Sustainable Organizing

People want to be where people are. I’ve learned that in my life. Kids in school join the clubs that “everyone” joins. College kids go to the bars where “everyone” goes. And if you watch the news cycles, you’ll see that those young’uns all grow up to be adults who do the same thing. People in coffee shops, at barbecues, and in their offices are talking about the big story or issue of right-this-minute.

The way to get recognition for any cause is to make it seem like “everyone” cares and that “everyone” wants this changed right now! The causes that get nowhere are not the unpopular ones or the ones that people are against, but the ones that get no attention. In cultural work or activism, being ignored is far worse than being hated. If the activists can get that spark of attention and then fan that flame into mass action while the interest is still there, politicians and policy makers make the leaps to appease them . . . then it’s in place.

This semblance of public hysteria is one reason why the whole Facebook phenomenon is so limited. It seems that being on Facebook is essential — and in today’s world, it kind of is — but when anyone creates an event, everyone who is invited can see how many people RSVPed. There’s no way to make it seem like “everyone” will be there, when only 9 people out 1,500 invited people are “Confirmed Guests.” Those huge numbers under “Awaiting Reply” and “Not Attending” glare out. No one has to show up to see who showed up.

But unlike the facade of actual caring – like Facebook’s “Causes” – true organizing is getting real people in a real place, and the only way to do it is in a sustained manner. One-off events turn only a few heads. If you want people’s attention, you got to keep coming again and again. In 2005, a group of us organized the Montgomery Children’s Walk, an event on December 1 to involve school-age children in commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest. Attendance estimates ranged from 4,000 to 7,000, and the event was written up in the New York Times. It took a group of about ten of us a year to put it together. But afterward, we didn’t have so much as a cocktail together to talk about keeping the momentum going. We held a huge and successful event, and today when I mention it in conversations no one I talk to remembers it at all. Although we performed a herculean task in putting it on five years ago, we failed to follow up.

On another local topic, one of the worst decisions I have seen in a long time was the city of Montgomery’s decision to eliminate curbside recycling pick-up once a week. My street and many others all over town were once lined with the bright orange bags provided to recycle plastic, paper, and aluminum. Since the program ended last year, I even quit recycling for a while, until I found out about a drop-off station at Mount Scrap in downtown, and I started again. But I only know one other person who is doing that, too — the person who told me about Mount Scrap’s drop-off bins. If the city ever does start curbside pickup again, it will take years to get people back to recycling like they were. (In fairness to the city, they report that they are working to contract a company who claims they can turn ALL solid waste into sellable natural gas through an incineration process. However, that facility has yet to materialize.)

One successful example of this sustained organizing is Alabama’s Free the Hops movement. This group of volunteers made successful campaigns over and over to Alabama’s state legislature to allow the sale of higher ABV beers in the state. Even though it took several legislative sessions, they got the legal maximum of alcohol by volume (ABV) increased from 6% to 13.5%, which opened a flood gate of new products on the state’s markets, giving the state’s economy a much needed boost during the recession. The combination in Free the Hops’ strategy of effective organizing, legislative knowledge, and business support got a change made it a successful coalition. Regardless of whether you think boutique beers are an important issue, it doesn’t change the fact that Free the Hops succeeded where so many other political organizations fail.

The only way to get anything done is to keep coming back at the status quo with a reasonable request for positive change, with a constant refusal to go away. Sometimes that status quo is a government that isn’t responding to people’s needs. Sometimes that status quo is a population who accept unacceptable situations. Sometimes, it’s both. The way to fix it or at least change it is to keep coming, again and again, with the same demands.

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