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On the Women’s March controversy

A number of important articles critical of the Women’s March have appeared recently, including in the New York Times and the Tablet, the latter of which is perhaps the most encyclopedic of the articles to date. Criticisms of the national organization have appeared from many others, including local affiliates, provoking responses from the March itself, and have led to the formation of another organization, March On, and, more recently, the cancellation of at least one of the “sister marches.”

The most common criticism of the March is the embrace of Louis Farrakhan by at least one of its leaders. Farrakhan, of course, is notoriously anti-Semitic, homophobic, trans-phobic, and misogynistic. While he’s played a backwards roll in the movement for African American freedom for years, his supporters point to some positive things his Nation of Islam did in the 1990s. Nonetheless, it should be fairly obvious that his ideas are more in line with those of Donald Trump — after all, his deeply conservative Million Man March of the 1990s had a platform that blamed Black men for the problems in the African American community — than with the principals of the Women’s March. Could we expect anything more from the man who probably was responsible for the killing of the “traitor” (Farrakhan’s word) Malcolm X?

Still, given the milieu of the 1990s, with its crack wars and the abandonment of the inner-cities by white people and their politicians, one can forgive a sentimental attachment to the minister by someone like Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory, who, born in 1980, came of age in that environment. If this was the sole problem of the March, the answer would be simple for Jews, the LGBTQ community, and others at whom Farrakhan’s ideology takes aim: continue participation in the marches, and struggle against the odious ideas that people like Farrakhan represent. After all, Farrakhan is an old man with a dwindling array of followers, and his NOI will never be any real threat to anyone (except, of course, Malcolm X).

Unfortunately, as the Tablet article details most vividly, a sentimental connection to Farrakhan is not the biggest problem the March faces. There’s no need to go into the problems of transparency and finances and other issues here; instead, the link is provided above. And the Times article, if its quotes are accurate, leaves one with the impression that anti-Semitism among the March’s board goes much deeper, with one of the original organizers being pushed out because of her Jewish  identity. Even still, the answer is in some ways the same: continue to participate in the March, and challenge incorrect, i.e. anti-Semitic, homophobic, etc. – ideas.

The articles on the problems of the Women’s March are worth reading. But there is a bigger issue that appears, but is never directly addressed: the organizing model itself.

Some history

During the run up to the Iraq War, in 2002 and 2003, I was on the the executive committee of an left-wing organization. As was the case with most such groups during those days, we were heavily involved with the movement against the then-upcoming in Iraq, having correctly predicted that it would turn out to be a strategic, humanitarian, and moral disaster. Given my role, I was in a position to see up-close the organizing for the big demonstrations – the largest since the 1980s, or perhaps, the 1960s – that were taking place against the impending war.

Around the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, an anti-war coalition formed, International ANSWER, the acronym standing for “Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.” This group, ANSWER, appeared poised to take the lead in the fight against the Iraq War as well. However, it was a far-left, alienating coalition, and sought to turn every expression against the Iraq War into an indictment of U.S. imperialism itself. A whole range of foreign policy issues were part of their unity points, and, like now, the issue of anti-Semitism was a hot topic. Further, ANSWER refused to denounce the murderous Saddam regime, while most of us on the left – and certainly the vast majority of Americans – saw Saddam as a tyrant. We opposed the war for other reasons (international law, the lack of connection to the proclaimed reason for the “War on Terror,” the blatant flimsiness of the “evidence” the Bush administration put forward for a need to rush to war, predictions that turned out to be correct about what would happen if Saddam were overthrown, and so on).

International ANSWER was a coalition of far-left groups, most of which came out of something called the International Action Center, which itself was dominated by the far-left, ultra-Stalinist Workers World Party. In effect, ANSWER was controlled by the WWP.

My and other organizations realized that there needed to be something else, some other formation, that could be something of a left-center coalition against the Iraq War. In practice, this meant you didn’t necessarily have to have a position on the relationship of the United States to the Philippines to join in, or Israel to Palestine, or anything else other than the upcoming war in Iraq to join in.

There was a flurry of activity – conference calls, meetings, more meetings, and so on – in which organizations that opposed the war took part. Out of all this was formed a coalition called United for Peace and Justice. The coalition was made up of many dozens of groups; the elected steering committee had more than 20 people on it, each from a different organizations. Decisions were made on behalf of groups that were part of the coalition.

The membership of UFPJ was often changing, but here’s an example from February 2004, about 780 groups. The list is a little overblown, as national organizations that had local chapters were able to have each chapter join as a member; in some ways, however, the list undercounts: some of the member organizations were themselves coalitions, such as Win Without War and Not In Our Name. The type of group ranged from traditional peace groups to women’s organizations, organizations of people of color, labor unions, political organizations, and groups that defy categorization (such as Working Assets, a long distance and cell phone provider that donated some of its profits to liberal causes.

In meetings organizing for events – such as the various marches on Washington and New York City – I sometimes served as the representative of the New York district of my organization Having been part of these discussions, I can say that they were very thorough, often annoying, messy, and frustrating, but they generally ended up in some kind of consensus of the participating groups.The result was that UFPJ actions were fairly transparent – and they were the property of the different organizations within the coalition, generally representing tens of thousands of people.

Some decisions were contentious. UFPJ and ANSWER announced rallies for the same day at one point – I recall there being some kind of trickery on behalf of International ANSWER – so what to do was up in the air. To solve the issue, UFPJ elected a group of representatives to meet with and try to reach some agreement with International ANSWER. The parties agreed to have a joint demonstration, and the UFPJ negotiators brought the plan to the steering committee. It was controversial – there was a reason most organizations didn’t want to work with ANSWER – but the question was debated, and people were, while not fully happy, able to agree to the outcome.

This was the way things worked then. ANSWER itself purported to be a coalition, and it was, thought the groups were all generally aligned along a certain political line. I did a (very) small amount of work with the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, which organized the largest student strike since the Vietnam War era. As the name implies, the group was a coalition, which included the United States Student Association, Muslim Students Association, and other groups.

The new models

Compare this method of organizing, coalition building, with the nonprofit-driven model of the Women’s March. As the Tablet article noted, the group has even sought to trademark its name. It’s a nonprofit organization, and its leaders are compensated, according to the article and their recently published IRS tax form 990. Leadership of the organization, which takes in lots of money – more, according to the Tablet report, than is included in the 990, because the March organization is part of a complex web of nonprofits, not at all transparent even to its “sister marches,” i.e. people on the ground doing work in other areas – is reserved to officers and a board, and the political direction was provided by those the board consulted with, noted here. It is made quite clear that those who helped shape these unity principles have no role in organizational decisions. The president of the venerable National Organization for Women, which makes the fight for women of color a pillar of its organizational mission, was listed as helping to shape the principles, but NOW is withdrawing financial support until leadership questions are “clarified.” Who makes the decisions is a big issue: a Brooklyn women of color organization, Black Women’s Blueprint, the Tablet article notes, sent an open letter to the Women’s March about issues the group found important. Since the Women’s March is not a coalition, there is no real way for the women of color group to do anything to affect policies aside from imploring leaders.

This is the nonprofit model or organizing – made clear in the March’s annual report – a type of document that is itself a hallmark of the nonprofit world, more interested in finding donors than in building membership. Now, instead of a coalition forming and doing the painstaking work of hammering out an agreement of principals, a few people come together, put out a website and a call, and form a 501(c)4 organization, employing themselves for decent salaries. While the Tablet article calls these salaries, around $70,000 or so each, on the low end of nonprofit work, the median household income – not individual salary – in the United States was $61,372 in 2017. That means that if you subtract about $10,000 from the paychecks of the Women’s March’s top four leaders, you’d still have a salary that is greater than that of half of all American households.

The result of several trends

This model represents the crystallization of two separate trends into one. The first trend can be seen gaining ground in 2011, with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and continuing on with Black Lives Matter. Both of these entities found many tens of thousands of people, ready and waiting to be activated, OWS in response to the destruction of the economy caused by big banks, BLM in response to the growing rage in communities of color caused by unjustified murders of people of color at the hands of police officers. They were successful in getting people to do something, and of taking the national spotlight, but neither ever built a core base of membership, or a durable alliance of organizations, a coalition. OWS explicitly rejected membership and leadership, and, even though other organizations were attempting to work with them – labor and religious groups especially in New York City – there was never anything to coalesce around officially. Thus, OWS disappeared, having ultimately contributed nothing but the phrase “the one percent.” In both movements, both no one and everyone was a spokesperson.

For OWS, this lack of leadership was by design; the call for occupying Wall Street came from anarchist circles. But certainly, also, other, more recent trends have influenced the tendency to call demonstrations at the national level without any real organizational backing. Part of this comes from the general decline in membership organizations, as first noted by political scientist Robert Putnam in his Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community. Beyond that, very likely, is the rise of Internet culture. The Internet, at the very least, makes something like the Women’s March possible: how else could seven people with no organizational structures have put out a call that met with such success in such a short time? Still, something being possible doesn’t mean that it is a good idea.

The Internet is responsible also for the other trend, which is of online activist organizations. These groups, of which MoveOn.org was one of the earliest, consist of a small number of people, staff members, who amass email lists and call for actions with those lists. And while these organizations are useful in that they are often able to pull people together in a short period of time, they are not generally organizing people, but are instead pulling people out for this or that event. What’s more, they have an unelected leadership that might make good decisions, or make bad decisions. This is useful sometimes, but destructive in other instances.

Virtually all of the newer activist organizations have some combination of the above mentioned tendencies, though the two seem in contradiction to each other: the former has no leaders and everyone does what they want, and the latter has a hypercentralized, self-selected leadership. But in reality, the two tendencies are often alive in the same organization. For example, the Bernie Sanders-inspired organization Our Revolution has the following in its national bylaws:

Our Revolution “shall not have any members as defined by D.C. Nonprofit Act…However, pursuant to D.C. Nonprofit Act § 29-404.01(c), the Corporation will solicit supporters and designate such Persons as “Members” (singular, a “Member”), who or which meet certain criteria…”

In other words, there are no members in the sense of people with the right to determine the leadership of the organization, but supporters are given the title “member.” Later on in the document: “The Board of Directors shall elect directors by the affirmative vote of a majority of the Board of Directors then in office at the annual meeting of the Board.” In other words, the board elects the board: there is no space for “members” of the organization to set the agenda.

At the same time that OR’s national leadership is completely unaccountable to anyone, its various local affiliates seem to be doing as they wish, with different OR groups adopting different policies, trying to determine how to align themselves with each other.

I use Our Revolution as an example not to launch a criticism at one particular group, but because it is a well known new organization that has made a name for itself as standing up for democracy and transparency.

What is the way forward?

This is the milieu out of which the Women’s March, with all of its problems, emerged. And why would it not? The recent organizational models are as described above: put out a call for people to assemble around a hot button issue (like the election of the worst president in history), use the Internet to organize people to show up, and to call for other people to organize more people, and then set up a nonprofit entity, replete with paid officers and merchandising licensing agreements.

What’s the answer, the way forward? I am not sure. A return to real coalition building between membership organizations, especially organizations from the labor movement, the racially and nationally oppressed, women, and youth, as well as issues organizations, faith-based groups and others, in which the members of the organizations are organized and have a voice of their own, is the best option. But to get to that, the decline of membership-based organizations has to be reversed – and that is a long-term project.

The bright side is that there are many people looking to become active: the hundreds of thousands who have showed up for the women’s marches in DC and across the country attest to that. These are people who show up not because some vice chair of a non-profit called for them to come, but because they want to do something to oppose the Trump administration. These are the people who will be at the women’s marches Jan. 19, who I hope everyone reading this will join. After all, the success of these marches isn’t going to empower Farrakhan, but the people who oppose what Trump stands for – even though much of that is the same as what Farrakhan stands for.

More importantly, tens of millions of people came out in November to really work at making a change to the political scene, by taking control of the House back for the Democrats, meaning the broad democratic coalition in and around the Democratic Party.

Supporting and assisting this movement against Trump, especially in terms of elections, as well as the kinds of marches that energize people in dark times, and this is the paramount task right now. Aside from this, probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, thing to do is to begin building connections at the local level. In Worcester, Massachusetts, where I’m located, progressives have formed Greater Worcester Our Revolution, an affiliate of the national OR group. Building groups like this – and their organizational affiliation does not matter; they could be OR, DSA, a local Democratic Party club – is vital. These groups need to make connections to not consciously be organizations of not just older white male liberals, but to others, especially to women, racially and nationally oppressed peoples and immigrants, youth, unions, and to let these connections inform the work of the group. Then, as these groups become stronger, perhaps they can begin to form some kind of network across city and state borders, loosely coordinating, developing strategy, and so on.

None of what is written above should be taken as diminishing the impressive achievements of the anti-Trump majority. Instead, these are ideas on a current controversy as well as thoughts on how, long term, the fight against Trump can be won and expanded upon.

Image via Douglas Fron, under a Creative Commons license.

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