.  

Absent from Kauffman’s history of “protest and the reinvention of American radicalism” are immigrant-led movements, including the massive 2006 protests across the country culminating in the first Day without an Immigrant on May 1st, as well as the Dreamers’ movements.

Poor people’s movements are also omitted. For decades, poor and homeless families in the welfare rights movement, the Union of the Homeless, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, the new Poor People’s Campaign and countless local organizations in every state in the country have waged squatter’s campaigns, engaged in housing takeovers, established homeless encampments (tent cities), held massive unpermitted marches at both Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and led demonstrations and sit-ins at shut-down factories, government agencies, welfare offices, state capitol buildings, water companies, health insurance companies, and more. No mention is made of any of this powerful organizing which has brought together poor and homeless people of every race and background to confront power and to demand the human rights to housing, healthcare, education, employment at a living wage, water, heat and food.

Similarly omitted is the rich history of organizing around the rights of low wage and immigrant workers in both rural and urban areas, including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ national boycott campaigns and marches, Jobs with Justice, the Fight for 15, Black Work Matters, and a whole array of other organizing by domestic workers, day laborers, African-American farmers in the South, service workers, farmworkers, health care workers, and more.

A passing mention is given to indigenous-led climate justice organizing -- what seemed like a footnote in comparison to the significant coverage given to upper-middle class, white “progressive” environmental organizing. While the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) is mentioned, very little time is spent on either IEN’s work or the movements of which it is a part.  Omitted are the decades of climate justice organizing rooted in communities of color, indigenous communities and poor communities, including the struggles of Katrina survivors, Idle No More, Standing Rock, the fight against mountaintop removal, multi-racial, working class anti-fracking struggles, fights against environmental racism, and indigenous communities defending their sacred lands and waters.

The book left us wondering what Kauffman’s definition of “American radicalism” is. It could be argued that true “American radicalism” is embodied by multiracial movements led by poor and working people united around class demands and racial justice. That brand of radicalism involves an immense base of people who, for the most part, have not been politically active and turns them into lifelong leaders and organizers with an explicitly anti-racist, anti-capitalist structural analysis of power. That brand of “American radicalism” builds toward a revolution.  
It is that version of the history of the last 50 years of direct action that we would like to read.

Post written by: Jennifer Cox

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