Reflections on Organizing 2011

This past summer I presented on a panel about the organizing I had been involved in for the prior year to presenting. I started with a summary of work done along with political lessons learned along the way. At the end I concluded with different problems that occurred as part of our method.

I wanted to post it here as a way to share with people outside of that presenting space. I also want to personally be able to come back to this, what lessons I learned at the time, what new conclusions I come to with new organizing experiences, and take these lessons with me to my new organizing projects. This is a very important period of my political development and feel it should be put up somewhere to return to.

I’m going to start out with a quick summary of the past year’s organizing and then go into some questions and tensions that arose along the way.

We started off the Fall semester by putting on this event over Black Power and Chicanismo. We put on this event with some Mechistas that we had been developing relationships with. Together we brought out about 70 people from the previous years contact work.

From this event grew this study group that focused on organizing traditions, that was a weekly study group meant to go further into the organizing done by poc in the past. With this group we could bring contacts in closer and develop relationships with new people. Although the study group was short lived it helped us bring a new member into the group.

So during the previous summer and throughout the Fall semester we had contact with some Dream Act organizers from this organization called the University Leadership Initiative. That previous summer they had reached out to us to do a sit-in at a Republican congressperson’s office in San Antonio. But when we met up with them to discuss doing this with them they would only work on a popular front basis refusing to let us use the language of amnesty and wouldn’t let us have any say in how the sit-in was organized.

Then during that Fall semester, the dreamers held a “walkout” at UT, which was super assimilationist, and they held signs saying “enlist me now” and things like “i want to be a nurse in the army”. Some of the dreamers got on the mic talking about how they were “good” undocumented people, as opposed to the “bad” ones, because they spoke english and things like that. So around this time we asked them to do a round table event with us so we could publicly debate the dream act, possibly bringing the rank-and-file members of ULI in closer and discussing different strategies for fighting for immigrant rights, such as open enrollment, which was one of ep’s demands. But they decided not to do this event with us for various reasons, so we held our own Dream Act event where we brought up these different debates.

Shortly after this is when the budget cuts fight began to really pick up on campus. The administration proposed heavy cuts to ethnic and gender studies including over 40% cuts to MAS and AAAS. These cuts prompted some students to call a mass meeting under the name The Students Speak to discuss what we as students, some union members and some staff members, could do to fight against these cuts. Initially the tone was very militant. The demands were no cuts and a very anti-administration and anti-Student Government attitude. There was also broad talk about taking ep’s lead because we had been organizing around stopping budget cuts and speed-up for a while, and we had been building relationships with a lot of the students who called these meetings.

One question that did come up was whether or not these cuts were racist as well as small debates over tactics, but because of the overall militant feeling, we didn’t engage in these debates as much as we should have.

Anyway, an action was planned for Dec 1st, which was supposed to be a walk-out followed by a rally, but the walk-out was unsuccessful because of such short timing and many of the organizers didn’t completely know how to organize a walk-out. But close to 300 students came to the rally and stormed the tower where the president’s office is and our demands were delivered. Then we stormed the office of one of the deans of Liberal Arts where students questioned his passivity toward these cuts and demanded that he come to a student run forum in Feb which he agreed to do.

This all took place at the end of the Fall semester right before winter break, so in the beginning of the Spring semester ella pelea made this flyer depicting some of the administration in klan hoods, which was meant to raise some of these debates over whether or not the cuts were racist. But this led to fighting over the image and different people on the “left” started arguing that this kind of language would push people out of the movement–basically trying to police the language that would be used to discuss the cuts.

Around this time the administration said they would not attend our forum, and the debates about the flyer continued at the Feb 1st forum which had the effect of alienating and isolating new people who came specifically because it was an independent forum. This experience has raised some questions for us about how we understand the united front, and how we should apply it depending on circumstance and not just as a general approach. During this time we tried to raise debates not just over the language and images used, but trying to defend the united front by suggesting that every person or group has the right to make their own flier, and that any and every flier should and can be used, but we were accused of being too radical and doing damage to the movement by pushing people out.

So since the administration didn’t come, the forum was used to discuss next steps, and the March 2nd National day of action was the next action that was agreed upon. There was still no agreement on tactics at this point, and this was obvious during the forum when any and all demands were accepted (fair cuts), and no specific plan was made for March 2nd.

When thinking about this I remembered reading Crisis and Consciousness where AS talked about the organizing for March 4th the following year in CA. And at UC Santa Cruz they had open and democratic meetings, but since they all came with the intention of building a strike, so they could stay focused on that and that alone. I believe that in this case the united front approach was able to work because they had an agreement on tactics.

But at this point for us, we did not have clear mandates nor did we have political cohesion in TSS and we as ep had no way of dealing with it because most of our members were beginning to deal with serious burn-out.

So at the March 2 rally the idea to march off campus to the capitol was immediately thrown out by some of our more centrists lefties, including the ISO. As is common practice for centrists, they decided to open it up to a vote without allowing sufficient time for open debate. We didn’t push hard enough for this, and the march was led to the capitol where the president of UT was presenting testimony on the budget cuts to a legislative committee. Although we could have pushed the militancy of this action, when we got to the capitol there was a combination of things that made it really difficult. First, there were movement cops who were silencing people upon arrival (telling them to stop chanting). Then the group got split up as the people in the front left those in the back behind. Finally, when we got in the speakers were super liberal including an Student Government person who talked about how we need to work with the admin, others like the ISO talked about raising taxes to the rich. When people got in they waited quietly throughout the entire thing and signed up to talk at the end. It was clear that the militancy that existed on Dec 1 was gone.

At this time ep decided to take a step back from organizing. We wanted to reflect on the past year, do some readings on questions that arouse, and think about what kind of organizing we want to do in the future.

One of the things we are reflecting on is how we functioned as a cadre organization. Because of a high level of activity and theoretical development that took place, ep has been a space where many militants, including myself, have been developed. But since the members of ep functioned like full-time organizers, this would set a standard for the newer people joining and if they couldn’t function at such high capacity due to time or whatever, they would feel like they weren’t doing enough and drop out of the group.

Along with that we had closed meetings that were held off campus. We did this to hold each other accountable and to avoid people proposing things without seeing them through. The downside was we weren’t available to students and other people who may have been interested in organizing or talking about what was going on with the cuts.

Another thing that we are reflecting on is building majority women, people of color, and largely queer organization, which ep has been since the beginning. For me this has meant I have been prioritized as a woman of color militant whose own experiences and perspectives are not just valid, but seen as places of struggle. ep sees the development of poc and women as extremely important because we know it’s necessary for us to fight for our own freedom and that historically when white males have led movements it has meant silencing the demands of women and poc.

And while we have a general understanding of why this composition is important, and we have anti-patriarchal politics, we didn’t have a shared understanding of patriarchy.
Part of this was seen when there were differences in an understanding on what patriarchal behavior is, what the difference is between gendered and patriarchal behavior, and how we respond to these behaviors when they do come up, including the pedagogy in dealing with it.

We also lacked cohesion when dealing with white straight males which has led to Iess development of relationships, an informal practice of not flyering to them, and not knowing how to orient to them when they come around.

Finally, we had the experience of having a mother and daughter in the group. Initially when thinking about childcare it was as a way to allow the mother to participate in political work. But soon we began to think of the childcare as political work itself, instead of as a means to allow political work to happen. For example Graciela would attended meetings, coming to events, anything that she would attend, and all of us were developing a relationship with her as well as participating in the childcare.

CONCLUSION

So as of now it is unclear what the future of ella pelea is. Many members are already involved in other organizing projects, such as the Queer Theory Study Group which was started by a few members and recently has taken on a life of its own as some non-ep members who have been participating in the group are now taking up organizing the readings, facilitating discussions, and doing outreach for the group. There seems to be a lot of potential for this group to begin to organize in the future.

I am involved with working with previously incarcerated youth and trying to build some kind of organizing project with them.

Other folks are discussing starting a solidarity network here in Austin.

The reflection process is still happening because of different tensions and conversations that are being had, but in thinking about moving forward with any kind of organizing projects we feel it is important to draw lessons from the positives and negatives of cadre type organizations, what patriarchal or gendered behavior is and how to deal with is, and the question on how to prioritize women and poc without neglecting white dudes who are interested in organizing as well.