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When Obama was “outed” as an “Alinsky Organizer” we might have expected a defense of the role. After all, don’t we want active and informed communities everywhere–neighborhoods, schools, parks, planning decisions, employment, etc.? Instead liberals held their breath and waited. Can the glib Barack finesse this one too? And “Yes! He can!” So instead of a discussion of Alinsky and his ideas of local mobilization and power—we were served a discussion of Mr Obama’s “Weatherman” friend.
Mike Miller’s Community Organizer’s Tale starts with Alinsky in the late fifties and early sixties: “the debate over Saul Alinsky that raged in the country was intense”. This debate did not occur in the Weather Underground but in Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches. In 1966 meetings with Alinsky and neighborhood activists were sponsored by Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the Mission in San Francisco and by the Catholic diocese in Oakland.
Mike Miller is an organizer. As a student at Berkeley in the mid-fifties — the Berkeley of resurgent fraternities and sororities, compulsory ROTC, racist housing and employment, conformism and the “Organization Man” — Mike created a political party, SLATE, that advanced a program of fair housing, fair employment, an end to compulsory ROTC, anti-imperialism, end of capital punishment, and a robust defense of the Bill of Rights. In the early Sixties Miller worked for five years for SNCC. I remember the meeting when we learned Mike had been the victim of “state sponsored terrorism” in Mississippi in 1963 and were all asked to give blood to replace Mike’s requirements. While working as Bay Area SNNC coordinator he had worked on the anti Urban Renewal (AKA Negro Removal Program) fight in San Francisco. The subject of the book is this period until 1972. Since then he has been executive director of Organize! Training Center.
So Mike Miller is an Organizer, like Farrell Dobbs, whose book Teamster Power often came to mind as I read this book. Often in the book I got up and paced nervously around and felt guilty I didn’t go to the public hearing on the new plan or the board meeting. Readers will reevaluate how they behaved in the past, or did nothing, or resorted to an actor’s rhetorical riff, or missed opportunities and alliances they didn’t notice were possible; ways to have compelled negotiation; ways to use people power wisely.
But Miller calls this book a “tale” — and the tale has a heroine. She is the MCO—the Mission Coalition Organization. Between 1967 and 1973 an astounding popular mobilization of a vast coalition of diverse ethnic, neighborhood, ideological, religious groups occurred in the Mission District of San Francisco. At its peak in 1971, more than 500 people were participating in daily and weekly activities of MCO, including activities on schools, parks, employment, tenants’ rights, social services–and dealing with government agencies on all levels. MCO’s total membership was 10,000. While this astounding story unfolded I was living on the edge of the Mission and teaching political science at Stanford –and was totally distracted by my colleague Bruce Franklin and his cohorts with Red Berets and wooden rifles and North Vietnamese flag–and a long drawn out public trial of Bruce, resulting in his firing as a tenured professor!
So it isn’t surprising that the history of this time is distracted and silly.
This great mobilization occurred around two distinct federal programs: urban renewal and Model Cities. The first battle lasted two years and stopped the bulldozers from sweeping away the Mission. Many wonderful neighborhoods were destroyed and replaced by Urban Renewal—the Fillmore, the waterfront, downtown–so when the Mission became the next target it was easy to show everyone what happens when the fight is not fought. This story is vividly told. The second fight created the Mission Coalition Organization in response to Mayor Joe Alioto announcing the Model Cities program in 1968. The second battle –the story of the MCO–is the heart of the tale..
Move your ass and your brains will follow was a slogan I heard in the late fifties—from Quakers and Catholic Workers. This is the rare book that believes that democracy, when mobilized, creates its own directions and contents. Mike Miller embarked on the process of turning discontents into proposals, directing the proposals to the right places with the right decision-makers, forcing negotiation through people-power; using the energy of the negotiation to create more people power; turning the victories gained from choosing winnable fights into yet more power and more allies; and built a large powerful organization that encompassed almost all of the local institutions and actors of the community.
And since Mike Miller was the MCO staff director starting in the summer of 1968–with a self-imposed three year limit based on Alinsky theory of the role of the outside organizer — his theories of organizing and the recreation of an “effective left” are presented in a slowly unfolding case study as seen by a central actor. And by a central actor who by definition abstained from voting and competing.
So there’s a cast of Characters: Elba Tuttle and Ben Martinez; Abel Gonzalez, Rev William Grace and Rev Dave Knotts; Alex Zermeno, and Rich Sorro; and of course Joe Alioto and the board of supervisors; and of course the ambitions of all these actors are considerable, and the more so as the organization grew. But just as you finally learn all their names and many others–and have googled a few to find out more, you notice the MCO is the heroine. There comes a point as you read that you sense our heroine is in danger. You become protective–wish that the leaders could see her in all her beauty and grace. You wish that Mike Miller would forget his Alinsky Oath, stop abstaining, enter the fray, withdraw his self-imposed three year limit, take a stand. And you know you’re hooked on the story. You want to be a part, to take a stand yourself.
The book is on one hand a workbook–a manual for one’s own activism–a quite clear set of criteria for evaluating one’s own past efforts to influence social policies. And yet since the author presents the actors as recipients of these training “organizing” ideas there is the quality of an experiment. Here an organizer is hired by people who know what they’re getting very clearly, who act together through a series of amazing victories and at the moment of becoming the entire “politics” of the Mission–collide with the spoils of victory.
In this case the spoils are federal dollars provided by poverty programs now directed by Republicans, and the author wonders if perhaps the designers of these programs knew the results that would unfold. This collision is especially dramatic and “political” because the author refuses to make any judgments concerning motives of self-interest or opportunism. Each actor is presented in his or her actions, positions, and words as if they meant what they said. And if you, like me, follow up on their subsequent lives you’ll find that wherever they went or what they did or are doing, they remember this as their finest hour.
Today anyone who mentions the MCO does so as if remembering the most perfect moment of their life. They look off with a faraway gaze as if seeing a golden glow.
All over the Mission there are small pockets of MCO survival. And every big event evokes memories of what we could do if it came to it. Mike Miller walks you through this magical time with the conviction that you –the reader –could do it too. Great political action too often evaporates and vanishes. Here is a rare record of unfolding political events and actions analyzed from the perspective of democratic empowerment.
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