Organizing after September 11
by Autumn Leonard, Tomas Aguilar, Mike Prokosch,
and Dara Silverman of United for a Fair Economy
Dollars and Sense magazine, March / April 2002
For the last seven years, United for a Fair Economy has provided
media skills, face-to-face economic literacy education, and training
resources for people and organizations working against the widening
economic gap in the United States. Our "movement support"
work is grounded in the belief that the United States would be
a far more democratic, prosperous, and caring community if we
narrowed the chasm between the very wealthy and everyone else.
Along with many organizations dedicated to social change and
economic justice, we were rocked by the events of September 11.
We felt that we needed more than anything to listen to other organizers
around the country. We called direct-action organizers, prison-justice
activists, labor-union members, immigrant-rights organizers, youth
of color, queer activists, and community organizers. In all, we
spoke with 54 activists-31% of them people of color; 11%, queer
activists; and 55%, women-and asked them, "What is the state
of organizing now?" This is what they told us.
What is happening in different movements?
One immediate result of September 11 was the AFL-CIO's withdrawal
from planned protests against the International Monetary Fund-World
Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., later that month. "The
labor movement's pulling out [of the globalization movement],"
said Russ Davis, the director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice,
soon after September 11, "students will go off to form a
new antiwar movement, and community-based groups will go back
to local organizing. I don't know if there is a movement now."
More recently, however, labor's root interests have begun
pulling the AFL-CIO and its member unions back in. During the
fall, unions fought the "fast track" authority Bush
sought for negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)-and
almost defeated it. On January 31, the New York City Central Labor
Council and the AFL-CIO stuck their necks out and organized a
rally against the World Economic Forum with the help of Jobs with
Justice. There is still not much space in the labor movement,
however, for activists to oppose the war.
While service unions are preoccupied with disaster relief
and with supporting New York members who have lost their jobs,
the economic downturn is turning many unions into an opposition
force. "Labor is focusing on the recession," said Jobs
with Justice national director Fred Azcarate a few weeks after
September 11. "There are already a quarter million layoffs."
Union members and leaders are infuriated with the Republicans
for enriching their campaign contributors with airline bailouts
and "stimulus packages," while stiffing the workers.
Many are also unhappy with the Democrats for taking cover as the
GOP wages a one-sided class war.
People of Color
Strong Latino/a and African-American-led anti-war coalitions
in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and other major metropolitan
areas have helped build a new urban peace movement. This movement
is drawing connections between the war abroad and the assault
on low-income communities and communities of color in the United
States. There is no way this could have happened without long-term
institution building. Groups such as the Committee Against Anti-Asian
Violence and the October 22nd Coalition in New York, the Ella
Baker Center for Human Rights and the Center for Third World Organizing
in the Bay Area, and AGENDA in Los Angeles have worked for years
developing strong leaders with an analysis linking "local"
issues (police brutality, gentrification, welfare reform, immigrant
rights, etc.) to the global economic system of oppression and
Many young people of color are involved in anti-war activism,
but do not necessarily identify with the traditional symbols of
the U.S. peace movement, such as peace signs and doves. Some are
creating new ways to express opposition to war through art and
culture. Underground Railroad, a member organization of the Youth
Empowerment Center in Oakland, has been doing political street
theatre, dance, music, and visual arts. AWOL, a magazine and CD
of anti-militarist hip-hop art, poetry, and music, has come out
of a collaboration between the Philadelphia-based Central Committee
of Conscientious Objectors' Third World Outreach Program and the
New York-based War Resisters League's Youth Peace Program. And
in the greater Boston area, the American Friends Service Committee's
(AFSC) Urban Youth Program has organized Critical Breakdown, a
series of "open mic" nights featuring "hip-hop,
spoken word and other forms of socially conscious performance
Many white youth have thrown themselves into creating an antiwar
movement, or an antiwar-antiracist movement. That has taken some
of the youth base away from anti-corporate and global economic
justice campaigns. Some white youth have taken on "double
duty," adding antiwar work to their global or labor activism.
White students and students of color are continuing anti-sweatshop
campaigns, living-wage campaigns, and other campus-based economic
justice campaigns which bring them together with organized labor
and, potentially, community-based organizations.
The September 11 attacks did not reduce the urgent needs community
groups are trying to address, so many of them have gone on with
their work. Many local organizations led by people of color, however,
have been undermined by the loss of funding since September 11.
Many individual and institutional donors are channeling funds
toward relief efforts in New York and Washington, D.C., leaving
local groups' budgets in doubt. Even in New York and Washington,
community organizations are asking whether any of the relief money
will get to their communities.
Women have been among those hardest hit by the recession and
post-September 11 layoffs. Job loss has been most severe in the
public sector and the tourist industries, where women work in
disproportionate numbers. Unemployment insurance only covers 40%
of those laid off, health coverage is spotty, and welfare rules
have been tightened.
Consequently, many women's organizations have put long-range
work on hold and are focusing on immediate rescue work instead.
One Boston-area immigrant women's organization used to organize
educational programs that empowered young women. Now, it is urgently
helping members obtain immigration documents. Meanwhile, fear
among immigrant women, especially those from Muslim countries,
is setting back the relationship-building that is vital to organizing.
Christie Mase, director of the Somerville Women's Commission
in Massachusetts, says many women's organizations feel that women's
voices are not being heard-as workers, as public service users,
or as unwilling participants in a widening war.
Immigrant amnesty was on the political agenda before September
11 because U.S. business needed immigrant workers, unions needed
to organize them, and immigrant voters could swing an election.
September 11 "set us back five to ten years," according
to several organizers.
Racial attacks and new anti-immigrant legislation hit this
sector harder than any other. According to Eunice Cho of the Oakland-based
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the group has
been documenting increased "human rights abuses by police,
civilians, and Immigration [the Immigration and Naturalization
Service]." While this seems to be a time for people of color
to rally in support of one another, fears of terrorism are being
used to divide people of color. Two recent polls, for example,
found a majority of
African Americans supporting racial profiling of Middle Easterners.
Coalitions of young African Americans and Latinos/as are opposing
the targeting of immigrants, but their partnerships with Middle
Eastern and South Asian communities are limited.
In Denver, said AFSC organizer Minsun Ji, immigrant day laborers
are very cautious about trying to claim their wages when they
are not paid as promised. Before the September 11 attacks, they
were starting to organize around these issues. Now, most are willing
to take their losses rather than risk deportation.
Since September 11, the U.S. Border Patrol has gained support
in cities, like Tucson, Arizona, that are near the U.S. Mexico
border. Organizations like the Southwest Alliance to Resist Militarization
and Derechos Humanos (Human Rights), both from Tucson, and the
Austin office of the AFSC, are continuing their human-rights efforts
under even more difficult circumstances than before September
11. In Texas border cities like Laredo and El Paso, many workers
from Mexico cross the border daily to work in U.S.-based companies
(at lower wages than U.S. workers). Since September 11, they have
not been able to cross as freely-often not at all-costing many
Scapegoating, harassment, and verbal and physical abuse are
nothing new for queer communities, but queer organizers said that
they see the need for solidarity even more strongly in the increased
climate of repression. "September 11th has actually made
it pretty clear that our organization [a progressive multi-issue
queer group] is not involved in the same communities as the white
Gay and Lesbian communities," said Shawn Luby of the North
Carolina Lambda Youth Network. "It has strengthened [our]
connections with low-income organizations and other social justice
groups led by folks of color."
Other queer organizations have also been making such connections.
Cincinnati queer activist Kim Burden noted that fighting police
brutality in Cincinnati is not just "a black issue,"
as it has often been portrayed in the media, just as fighting
homophobia is not just the work of white people. Another queer
organizer we spoke with stated that the support of communities
of color is essential to defeating anti-gay legislation.
Prison-rights activists described a swift, severe crackdown
on prisoners, the most socially controlled population in the United
States, since September 11. Many prisoners lost visitation rights
and had their mail even more carefully searched than before September
11. Inmates in one prison told Angela Davis, the longtime activist
and co-founder of the prison rights group Critical Resistance,
that they fear all prisoners will be left alone to die slowly
in their cells.
Prison activists are worried about the effect of a strengthened
police state on people opposing racial profiling, unequal sentencing,
and other forms of criminal injustice. While staying focused on
prisons, some groups are examining possible alliances with people
in the new antiwar movement.
Many environmental organizations thought their work would
grind to a halt after September 11. After a short recovery period,
however, organizers have begun reviving campaigns against corporate
wrongdoers like CitiGroup and Staples. While most environmental
problems remain the same-as one activist said, "trees are
still going to get cut down"-environmentalists are also facing
some new threats. Bush and many members of Congress, for example,
are using "united we stand" sentiments to push through
their pre-September 11 agendas, including anti-environmental legislation
like drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.
Mass Movements Abroad
Governments around the world used September 11 as a pretense
to crack down on opposition. About two weeks after the attacks,
for example, the Salvadoran government expelled about 200 workers
at gunpoint from the international airport in San Salvador, accusing
the workers' union of "wanting to associate with terrorist
groups." Riot police occupied the main health-care union's
The Salvadoran government is also using "national security"
as a rationale for its ongoing privatization drive. For instance,
government officials cited "national security measures following
the events of September 11 in New York and Washington" to
justify firing 10,000 public sector workers.
Overall, activists told us that:
* September 11 "hit the pause button" for many organizers.
People across the country were in shock and so were their worldviews.
But the issues are still there, and the organizing is continuing.
"People are still getting kicked out of their houses and
people are still getting kicked off welfare," said Galen
Tyler of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. While some of the
coalition partners may have changed, the issues that pushed them
into action have not gone away. "The war is not going to
divide us at all," said Kristi Disney of the labor-community
coalition group Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN), "because
we're really still focused on the reason that brought us together.
It's not disintegrating, not at all. But it has definitely added
to the discussion." Most people we talked to plan to keep
working on the issues they focused on before September 11, though
some have added antiwar work as well.
* There are new opportunities. While it is a hard time to
openly oppose the government-due to both repression and the pressure
for "national unity"-it is also an excellent time to
bring deeper analysis to mainstream society. "This is one
hell of a teachable moment. Globalization is on everyone's minds
now," said Jerome Scott of Atlanta's Project South. Kristi
Disney of TIRN echoed this view, saying, "People here are
more excited than ever about working on globalization. It's kind
of like after the World War [II] when people said if we don't
start to equalize power, we're going to see more of this happen."
* Movements need to reframe their work. A broad social analysis-including
race, class, gender, and sexuality-is needed to bring together
new movement partners and strengthen existing alliances. Whether
it is peace, immigrant rights, labor, or fair housing work, organizing
today requires an awareness that immigrant communities and communities
of color face increasing racial profiling and repression. "Clearly
Arab-Americans are being victimized and attacked here in Chicago.
They are afraid," said Louise Cainkar of the Illinois Coalition
for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Anyone can be picked up
and held for anything. It has paralyzed our ability to campaign
and work on local issues." Organizers also need to understand
that recession and war will have a different impact on people
in different income brackets. "Many [of our staff] are poor
and working class," said Si Kahn of the Charlotte, North
Carolina, group Grassroots Leadership, "they have people
in the military, there are issues that have to be taken care of."
What to do now
Organizers do not need to invent a whole new set of campaigns,
because the campaigns already exist. Movements were putting effective
pressure on the driving institutions of the global economy, such
as the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank,
before September 11. The events of September 11, however, sent
many activists into a tailspin. White globalization activists
were among the most disoriented. Many of them had been drawn to
global economic justice organizing by the change in the national
mood after the "Battle in Seattle." Few grounded their
work locally. With the new political atmosphere after September
11, many college-age activists shifted over to antiwar work-unsure
if there still was a globalization movement or what their relationship
was to it. Meanwhile, many community activists and activists of
color whose political work was grounded in urgent local struggles
were faster to integrate September 11 into their analysis, develop
strategic responses, and take action.
In movements led by people of color, those most affected by
injustice are framing the analysis and putting forward solutions.
For white activists, however, it often doesn't come naturally
to accept the leadership of people of color. Middle-class white
folks tend to get more media attention, allowing them to jump
into existing movements and take over, instead of looking around
and asking, "Is anyone here more qualified than me?"
White activists have enormous contributions to make to movements.
They can form alliances with community-based groups, build relationships
and trust, and become accountable. They have to resist the habit,
however, of coming in with a "take charge" attitude.
"It's good you're in a listening mode and not falling into
the white male culture of having an answer," said Shea Howell
of the youth organization Detroit Summer. Right now it is more
important than ever to listen.
When "globalization" organizers start to build connections
with local organizing, they will see that a lot of people have
been fighting corporate globalization on the local level for a
long time. Community, labor, and youth interests overlap when
services and jobs are threatened. The recession will cut tax revenues,
and cities, counties, and states will try to privatize or cut
services to economize. Opposition to budget cuts and privatization
at the state and local level connects to the mass movements that
are opposing IMF-World Bank "structural adjustment"
policies, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the General
Agreement on Trade in Services.
Now is a good time for U.S. movements to recognize the leadership
offered by sister movements around the world. Despite the heightened
repression, justice movements abroad are not pulling back now.
As Honduran activist Berta Caceres put it: "They have always
called us terrorists because we fight for land and bread."
Economic and social justice movements in different countries need
to build concrete alliances to support each others' battles, the
way unions in different countries sometimes join forces against
a common employer.
This is a crucial moment for U.S. activists not to isolate
themselves, but to reach across borders.