Nothing Is Ever Won Without Organizing
Remarks to the First Nonviolence Training Session of the Mexican Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity
By Al Giordano
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
February 27, 2012
(These are the author’s words, spoken in the first nonviolence training session of the Mexican movement against the war on drugs, attended by leaders and members of the movement’s national work commissions, held in Mexico City on February 17 to 19, 2012.)
Thank you to the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity for inviting me and to all of you present for your work and commitment. I will speak about organization, based on my own experiences as a community organizer and a journalist. The first thing you should know is this: All organizing begins with the telling of a story.
When we listen carefully to somebody’s story, we learn what motivates him, what she is passionate about. When we listen and learn from this story, we can then organize that person to do things that help us get what we want, by helping him and her get what they want, too. Listening is the first skill and duty of a community organizer. Before we can get somebody to do something, we have to learn what he and she want, which is usually different than what we presumed they wanted.
My story began at a workshop very much like this one. I was 17. It was an eight-hour nonviolence training session for people who wanted to participate in an occupation of a construction site in the Northeastern United States where a nuclear power plant was being built in a town called Seabrook. The movement that organized the occupation had decided that not everybody could participate. To be part of it, one had to attend the training in nonviolence, agree to certain guidelines, and organize one’s self with others in a small group of 10 or 15 people that they called an “affinity group.” Each group included people who would occupy the site, breaking the law in an act of civil disobedience, much like you saw the other night in the video about the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. Each small group also included others who would not commit criminal trespass and instead organize support – legal, financial, public relations – for those that did.
On May 1, 1977, during that occupation, I was arrested with 1,414 other people. I lied about my age, told the police I was 18, so they kept me in jail for three days with the adults. It was the first of what would be 27 arrests for political activity. These occupations generated a lot of media attention at first. That brought more people to the anti-nuclear movement. But the movement kept repeating the same tactic over and over again. The tactic of occupations got repetitive and boring for the public and the press, and meanwhile a more militant faction sought to change the agreed-upon rules so as to allow and promote the destruction of property: for example, they wanted to bring wire cutters and cut down the fence that surrounded the nuclear site. After a long series of assemblies and arguments, those of us who didn’t think that was a good idea got worn down, tired and bored by the stupid endless meetings with their unwieldy consensus decision-making process, and one by one, fewer and fewer of us who had built that movement attended. The fence cutting faction eventually won the day. They were able to complete exactly one sit-in with their plan to destroy property. The protests turned from impressive and popular displays of our movement’s high level of organization and discipline into a battle between protesters and police. The media covered it that way. The tactic of the occupation lost public support: much like what has happened in recent months to the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in the United States.
I was only 19 by then but I had learned a lot about how to do things – I was trained to train others in nonviolence – and also a lot about how not to do things. My passion remained stopping the nuclear power industry because I believed, and still do, that it was a great danger to public health and the environment. By then I had dropped out of university and gone to live in the mountains of Massachusetts, near the oldest nuclear power plant on earth in a town called Rowe. There was no local movement to close that nuclear plant. A majority of the local population supported it. Many had jobs there. The company paid most of the town’s taxes. And it was a conservative farming region that saw that the anti-nuclear movement was dominated by former 1960s hippies in their 30s and 40s with long hair and all the other fashion statements that came with that. It was very difficult to reach a population already skeptical about our cause.
At first I tried to repeat the old tactic of nonviolent sit-ins, marches and occupations, going back to the original way we had done them with strict nonviolent discipline and rules. But it wasn’t getting the response I had hoped from the local community, which even if I did it with short hair and an American flag pin on my shirt, they still saw getting arrested as something outside of their own personal experience, something strange and something to fear because it was illegal.
I had already studied and read all I could about nonviolence; about Gandhi and King and Cesar Chavez, and analyses by authors like Gene Sharp, who was then a young Harvard University professor, and learned the histories of their struggles and the tactics they used. The nonviolent struggle by union workers of the Solidarity movement in Poland was also in the news and I read everything I could find on it. But very little had been written about that side of their movements; most of the books and media reports were about the big protests and marches, but not about all the little things they did to organize before and between those big media events.
Then I learned about something called “community organizing.” There was a man in Chicago named Saul Alinsky who wrote about it, who had created his “Rules for Radicals” – here, I’ll pass out copies of those rules, translated to Spanish, to each of you right now to take home and study – and also a famous radical named Abbie Hoffman had just published his autobiography and told of all the things he had done to organize the youth movement against the Vietnam war that did not get attention on the news. Another community organizer had moved into our mountain region from Philadelphia. His name was Bill Moyer. He had arrived when we were still in the protest and occupation stage of the movement. He was a lot older and more experienced than I. One day he had coffee with me and he had the nerve to tell me I was doing everything wrong!
“You have to learn more about the people you are trying to organize!” he told me. I resented him at first but after thinking about what he had said I realized he was right. So I went to talk with him again. And he made me a challenge: That if I were willing to spend one night going door to door asking people in their homes to sign a petition against a local nuclear plant, he would agree to train me in how to do it. And then he would meet with me after that and we’d talk about what I learned. I agreed and together we devised a petition and I went down the street, alone, knocking on the doors of total strangers, talking with housewives, farmers, workers of every kind who had just come home from their jobs. Some were having dinner and said they couldn’t talk. Some worked for the nuclear plant and slammed the door in my face. Others invited me in for coffee and maybe 30 percent signed the petition. When I tried to recruit those people to come to our next protest march, nobody wanted to do that. Even those who signed the petition didn’t want to risk arrest or get their names in the newspaper as protesters. I learned that regular people don’t like protesters! And some had a lot of questions about me. What was a young man with a heavy Bronx, New York accent doing in their community trying to tell them what to do?
I realized that if I were going to create a movement against the local nuclear plants I would have to blend in with the local people. I had already cut my hair. But now I began to wear the same clothes they wore. I got myself a job on a farm doing the same work they did. I learned as much about their craft as I could in order to have a chance to teach them mine, which was and is rebellion, but I had to find a better word for it! The local people didn’t want to talk about nuclear power or politics. But they loved to talk about what was important to their daily lives and work: at the local store and café people talked about cutting their wood to heat their homes in the winter, they’d tell stories of a farm animal escaping how they chased it down. They’d talk about fishing in the local river, and like everyone on earth, they talked a lot about their children and grandchildren. Once I got to listen enough to what was important to them I found ways to talk to them about the nuclear plant: how it’s electricity was more expensive than the wood we all used to heat our homes; how the radioactive waste from the plant would enter the food chain and contaminate the pig on the farm and the fish we caught in the stream; and how long after the nuclear plant would no longer be making electricity its poison waste would still be contaminating their children and grandchildren. To the extent that anybody listened to me it was because, in their eyes, I had become one of them; another farmer and good neighbor.
After listening to all their stories I was able to find a small group of them that agreed with me and wanted to close the nuclear plant. We got together and formed a small organization. We weren’t doing occupations and protests any more – they had become unpopular with the public because of the behavior of the fence-cutting faction – so the media had lost interest. One of the first things we did was to publish our own newspaper. We filled it with patriotic images (much like the Zapatistas use the national flag and sing the national anthem at all their gatherings) and told them the facts about the nuclear plant – how it harmed the environment, threatened their children and their farms, and made their electricity more expensive – in ways that focused on what was important to them.
We then made a plan on how to get that newspaper into the hands of every local citizen. We went to every store in the region and asked if we could leave some on the counter for customers to take for free. Some said no, some said yes. We made a list of every one who said yes so for future issues of the newspaper we knew already where we could put them. Only a very few of us did this at first. That’s all it takes. We also had conversations with them and learned their stories. We used what we learned about them to find ways to involve them in our movement. There was a priest sympathetic with our cause, so we invited him to come to our meetings and do a prayer to start each one. We accepted donations in the form of farm products and whenever somebody donated a barrel of tomatoes or a cake they had baked, that person was now invested in our movement and wanted to see it win. Once we got them to do that tiny first step we could go back to them again and again and ask them to do other things. We looked for ways to involve people with the skills and talents they already had. And we made sure to follow up with them, to always go back to their kitchen tables and ask them how they viewed the movement’s progress. That way nobody felt used by us only when we needed something from them.
One of my friends and organizing teachers from those days, Renny Cushing, explained to our School of Authentic Journalism class last year that “community organizing was sort of like social networking, except without the Internet!”
Taking the lesson of Bill Moyer with me, the guy who had taught me how to knock on doors, we organized a door knocking petition campaign in the county capital of Greenfield. I made a map of the city and divided it by voting districts and recruited people to go door to door with our petition on specific streets, until every street was covered and we had visited the entire city in a few weekends. I found that once we started doing community organizing, others who were already organizing their neighborhoods and towns around other matters flocked to us and helped us in the work, including a local political boss named Charles F. McCarthy, who could talk to an entire electoral district himself in a single day, and also knew everyone there by first name. Planning and discipline attract people who are already good at those things!
By then I had gotten a job in a restaurant where all the workers were also owners. I used the restaurant both as an organizing center and also as a kind of cover. It was an excuse, as a “fellow business owner,” to visit all the other store and restaurant owners in that city, ask them to put our movement newspaper on the counter, and seek to recruit them to our movement. In doing so, I learned to remember everyone’s names, make little notes about things they had told me, about their stories, so that the next time I saw them I could show them that their stories were important and memorable to me. That’s a lot harder to do now at my age, there are more names and faces I’ve forgotten than many will ever know – that’s an organizer’s life – but a 20-year-old is hard-wired for that kind of memory. In computer terms, you younger people have the available disk space.
These new tactics – they had been developed for decades, really, but they were new to me – succeeded in getting many more people involved in our struggle. I learned that ordinary people were much more willing to do things like knock on doors than attend protest marches. The movement lasted many years and many more things happened. We kept developing new tactics. We had learned that repeating even a successful tactic didn’t work as well. Repetition – holding the same marches with the same slogans and emblems – gets old and boring to people. I did a lot of crazy things for media attention, too. One time I sued the nuclear plant owner for six million dollars and represented myself in court. It was kind of a joke, really, meant to make them look ridiculous with their high paid lawyers up against a 20-year-old in a court of law. But when it became a front-page newspaper story people began to stop me on the street and ask, “so, what are you going to do with the six million dollars?” Those are the things everyone noticed. But for the most part the work I did was not aimed at media attention. The part that few ever saw were the things like going door to door, or calling 100 people on the same night to invite them to hear a speaker on the dangers of nuclear power, or organizing a dance concert to pay the costs of the movement.
Our movement also came to realize that the most important problem for most people was economic. We had learned to emphasize that these nuclear plants made their electric bills more expensive, especially the new plants that were being constructed. We intervened against power company rate hikes and filled public hearings by state regulatory agencies. And by delaying the process of the companies getting permission to raise electric rates, we succeeded in making them even more expensive, and uncertain for investors. We followed the money and began to cut it off from our enemy, the nuclear power industry.
During those same years I participated in the first Wall Street occupation, in 1979. We organized 20,000 people from communities like my own, people who lived near and organized against other nuclear plants, to all go to New York and hold a legal rally urging Wall Street banks and investors to stop nuclear investments. The next day 2,000 of us, trained in nonviolence, blocked the doors of the Stock Exchange and got arrested for it. We were orderly, calm, peaceful, we didn’t yell at the police and we succeeded in creating a calm enough situation that the police didn’t abuse us as much as they did more militant protests. We got a lot of public sympathy for it. And the whole thing lasted only two days. Then we went back home and continued organizing at the local level. More importantly, we brought the risky nature of nuclear investments to public attention. It didn’t take too long before the banks and finance industries began to take a second look, to notice how we were delaying plant construction and making their investments worth less, and they began to divest from the nuclear industry.
In those years, orders for new nuclear plants ground to a halt, and no new ones were built for the next three decades in the United States. The local nuclear plant in Rowe where we had started from zero with a hostile population and worked step by step for years to organize and educate the local people, that nuclear plant no longer exists. There is a grassy field where it used to operate (some of the waste is still there, but at least it’s not making any more of it).
And I’m going to tell you what Abbie Hoffman – the American dissident – told me when he noticed my organizing work and, later, took me on as his student to teach even newer and better methods of making political change. Abbie said, “there is no greater high than challenging the power structure, giving it your all, and winning.” And we did win battle after battle and I learned that he was right. To take on a struggle and win feels like nothing else on earth. I’ve felt that way here in Latin America a few times too, like when Banamex sued me and we beat them in court! That’s a high that no drug can ever provide. I guess it’s kind of like winning the World Cup or the Super Bowl except it really means something and changes life for the better for millions of people. And by doing it, we learn that we have all the power we already need, more power than most of us know. We learn to stop consenting and giving that power to the State, to the private sector, to the media, and to take it back for ourselves. And in doing that we become more human in the process, and more able to organize, defend and advance everything we care about on this earth.
Nonviolence gave me the tools I needed to begin this life of struggle. Community organizing and authentic journalism gave me the tools I needed to finish and win many of those battles. Marches, protests, occupations, caravans, media events, all of those things are important but, alone, they have never won any struggle. Jim Lawson, architect of the desegregation of Nashville in 1960, who Martin Luther King called “the foremost theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world,” is still doing that work today – he is a professor in our School of Authentic Journalism – and he says he learned the same thing. It’s all about the organizing.
Here is a very important point: Organizing is not activism and activism is not organizing! Activists contact people that already agree with them and hold a protest or event aimed at getting media attention. They hold endless meetings and argue as much about stuff that doesn’t mean anything to the public – ideologies, political correctness, philosophical debates, identity politics and all the rest of the garbage taught in universities – as they do about stuff that does. Organizers are different than activists. We’re less interested in those that already agree with us. We are more interested in reaching, persuading and organizing people who don’t yet agree, or who agree but think nothing can be done, and finding the ways bring them into projects of mutual interest. That all begins by listening to their stories. After that, there are thousands of different tactics and methods that can be deployed toward winning a goal. Thirty-five years into this story, I’ve only done hundreds of those tactics. I still have many more to learn. Another thing about organizing is it never becomes boring. There’s always something new to find out, a new puzzle to solve.
The last thing I will tell you about my story is one of the reasons I ended up coming to Mexico fifteen years ago. Let me make you a challenge like the one Bill Moyer made to me: Today, I’d like you to practice at being an organizer. You can do that by listening very carefully to my story because it will tell you how to get me to do things that you want me to do. If you listen well you will understand my motives, what I want, and when you can devise ways to help me get them that also help you get what you want, that’s organizing!
Your struggle against the drug war is one I have fought for more than two decades, as an organizer and as a journalist. But I found in the United States that the many organizations and individuals who share that goal had zero interest in the two best weapons to get anything done: nonviolence and community organizing. They’re more interested in protesting, getting media attention, looking to “important” people up above – celebrities, politicians, academics, people with titles and degrees, “respectable” people – to endorse the legalization of drugs than they have ever been in going door to door and organizing on the most local level to build a mass movement to stop the war. I realized in the 1990s that my own people, the gringos, were the most clueless people on earth when it came to changing their own lives. And so I came to Mexico to learn from people here, I began with the indigenous of Chiapas, who were succeeding at changing their own lives where my own nation was not.
In the past eleven months the journalists at Narco News and I have reported your steps in this young movement. We think it’s pretty obvious that we have reported it differently than the rest of the media, even the rest of the independent media. Now, I want you to remember what Abbie said about there being no greater high than challenging the system, giving it your all, and winning. Now, imagine winning the struggle to end this war that has taken 50,000 lives in Mexico in five years. Imagine how good that will feel. Imagine how that will change your daily life and that of everyone else for the better when there is not so much violence and repression all around us. But also imagine how the very idea of “winning” might change you and everyone you are working with on behalf of this struggle.
I am here with you because in eleven months you have done more to end the drug war than my colleagues in the United States have been able to do in 40 years, even after they have spent millions of dollars trying to do so. You have already created the world’s largest mass movement, its biggest mobilizations, against that war, and you have already won public sympathy and opinion over to your side. I’m here reporting your story because I think you are advancing and have a better chance of winning this struggle than any other people in any other land. And when you win it, you will collapse the drug war almost immediately in the United States as a consequence and that will end it in most of the world, too.
That victory is in the present moment and in the space around each of you that you can reach out and touch. It is in the door that you will knock on and in the person whose story you will seek and listen to in order to be able to organize that person. That’s how our victories against nuclear power happened: one door at a time, one person’s story at a time. That always begins with the person nearest to us; our neighbor, our co-worker, our friend or family member.
If this movement stays on the path of serious nonviolence and mixes it with the art of community organizing, you are going to win. You’ll learn along the way that it’s not about protests or about denouncing or complaining. It’s not about how many people come to a demonstration (although you’ve already had more than have been at any action against the drug war in the history of the world). It’s not about asking for permission or endorsement from important people or powerful institutions. Victory is about what we build from below. It’s about organizing combined with the power of nonviolence.
My life was changed when we began this story, when I was 17, at a nonviolence workshop very much like this one. I really look forward to seeing, and reporting, your next steps. So what are you going to do?
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