Nine Minutes and Twenty-nine Seconds

"Justice for George Floyd" in script lettering on a portrait of George Floyd mounted on a tall steel fence. With red fluttering decorations hovering around him.

Have you been following the Chauvin trial? I sure have. It’s actually news. It’s so rare that a white police officer is held accountable for murdering a person of color.

As I’m following the testimony, I have a couple questions.

First, at least six Minneapolis police officials have testified against Chauvin – in one day. One of them is the chief of police. Where have these people been???? Are there really only six cops in all of America who want to see justice done? Only six who value honesty more than a unqualified fellow officer? Only six who think the department’s reputation with the community is more important than the “thin blue line?” Or is it possible that the racial justice awakening of the last year got to them too?

I’m glad to see this new attitude, if there is one, but how many people had to die first? Surely there would be more trials and more convictions – and probably less death – if more cops would speak the truth instead of protecting questionable co-workers.

Also, are we worried that even if Chauvin is convicted that the response will be “See? The system works. The one bad apple was convicted. Done.” Yes, a conviction will send a message that even white police officers must obey the law. So, I do hope for a conviction. (Come on! A knee to the neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds? How does that not result in death?)

My concern is that the problem is not just one bad apple. It’s 400 years of treating people of color as if they’re guilty until proven innocent. It’s a system of “public safety” that’s not safe at all. It’s socialization that teaches us that people of color are scary and dangerous – especially Black people. It’s tacit and explicit permission to use official violence against people of color because there are rarely consequences. One conviction might be a step in the right direction; we have so much more work to do to rid ourselves of this system of white supremacy.

I’m bracing myself for the defense witnesses. Let’s see how many ways the defense can try to convince us that what killed George Floyd was his high blood pressure. Or previous drug use. Or an unruly crowd. Instead of a knee to the neck for #9minutesand29seconds.

Organizing to Win

After the 2018 mid-term elections, I was talking with a consultant who had helped a Democrat win a traditionally Republican US House seat. In our exuberance about the Democratic wins that year, we both shared stories of volunteers who had knocked on doors for the very first time. “They want to keep going, but we just don’t have anything for them to do!” she said.

Oh, but you do, I thought.

So, then I got to thinking. . . these red-to-blue House seats are not ours forever. Some of those voters went blue for the first time ever. They are never going to agree with the Democrats on the issues, so there has to be some other way to authentically connect with them if we want to keep winning.

Also, there are potential progressive voters who believe that politics just isn’t about them so they don’t bother. We can show them memes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King all day, but without a relationship, they still feel in their hearts that their votes don’t matter.

Then I started thinking like an organizer. I bet we have experiences and values in common. If Democrats wanted to win again in 2020, they must start building relationships with voters. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)

As it turns out, I was right. Democrats lost 11 seats that they’d flipped in 2018.

Seeing those results, a plan started to take shape in my mind: engage energized and inspired volunteers to bring people together to build relationships with Democratic leaders and potential candidates.

Step One

Train volunteers on deep canvassing techniques. This tactic involves engaging a voter in a conversation. Really. Standing on the front step talking for about 15 minutes. By itself, this conversation can open a space for people to change their opinion. When national organizing network People’s Action opened their deep canvassing results to an evaluation by data scientists, the scientists found that 3.1% of voters moved to Biden support. The conversation moved 8.5% of Independent women voters. (Read the whole 14-page report.)

Step Two

Invite those deep-canvassed voters to a community meeting. Taking the building-relationships theme up a notch, these meetings are small group conversations, not town halls. In each small group, a facilitator asks discussion questions that provide opportunities for participants to tell a story. The facilitator guides the discussion so everyone has a chance to speak and the conversation doesn’t go off the rails.

After the small groups have finished and the groups have come back together, a speaker asks for reports back from each group. In that way, that leader has an opportunity to connect with everyone in the room by telling their own story to relate to each group.

Would this plan lead to a tidal wave of support for climate change measures or abortion rights? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The point is to build relationships.

One of the most important lessons from the Georgia runoff this year is about off-year organizing. We can’t parachute into neighborhoods four months before an election and expect to keep winning. Building real strength requires investment.

If all we do is scramble to win elections every two years, that’s all we’re ever going to do. If we invest in building relationships with voters, we will not only win, but we might also win on the issues that brought us in to politics in the first place. Let’s invest in building sustainable, lasting power.

A plan for a pilot project is coming together. To get involved in building this experiment, email mira@organizingtowin.net. Or fill out the contact form.

Organizing Is Bringing People Together To Build Power

With guest co-author Ken Fujimoto

In Mira’s piece about online and IRL organizing, she referred to a difference between organizing and mobilizing and promised (threatened?) a follow-up piece.

Mobilizing is reaching out to voters, activists or volunteers to move them to do something your organization or campaign has already determined is the right course of action. Like voting for a candidate, canvassing, filling a committee room or speaking at a hearing. Your organization is probably right about that course of action and members have entrusted leadership to make those decisions. So, great work!

Organizing creates a deeper and more fundamental change. A strategic organizing campaign accomplishes several purposes all at once. Organizers not only win on an identified issue, but they also build power. 

Or as my first organizing supervisor puts it “Organizing is transformational.” 

What about social media, email, mobile, mass text and recruitment apps? They all help build the crowd, fill volunteer shifts, build a meeting, get out the vote, etc. But is that organizing? It can be. It’s only when all those people come together that they have the opportunity to share experiences, build trust and start that all-important relationship. The stronger the relationships, the deeper the transformation. 

Organizing is bringing people together to build power. That act of building power involves consent, consensus and agency. 

In the strongest organizing campaigns, the people most impacted by injustice are the leaders. Not just the face in front of the cameras, but the people who make decisions, identify the key issues, build consensus on the solution and own the campaign to win. They’re also the faces in front of the cameras because they are the subject matter experts on their own lives.

Organizing staff bring people together, provide a forum for building relationships, provide training and coaching and facilitate decision-making. They don’t determine the issues, create the strategy or tell people what to do. 

We organize so we can mobilize a constituency to take action. We cannot mobilize anyone if they were not organized previously; or in other words, if that constituency hasn’t already built power. Mobilizing is the unleashing of that power. Organizing is about building an ongoing constituency. Build power, then mobilize that power.  That’s organizing.

Co-author Ken Fujimoto is a social justice advocate who focuses on the development of people who aspire to take responsibility for a leadership role in public life. His mission is to identify, train, and develop these leaders to take on the world. His guiding question is “What is the legacy we are leaving for our children?”

What are we willing to question?

Most of the people I know express unqualified support for Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. Me too. However — and there’s always a but — is that enough? The problem isn’t that our entire criminal justice system is shot through with racism, from the “suspicious activity” that is reported to police to the extreme inequities in sentencing.

The problem is that our entire culture is shot through with racism. So many of us learn from birth that the face of danger in America is Black. We teach hate and fear, consciously or not. If we (mostly white people) don’t actively confront that learning and unlearn it, we’re contributing to the problem. If we really want to disrupt systemic racism, we have to be willing to question everything we know is true.

I’m willing to question the truth that I have a comfortable life because I’m smart and I work hard. I’m willing to consider that I might have a comfortable life at someone else’s expense. Were my parents able to buy a house in a good school district because of the legacy of housing covenants? Maybe. (Although we are Jewish. A housing covenant would have kept us out too.)

I’m willing to question the truth of history that I learned in school. Do I benefit from history textbooks that portray the Nat Turner rebellion as an unjustified bloody terrorist attack? Or paint John Brown as a wild-eyed traitor? Or present Indigenous people as passive victims with no agency? Or devote a grand total of one paragraph each to game-changers like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez (if they’re mentioned at all)? Probably so, because it teaches us that American history is the history of white people. (Note the glaring absence of women too.)

I’m willing to question my assessment of “angry Black women” who confront store managers or bus drivers when they’ve been mistreated. Would I be treated with the same hostility or dismissive attitude (over and over and over again) if I complained? Probably not. (For searing testimony about the effects of daily racism and sexism on many women of color, read This Bridge Called My Back.)

I’m willing to question the existence of “proper English.” Maybe that’s just the English that middle-class white people speak in the 21st Century.

Dismantling racism is about more than passing better laws and electing different people. We have to change culture too. Sometimes one leads to the other, but not by magic.

What are you willing to question in order to help dismantle systemic racism?

I’m a Justin Amash fan.

There. I said it. I’m not voting for him, ever. However. . .

This Politico piece, by Tim Alberta, about Amash is very insightful. For anyone who is tempted to think that he’s on your side because he’s against Donald Trump, don’t. However, he has a lot of great things to say about partisanship and economic disaster recovery. The piece is also a flash reminder of how sexist our politics are.

Amash spends four paragraphs hitting the nail squarely on the head about the similarities and differences between Biden and Trump and Democrats and Republicans. He sounds an awful lot like left-wing activists who complain that there is no difference between the parties. His comments about purity are particularly striking:

“When you get on the wrong side of people on the left, a lot of it sounds like things I hear from people on the right.”

“What they don’t recognize is that [Trump]’s a creature of this system where everyone is hyperpartisan and hates each other and where they’re told repeatedly, ‘If you don’t vote for our party nominee, you are selling out your family, your friends, your country to these people who want to destroy it.’ And that’s what both sides are told.”

Don’t worry. I’ll do everything I can this year to #VoteBlueNoMatterWho. But it has to be said: the polarization is not just their fault. We have purity tests too.

The surprising part of the interview was Amash’s advocacy for handing out cash. He has (justified) harsh criticism for the tendency of relief plans to reward giant corporations and wealthy donors of both major parties. The surprising part for a libertarian was this:

“If they did something like, let’s just send everyone some money, direct cash payments, as I suggested, universal monthly cash relief, there’s only one constituency for that. That’s the entire public. And they’re not getting much out of that in terms of politics.”

What populist, progressive, capitalism-questioning, near-socialist doesn’t love that idea?? (He lost me a little later on, with the typical ultra-conservative disparagement of the role of the federal government and the UN.)

Finally, another significant part of the piece is less about Amash and more about the sexism in politics. He spends most of a long paragraph talking about how great he is. He starts six sentences with “I am [something great about Justin Amash.]” What would we say about a woman who started six sentences in one paragraph with “I” instead of “we?” And listed all kinds of ways she’s great? Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t be that she’s a great leader.

In a time when everything is us vs. them, I hardly expected to have so much in common with a libertarian, right-wing, Tea Party, Freedom Caucus true believer. But here we are.