A recurring question I attempt to tackle in this column is “how do we reconcile the tension between building a mass movement and respecting the diversity of the component parts of that movement?” It is a very important question that arises time and again during our organizing efforts. It showed its head in the wake of the immigrant mass demonstrations earlier this summer in a way that warrents visiting this territory again.
On June 18 an “open letter” with over 70 individuals and groups as signatories was circulated within the community. The gist of the letter was that the Immigrant Rights Coalition had wrongly denounced and expelled Radical Women, Freedom Socialist Party and several activists for going off message — raising issues related to feminism, socialism, and solidarity with other communities of color — and refusing to censor themselves in the future.
This is not a charge one can easily ignore. There’s no shortage of examples where Portland’s Left was eased out of campaigns in the name of message discipline.
There are two questions that must be asked under these circumstances. First, is “who is making the request that the issue be narrowly constructed?” Second, is whether “the attempt to edit out a broader message is a tactical move or truly an effort to move the campaign towards the Right.”
Key members of the Immigrant Rights Coalition include VOZ, PCUN, CAUSA and Oregon Farm Worker Ministry. Other groups belonging to the coalition include Portland Jobs with Justice, Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) and American Friends Service Committee, as well as Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party. The former bloc of groups compose the majority of organizations representing Oregon’s Latino community in various ways. The latter bloc of groups contains much of Portland’s progressive Left.
Groups like PCUN, VOZ and CAUSA have been there time and again to support workers’ struggles that did not focus on the Latino community. PCUN’s Ramon Ramírez has been a strong voice for linking war, peace and workers’ rights into a broader campaign. Let’s not forget that the big May Day demonstration was part of a general strike-type of strategy to inflict economic damage on the supporters of draconian immigration laws.
All of this — to me, at any rate —doesn’t sound like a coalition trying to move to the Right. Add to that the non-Latino groups like Jobs with Justice and PCASC who have engaged in direct action to move forward their progressive agenda and it seems there is little evidence that decisions to narrowly define the demonstration message to the Sensenbrenner threat was really an ideological retreat.
All of which brings me to my favorite refrain about real solidarity and coalition building: Newsflash! It’s not about meetings and manifestos.
It’s about recognizing some elements of our movement are more threatened than others. Sometimes it’s the Black Bloc. Sometimes it’s union members. Most the time it’s people of color, particularly those who are immigrants.
Once we recognize that, we must stand in real solidarity with them by letting them assume the leadership in this particular fight while we lend support. If the issue is a real deal-breaker then we must try not let it permanently poison the relationship and continue providing resources to whatever degree we can.
Does this approach threaten the democratic process within our movement?
Democracy is always at risk and therefore we must always be vigilant. But we must also recognize that democracy comes in different forms. Long evening meetings and abstract discussions reflect bourgeois privilege. There is just as much democracy, perhaps more, in a movement that relies on shop floor democratic action — permitting those in the front trenches to democratically decide the course of action.
Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party have been long-time fixtures in Portland’s progressive community. We respect their commitment even when we may not agree with their analysis or their goals in specific instances (something not restricted to just these two groups, by the way). We hope they will return to doing the important work of building the movement and aiding those involved in the same work.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: September 13, 2006