Dan Spalding calls the World Trade Organization protests "the
Paris '68 of our generation"--a defining utopian political
moment that has risen to iconic status. Intoxicated by the sense
that people taking to the streets can actually affect world events,
Spalding progressed from Seattle to other large protests before
finding his place with Midnight Special, a collective of activists
with an interest in legal issues.
The collective had its start teaching
"know your rights" workshops to protesters at large demonstrations,
preparing them for police action and arrest and negotiating plea
bargains for jail-bound activists. The Midnight Specialers stuck
to this model for nearly a year, living in a communal house in Oakland,
California, and traveling to other cities to coordinate trainings
and jail support.
But Spalding and his cohorts were
playing backup to a vision of social change that others had come
to see as too narrow. "At all of these big protests you see
people who have class privilege and are able to drop their jobs,
buy tickets, and fly to these events, spending a great deal of money,"
says one protest-hopping Obie. "Oftentimes I feel that these
people forget about activism in their local communities."
Such criticism became common among
activists in the months following the International Monetary Fund
protests, and nearly everybody interviewed for this article spoke
fervently of the need to organize locally. The challenge lies in
knowing how to start, and there are few high-profile models to follow.
The Midnight Specialers knew that
to build relationships with local community groups, they had to
learn who needed help--and how. One day Spalding strolled the four
blocks from his house to the offices of People United for a Better
Oakland (PUEBLO), an organization of low-income residents. One of
the group's key projects--aiding citizens in reporting police misconduct--matched
Spalding's former job experience at a police accountability agency
in New York. PUEBLO wanted to develop advocates' training sessions
and publish step-by-step manuals for lodging a complaint--an ideal
project for Midnight Special. Four months later, the two groups
had completed drafts of two manuals and begun planning the workshops.
The team is now working on a comic book for youth of color in Oakland
that explains their rights if stopped on the street by police.
Spalding praises the partnership
as a promising model for cooperation between the mobile, mostly
white world of anti-corporate-globalization activists and the low-income
communities and communities of color these activists profess to
care about so much.
"Plugging into community-based
organizations is the best way to disabuse yourself of the notion
that people of color or poor folks don't have any resources or aren't
doing anything," Spalding says. "A lot of times, those
groups are more organized than the white radicals."
In the end, his arguments for collaboration
are more practical than anything else. Community-based groups excel
at certain skills, like recruiting a membership base, responding
to the concerns of low-income people and those of color, and directly
affecting local politics. The newest crop of leftists, on the other
hand, are good at throwing large demonstrations to propel issues
onto the national radar screen, prompting glacial but tangible change
at high levels. Both camps care about the same issues: the criminal
justice system, environmental justice, and economic inequality--issues
that are too big for any group to solve on its own.
"By working together, we develop
the relationships we need to do long-term organizing together,"
Spalding says. "If we put our energies together, we're all
more likely to win."
--by Sara Marcus '99
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6 of A New Age of Activism