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  October 15, 2009

Organizing for the poor Pt.3

Williams: Over the last several years the left has been suffering from demoralization and demobilization
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Steve Williams is co-director and co-founder of POWER. Steve cut his teeth as an organizer with the Philadelphia Union of the Homeless and the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, organizing welfare recipients and homeless people during a period of intense local attacks on lo-income people. He spearheads POWER's movement building and leadership development work. In 2006, Steve co-authored Towards Land, Work & Power- a primer on political economy for organizers and grassroots activists. He is active in several local and national efforts to build a powerful movement from the bottom up, including Grassroots Global Justice, the US Social Forum and the May 1st Alliance.

Paul Jay speaks to Steve Williams about what is needed to mobilize the left that has been passive for the last several years


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We're joined again by Steve Williams. He's the coexecutive director of POWER, People Organized to Win Employment Rights, based in San Francisco. Thanks for joining us again, Steve.


JAY: So the health-care debate brings out in a stark fashion a rather clear point: millions of people have not marched to Washington demanding a real public option, single-payer. When demonstrations have been called in Washington to do with health care, maybe a few hundred people, maybe a couple of thousand. But the idea of being able to mobilize, you know, a million-person march in support of public health care hasn't been possible. Why?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the left needs a larger vision, and I think that the economic crisis, in my experience, is maybe an even more pointed example. I think that there were critical opportunities that we missed out on. There were important slogans that were put forward, to "bail out the people, not the banks", but I don't think that that really pointed in the direction of how is it that we want society to function. And I think that, you know, as we begin to sort of just move from silo to silo, one issue to another, it really doesn't break through the level of demoralization and demobilization that the left and the progressive movement has been suffering from for the last several years. And I think that it's really critical for us to develop a large vision that people feel a level of connection to. So in POWER, when we do political education, when we're talking about the redevelopment of Bayview-Hunters Point, we're not just talking about the construction of one housing project or the creation of five jobs; we're talking about the reconstruction of all of San Francisco. And I think that it's critical that the progressive and left movement take on the responsibility of really creating a broad vision, so that working-class people of color have a level of investment and see that if they begin to take to the streets, if they begin to put pressure on their legislators that we're not just going to be able to make small incremental changes to the way that this country's functioning, but we can actually make colossal structural changes. And that, I think, is really the responsibility, and it has been a failing of the left thus far.

JAY: But what evidence do you have that you can have a movement that can make profound structural changes?

WILLIAMS: You look in Latin America—in Venezuela, in Argentina—I mean, there are examples—clearly very different contexts, but there are examples of people taking action and beginning to make very concrete changes. I think it's critical for us to begin looking at some of the examples, some of the lessons that are growing out of some of those current experiments. But then it's also important for us to really build on the history of progressive organizing and real mobilization that has existed in this country. Again, during the Great Depression, the economic crisis hit long before the major mobilizations really wound up taking place. I think that we are at a particularly critical moment in history, and we must have a level of urgency in the level of activity that we're taking on. But I also think that it's important for us to be historically patient and to understand that right now there are activities and efforts in place. It's critical for us to begin giving them voice in efforts like this, Real News, and then also to really support those, so that we can begin tying together much of the local organizing that's been happening.

JAY: The progressive organizers to a large extent have operated either in the margins or outside of the Democratic Party. But there's no indication that some kind of third-party effort, at least in the next historical phase—four, eight years, even longer—that that kind of third-party option is very viable—at least there's no indication of it yet. Has there been a mistake, do you think, on the part of people that consider themselves progressive and organizers, of not trying to actually have more direct influence in the Democratic Party and change it to some extent? And do you think that's a possibility?

WILLIAMS: The Democratic Party is what it is. It is centrally a party of capital. But within that I think that it is important to understand that there are various sections, various factions that have different interests and are pushing different agendas. And, you know, in the Bay Area we're fortunate to have a lot of activists who played a role in the Rainbow Coalition and who were ultimately able to push the Democratic Party in a direction of taking positions and moving forward agendas that they might not have done of their own volition. And I think it is really critical for us to be grappling with those questions. I know that a lot of young organizers and activists up until four years ago were treating the electoral system as if it were a virus. We wanted to stay as far away from it so that we weren't contaminated. But I think that through much of our local organizing we've really had to confront the issue of what it means to build power in order to be able to make change. And I think that a lot of us are seeing the lesson that centrally we have to be clear on what our objectives are, then based on that we can have tactical flexibility. But we also have to have a coordinated strategy that allows us to make interventions in a strategic way. And I think that one of the ways that folks are beginning to experiment with that is to really have more involvement and really try to make more of an influence and shift some of the balance of power within the Democratic Party, which does seem to me to be a strategic maneuver right now.

JAY: So in terms of the economy, we're probably looking at several years, some people say as much as a decade, of these unemployment levels, very high unemployment. Poverty across the country is likely to deepen even more. The stimulus package is going to, I guess, have some bit of a bump, and then it's going to wane. As you were saying earlier, there doesn't seem to be much in terms of structural change taking place, especially as it pertains to wages, which is where real demand is going to come from. So how do you see this next few years unfolding for your work and for the movement you're involved with?

WILLIAMS: One of the actions that's taking place is that the National People's Action is going to be mobilizing thousands of people into Chicago to confront the American Association of Bankers just later on this month. And I think that it's going to be opportunities in situations like that where ordinary people begin to take to the streets and begin confronting the bankers and the ruling elite, as opposed to being pit against one another. And I think that that really is going to be our central challenge over the coming period.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Steve.

WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network


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