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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Safe Houses -- Institutionalizing a Movement

This is part of a series on how to build a successful movement, based on readings and observations, where I want to express my critique of what has been happening in activist land, and present a way forward. I've decided not to use this version of this post because it is too "political" in my series. But I'm keeping it for reference.

Building Safe Houses and Alliances

Whenever I hear Bernie say "revolution", the music from the Beatles (or The Who) passes through my head. Most revolutions fail to achieve their goals because most revolutions are simply one fearless leader's efforts to create change top down. But anyone involved in changing things knows that that rarely happens. Some of the reasons for this are are;

  • The cream rises to the top and curdles.
  • Movements attract ambitious and/or conflictive people.
  • Movements rarely are institutionalized well.

In this post I'm going to talk about institutionalization (and how to do it right to avoid those pitfalls).

Image of Martin Luther King

Institutionalizing a movement starts with creating Safe Houses.

Anyone who likes spy or Police Thrillers, knows they depend on providing safe houses for people. A safe house is a place where someone under attack can rest, recharge and take refuge from such attack. For any movement or effort, involving change, to succeed it has to provide safe spaces for it's members to function. These should include:

  1. Movement Centers
  2. Educational and Training Institutions
  3. Halfway Houses
  4. Income Resources

Sometimes an institution can serve multiple purposes. For example the "Historically Black Colleges" served all four functions for the civil rights movement starting with their founding around the time of the civil war. But without institutionalizing a movement and taking advantage of existing institutions, a movement becomes short term. And real movements sometimes take generations to accomplish all their purposes. They develop in the face of opposition. In last night's debate both democratic candidates talked about the Koch brothers as oppositional persons, but the real problem with them, and their allies such as Pete Peterson, is that they've built anti-movements with their own institutions and safe houses -- and taken over existing institutions as part of that movement building. Consequently Pete Peterson's efforts to degrade Social Security and other social programs in the name of "saving it" or the Koch brother's efforts to do the same will be well funded for a long time to come.

Going After "The Enemy's Institutions"

Furthermore the right wing understands the role of institutions and has been going after our institutions in response. There is a reason they went after ACORN so viciously and go after Planned Parenthood now. It has nothing to do with the groups alleged vices. They went after those groups because they provided training, job training and jobs for activists and supporters. They were liberal/progressive institutions. ACORN for instance, was able to get public funds for vital work like registering voters. And by getting those funds they were establishing the right to vote as a positive right and demonstrating its legitimacy. Thus the real target for the Right Wing's attacks on ACORN was not any peccadillos in it's administration, but its function as a liberal institution. It goes after Planned Parenthood for much the same reason.

Subverting and Taking over Institutions

The Right wing has also gone after public colleges and Universities. At one time those provided safe refuges for academics and thinkers who sometimes were also activists. And those academics and thinkers, in turn, taught people activism, and more importantly; taught people to think for themselves which was a kind of "permissiveness" that couldn't be tolerated. Taking over academia thus became a project of the Right Wing from before Reagan championed it as Governor of the State of California. One of the means was to replace Free State and Community Colleges with high cost tuition, and then saddle those costs as high interest debt. Reagan explicitly saw this as a war on "permissiveness." And it was his war taken up by other GOP leaders over time. The war was so successful that few people remember when the alternative was the case and people like Reagan could rail about "subversives" in academia. Now many Colleges and Universities have chairs that are funded by the right wing and are safe houses for ideas that would otherwise be Crank Right Wing nonsense. The Right Wing subverted first the business and then the Economic field, forcing liberal economists into internal (or external) exile and through such dominance was able to keep pushing Supply Side and Free Market tropes up until they failed again. Because these right wing posts are now institutionalized, they can keep defending and advocating for Right Wing causes within academia long after the facts demonstrated otherwise. Essentially they subverted the Economics field.

To me subversion is not about the "right" or "leftedness" of a position but it's integrity. The Right learned their techniques from the Old Left.

Building and Rebuilding our Institutions

Rather than getting angry about the subversion of our institutions, or the weakness of our movement, we need to be doing what our forefathers did -- building and rebuilding our own institutions. We already have liberal and progressive institutions. Some of them have been subverted from outside -- but they can be restored. And we need to improve the ones we have.

Creating Movement Centers by Collaboration and Organizing

For most of us the Democratic Party was a movement center in the abstract. But movement centers are places where people organize and organize the organized. Organizing starts with communing and communication. For example the author Aldon D. Morris, whose book "The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement" I've been studying the past few months devotes an entire chapter to the subject of "movement centers" when he talks about the Montgomery Alabama Civil Rights protest effort which eventually succeeded in desegregating Montgomery Alabama. He talks about how the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR)and the Inter Civic Council (ICC) overcame factionalism and the egoism of their leaders and then collaborated and worked together to accomplish desegregation. He talks about how they were brought together to talk to one another and collaborate with both top down and bottom up communication channels. This started with creating the ICC as an "organization of Organizations". His book demonstrates how they succeeded magnificently once the leaders put aside turf wars and personal politics to work together.

For a movement to succeed, it cannot be about the ego or the turf of a particular leader. If it becomes that, it will fail. It will point fingers at allies and create division instead of unity. If it can develop capable leaders then if one leader fails or "goes to the darkside" the movement can overcome that.

A movement center is created when the people in a movement organize the leaders to work together. That requires them to help each other and avoid fighting over resources. That in turn requires folks to focus on building those resources by recruiting and fund raising strong enough to ensure there are sufficient resources to go around. Movements have to becomes safe places where those involved share a common dream and work together. Morris focuses on the role of Martin Luther King in supporting multiple organizations and getting people to collaborate. It was his ability to bring people together, get them planning and discussing concrete objectives and giving them specific roles so that they support each other that made his efforts successful. His ability to be involved with all the movements needed to succeed and support all of them was instrumental in their success.

Movement centers develop where people coordinate their efforts. Leaders perform their roles for the good of the movement and everyone focuses on the tasks necessary for the movement to succeed rather than personal ambitions.

The Democratic Party is potentially a movement center and a safe house for progressives. But to get it there requires the creation of institutions that can organize Democrats, build support for progressive policies, influence Democratic officers, legislators, executives and officials; and organize people to accomplish the goals of the movement. The Tea Party has been a movement because it's been able to organize within the GOP. Progressives can do that within the Democratic party even better. If we can turn our efforts into creating movement centers to run candidates for offices and participate in running the party.

Using modern IT capabilities we should be able to create a movement world wide.

Educational and Training Institutions

I already mentioned the Historically Black Colleges and their role in the civil rights movement. But they weren't the only ones. Morris talks extensively about the Role of a school known as "Highlander" in educating activists and providing safety for them.

Halfway Houses

The Highlander school acted both as an educational institution and as a halfway house. Sometimes it is necessary for a movement to use education as a tool to prepare people so they can accomplish movement goals. For example Highlander trained many future leaders of the Civil Rights movement. The list of people who passed through Highlander school reads like a Whose Who of the Civil Rights movement. The same can be said about the classes of particularly influential teachers such as the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith I wrote about in another blog post But the Highlander school also played a role in the genesis for a Civil literacy movement that was part of the Civil Rights effort to overcome the literacy tests that the South imposed on black people wanting to vote. This Citizenship Movement trained people in civics and prepared them to pass the South's abusive Literacy tests. It was so successful that Southern Authorities labeled Highlander a subversive organization and tried to shut it down as "communist." But also had to give up on making people pass them.

Modern Workforce Training and efforts to help people get into College and Apprentice programs can create halfway houses for folks trying to escape poverty and oppression in a manner very similar to the role that the Highlander school had.

Halfway houses provide a refuge for people who need our help, a moment to breathe, and the resources to accomplish their goals.

Income Resources

When I hear "revolutionaries" talk disparagingly about industry and corporations I think of Karl Marx's collaborator Frederick Engels -- who was an industrialists. Any organization trying to accomplish a worthwhile cause or to privilege a basic positive right, functions on resources. For any movement to be successful it must be institutionalized and part of that involves access to long term resources. The Capitalist system is oppressive because wealth, income and capital are maldistributed not because those things are necessarily evil. Even monks need to eat. Creating income resources for people is a necessary part of institutionalizing a movement along with creating communications resources and organizing people.

Sources and Further Readings

the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith Article
Aldon D. Morris
Naked Power and the Civil Sphere []
Leadership in Social Movements Aldon Morris and Suzanne Staggenborg* []
Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing For Change []
Origins of the Civil Rights Movement by Aldon Morris (Amazon)
Carson Review:

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