The way America’s constructed, everyone has a position and a role to play. They involve wealth, family, profession, gender, and race. Without serious intervention, many people, especially Black people, are lied to when their family tells them, “you can be anything you want to be.” It is possible, but it’s not probable.
These paths were cemented over decades through social customs, business arrangements, and laws put into place to protect certain groups from being encroached upon by others – and that’s being diplomatic about it. That is the paradox: hoarding all the opportunity attacks the idea that America is the land of opportunity.
This quote by WEB Dubois sums up the impact of voting:
“In 1956, I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no "two evils" exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”
How, then, have Black Americans made gains? By recognizing collective interests and — during heightened times when the majority needed black participation in the country — causing a crisis where those interests need to be confronted.
Usually, the goals are the same: better resource and power distribution. This has become harder in our times: it is more difficult to gain power, the routes to get there more confusing. As the US gets reconstructed in a way that moves us further away from power, our tactics need to change.
The primary tactic that has been drilled into our heads is “go vote.” That’s not the best approach. Normally it’s not even in the top 3. People cling to the only power they think they have access to — voting. But it is not enough to exert power without purpose, without making demands.
When people engage in "voter encouragement" they do not care about getting people out to vote; they care about making voting appear to be powerful. These same people are bothered by anyone who critiques this and those who choose not to vote.
Why would anyone encourage this behavior? People are juggling a few things: wanting to feel validated that they “did something” to address problems, wanting to feel like they exercised some power because they're haunted by a feeling of powerlessness, or having no desire to pursue an alternative because they like what’s in front of them.
Make no mistake: there are a lot of problems, and it’s hard to exert power individually. That makes people blame themselves. We are socialized to center individualism and believe it's our fault.
It rewards several behaviors: not making demands, not voting, wanting to convince people voting is the only solution, and not questioning those who only champion voting and the validity of the entire affair.
This bothers me because it’s a missed opportunity to show people that they have power, that they can exert power, that they can influence governing, and that they can actually govern. Instead, they’re led to believe they are either powerless or an enemy.
What can you do to counter this? Organize. Organize around a set of demands, and avoid never-ending “Get Out The Vote” efforts that mobilize around a process and not a goal.
Kwame Touré got this right decades ago and it still goes unheard:
“In the 1960s we had no organizations — we had mobilization. You must not get confused between mobilization and organization. The confusion can be compounded if one doesn’t study properly Dr. King and doesn't know him. Dr. King was one of the greatest mobilizers this century's ever seen, but he never organized. He was not an organizer and for him, he didn't need organizing. After all, Dr. King was a reformist. When you're reformist, all you need to do is to put pressure on the people to tell them to do right. That's all Dr. King saw as his job was to put pressure on the American government to show them that they should live up to the constitution — that was his task. When you want power you organize because you don't want to put influence, you want to seize power for yourself and do for yourself. You're putting pressure for the others to do for you because Dr. King never thought of organization. Of course, when you mobilize everybody can be against the same thing. When you're organized everybody must be for the same thing. You mustn't think everybody being against the same thing means that everybody's for the same thing that's where the confusion arises.”
Voting may function as a form of power due to its ability to mobilize people, but it's not the only or even the most powerful thing we can do when organized. Pay attention to how people will express the need to exert power following this election. Look at how they do this — how they talk about organizing for something or mobilizing against something.
“...just because [everybody] is against the same thing together doesn't mean that everybody's for the same thing. Unity doesn't represent what you're against; it represents what you are for. Because if one speaks of unity, one must speak of organization. No people, no people can be free. No people will ever be free unless they are consciously organized.”
At this point, I look around and feel frustrated. The protests I joined in my city started seriously and were confronted seriously, but devolved into a renaissance faire with face painting. I see that as a window that opened and quickly closed.
Maybe it’s because people believe in the system enough that they think they can win within it. They believe that all we need are tweaks — a conference here, a lecture there, a march when someone is killed — and people will respond with reform.
This is incorrect. Most with power were shocked at the violence, but the voices that wielded power achieved their goal: showing dissent confronted by state violence. I won’t share any video of that; you can find hours of it online. If you were in many cities, you likely saw it firsthand. Instead, I’ll share a story of what organizing can do.
I have a friend who’s a former coworker. We live near each other and talk often. She lives in affordable housing in an expensive city. This housing meant access to better resources for her family: schools, grocers, community centers, etc. It’s a desirable location and construction has been overdeveloping the city.
The wealthiest residents encouraged development because it would increase their property values, so they put forward candidates to enact their agenda.Their candidates swept the city council, the managers’ council, and the mayor’s office. They were going to gentrify hard by pulling a common and clever bait-and-switch with the ~2000 affordable housing units in the area:
- Pay the residents to move out and to a nearby town with the ability to move back.
- Fund a temporary bus line from the nearby town to the major jobs’ areas.
- Demolish the affordable units to build ~1000 “market-rate” and 200 affordable units.
- Use a lottery to allow former residents to access the affordable units or pay the market rate.
- Move in the lottery-winning residents.
- Suspend the bus line.
My friend knew she had to do something to stop this, so she organized the people around a central issue. This was a multi-racial, multi-national effort. Black Americans, Central Americans, and white participants had a goal and knew they needed to achieve it. They made their issue force those in power to address it.
We started with 15 people knocking on doors in 2 buildings. In a week we had 150 people. In a month we had 500 people. By election day, we organized and dramatically increased turnout in a city of about 150,000 residents. For a city election in a non-presidential election year that normally gets ~20,000 voters to participate, turnout increased to ~50,000.
Both candidates got into office and enacted their demands:
- Keep social and economic diversity, including a policy of one-for-one replacement of city-owned committed affordable housing units.
- Create new affordable housing to offset the loss of market-rate affordable housing.
There are technical reasons it worked: They researched state laws on housing and funding, local laws on civil authority, electoral turnout history of the city, etc. All of those things were important, but not nearly as important as having something that mattered to her group and finding a way to gain collective power.
You can study how the city council makes legislation and spending plans, how the city manager makes spending decisions, and how the mayor signs them into action, but without it really meaning something to those people, you can’t organize them.
And here’s the most important piece: this group mobilized for a specific goal, but they continued to meet after this election and formed a tenant’s organization. When COVID hit, they obtained guarantees from the city that evictions and utility shut-offs would be stopped. This is only through December 31st, 2020, but it’s better than some of the alternatives.
If you want to make even modest reforms, stop assuming ignorance – none of this happened by accident. Stop being confused and believing you can educate people into doing the right thing. I have to tell myself this every day. I often fall into thinking that I just need to explain something and that will change peoples’ behavior.
Every time I start, I have to pause, suck in my words, and realize that I can’t convince or educate someone whose agenda is in opposition to mine. They know. Most people over a certain age either have a good grasp on how the world works, whether it works for or against them, and how to keep the system going.
The only chance is to work locally for change. There aren’t going to be easy victories at the national level — maybe not even at the state level. The country is designed so organizing can’t. When you engage with local or state-level power, you see who has power and recognize that they’ve had it for decades.
Voting is the mid-point of a long process to gain and wield power. It’s not the end result. If you don’t understand that, you’re likely being mobilized for someone else’s agenda and they just need your vote to serve as muted support.
Join or build a political project that develops real partnerships. It can teach you where the power exists, toughen you up for gathering political power (in our system that means numbers or money), and form real connections to gather people who are interested in self-determination as individuals and as a community.
Start your process. Build your consciousness. It’s better to be free to try and fail yourself than to have someone else constantly fail you.