Saturday, January 24, 2015

Social Movements in 2014: A Report

What follows is a survey of American social movement activity in 2014. It is based on searches through what I posted on facebook throughout the year. The complete list of what I found can be examined here. Although it is not exhaustive and a little heavy on New York City, where I am based, I think it accurately captures the major actions and drift of things. I found six major foci of activity throughout the year--labor, pushback against austerity (somewhat divisible into urban struggles and higher ed), climate change, boycott/divestment and sanctions on Israel, Black Lives Matter, and feminism. Black Lives Matter, better known before October or so as struggles against the New Jim Crow, police violence, and mass incarceration, turned itself into a genuine mass movement which may profoundly reshape the political landscape in the US. But BDS also dramatically grew in its public profile. I suspect activists involved in fighting climate change and challenging rape culture also felt that it was mostly a good year. The fight for fifteen campaign of fast food workers grew, while many other labor campaigns bubbled below the radar. Although barely noted in the mass media, anti-austerity struggles around public schools, water, and higher education also escalated. Below I will review these developments and assess the prospects for these movements to merge, build off each other, and inspire additional struggles.

Quantitatively, labor struggles are only exceeded in my wrap up by the New Jim Crow/Black Lives Matter activity. This may seem surprising in light of the endless, and serious, handwringing about the decline of the labor movement and its inability to change the political and social climate that is suffocating it. Perhaps it is just a bias on my part. But it is also the case that unions remain large organizations capable of launching and supporting highly consequential struggles--there aren’t too many things more important to most people than how much they are paid and the conditions they work under. Notwithstanding the sad UAW defeat at a Tennessee plant where Volkswagen had made clear it wouldn’t oppose the union, there are real signs of a fight back culture both within unions and within parts of the working class. Even at that Volkswagen plant, the UAW went on to form a minority union, rather than slink away as it probably would have ten years ago. But there were more significant signs of what I am talking about. Most notably, there is the Fight for Fifteen campaign of fast food workers. Since it was initiated in 2012, the campaign has remained maddeningly slow building--no reports of marches spontaneously swelling as low wage workers simply jump onboard. Instead, it has grown one participant at a time, marked by carefully planned, media friendly protest (“strike”) days. And yet it has influenced American society as no labor campaign in recent history, fueling numerous struggles for higher minimum wages throughout the country. It has also continued to evolve, this year reaching out to other low wage workers such as home care workers, and engaging in civil disobedience. The Fight for Fifteen campaign also seemed to inspire Walmart workers to step up their game, after being on the defensive against retaliations by their employers for the last couple of years. In May, “Walmart Moms” staged a walkout. In November, workers staged civil disobedience protests and also engaged in a sit-down strke at a store in California. Drivers and longshoremen at the ports on the West Coast, truly a strategically located work force, given the heavy dependence of the US economy on imports, engaged in a protracted struggle for recognition which ended in victory in January, although contract issues remain unresolved. Airport workers at low wage concessions staged protests in New York and Minneapolis. Teachers elected foes of corporate education reform to head their unions in a number of large cities. Efforts of low paid adjuncts to unionize around the country picked up steam.  SEIU won $15/hour for teaching assistants in Los Angeles schools. The “sharing” economy was also the site of struggles, as Uber drivers struck and Lyft drivers burned the pink mustaches that adorn their cars. Meanwhile, Facebook shuttle bus drivers joined the teamsters.   This brief summary gives a sense of the terrain of US labor struggles--low paid service work, transportation (in many variants), and education are among the key foci.  

As labor has shown more interest lately in connecting with other struggles, it blends a little into our next category, pushback against privatization and deterioration of public services. Here we would put Moral Mondays, initiated in 2013 in North Carolina, but spreading throughout the South and even further afield in 2014. Moral Mondays is rooted in the NAACP and builds alliances of labor and community groups and progressive activists to push back against right wing agendas at state houses. One major demand in 2014 was for states that have avoided doing so to fund the expansion of medicaid under Obamacare. Public education was another site of some of the most urgent struggles in this category. In Brooklyn, teachers at one school refused to administer standardized tests. In Newark, students repeatedly protested against the “One Newark” school reform plan. In Chicago, students protested school closures. In Compton, teachers held a sick out. In Philadelphia, thousands protested when the School Reform Commission unilaterally cancelled teachers’ contracts. In Detroit, city efforts to cut the water service of individuals said to be delinquent (but not major corporations, who were allowed to be laggards about paying their bills) were confronted by protests, leading to a reprieve, which, last I heard, was no longer in effect. The Ferguson protests crossed over with this category. Moral Mondays made an appearance during Ferguson October. In December, Philly students staged a die in to protest a student who died as a result of a lack of a nurse at school. In Baltimore, protesters shut down a meeting of the school board, declaring “Black lives matter.”

Some movements at universities should be noted in this context as well. At the University of Southern Maine, an administrative effort to savage a bunch of departments with faculty layoffs led to a student occupation of university buildings, and an eventual reversal. In November, The University of California was also the site of resurgent struggle--perhaps the most intense since 2009--against an effort to raise tuition via student fees. Do struggles against commencement speakers like Condeleeza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and Bill Maher fit into this category? Such speakers are chosen by administrators to bring the image of the campus in line with dominant neoliberal and neoconservative trends.

Renascent feminism turned its attention towards violence against women in 2014, although I also picked up a report on networks of activists connecting women who live in the expanding areas of the US where it is impossible to get an abortion with providers. In May, dominant narratives of the UCSB shooter Elliot Rodgers as being all about mental illness or gun control were disrupted by social media demands that his misogny, indistinguishable from that of online subcultures like “Mens Rights Activists” be understood as the context for his rampage. Later in the year, considerable attention was focused on the issue of rape on college campuses. The state of California adopted “affirmative consent” as the standard at the state’s colleges and universities. Perhaps the most visible protest of rape was that initiated by rape victim Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, who carried her mattress around campus as a symbol of the burden of violence. In turn this led to “collective carries” of the mattress by those who shared the sentiment, and this gesture was replicated around the US and even further afield.   

Climate change activism was divided into roughly two phases. During the first half of the year, activists protested the Keystone XL pipeline, including civil disobedience at the White House and a “Cowboy-Indian alliance” of ranchers and Native Americans. Additionally, the movement to boycott fossil fuels picked up energy, with the Unitarian Church voting to divest. The second phase was defined by the People’s Climate March in September. Criticized widely on the far left for its failure to raise specific demands, the march did incubate, in the context of a conjoined conference, the People’s Climate Summit, climate justice activism rooted in working class communities. Although not really mobilizing 300,000 participants as some overenthusiastic voices claimed, the march itself was huge, and, along with the aforementioned climate justice groups, also featured the participation of labor unions, who have not always been quick to join environmental coalitions. The Monday following the march, activists “flooded Wall Street,” reviving direct action tactics that had been largely absent from New York City since the demise of Occupy Wall Street. Following the March, climate activism was relatively low profile, although a lively struggle in upstate New York against a proposed Seneca Lake gas storage facility should be counted. Anti-fracking activists in New York state chalked up a victory as Andrew Cuomo banned fracking.

Movements challenging Israeli policies and US support for those policies, most notably the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,  also raised their profile in 2014. This is a movement with a particularly tough road, given the lack of anything resembling liberal allies in electoral politics or the mainstream media. Such movements have few options but to try to raise the status of their issue to a public controversy, which is what this movement has begun to do. In fact, 2013 was a fairly successful year in this regard, and much of the activism at the beginning of the year involved fending off repression of the movement responding to this success. In February, an anti-BDS bill that would have seriously impinged on academic freedom was fended off in New York state. In April, Northeastern University was forced to end its suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine. But the real turning point came with the Israeli assault on Gaza. Even as much of the mainstream media seemed more constricted than ever, movement activity escalated.  Most notably, the group Jewish Voices for Peace rapidly expanded, and protests erupted within the Jewish community. For example, protesters were arrested at the Philadelphia Jewish Federation. This culminated in October with the Open Hillel conference, which challenged the major Jewish campus organization, notoriously for shutting out debate about Israel, but facing growing dissension from within. Another very notable aspect of activism was the blockading of ships seeking to unload goods from Israel in Oakland and Florida. But perhaps the most dramatic surge was related to the revoking of a job for Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Although people have been punished within academia before for speaking out about Israel, the Salaita case generated an unprecedented level of pushback. While he has not been rehired, he is now a prominent national figure for the movement and UIUC’s reputation has taken a hit. The case continues to reverberate throughout academia and has fueled more talk about participating in BDS.  We should not conclude this section without noting that the two most prominent standard bearers for progressive electoral politics, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have both been targeted for protests, given their uncritical support for Israel, and both took small steps away from the most reactionary positions in response.

Of course, the biggest break-out movement of 2014 was the series of protests against police killings, and, more generally, the criminalization of African Americans and others, now known as Black Lives Matter. This movement has escalated so dramatically since the protests following the killing of Mike Brown in August that it can be forgotten that it has actually been building for some time--recall the national protests after Trayvon Martin was killed and then after George Zimmerman was acquitted, in 2012. In January, there were protests following the not guilty verdict for the officers involved in killing White mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas in California. In April, incarcerated workers in Alabama struck. Also in April, #mynypd, a hashtag encouraged by the NYPD, backfired as people used it to link to videos of police violence and tell their stories. In May there were protests against a killing in Albuquerque as well as in East Salinas. In July, rallies were held immediately following the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island. Cecilly McMillan, an Occupy activist sentenced to three months in jail on a preposterous charge of assaulting an officer, spoke out about conditions at Rikers.

But it was in August, when protests exploded in Ferguson in response to the killing of Mike Brown, that the movement decisively expanded. Several developments were notable--the emergence of a young generation of activists, including many women in leadership roles, uninterested in being led by more established figures such as Al Shaprton.  A second was the high visibility of the militarized police response, which failed to quell the protests. A third was links made by protesters to the struggle in Gaza. Because of the intensity of the protests, they generated national attention and sympathetic protests as the movements around Kelly Thomas, Eric Garner, and others had not. New Orleans residents took over a police station in solidarity with Ferguson. Howard students staged a memorable photo of hundreds doing the “hands up” pose. Ferguson seemed to generate increased attention and protest to other forms of police abuse as well. For example, in the wealthy, mostly white neighborhood of Park Slope Brooklyn, there was an outcry over police using speakers on their cars to shoo African American youth out of the neighborhood. In Ohio, protests in response to the police shooting of John Crawford also escalated along with police violence in response. Activists held “Ferguson October,” encouraging people from around the country to converge on Ferguson to protest and strategize. Connections were forged with Moral Mondays, and new targets of protest like Emerson Electric and Walmart were identified, even as a new killing by the police in St Louis fueled more protests.

When grand juries failed to indict Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, in late November, and Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner, in early December, the movement intensified to another level. Suddenly Eric Garner was a national figure, rather than a New York City story. It was around this time that activists started shutting down highways around the country, too numerous to mention. As this corresponded with the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, there were protests at the Thanksgiving Parade and also at numerous shopping malls. The Bay Area was the site of multiple actions, including shutting down a Bart Line, shutting down the Oakland Police Department, and an intense wave of protests some described as insurrectionary.  Large marches were held in NYC and DC on December 13. At the DC march, held under the auspices of Al Sharpton’s organization, young activists rushed the stage in frustration at their voices being marginalized by the more established leadership. Prominent athletes also wore t-shirts and/or delivered the “hands up” gesture, sometimes earning the ire of various administrators. It should also be noted that the wave of protests in December included New York City council members, congressional staffers in DC, and public defenders in NYC. In other words, as well as a vibrant, confrontational mass engaging in street protests, the movement has supporters within the system. Those supporters were thrown on the defensive when, on December 20, Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore, drove up to New York City, and killed two police officers. Under fire from the police union head, mayor Bill de Blasio called for a halt in the protests until after the officers’ funerals and was echoed by other liberal politicians. Protesters ignored this call, and continued as they had. For their part, the police used the funerals of their colleagues as an occasion to protest the mayor, and initiated a work stoppage that had the effect of increasing debate as to whether “broken windows” policing, with its punitive approach to minor offenses when committed by poor, non-white people, is actually necessary, since halting it did not result in a major crime increase. Cracks, which likely have some resemblance to racial divides, have also widened within the police force, with reports of a shoving match between supporters of union leader Lynch and his opponents at one meeting. Elsewhere in the country, the shooting of the officers didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the movement.  But street protests at the fever pitch of December never last forever, and the movement will undoubtedly evolve in 2015.

In a widely circulated column, Mark Bittman raised the possibility of movements flowing together and strengthening each other, quoting Reverend William Barber of Moral Mondays to that effect. Bittman emphasizes the way all the struggles of low wage workers have begun to converge and have increased pressure nationwide to raise the minimum wage. He also noted that these movements had converged a bit with Black Lives Matter, perhaps not surprising, since the categories of low wage worker and the overpoliced overlap a lot. Although he doesn’t mention it, energy from Black Lives Matter has also been spilling over into education and related anti-austerity  struggles, such as the disruption of the Baltimore board of education meeting noted above. Other struggles are harder to imagine simply merging. For example, most climate activism around Keystone and fossil fuel divestment appears based among the college educated activist strata, although some indigenous groups are also involved. Struggles around Israel are largely conducted by a mix of this “traditional” activist strata and students of Middle Eastern descent. The labor unions have been organizing the campaigns of low wage workers, but the still substantial portion of the American workforce presently in labor unions is mostly not low wage. Campus struggles around rape may also seem remote. The divide between a largely white activist strata that typically cuts its teeth on campus activism and a increasingly active, largely African American, urban-based population echoes class and racial divides in the larger society. But things aren’t all that cut and dry. Blacklivesmatter has mobilized diverse groups, reaching deep into many campuses (especially, but by no means only, historically black ones), and cutting across racial lines within cities. Based on photographs, it appears that the Walmart struggle has mobilized more whites than non-whites nationwide--”low wage workers” is actually a very racially diverse group of people. As noted above, the People’s Climate March involved coalition building with labor unions and environmental justice groups, both aimed at demographics outside the largely white activist subculture. Ferguson activists recently visited Palestine to affirm their solidarity. Although many of the higher ed institutions besieged by budget cuts and fee hikes  are largely white, the basic logic of what is happening is not much different from attacks on public education in the cities. Adjuncts are simultaneously white college educated (and not infrequently teaching in disciplines that are relatively left) and low wage workers; increasingly, they are union members as well, which may have implications for the larger labor movement. The organized labor force may not be low wage, but they are obviously under siege and would be well advised to pay attention to disruptive and media friendly tactics others are using if they do not wish to be low wage soon. In other words, there are grounds for connecting and unifying struggles, if people are willing to pay attention to what others are doing and struggling about, and think through ways that everything is connected.