Activism issue of On The Issues Magazine; Fall 2011
Speaking out, raising banners, uploading ideas - new & old activists are stepping up. On The Issues Magazine Fall 2011 explores progressive & feminist inspiration.

Unfurling the Progressive Banner: Where We Are
by Leslie Cagan

   

My mind is racing as I begin to address this quite large topic: the state of progressive activism. There is, after all, not a simple activist checklist that we can run down and if there are enough items checked we could declare all is well.

We live in a very difficult period: economic crisis here at home and around the globe; climate change brought on by reckless human indifference to the planet; senseless wars costing hundreds of billions of dollars and taking uncounted lives; attacks on, and the steady erosion of, hard-won civil and human rights; the list goes on. Advances in the struggles of working people and people of color and women and sexual minorities are countered and undermined by the right wing.

Right wing forces have gained tremendous power

Indeed, much of the policy agenda and public discourse (at least what's left of public discourse) is defined by the well-financed machinery of the right wing. To top it off, the liberals have pretty much collapsed and our "Yes We Can" president has squandered political capital through his not-at-all-based-in-reality constant refrain of bi-partisanship and compromise.

It's enough to make me -- maybe you, too -- run wild in the streets. But then that doesn't feel like it will be very useful or productive, so I guess that's why it's not happening.

But something is happening and that's where we need to look for inspiration and hope, for a sense that activism can make a difference and things can change for the better.

Each day my email inbox fills with notices about petitions to sign, letters to write, calls to make and, increasingly, street protests to participate in. It's all a little dizzying and sometimes makes me feel like our progressive social change movement is really a hodge-podge of disconnected parts. Do the folks organizing on one issue know what's happening on other issues? Is there any sense of priorities or strategic focus? Will it be possible to bring these seemingly disparate struggles into a more unified whole?

Basta! Moment

But then an event, maybe two, change the landscape. At the beginning of this year progressive activists were energized by the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo, soon followed by the massive demonstrations and take over of the State Capital in Madison, Wisconsin. Over night the activist climate had changed. People were standing up and as clearly as humanly possible they were saying enough is enough, time to shift gears.

And now there is another wave of activism that demands our attention. In mid-September a few hundred people – mostly young people - began what they call an occupation of Wall Street. For a week they camped out at a park in the heart of New York City's financial district, just a few short blocks from Wall St. itself and less than a block from Ground Zero. Each day they marched throughout the area and stayed in the park through each night. Mostly the media ignored them and so not very many people even knew they were there.

Then on Sept. 24th they marched up to Union Square, some two miles uptown. The NYC Police Department seems to have gone wild and ended up arresting upwards of 100 people. They used excessive force, including pepper spraying people for no apparent reason.

Ironically, this police misconduct broke the story wide open and launched substantial media attention on the OccupyWallStreet effort. More and more people began going to the park and supportive marches and rallies were being held. While it was growing in NYC, the even more remarkable thing is that the movement spread around the country. Within days, a website, occupytogether.org announced occupations, rallies, marches and other activities for over 100 cities around the U.S. and more internationally; Twitter feeds such as #occupywallstreet loaded up with news.

There was no sign of a single organizing committee that set all of these events up. Rather, they came together because local activists, wherever they were, heard about what was happening in New York and were inspired to act. OccupyWallStreet opened up new possibilities for people in every corner of the country.

This tells us something about the state of activism. For one thing, it is real, it is happening. Led by young people (although they insist there are no leaders – certainly not in the ways many of us might think of leadership), the commitment to nonviolent, nonstop street action is shaping how this is unfolding from day to day. It's not clear where it's going or how it will play out, but what is clear is that there is a contagious energy and it's all about challenging power and insisting on fundamental, effective, progressive change, now!

Key Points to Remember

From my years of organizing, here are five major points to pull out for consideration in furthering this activism. They are not sequential because all are really important:

  1. Voices of Youth. Young people must be at the forefront of activism and organizing. That's not to say that older and long-time activists have nothing to offer. Far from it. Our histories must be shared, the lessons we've learned need to be passed along and our ideas need to be taken seriously. But without the energy and ideas of young people our organizing will grow stagnant and too quickly becomes less effective.
  2. Nothing less than our future is at stake
  3. Breakout Approaches. Taking bold, creative action might be scary at first but it's often what takes organizing to a new level. To break out of old ways of thinking and out of the old boxes we're often caught in means being willing to try the unknown. It might not work, but is that really any worse that having the old ways not work? And if trying something new opens new space for additional ideas and actions to blossom, so much the better.
  4. Reach the Media. It's a mixed blessing, but developing ways to get our efforts and our ideas into the mainstream media must be a priority. We cannot abandon the alternative and progressive media, but if we are to bring our actions and thoughts to massive numbers of people then we have to find the best ways possible to get the story picked up by the mainstream media outlets.
  5. Keep Moving.When the timing is right and the action makes sense, people will respond and they will be supportive. But there's no need to wait for folks to come to us, we need to constantly be reaching out and welcoming others into our projects and actions and campaigns.
  6. Stay True, Be Flexible. Of course, when new people and organizations come in they will have their ideas as well. That's when the work gets hard. The challenge is to stay true to our beliefs, our action plans and our program while at the same time being open to new ideas – even ideas that might challenge how we are thinking and taking action.

This is both an exciting and a depressing moment in our nation. Right wing forces have gained tremendous power and leverage in just about every arena of life. But there is a fight-back that is unfolding and nothing less than our future is at stake. Not everyone can participate in an ongoing occupation. But everyone can do something, and probably can do more than one thinks is possible. Now, more than ever, is the time for activism. Now is the time to challenge our selves and one another.


Leslie Cagan has been organizing in the peace and justice movement for more than 45 years. Her coalition-building and organizing skills have mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in many of the nation's largest demonstrations and hundreds of public events. As the National Coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, the nation's largest antiwar coalition from 2002 to 2009, Cagan played a central role in revitalizing public protest. For decades, she has helped nurture grassroots organizing, written extensively in progressive media outlets and worked to bring diverse constituencies into common struggle.

Also see: Marcha de las Putas: SlutWalking Crosses Global Divides by Stephanie Gilmore in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Getting Over the (#stale) Online v Offline Debate by Amanda Marcotte in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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