In contrast to the right, lefts train and learn from mistakes
Organize Right is a regular column with less beat than a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, like the left, lessons from its history and its impact on the present.
The last time we stopped, the socialist group Stomp Out Slumlords was in a slight crisis. They had invested several years of hard work in their community, but their efforts were plagued by apathy on the one hand and power struggles on the other; All successes were immediately followed by setbacks. You were, in short, in a situation that many grassroots Conservatives will be very familiar with, which means grassroots Conservatives can learn how stomp out slumlords managed to turn things around.
And turn around the things that they did. Stomp Out Slumlords started 2020 with 13 organizers working on seven properties and ended with over 40 organizers working in 20 locations, with a tenants committee in every building they worked in, supporting a dozen rental strikes and having the opportunity to put a few hundred people on the streets. The change is remarkable, and anyone who wants to know how to improve the effects should be careful.
The short version – and sorry, this will be disappointing – was that they didn’t flip it themselves. They had help. But how they got it and under what circumstances they got it is instructive.
There were three big things that turned things around for Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS). These goods:
- The pandemic
- The George Floyd protests
When the pandemic broke out, the immediate response from Stomp Out Slumlord was panic. How could they organize people under these conditions? To their surprise, however, interest in what they were selling skyrocketed as the lockdowns meant many people could not get rent. So suddenly there were a lot of people on board with aspects of their agenda. Also, the government was more open than usual to changing the status quo – since the pandemic had already changed the status quo, other types of change were suddenly less unthinkable.
And while SOS’s efforts have not been as successful as they had hoped, they made no attempt to mobilize from scratch in response to this crisis. SOS already existed. It was connected to other groups and had some people in useful places, such as on the board of directors of the DC Tenants Union (DCTU). So, it started at the beginning of March. First there were calls and emails to shut down the landlord-tenant court to make evictions impossible; they managed that quickly. Next up was a petition to terminate the rental, which received over 4,000 signatures, resulting in D.C. until July issued a rental moratorium. When a media mention led to a spate of calls to the SOS hotline, SOS used its existing volunteers to man phones, connect people with their neighbors, and connect with groups put together by the DCTU. They were able to use a lot of DSA manpower because so many DSA members were at home – here too they made use of existing structures.
George Floyd’s protests also helped build SOS. Mobilizing lots of different people and organizations, lots of people wanting to change the system, a return to street protests: all of this brings together real opportunities in recruiting, building communities among left-wing organizers and showing values.
But the real key to the Stomp Out Slumlords turnaround wasn’t external conditions. Even when interest had skyrocketed, it proved difficult to keep the momentum going. The biggest difference came when the people who worked at Reagan National Airport couldn’t get rent. This was important for two reasons. First, many of these people lived in the same housing complex. Second, there were militant union members active in Local 23 of Unite Here.
I mentioned earlier that unions are key to understanding left organizing because they are a legally protected pool of hard-earned skills relevant to a place almost every adult goes to every day. It should come as no surprise that members of a militant union who want to organize against their landlord are good at it. The members of Unite Here started putting together a group. They asked tenants to sign a petition on their social networks, formed an organizing committee, turned the petition signers into recruiters, made the most successful members of the organizing committee, and soon had over 300 tenants who signed the petition.
Some of the SOS employees who had worked for Local 23 heard about it. (That’s an underrated, important part of organizing: having friends in different organizations and hearing what they’re doing.) So they asked Unite Here for training, and in June 2020 they got it. The main lessons they learned were a) building structures and b) recruiting and supporting organic leaders.
If I haven’t mentioned it already, organic leadership is a key concept in organizing, especially in union organization. When you’re recruiting people for (say) a union, you’re not really looking for the most radical leftist you can find on a job board. You are looking for people that others will follow. Not just popular, but respected. These are the people who will attract more people. Think of it this way: Of the people you know, who would you seek advice if you faced a difficult decision? This person could be an organic leader.
Thanks to Unite Here’s training, SOS recognized the importance of organic leaders and knew how to find them. So SOS went a new way: They would make the development of management structures and the development of structures that could be mobilized their top priorities. They would focus on large apartment complexes, not houses or small apartment buildings, because that was more efficient. They would facilitate the work of their core organizers by setting up organizing committees in every building they organize, and to do this they turned to the organic leaders who could recruit their neighbors: “church group leaders, captains of football teams, grill masters.” , Group chat organizers from the service industry, gossipers who concern everyone, and people who win over their neighbors with charisma, self-confidence, empathy and calm under pressure. “
Usually these people weren’t the first to turn to them. And convincing these people to come by with facts and logic didn’t work. SOS had to learn to deal with people’s feelings. You had to open up. You really had to get to know people to build trust. And then they had to get her on board. As they put it:
Our role as organizers is to convince organic leaders that radical action is both necessary and possible, to get them to identify themselves as leaders so that they can get their networks to act as well, and then engage with others to network aspiring executives. In doing so, we achieve nothing by giving up our own leadership role and the responsibility that comes with it – namely, bringing more people into the fight and building more leaders by teaching them what we have learned.
They used the pandemic aid to radicalize people. Mutual aid projects and grocery deliveries were useful in identifying people in need, and soon SOS had over a thousand petition signatories in over a dozen buildings.
SOS has set up a new volunteer structure. Each volunteer was on a team of two to four people, ideally a mix of beginners and veterans, focused on an assigned location. Each team was part of a squad. Squads and teams were monitored by high-level organizers who controlled the mobilizations. The squad leaders coordinated the training and the overall work and reported regularly to the more experienced organizers.
As SOS people on the board of D.C. Tenants Union proposed a mass rally against the rent, other left groups supported it. Using the techniques taught to them by Unite Here, SOS construction teams set voter turnout goals and identified people to turn out for, then had one-on-one interviews with each potential, and then one-on-one interviews for a permanent commitment. They identified over 150 tenants and another 50 from social networks; along with people from other organizations, they brought together a crowd of over 300. Not long after, they began holding similar elections to prevent landlords from evicting tenants from suburban homes and singling out over a hundred people (albeit mostly committed activists rather than fellow tenants). ). This helped them connect with organizations in the suburbs. They continued to conduct street protests and resulted in confrontational crowds in administrative offices, owner-occupied homes and affluent neighborhoods.
They marched 200 people to the mayor’s house in October. Then the rent moratorium was extended until summer 2021 and a rent relief program was established that covered 80 percent of subsequent rents and had to forgive the landlords for the rest. Much future action depends on what the government is doing. (SOS had openly assessed state aid to the population as a potential threat to their organization: if people could pursue individual solutions by applying for aid, rent strikes and collective action would not be necessary. But aid proved to be insufficient, so SOS went for it good.) After conflicting with the conciliatory approach of the affiliated nonprofits, SOS left the DC Tenant Union in September and began work on creating a new tenant organization that focused on street organization rather than law passing.
Unite Here’s training gave SOS new skills, a new direction and a new goal: “To build an organization of organizers embedded in the daily life of the working class that can share the lessons we have learned and help people to get moving and “win what they can when opportunities arise.” And in their April 2018 report, SOS says quite frankly why they want to do that:
We think the most effective way to push for structural change is to drive the real estate market into crisis. Landlords need eviction in order to do business. We want to make their business impossible by preventing them from quitting tenants. We believe that this can give us the leverage to make claims, be it the right to a lawyer in the landlord-tenant court or more funding for social housing.
All of this sounds fair enough for left-of-center suggestions, but there is a little more. I left out the beginning of the first sentence. It actually begins: “We see the whole system of private land ownership and leasing as illegitimate (all of the land on this continent is stolen property anyway).”
That is the real goal: not only to exterminate the slum lords and not only to help poor people in the fight against displacement; Stomp Out Slumlords wants to use the fact that many people have normal conflicts with their landlords as a stepping stone to the idea that Americans are not allowed to own real estate at all.
This is something that almost no one really wants, so they are not leaders. But make no mistake: these groups are deeply radical, even revolutionary, and they want to change America in ways that make it unrecognizable. They mean business and we should take them seriously. But until they are able to end your right to own a home, they are showing value and trying to get people to take the first step in the direction they want to go. And if it doesn’t work at first try, try again.
Right-handed, even mainstream right-handed like the ones reading this, aren’t very good at this. We like to write off the left as complainers, but the truth is, they deal much better with failure than we do. Leftists tend to deal with failure by bluntly assessing their mistakes and making concrete plans for the future. Right-handed people tend to deal with failure by railing that the world is grossly unjust. That may be true, but it won’t help you mitigate injustice and persevere in the face of it. So we have a lot of room for improvement, and if there is anything you want to learn, it makes sense to learn from the example of people who are good at it.
Gentrified Socialists are clichéd, slightly ridiculous characters, but they are out there interacting with the people who need support for their agendas. And they learn that these people may have different ideas about what will benefit them than the organizers. So they make plans, revise them, learn to interact with other organizations, and when they get stuck they have institutions to help them.
Grassroots Right-Handed: Wouldn’t That Be Nice?
David Hines has a background in international human rights work with an emphasis on post-disappearance recovery and mass murder. He lives in Los Angeles.