Building from the Grassroots

Cynthia Bowens

DURING THIS POLITICAL period, two of the biggest challenges confronting the movement for major social change in this country are its inability to connect with masses of people, and the severe fragmentation that exists on the left.

These weaknesses keep the left on the fringes of the U.S. political scene, either isolated or absorbed by the dominant political apparatus We in New African Voices Alliance (NAVA) have, with some success, attempted to set priorities in our work so as to confront these challenges. Perhaps some of our experiences will be helpful to others In their organizing. We know that feedback from others on our efforts is always valued.

One of the first things which struck me in the whirlwind of activity following my initiation into the movement for social change after the invasion of Grenada was that the people are always the same: Rallies, demonstrations, forums and meetings always draw the same forces.

It seems that the left spends too much of its time working with the convinced and depending on the media to carry our message beyond our narrow circles. Nor are there many strategies at the aimed at the goal of making the left a recognized and trusted force in the communities with which we say we identify.

One source of this problem has to do with the issues left activists tend to mobilize around. Many times they see community struggles, in which everyday people are more likely to participate, as reformist. Furthermore, when left activists become involved in these struggles, they have tended to submerge their politics in an effort to prevent isolation.

The challenge for NAVA has been involving ourselves in community struggles while also promoting our politics. The African-American community is under serious attack. Not only do we face the same litany of issues which have historically been a part of our struggle (police brutality, poor health care, irrelevant education, inadequate housing, drugs, etc.), but we also confront an increasingly open environment of individual and institutional racism characterized by violent racist attacks, the increasing popularity of racist organizations and the repeal of protective legislation.

Organizing Resistance

An important aspect of this period in Philadelphia is that people are starting to fight back again. Of course, things have not nearly reached the level of activism of the 1960s and 1970s, but people ate organizing against drugs in their communities, for better education and, for adequate housing. Furthermore, organizing against racism is taking place on the high school and college campuses.

We believe that those of us with criticisms of the ability of this society—as presently organized—to solve the many social problems we face have a role to play in these struggles. We are convinced that there is a way to talk with people about what we believe without being intimidating or threatening.

We believe that people, especially African-American people, are so under attack that they are open to hearing the truth if it is spoken without traditional left jargon and if it is spoken by people whom they see actively championing their causes. Moreover, now is the time to confront people’s thinking. The victories of the past ten and more years for the right have not simply been on the economic and political front but also on the ideological front. North Americans in amazing numbers, especially those of European descent, have bought into the political ideology of the right with tragic results for all of us. We must, as the saying goes, “Win back the hearts and minds of our people.”

With all this in mind, NAVA has participated in several local struggles, from efforts to keep Philadelphia Gas Works from using an automatic meter reading system—which would have involved a monitoring device enabling the tapping of our phones—to attempts to prevent the privatization of sanitation collection. Both of these campaigns were successful not only in achieving their goals, but also in bringing diverse left and community forces together in common struggle. Both required mass mobilizations.

During the anti-phone tap campaign, we joined forces with the Consumers Education and Protective Association (CEPA) and a radio talk show personality to bring 250 to 500 people to city council meetings every Thursday for more than two summer months. The anti-privatization campaign culminated in a downtown march and rally of about 2,500 people representing community interests and organized labor—a real victory in light of the false separation that is generally made between community and labor interests.

Two other campaigns, which did not achieve their ultimate goals but which we consider successful nonetheless, involved our efforts both to elect a progressive slate to Philadelphia’s City Council through the Consumer Party and to have a community fire station reopened.

Max Weiner, who headed the Consumer Party ticket, received 133,000 votes, 113,000 votes more than the party had ever received before. Shauik Abu Tahir, a member of NAVA, was the campaign manager. He brought to the campaign our emphasis on meeting people where they are, talking with them and involving them in the process not just of campaigning but also of shaping the issues and the solutions around which the campaign was focused.

The party platform was developed in dialogue with constituent groups. For example, rather than simply writing a platform statement on education, we met with educational activists and talked with them about how they see the problems and what they would support as solutions. Because they had real input in developing the platform, some of these activists were willing to articulate it among their constituent groups.

Developing an inclusive process was very important here. Many groups shy away from this because the more forces that become involved, the less control any particular group is able to achieve. Being caught up in the issue of control, however, has led to our movements being small, isolated and ineffective.

Overcoming Divisions

The fire station campaign presented us with a similar situation. We were faced with four community organizations in the same area that had very little to do with one another. In some cases, things had reached the point where meetings held at a particular center would not be attended by leaders from the other centers. They did not want to interfere on someone else’s turf.

By the end of the campaign, all four groups were meeting together once a week. We had sustained six months of mobilizing (sometimes on a weekly basis). We had convinced city council to vote overwhelmingly for a resolution to reopen the fire station, to override Mayor Wilson Goode’s veto of the bill and to finance an attorney when Mayor Goode still refused to reopen the station. The case is still awaiting a court hearing.

What is key to all of these campaigns is that they promoted efforts to build unity among activists in the city; they were all coalition efforts. Our policy has been not to tackle issues on our own but to try to organize broad-based coalitions to address concerns. Just as important is that each of these campaigns gave us an opportunity to raise issues and shape the political discussion among community activists and everyday people.

One of the major issues which we consistently raise is the need independent political action. In each case mentioned above: 1) people were organizing to make demands on politicians who they had elected but who were insensitive to their needs and not willing to represent their interests 2) those involved had an opportunity to see that there is no real difference between Democrats and Republicans, and that mobilization of the people was the decisive factor in success or failure; 3) issues of who decides and has power were implicit.

In meetings, during mobilizations and in statements which we wrote and distributed regularly, we raised these issues and attempted to engage people in dialogue around them.

One of the spaces we have successfully developed for this dialogue is our monthly political social. During these sociaIs, we first have dinner together and then watch a movie, listen to a tape or-hear a speaker. Finally, we have a discussion in an informal setting.

These socials—which are generally well attended by people whom we have met in our work—provide an opportunity for us to hear what’s on people’s minds and for them to hear what’s on ours. As campaigns have ended, some people have remained active around other issues. Political socials and political statements also allow us to keep in contact with those who are not able to make such a commitment.

Toward a Longer View

One of the major frustrations we face in Philadelphia, reflecting a national dilemma, is maintaining momentum once a particular campaign has ended. This is directly related to the absence of an independent political instrument that represents the masses of people.

In the current period, then, one of our primary efforts is to build the Consumer Party. The Consumer Party has a long history in Philadelphia, where it is the only longstanding active independent party. The late Max Weiner, former leader of the party, was an outspoken champion of consumer interests.

In November 1989, Bees Weiner received 75,000 votes for city controller, even though she was placed on the ballot in Max’s place after his death just two weeks before the election.

With 10,000 signed-up supporters, the Consumer Party draws its strongest support from two areas of the city the west side, which is heavily African American, and the northwest, whichis primarily white working-class, middle-class and Jewish people.

But while it is clear that people recognized and supported the work of the Consumer Party and its affiliate, the Consumers Education and Protective Association (CEPA), that sentiment has not been translated into sufficient support at the polling place for an electoral victory, primarily because the necessary level of organization does not exist.

Since Weiner’s death, we have decided to devote even more of our resources to building the Consumer Party. We feel strongly that the development of independent political action today is crucial. The grip which the Democratic Party has on progressives as well as oppressed groups must be broken, it is not feasible to fight our oppression by relying on the political instruments of the oppressor.

But this grip cannot be broken until an alternative is built for people to support. Through the Consumer Party, we are in a real position to develop a viable third party in Philadelphia. The people know its work and trust its integrity. It has ballot status statewide. Its politics have a lot of similarities with our own, although we find the focus on consumer issues to be too narrow, failing to show clearly the separation of the interests of the rich and the poor.

Historically, the party leadership has taken positive stands on social justice issues. However, these issues have not been at the forefront of either the work of CEPA or the platform of the party. If the party is to continue growing, a stronger focus on social justice issues, which the party leadership supports, is imperative.

Another important factor in building the party concerns building it around the needs and concerns of the most oppressed segments of society. We feel very strongly that African-American leadership is essential to any progressive third party effort, local or national.

We feel further that unless such a party is willing to actively confront racism, it will not be the progressive alternative we envision. The Consumer Party already has a strong base within the African-American connunity. However, during the recent period, the leadership has been predominantly white. This also must be confronted.

The Consumer Party is an important formation in Philadelphia because it is the only independent formation on the horizon. We do a lot of work around issues, but when it comes to the electoral arena—to which many people are tied—we have no real alternatives to offer against the Democratic and Republican parties.

Formations such as the Consumer Party offer important openings in this battle, but to pose a comprehensive challenge to the mainstream political parties, it is imperative that opportunities for independent political action also be explored on the national level. Given the experience of two Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns and the Rainbow Coalition as well as the current questioning, excitement and concern which have been generated on the left by the upheavals in Eastern Europe, activists are increasingly talking about the need for dialogue on the left.

This is a positive sign and should be encouraged. Furthermore, calls for a third party are coming from ever more quarters. These calls should be heeded.

There are several issues concerning the electoral component of independent political action on which broad-based dialogue is important, including, 1) what kind of party are we talking about? 2) what are the stages in building a party and where do we begin? 3) what are the weaknesses of the left that have hindered curability to develop areal independent alternative in this country, and how can they be confronted? 4) what must be the role of African-American people and the struggle against racism in a third-party effort?

Currently the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA), of which we are a part, is discussing the need for a conference in the fall to get the ball started around this issue. Because our aim is to have abroad-based group of forces participate in shaping such a conference, its character has not yet been determined. However, the general goal is to initiate a discussion on how to build independent politics in the United States and on the centrality of the struggle against racism in moving this process forward.

July-August 1990, ATC 27