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“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
The rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri, against the killing of unarmed Afrikan American teenager Michael Brown has inspired me to reflect on the question of the organizing model versus mobilizing or mobilization model in the struggle for Afrikan liberation in North America as well as the broader humanistic fight for liberation from various forms of oppression. Organizing the oppressed for emancipation is the preferred approach to engaging them in the fight for their liberation as opposed to merely mobilizing them. The rapid demise of the Occupy Movement and the scattering of the occupiers should be an objective lesson on the need for freedom seekers to become organizationally affiliated. Where are the tens of thousands of people who participated in the occupations in Canada and the United States? If I had to hazard a guess, I would argue that most of them are not in organizations that are committed to liquidating the various systems of oppression. They have gone back to doing the mundane activities of life that are not connected to movement-building. Essentially, they have been demobilized!
When I raised the issue of organizing the oppressed, this project is centrally focused on building the capacity of the people to become central actors on the stage of history or in the drama of emancipation. The socially marginalized are placed in organizational situations where they are equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitude to work for their own freedom and the construction of a transformed social reality.
Under the organizing model the people are the principal participants and decision-makers in the organizations and movements that are working for social change. The people are not seen as entities who are so ideologically underdeveloped that they need a revolutionary vanguard or dictatorship to lead them to the “New Jerusalem.” The supreme organizer and humanist Ella Baker took the position that the masses will figure out the path to freedom in her popular assertion, “Give people light and they will find a way.”
This work of finding ‘a way’ is done in grassroots, participatory-democratic organizations, which are the principal instruments of self-determination for the oppressed. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student-based civil rights group during the struggle against apartheid in the America South of the 1960s, employed the organizing model. SNCC focused on building local organizations with indigenous leadership that effected the struggle for freedom by, for, and of the people affected by white supremacy and capitalist exploitation.
These student organizers lived among the people and, in effect, committed ‘class suicide’ by their existential unity with the people, as called for by the revolutionary Amilcar Cabral. They weren’t like Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other major civil rights organizations and their leaders who entered a local community for a march or demonstration with the media in tow. At the end of the event, they leave town with a demobilized population behind them. This is the mobilization model that shall be marked as “Exhibit A.”
The mobilizing or mobilization model of struggle seeks to bring the people out to support political actions that are conceived, planned, and executed by organizational or movement elite. The people are, essentially, extras in the drama of liberation with the leaders as the featured actors. The rank and file members or participants are without substantive voice and initiative. In the mainline trade unions of today as well as in much of the activities of other social movements, mobilization is the weapon of choice. Included in the mobilization model is the spontaneous reaction of the oppressed to acts of state domination or violence from dominant social actors. For example, in some cases of police violence against Afrikans in Canada and the United States, the community is mobilized to march or demonstrate in protest against the incidents of injustice. There will even be the occasional rebellions or uprisings. But the passion for justice will predictably disappear in short order. The people’s attention will be distracted by routine, everyday activities until the next killing or episode of police brutality.
When organizations and movements favour mobilization, it is all about bringing the rank and file out to mass actions (the spectacles of resistance) such as rallies, demonstrations, pickets, strikes, and voter registration drives. At the end of the event, the masses are sent back home to assume their stance as passive spectators in this elite management approach to liberation. The people’s will is represented by the leaders, because participatory democratic practices are not on the organizational menu. If the people’s bodies are needed, they will be summoned for the next action. The critical knowledge, skills and attitude that are used to effect resistance reside largely within the leadership. Even when the people are members of organizations, it is usually the elected leadership and a few people around it, and the paid staffers who do the bulk of the strategic and operational activities. They are the brain trust of the movement.
In the 1988 summer issue of the publication Breakthrough: Political Journal of Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, the late Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), who served a term as chairperson of SNCC and a stint as Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, had this to say about organizing and mobilization:
“There’s a difference between mobilization and organization and this difference must be properly understood. To be an organizer, one must be a mobilizer, but being a mobilizer doesn’t make you an organizer. Martin Luther King was one of the greatest mobilizers this century has seen, but until his death he was short on organizing. He came to double up on it just before his death, but he was very short on organizing. Many today who follow in his footsteps still take this path of mobilization rather than organization. Thus one of the errors of the 60s was the question of mobilization versus the question of organization.”
Invariably the mobilizing or mobilization model comes with the reliance on a supreme leader or a few individuals at the top of the organizational or movement leadership food chain. Ella Baker cautioned us about the will toward the preceding state of affairs:
“I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight….”
The oppressed and movement organizations cannot keep on executing the same shopworn tactics, while expecting different outcomes.
Many organizations or people are using vigils, marches, rallies and demonstrations as spaces for emotional release. Emotional responses to material forces of oppression are insufficient for the job at hand. We must employ reason and emotion in a methodical, disciplined and planned manner that is backed by a vision in an organizational or social movement context.
We need to create or join organizations that are committed to fighting the systems of oppression that are materially impacting our lives. It is impossible to fight capitalist exploitation, police violence, the oppression of women, white supremacy, homophobia and other forms of dehumanization outside of collective action and organized structures – organizations and movements. The exploitative systems of domination are structured and institutionalized. The masters or exploiters are very much aware of the value of organizations in maintaining the status quo. The oppressors’ army, police force, state bureaucracy, schools, media, companies, banks and prisons are organizations that are used to keep us in our place as Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” or “the damned.” Kwame Ture often made the following claim in his public education lectures, “Organization is the weapon of the oppressed. Afrikans are oppressed, because we are disorganized!” Our revolutionary ancestor’s assertion ought to be seen as a self-evident truth.
Let’s use this moment of grief and resistance in Ferguson to build radical or revolutionary organizations that will organize with the people around all of the issues raised below by comrade El Jones, a poet, organizer and educator, in a Facebook status:
“We will be gathering to show solidarity for Mike Brown’s family and the citizens of Ferguson, and to stand against state violence against our communities and people. Stay tuned for details, date and time. We must come together to support each other and our communities against the dehumanization of Black people and the devaluing of our lives. We must stand against the criminalization of our youth, and for our right to exist, to walk on the street, to have futures, to live freely. We must stand against the occupying of our communities, the loss of opportunity, the marginalization and poverty and lack of access that condemn so many to prison, and the suffering of families and communities in a system that does not value Black life. We must organize ourselves in strength, love and solidarity, fight to build strong communities and futures, to support parents, and to protect our children.”
If we are not ready to be in organizations, we are just playing with ourselves (certainly a pleasurable act in the right context). However, in the situation of the quest for freedom and self-determination, self-interested pleasure, acts of petty bourgeois self-indulgence, and splendid isolation are liabilities.
The message within this Ethiopian proverb is timeless and accurate, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” Let our action speaks louder than words in the call of the disenfranchised for unity, cooperation, and self-determination. Our solidarity in action will emerge from us getting together in groups with a program of liberation.
Young people tend to be at the forefront of rebellions or uprisings. as we are witnessing in Ferguson, or we have observed in the recent mass protest in Egypt that brought down the Hosni Mubarak-led government. However, young people tend to be marginalized in the strategic leadership in organizations and social movements. It is critically important to systemically prepare younger comrades for the role of agents of revolutionary transformation in society. Afrikan young people will need to become more than the spark and driving force behind spontaneous and short-lived rebellions. They ought to become permanent organizers among the working-class, women and the racially oppressed so as to advance the social revolution. If the youth and the other alienated people of Ferguson and other cities and towns are committed to changing the status quo, they will need to form or join radical organizations and fully adopt the organizing model of resistance. Afrikan youth in the United States can draw on the legacy of young people-led organizations such as SNCC and the Black Panther Party, if they believe it is best to create their own autonomous revolutionary organizations. The widespread existence of sellout or compromised leadership among the older established leaders might make independent youth-led organizations a compelling option. The youth-led rebellion in Ferguson is not taking direction from the traditional civic leaders who are not seen as legitimate.
It is high time for the resistance to build effective and efficient organizations that are rooted in the needs and aspirations of the oppressed. Organizers ought to learn from the organizational or movement successes and mistakes of the past and the present in doing the monumental work of movement-building and creating the embryonic economic, political and social structures of the free, good, and just society (classless, stateless and self-managed). A prefigurative politics or building the road as we travel needs to be at the centre of social movement organizing in the 21st century.
Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an educator and a journalistic activist. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence and the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity.