Brandon Rey Ramirez

Response to Davidson & Fletcher: Don’t Give Up on Movement Building

Response to Davidson & Fletcher: Don’t Give Up on Movement Building
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Days after voting ended, Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher, Jr. offered a refreshingly provocative piece, “Post-Election Reckoning: New Hypotheses for the Road Ahead.” It’s a purposefully direct analysis of core truths that gives guidance to organizers and activists like myself who are adjusting to the post-Trump landscape. But in repeated readings, group discussions and conversations with movement elders, one hypothesis consistently sparked disunity – the critique of movement building: over-reliance on street heat without organizational strategy. Let’s be careful not to overcorrect and discount movement building overall. Street heat must be part of any organization’s strategy to build legitimate power, centering those who are on the front lines of demanding change. As an observer of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in Los Angeles and elsewhere, I along with many peers have seen movement building work. Not only has BLM re-centered the abolitionist spirit of the Black Radical Tradition, but they are delivering material victories in cities across the nation at a speed and scale unseen in the past 50 years. These successes suggest that the project of movement building is not only worthwhile, but it is essential to gaining and maintaining governing power.

What does movement building actually look like? For Davidson and Fletcher, mass movements are not built by the people, but instead are “largely built by capitalist outrages inflicted upon us.” A movement’s origin may begin as a spontaneous reaction, but there’s more to it. Movements are a product of community organizing, policy development, sustained protest and effective propaganda. When the uprisings broke out in response to George Floyd’s murder, there wasn’t an organizational vacuum. A nationwide network of organizers who had been in the trenches for seven years since the murder of Trayvon Martin were prepared to channel that organic popular energy into organized protests. Organizations like Black Visions Collective had already been laying the foundations for non-reformist proposals to #DefundThePolice, and were ready to petition and spread the demand when the opportunity arose.

Movement building gets the goods

In Minneapolis, the epicenter of the George Floyd rebellions, the city council made headlines this summer for pledging to defund the police, the latest fight being an $8 million proposed cut from Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) for the 2021 budget. While the sitting city council is remarkably progressive (12 Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party members, one Green), the mandate to defund the MPD came from a disruptive movement, including a now infamous public shaming of Mayor Jacob Frey who failed to support the community’s demands to defund the MPD. For organizations, governing power doesn’t stop at winning elections – all elected officials, even our class-struggle candidates, need to feel the heat.

Out of crisis, the situational power of mass movements thrusts community organizers into clearer leadership positions. Those already engaged in movement building are the best set for success. In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter organizers maintained a constant presence in the streets through long term organized protest in direct, nonstop confrontation with law enforcement and elected officials. Situated as the de facto vanguard of leftist movements at the time of the George Floyd protests, BLM-LA was prepared to implement four key successful campaigns in the summer birthed from the movement:

#JackieLaceyMustGo – Every Wednesday for three years straight, Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles demanded the removal of the district attorney who failed to prosecute LAPD officers for police brutality. In the 2020 General Election, Lacey was unseated by George Gascon, who pledged to re-open four fatal officer-involved-shootings that she declined to prosecute. On his first day in office, he announced an end to cash bail and the death penalty, amid other reforms.

#DefundLASPD – Students Deserve, a youth-led organization associated with BLM-LA, organized a campaign to fully defund the LA School Police Department (LASPD). In June, the school board voted to cut the LASPD budget by 35 percent or $25 million. They continue to organize for a full defunding of the department.

#ReImagineLA – A coalition of community leaders and organizations led by BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors, drafted and campaigned for Measure J. The measure would allocate no less than ten percent (10%) of the County’s locally generated unrestricted revenues each year to community investment and alternatives to incarceration. Measure J passed in the 2020 General Election.

#PeoplesBudgetLA – A few weeks prior to the murder of George Floyd, BLM-LA convened the People Budget LA Coalition and conducted a community survey demonstrating a popular mandate to reinvest in care, not cops. In June they presented the survey results to the LA City Council, and they continue to shape the implementation of motions coming from city council.

Building power and movements go hand-in-hand

These observations indicate that organizations and campaigns are not just being built within mass movements, but that the functions of building movements and building electoral power work best in a symbiotic relationship. In all instances, success came not only from a combination of mass protests, social media campaigns, and coalitions among activist groups, labor unions, tenant organizers, and other organizations. Such coalitions could form because the movement leaders offered clear and immediate material demands that disparate groups could unite behind.

The harshest of Davidson and Fletcher’s criticisms are reserved for street heat: “We love street heat tactically. But as strategy it sucks.” From their perspective, the two strategic blunders in relying on mass protest are (1) belief that you can shame public officials into compliance, and (2) avoiding the electoral project of gaining power.

But how are you gonna rep the streets if you’re not IN THE STREETS?

The fear that many on the Left have been unwilling to participate in the project of building and attaining governing power is absolutely valid. The impulse to hit the streets without strategic goals or retreat to sectarian pockets is more tempting than ever with the anonymity and segmentation of social media. But we can’t afford to write off all street heat, as much of it is intentional and essential to movement building. Any campaign to #CancelRent or pass #MedicareForAll will require a crescendo of disruptive protests.

Since Thanksgiving week, Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles has been leading daily morning #BlockGarcetti protests outside Mayor Eric Garcetti’s mansion in response to rumors that he has been shortlisted for the Biden-Harris cabinet as either Housing and Urban Development Secretary or Transportation Secretary. Protestors are not only calling on the city to defund the police; they are also demanding that it stop the sale of the Crenshaw mall and provide housing to LA’s more than 66,000 unhoused people (not to mention the thousands more facing eviction as a result of COVID-19). This isn’t a liberal public pressure campaign to persuade the mayor to take action, nor is it simple harm reduction. It’s further building the movement by elevating and connecting the demands of anti-gentrification and housing activists with the demands to defund the police. It’s also a warning that the people have the power to stop a politician’s career short, just like BLM already did to Jackie Lacey.

The tactic of public pressure or bird-dogging through “street heat” is invaluable not just to movement building, but to leftist organizations looking to build power. Continued engagement with community-led protests goes a long way, especially through material support such as providing food, tech, supplies or security. A meaningful relationship and trust with the vanguard forces of social movements provides not just credibility, but also a familiarity with the terrain and policy demands coming directly from the most impacted groups. Street heat is the lifeblood of the social change ecosystem. Along with mutual aid, arts, media and culture, street heat humanizes the demands and helps communicate them more rapidly.

Serve the movements

It’s in the interest of organizations to serve movements. Organizations and their respective organizers must think critically about the role they play in relation to movements. Davidson and Fletcher believe our role is to build organizations within mass movements, not above or indifferent to them. If that’s the case, organizations cannot discount the importance of movement building in achieving governing power. It’s the responsibility of organizations to support and advance the goals of social movements without taking up too much space or co-opting the work of those committed organizers and activists who often put their lives at risk in confrontation with authorities or other hostile parties. This is especially true of membership organizations whose new recruits are inspired by the excitement, action, and passion of social movements. Without being rooted in these movements, and respecting the dedication and discipline of movement leaders, organizations risk losing their membership to disorganized street heat or worse, apathy. Without a genuine message and the trust of street fighters, there is no legitimacy for organizations to govern.


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  • Carl+Davidson
    Carl+Davidson December 11, 2020 at 6:58 pm

    Perhaps we’re only disagreeing about words. Within the ebb and flow of movements, Fletcher and I stress the building of organizations and CAMPAIGNS. When people often talk of ‘movement-building,’ what they might be saying is they are building a mass campaign. If so, fine. We would agree. But otherwise, I would not. Movements ebb and flow. That is inevitable. So when they ebb, does that mean you have failed? If you are only ‘building a movement,’ you might think so. But if you have build campaigns that assist in deepening ongoing organizations that ride the waves through all their ebbs and flows, you have not.

    Your point about how street heat–tied to movement building–wins makes our case. You have successfully pressured liberals in power to make changes to some degree. But our point is that we need a strategy, including the use of street heat, that does something more and something very different. We want to use street heat, and other tactics, to TAKE POWER, not simply to have those in power do something decent because we have pressured them. We are more interested in the restructuring of power, than simply redistributing more benefits downward, while leaving the structure intact.

    So our question would be, what is your strategy to take over, say, Texas? Or Pittsburgh. Or Oakland? Have you surveyed the terrain, and the balance of forces? What campaigns do you need to shift them? Are you training people and organizations to win elections, strikes and campaigns? Who are your friends?
    Your adversaries? What blocs/coalitions do you need? How is the work going to form them?

    I have been in too many battles where our slogan was to ‘build a movement,’ more than I like to think about. In most, if not all of them, there comes an ebb–Harold Washington dies, Jesse Jackson’s campaign is over, a war ends–where we suddenly realized we have learned a lot, maybe even recruited a handful to our revolutionary group, but otherwise, it’s is all gone with the wind. We look for people to blame, liberals for co-opting, ourselves for not ‘building’ hard enough. But neither of those are the problem. The problem was the strategy was wrong, and thus the tasks formulated as well That’s what we are warning against.

    • Brandon Rey Ramirez
      Brandon Rey Ramirez January 19, 2021 at 8:50 pm

      I’ve taken a long time (obviously) to mull through them and discuss with other comrades and I do want to follow up and say that I largely agree with your analysis, and other comments about walking on both legs. To be specific about my fears, over the years I’ve witnessed some organizations intentionally disengage from many of the ongoing protests led by Black and Brown community leaders. I’m concerned about any organization taking too hardline a rejection of “street heat” to the point that it plays no role in its strategy, especially when its membership recruitment among Black and Brown working class has not been effective.

      I’d concede that even the ballot successes of BLM-Los Angeles and their coalition partners are either the removal of an official or the passage of a ballot measure. Neither of these scenarios results in governing power. Meanwhile, while DSA-LA hardly engaged with BLM’s ballot efforts – 2/3 of the campaigns the org dedicated resources to won their elections (Nithya Raman in LA City Council & Konstantine Anthony in Burbank City Council). DSA now has candidates in office and can mobilize its base to support these electeds/hold them accountable.

      There are other organizations, such as Groundgame that have been able to play a large roll in both street heat and attaining governing power. And nationally we see the Working Families Party, Movement for Black Lives, and the Frontline engaging in mass work that centers marginalized communities in policy and leadership, directly influenced on mass protest, but focused on building real governing power.

      I guess it can be summed up in a question a comrade of mine and I wrestled with, “do organizations lead the movement or do movements lead the organizations? And if so, what does that organization need to be like in order for it to have legitimacy?” I think the framing of that question itself may be problematic, but I think it’s at the crux of this perceived disagreement.

  • Martin Eder - Activist San Diego, Liberation Road
    Martin Eder - Activist San Diego, Liberation Road December 15, 2020 at 9:33 pm

    Walk on two legs:
    Mass Protest/Mass Organizing and Movement/Organization-Building for Power

    There is much to agree with in Brandon Rey Ramirez commentary.

    There can be no doubt that flash mobs will not build sustaining organizations. Organizations embedded in social movements are the synergy, which supports both. Orgs are what is left, when the headlines diminish and participants go home. Without movement-building every action is an island and we will never liberate the homeland or have liberated territory on which to show, that we can build new institutions and hold power with the 99% and eventually participate in a people’s democracy.

    On the other hand it is the raw rage of the people, which shows a shift in the ruling consensus, that business as usual is unacceptable. Street heat is not a strategy, but it is a vital component of outreach, training, mass practice, leadership building and growing our movement. After a demonstration of 100 or 1000+ people, if we have begun a conversation with 5 new people of which only 1 or 2 will stick with us, we have an organizational victory, a new building block… and we have spread the idea through example, thru social media, through participatory experience and even through the corporate media that “It is right to rebel”, that we will not remain silent, that a new world is possible, that we are many. It is a way to inspire the power of collective action in a society based on individualism. Mass action gives a hint of the excitement and possibility of the triumph of social justice; it empowers the timid to join and engage in struggle.

    Let us use the tactical and the strategic together, walk on two legs and neither denigrate street heat, nor idolize it.

  • Huw Morgan
    Huw Morgan December 26, 2020 at 6:40 pm

    Wonderful back and forth. We’ve just come off the back of a successful election in Auckland, New Zealand we here young radical Green MP Chloe Swarbrick is now our representative. She has talked of wanting to build a movement, and in thinking about what strategies to employ to consolidate and then expand here/our power, this thinking about needing to build political instruments, as Harnecker would say, so that we can support, sustain and deepen movements when they come is key.

    I agree that, especially as eco-socialists, we need to proactively seek out strategic issues, and plan for mobilisation when bad weather events occur. We are very likely to have severe drought over summer, and polluted beaches from bad storm water infrastructure, plus we have an outrageously inflated housing market. The challenges for us will be to cohere some of these into a force. I’m sceptical that it can be through the local Green Party branch, but struggling to see why a new instrument would be successful (there have been several DSA type orgs come and go).

    Great discussion.

  • Carl+Davidson
    Carl+Davidson January 19, 2021 at 9:15 pm

    As we noted, don’t get us wrong. We love ‘street heat.’ But we see it as a tactic, a ‘war of movement,’ and a tactic subordinate to and best deployed when it part of a broader strategy, a ‘war of position,’ a strategy that is accumulating forces and making alliances to TAKE POWER ourselves. The aim is not just to sway liberals already in power to do the ‘the right thing’ around this or that demand.

    There is a question prior to whether this or that demonstration should be planned. ‘What is our plan to take over Los Angeles politically? (Or some other city or state). Once you are outlining the partial answers to that developing plan, ie, your ‘war of position,’ it then makes sense to plan (or oppose) ‘street heat’ of various intensities in furtherance of that plan.

    But if you ‘build a movement’ with street heat as your mushed together strategy-tactic, you may have some glory days, but you are, consciously or not, implementing the anti-electoral ‘street syndicalist’ strategy/deviation, which is a dead-end, a cul-de-sac we have been trapped in for 50 years at least.

    ‘War of position’ and ‘war of movement’ are dynamic and interlinked. There will be periods where the relationship is reversed, or flip back and forth, but we are not there yet. In the meantime, study the question at hand, how do we take power in our city? What are all the elements? Who are allies, who are adversaries, who is in between? What are our forces? How can we make them stronger? Work at these, and the matter of ‘street heat’ falls more into perspective.

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