Resisting the Empire: Organizing from below

Jacobsen, Dennis A

We’re an empire now, an aide to the president told me, “and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating more new realities…. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“[Another angel] called out with a mighty voice, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons …. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication … and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.’ Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people.'” Revelation 18:2-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

How does a person of biblical faith “come out of Babylon” when the reach of the empire is global? Perhaps a faithful stance is one of internal exile and organized resistance. Internal exile means dwelling in the United States but never feeling at home there. Internal exile means a determined refusal to acquiesce. To acquiesce to the empire is to be complicit in its crimes and to suffer the loss of one’s humanity, dare we say one’s soul.

These crimes, of course, are never acknowledged. In the doublespeak of empire, war becomes liberation; abuse of undocumented immigrants becomes concern for national security; economic exploitation of global labor becomes free trade; concentrated urban poverty becomes evidence of personal moral failure. Internal exile does not mean self-righteousness and a false claim to moral purity. There is no moral purity for those dwelling in the American empire. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said years ago, “In a democracy, only a few may be guilty, but all are responsible.”

How does one live responsibly, humanly, faithfully in the empire? The temptation, of course, is to admit that the senior advisor to George W. Bush was right when he said, “We’re an empire now…. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The amassing of corporate, political, cultural, technological, and military power in the service of the empire is so vast, so farreaching, so entrenched that it seems vulnerable to nothing short of the judgment of God. But history’s actors are not only the power brokers and minions of the empire. History is also staged from below. As Robert Kennedy said: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.” There are certainly diverse ways of living responsibly, humanly, and faithfully within the empire. For the past twenty years I have been engaged in what I consider to be one such way, which I find to be an encouraging expression of organized resistance from below: congregation-based community organizing. Four national networks of congregation-based community organizing are active in the United States:

**the Gamaliel Foundation,** the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), **the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), and **the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART).

With professional organizers, intensive leadership training, non-governmental funding, multicultural membership, and roots particularly in low-income communities, affiliate organizations in these four networks win significant victories on a range of issues at local, metropolitan, and state levels of power.

Congregation-based community organizing is an emerging phenomenon for grassroots re-democratization in the United States, albeit still largely beneath the radar screen of national media. In 2001, sociologists Richard L. Wood and Mark R. Warren reported on a national survey that identified 133 local affiliates of the congregation-based organizing networks active in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Wood and Warren counted about 3,500 religious congregations as member institutions of these affiliate organizations. Most of the congregation-based groups have been founded since 1991, with 41% founded since 1994. Wood and Warren conclude that congregation-based community organizing “represents one of the largest and most dynamic efforts to build democratic power, promote social justice, and strengthen public life in the United States today.”

Congregation-based community organizing is non-ideological and consequently less obvious in its resistance to the empire than are some progressive movements, which operate out of a specific political and economic analysis. Congregation-based community organizing selects its issues with careful attention to what is winnable, what reflects the self-interests and values of its constituent membership, what is likely to build the power base of the organization.

This type of organizing seeks to project the faith values of its congregations powerfully into the public arena with issue campaigns that result in positive social change and which challenge the empire from below. Examples of successful issue campaigns include overturning home mortgage redlining, securing drug treatment funding for uninsured addicts, winning state health insurance for low income children, creating thousands of units of low income housing, standing with undocumented immigrants, requiring community benefits agreements on massive urban development plans, seeking mandatory drug treatment instead of prison for addicts who are convicted of nonviolent crimes, winning smaller student-teacher ratios and adequate funding for low income children in public schools… Congregation-based community organizing resists the empire through its organized challenge to unrestrained profit, to inadequate funding of public education, to racist housing practices, to concentrated poverty, to a burgeoning prison system, and to the abuse of undocumented immigrants.

Do such issue campaigns honestly constitute organized resistance to the empire?

Certainly, over against the empire a considerable modesty about the significance of local and regional actions is deeply warranted. The frank assessment of “victories” in these issue campaigns is that they are always relative and partial. And yet, as Rosemary Radford Reuther reminds us, “Concretely, the relative and partial good … is often the measure of survival for those who live on the margins. In assessing the value of working for justice and change that is always relative, she recalls the wise saying of one of her friends who survived near starvation in Hungary during World War II: “The difference between a haircut and decapitation is only relative and partial, but it is also the difference between life and death when it is your head.”

The four national organizing networks face huge challenges in their efforts to achieve some semblance of a just society in the empire. Funding is always at issue when it comes to expanding, even sustaining organizing efforts. The desire to create new organizations is in tension with an insufficient number of seasoned, qualified organizers.

Absurd turf warfare continues to mar network organizing. Strategic relationships need to be forged with labor and other potential allies on issue campaigns. PICO and Gamaliel are each attempting to create capacity for engaging national issue agenda, but convincing some organizers and leaders of the value of national issue campaigns is a challenge in itself. Why be pulled away from winnable local issues into drawn-out national campaigns that may prove to be quixotic, exhaustive of resources, and perhaps even detrimental to local organizing efforts?

My experience of congregation-based community organizing, which is primarily that of the Gamaliel Foundation, is that many organizers and key leaders see their work in the context of empire and the forces of globalization. For some, this involves a radical, sophisticated, political and economic analysis. For others, the perception is instinctive and it flows more from close-up experience of oppression. Workers who have lost their jobs to a global economy, low income people struggling for survival, people of color in a racist society, and undocumented immigrants in an empire obsessed with national security know in their guts the nature of empire. But, until recently, I have seen little evidence of organizing that has deepened such rough experience with any systematic analysis of empire. That deficiency now seems to be changing.

Utilizing a progressive think tank from Washington, D.C., as a consultant, the powerful ISAIAH organization in Minnesota has recently developed a training module, which has been used to engage two thousand leaders in conversations about their faith, their values, and their worldview. ISAIAH is training its leaders to understand the world around them, with its layers of imperial and global power, and to organize around their values as a counter force.

At the annual Gamaliel organizers retreat in January, 2005, Jim Harney, a radical photojournalist, gave a presentation on globalization, which was repeated a few weeks later for the Gamaliel Civil Rights of Immigrants task force. Bill O’Brien, Mid-Eastern Territory Director of the Gamaliel Foundation, observed: “Too many of us organizers do not know how world global finance puts our cities into bankrupt debtor status, and forces the third world to send us refugees from desolation.” Globalization has taken a heavy toll on the city of Milwaukee, where I serve as pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church, an African American congregation on the near north side of the city. Almost all of the families at Incarnation trace their roots back to Mississippi or other southern states, where most worked as sharecroppers or picked cotton. Attracted by the promise of well-paying, low-skilled industrial jobs, these families joined thousands of others in the move north to Milwaukee – what local historians call the “Late Migration.” By 1970, 43% of African Americans in Milwaukee had family supporting incomes from industrial jobs – punch press operators, riveters, assembly-line workers, fork lift drivers. They bought homes, and some were able to send their children to college.

When the global train came to Milwaukee, everything changed. By 1990 Milwaukee had lost two out of every three factory jobs it had in 1970. That meant the disappearance of over 80,000 jobs, a number exceeding one-third of the city’s black population. Now almost 60% of Milwaukee’s working-age black men are unemployed. In 1970, when industrial jobs were abundant, the black poverty rate in Milwaukee was 22% lower than the U.S. average for African Americans. By 2000, the black poverty rate in the city was 34% higher than the national average.

In the 2000 census, Milwaukee fell to 49th among the 50 largest metro areas in racial disparities in income. The social effects of this economic shift have been disastrous. The global train did not just arrive in Milwaukee. It crashed into this city.

The local congregation-based community organization, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), of which Incarnation Lutheran Church is a founding member, struggles to seek some systemic redress amidst the devastation inflicted in large part by a globalizing economy. MICAH has won over $700 million in home mortgage lending in the central city, millions of Milwaukee County dollars to fund drug treatment for uninsured addicts, the closure of about 350 drug houses, statewide funding to reduce student-teacher ratios in over fifty low-income Milwaukee public schools, and other significant victories.

But the struggle to contend meaningfully with massive job loss in a global economy is an uncertain one. An emerging strategy of MICAH is to fight to ensure that low-income people will benefit when jobs are created through publicly financed development in the city.

In the spring of 2005, MICAH and its allies (most notably the Milwaukee County Labor Council of the AFL-CIO) in the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition won a surprising victory when the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of the PERC (Park East Redevelopment Compact). The Park East is a 26-acre section of valuable land just north of downtown Milwaukee. Millions of dollars in Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) was used to clear and prepare the land for an estimated $450 million development project. MICAH and its coalition partners met with developers and politicians, held vigils and demonstrations, and conducted large public meetings to demand that a “community benefits agreement” be included in the sale of publicly owned Park East land to developers. The PERC embodies most of the coalition demands. Construction jobs will be at union wages.

A solid percentage of the jobs must go to minority workers. Minority contractors are guaranteed a piece of the action. Central City residents in impoverished neighborhoods will be granted first source hiring opportunities in the ongoing jobs created by the Park East development. The victory was exciting, but, amidst the massive devastation caused by a globalizing economy, it clearly employs the “relative and partial” rubric of Rosemary Radford Reuther.

Globalization’s impact is obviously not simply felt in cities like Milwaukee. Globalization is dislocating lives around the world. The Gamaliel Civil Rights of Immigrants campaign is offering a real world primer on the brutal nature of globalization and empire for organizers and leaders. This campaign is being directed by Ana Garcia-Ashley, who has been an organizer for 25 years. Born in the Dominican Republic, she experienced full force the nature of empire. Ana recalls moving to New York City as a child: “My father told us he moved our family to the South Bronx, because he wanted to protect us from America.”

Ana Garcia-Ashley sees in globalization a creating economic dislocation that results in immigration: “Every movement towards creating a world economy has disenfranchised and removed the very poor of the world from the source of their survival.” In a similar vein, Jim Harney proposes citizenship for undocumented immigrants as “reparations” for the devastation of their countries caused by the global policies of the United States.

Intensive lobbying by leaders of the Gamaliel Civil Rights of Immigrants campaign led to the introduction of the SOLVE Act in May of 2004 by Senator Kennedy and Congressman Gutierrez. The SOLVE Act would legislate comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. But this is a tough time to advocate on behalf of undocumented immigrants. Nervousness around national security during the war on terrorism has resulted in the SOLVE Act being referred to committee, perhaps for burial.

Undeterred, the Gamaliel Civil Rights of Immigrants campaign continues its efforts. The Jubilee Interfaith Organizing Project of New Jersey conducts vigils at the Elizabeth Detention Center, which imprisons hundreds of immigrants, including many whose only “crime” has been to seek asylum in this country. Their efforts helped to secure the release of Salim Yassir, a Palestinian who was imprisoned for four years in the Elizabeth Detention Center after entering this country as a stowaway. In 2003, the INS held some 23,000 immigrants in detention on a given day and detained about 200,000 in the course of the year. Approximately 60 percent of INS detainees are in local prisons and jails and in private contract facilities. Wherever they are confined, INS prisoners are “administrative detainees”; they are not serving a sentence.

Occasionally, a local group may be moved to expose the darkness of empire through symbolic action. On January 15, 2002, as the Bush Administration poised to launch the nation into imperial war on Iraq, about 150 clergy and lay leaders in the MICAH organization conducted a vigil in front of the federal building in downtown Milwaukee. There were singing, praying, speeches connecting the impending war abroad with the war on the poor at home. Sr. Rose Stietz painted an angel on the sidewalk, just as she has done over the years at a thousand MICAH prayer vigils at the sites of homicides, thereby joining the killing in Iraq to the killing in Milwaukee.

Nine clergy and laity then blocked the doors to the federal building and were arrested. Admittedly, such direct action is rare and outside the bounds of how congregation-based community organizing normally operates. But when it happens, I think a particular kind of power is released. To see working people, low-income people, people of color making the connections between the brutality of empire abroad and in their city, and standing against that empire is a blessed sight to see.

Perhaps Gregory Galluzzo, Director of the Gamaliel Foundation, is right. Perhaps the most significant resistance to empire is not found in the issue of campaigns of congregation-based organizing but in the building of community. When Galluzzo asserts that “creating community may be the most radical action we can be about in the United States,” I think he is being prophetic.

The economy of this nation depends on competitiveness and individualism. Sick to the core with racism, this nation repels metropolitan equities and terrorizes immigrants. Nationalism is the substitute for community in America. – A nationalism in the service of empire. – A nationalism that seeks a united will and a united force to wreak horrific destruction in human life in Iraq and elsewhere. America is morally incapable of creating community when it spends $500 billion a year to engage in perpetual war on the children of God.

Congregation-based community organizing is, at its core, about community building and the redemocratization of American life. The fundamental tool of organizing is the one-on-one interview, a simple yet artful means of initiating or building a relationship. An effective one-on-one is a courageous conversation, which uncovers self-interest, elicits essential elements of a life story, clarifies one’s motivation and vision, and forms a human bond. The weaving together of relationships through thousands of one-on-one interviews is the sine qua non for forming an authentic congregation-based community organization that builds upon shared self-interests, values, and vision.

Empire thrives on a dispirited sense of isolation and helplessness, on the frivolous distractions of consumerism and mass culture, on the narrowing of political life to the weak gesture of casting a ballot now and then between candidates Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Congregation-based community organizing offers a counter paradigm, the shaping of community in which people learn to claim their power, to engage in sociopolitical analysis and discourse, to take control of their neighborhoods and influence their cities, to propel their values and interests powerfully into the public arena. Congregation-based organizing attempts a redemocratization of America, in which ordinary people enter the public square, their political engagement not beholden to the rich elite who control political parties. Whether this new paradigm will become an annoyance to Empire, perhaps even a threat, is yet to be seen. A rapidly growing phenomenon, congregation-based organizing is still adolescent, if not in its infancy.

The creation of community is not some side theme or byproduct of organizing. When Galluzzo says “issues are just an excuse for building relationships,” he is serious. Those who think that organizing is only about winning in the public arena don’t get it. Those who engage in organizing only to seek their own path to power don’t get it.

Those who imagine that organizing is only about their self-interest and not an intertwining of self-interests don’t get it. Those whose parochial devotion to their particular organizing network prevents collaboration with the larger community of those seeking justice don’t get it.

Congregation-based community organizing, despite its flaws and limitations, is capable of building community. In the fall of 2004, the Gamaliel Foundation conducted Rolling Thunder public meetings across the United States, with a unified message of Get Out the Vote and Civil Rights for Immigrants. Delegates from the Gamaliel affiliates from South Africa, where Rolling Thunder was a strategy of the anti-apartheid struggle, brought a Zulu stick to the National Leadership Assembly of Gamaliel. The Zulu stick was blessed and ceremonially carried from one Rolling Thunder meeting to the next.

As a speaker at the Rolling Thunder public meeting held in Milwaukee, I looked out at 3,700 faces. I saw black and white, Latino and Asian. I saw children and elderly, youth and young adults. I saw people of poverty and people of privilege. I saw Christians, Jews, Unitarians, Muslims, and non-believers of good will. All of us were there to seek justice, to seek civil rights for immigrants, to seek treatment instead of prison, to seek increased funding for public education, to seek a strong voter turnout. What I saw reminded me of the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the beloved community,” which included all races, all classes, all religions, and all ethnicities in the pursuit of justice.

To seek the beloved community is to be mindful of our origin and our destiny. As Dr. King reminded us, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Science teaches us that we are chemically and biologically intertwined. In the words of Jill Tarter, an astrobiologist at the SETI Institute, “Every atom of iron in our blood was produced in a star that blew up about 10 billion years ago.”

True spiritual awareness recognizes the essential unity of the children of God. When we realize this truth, when we organize from below as part of the beloved community, we heed the heavenly summons to “come out of Babylon.” We are on a communal and collective journey that liberates us and that restores our humanity, which has been so tragically tarnished by empire. The community transforms and heals the victims of Babylon.

Dennis A. Jacobsen is a Lutheran Church pastor in Milwaukee and director of the Gamaliel National Clergy Caueus, a network of over 1,000 clergy that develops national and regional training events to ground the work of congregation-based community organizing in theology and scripture.

Copyright The Human Quest Jul/Aug 2006

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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