Lack of respect

Let me start with the basics. There is an obvious lack of respect and maturity within activist "communities," both radical and not. The solution on an individual level is easy. If you don't respect the people you are working with, then do yourself and everyone else a favor and find another circle of people to work with. You could also go watch sports and scream obscenities at the opposing team's players, which would probably be a better thing for you to do since often disrespectful individuals in the activist scene come in with the same mentality. Such people also bring in (or form) cliques, resulting in bitter factions and distrust within the group. Understand that the cause your group is fighting for is bigger than you and your friends. It is bigger than your opinion and your ideas. Some of the most hard-working and dependable people I have worked with over the years have been sensible and mature enough to put the cause before themselves.

At the same time, we must understand that whatever cause your group is fighting for is more important than the group itself. Even if your organization is a big-box group with a ton of money and connections, the cause you are fighting for is still bigger and more important than the organization. If the organization becomes wrapped up in itself and starts doing the right things for the wrong reasons, then how long will it be before they start doing the wrong thing entirely? What if the organization is fighting to gain control or administration over something? What if it seeks control over the whole country in the name of the workers? If the organization is putting itself before its cause, then its attempt to implement a plan for justice after it gets what it wants will be ugly. Almost like a politician who claims to want justice for this and that, but doesn't deliver once they get into office because the money and power has corrupted them. Instead of this politician fighting for XYZ, it becomes this politician piggybacking off the people's desire for XYZ for personal gain. Organizations and their leaders can, will, and have become just like a dirty politician.

Lack of Respect for Young People

I was involved in my campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in college. For those of you who really ought to know, SDS has nothing to do with the Democrats. Although it isn't perfect or ideal (no group is), it is a student group with chapters involved in everything from anti-war struggles, student struggles, and issues facing the local working-class. While in SDS, many non-student activist groups treated us as if we were ignorant, lacking skill, and generally had no clue what we were doing. Some people may think it's alright to make assumptions about students and young people in general, but for those raised to have manners and basic respect it is never acceptable to just make assumptions about people you don't know.

People just assume student groups, and young activists in general, only exist to help the larger groups and political candidates. After finishing college, I had an interview with someone from Fair Share. The interviewer asked if I had built any fundraising experience with my student group. She seemed to be implying that the only value of student groups is to raise money for national groups and the like. After I explained to her that SDS didn't raise funds, but rather mastered the art of kicking ass on a shoe-string budget, she cut the interview short. Another example is when an "organizer" from Public Citizen came to one of our meetings to talk to us about doing a film screening and educating students about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. My local chapter of SDS just got a mention in Time Magazine for its anti-drone campaign, so we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves and confident in our abilities (Luckerson, 2013). This woman from Public Citizen just came in and talked down to us. She didn't really listen to anything we said to her when she asked us about ourselves, and at one point she implied we weren't adults. I was 22 at the time and she was in her late 20s at most. It was really patronizing, especially considering she knew nothing about our work or our lives before that day.

Often older people will just expect students to take part in their campaigns or events. They expect college activists to be some sort of political magic wand; they expect them to be able to bring out large numbers. These older activists have had their view of students clouded by romantic portrayals of student activism in the 1960s. Even if the romantic notions of students in the 1960s were accurate, it wouldn't matter because those days are over. Students are subject to the same influences, forces, and conditions as everyone else. They aren't the progressive or radical godsend you're looking for. We need to realize that students and young people are just like anyone else. They are individual people, and they may have valuable organizing experience or they may not. They may have significant, wisdom-bestowing life experiences, or they may not. They are just like any other generation. Recognize that and you will be able to give and receive the proper amount of respect when dealing with young activists.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with my supervisor. I was an intern for a federal sector labor union. My supervisor had around a decade worth of experience in the labor movement, so it was always interesting for me to hear her insights. We were having a good conversation, and, almost out of the blue, she told me that she thinks there won't be any unions in America 50 years from now. I don't quite remember what, specifically, we were talking about, but it really caught my attention. A few years later I was having lunch with another union organizer (from a different union), and our conversation reminded me of the one I had with my old supervisor. I asked her if she thought unions would be around in 50 years, and she responded by saying she didn't think they would make 25. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of which are beyond the scope of this essay, but the big reason relevant to this section is the mistreatment of young members and young staff by the unions.

On multiple occasions I have heard staff from different unions say they were saddened by the way young people were treated in their movement. An SEIU staffer, who began her training in her 30s, told me that the trainees who were younger than her were treated like garbage. An NEA staff member told me that younger teachers were being treated as second-class members by union leaders. Finally, I have a friend in Toronto who used to work for UNITE-HERE. He told me the story of how his boss took him out to lunch, offered to buy him a beer, and then fired him for drinking on the job! So to partially answer the question why it looks like unions will not be around in 50 (or less) years, it's because they neither respect nor want young people to be involved. After interning I went on to have my own negative experiences with unions where I was set up to fail, called a "child," and treated like garbage because of my age. If any organization, union or otherwise, is to have a future where membership thrives, then the creation of an environment where young people are welcome and viewed as equals is absolutely, positively mandatory.

Lack of Respect Between Organizations

On a different level, there can be a lack of respect between groups. I have encountered many community organizers here in Richmond that feel the labor unions don't respect them. One organizer for a statewide group, which I won't name to avoid drama, told me that dealing with unions makes her feel as if she “might as well not be in the room." Instead of talking to or with community organizations and their representatives, union staffers talk at them. Instead of mutually developing a plan for a campaign that both the union and the community organization are working together on, unions will dominate the discussion. They will tell their "community partners" how things are going to go, like it or not. All the unions really want is to borrow the members and the name of the community organizations. This leaves many active community members with a bitter taste in their mouths. Obviously this isn't good in the long run, and will prevent real partnerships from being formed in the future. The lesson is that you must not look down on organizations that are working towards the same goals that you are. The political battlefield is littered with egos, but those who seek to change the world must leave theirs at home. Our battles should not be fought for egos, but rather for truth and justice.

Last year during May Day in Chicago, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and their partners in the local SEIU decided that not only should they censor people who they disagree with during May Day, but that they own May Day entirely. When activists from the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign and the Industrial Workers of the World showed up to join the march, ICIRR and SEIU goons physically blocked them and had the police arrest them. A couple of immigrant activists are now facing the possibility of deportation as a result of ICIRR and SEIU’s thug tactics. All because a few activists held signs that didn’t fit well with their Democrat-centric platforms (“Solidarity Action” source). With solidarity like that, who needs fascism? With “progressives” like that, who needs the far right?

Self-absorption.

Some groups have become so insular that they don’t even bother looking beyond their projects or little circles to observe the world around them. Last year the League of the South, a separatist hate group, held a march in Richmond outside of the state capitol. They were joined by the Council of Conservative Citizens and various (not robed) members of the Ku Klux Klan. They were upset about a federal judge’s ruling that overturned Virginia’s gay marriage ban. Dozens of antifascist protesters showed up to counter-protest, but they were outnumbered by the League and its friends. It didn’t seem like it during the rally because the police made sure we couldn’t get a good look at each other. It was smart of them because if they didn’t, it wouldn’t have taken much for the racists to come over and clobber us.

Meanwhile, several blocks away, a statewide LGBT rights group was holding a celebration in honor of their members’ work and the recent federal ruling overturning the gay marriage ban. I am told there were around 50 people at their gathering. The organizers of the antifascist counter-protest alerted the LGBT rights group about the hate groups’ intentions days earlier. 50 people is actually pretty big for Richmond, and if they had marched over to the capitol to join us, then we would have outnumbered the bigots on the streets and shown everyone that Richmond won’t stand for hate. Instead what did these staunch advocates of equality do? Nothing. Two of them came over at the beginning of the rally to say hello, but they didn’t stay long. They stayed at their own little gathering and didn’t care that hate groups had converged on the capitol.

The state LGBT rights group was so insular, so wrapped up in their own little world, that they couldn’t be bothered to show up and support their allies and thwart their foes. Because of this, the League of the South and its friends are now talking about making a scene in Richmond again sometime. It isn’t my place to give a critique of the gay rights movement, but so many of these groups are wrapped up in their own specific area of struggle that they fail to see how it connects to other struggles. Apparently some of them are also too far lost in their own little bubbles that they fail to realize when they need to confront their enemies. But the gay rights group isn’t the only local group that deserves criticism for that day. At least two community organizations, the local IWW, and various anarchists clubs were also alerted. Surprise, surprise, most of them didn’t show up. The majority of people who attended the antifascist counter-protest were students and representatives of student organizations. It was a weekend protest, by the way, it’s not like they all had to work. It is worth noting, however, that the hate groups did something right that day. They collaborated. They looked beyond their own little pet projects and were able to get their heads together. All while the leftists of Richmond said to each other “psht, you aren’t us, who cares what you’re doing?” Left activists need to be a whole lot more collaborative and cooperative than they are now if we are to change what is wrong in our communities, let alone the world.

Lack of Respect for the Working-Class and General Public

Not too long ago I was having a talk with an old union “organizer.” She was a staff member who had been peddling the member cards for years and she was approaching retirement age. Eventually she asked me what I had hoped to accomplish politically. I told her I wanted to build a grassroots movement of working-class people that not only empowers them, but leads people in my community to understand that working people don’t need bosses or business tycoons and are capable of running the world and the various industries by themselves. If it wasn’t so typical of the professionals, it would have caught me off guard. She said that such a concept was “over the heads” of the average worker. It wasn’t over the heads of so many poor and illiterate people in Europe after World War I. It wasn’t over the heads of thousands of Americans in the historical IWW or Socialist Party in the early 20th Century. This, dear reader, exemplifies the contempt that so many organizations and their staff have for the working-class.

In a somewhat similar way, the average communist party in modern America also thinks like my acquaintance in the previous paragraph. They claim to follow models set forth by the likes of Lenin or Luxemburg, and yet they behave more like a clique sitting by themselves in a high school cafeteria. During the (defeated) revolution in Germany, it wasn’t uncommon to see non-members speaking at Communist Party (KPD) meetings or doing some organizing in support of the KPD. It wasn’t uncommon to see people who were just regular workers before the uprising joining the various revolutionary organizations and playing a leading role (Kuhn, 2012, chapters listed in citation). In today’s communist parties, you won’t see that. Supportive non-members are held at arm’s distance, or simply ignored and shooed away, and the creativity and eagerness of new members are stifled. You must go in the direction the leaders tell you, or get kicked out. You neither have a choice nor other options.

For example, I have an acquaintance who was involved with the Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s. He wasn’t a member, but he was very supportive and many of the members knew him well. He wanted to help them promote one of their major conferences, so he wrote to them requesting leaflets to pass around. They wrote back saying he wouldn’t be receiving any leaflets because he disagreed with them on a few trivial things.

You will find just as many ex-members of the various communist parties as you will current members because of this behavior. Members are stifled and micromanaged under the questionable guidance of national and local leaders. In many parties, those who don’t live near a chapter are disallowed to join. Others are welcome to join and pay monthly dues to the nearest chapter, but are denied the voting rights of those in actual chapters. New members must often go through a “candidacy” period that can last up to six months or more. The parties will say it’s a security thing, or a helpful process to make sure a potential “full member” understands the party and feels comfortable committing to it and its members.

In reality, it doesn’t take more than two months to understand the culture and positions of an organization. If they have weekly or bi-weekly meetings, it may not even take that long. The fact of the matter is that it’s a control thing. Leaders in these parties are afraid of real radical elements coming in and doing more serious rabble rousing than tame protests, useless petitions, or newspaper pushing. Leaders are afraid someone might come in and challenge their knowledge of politics, Marxism, or organizing. Leaders are afraid that active and engaged workers might enter the party and demand that dues money go to something that helps working-class people instead of to printing newspapers that don’t say anything new and books that don’t say anything that the party newspaper hasn’t said a million times already.