Unlike the Right, Leftists Train and Learn from Mistakes

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Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.

When we left off last time, the socialist group Stomp Out Slumlords was in a bit of a slump. They’d invested several years of hard work into their community, but their efforts were plagued by apathy on one hand and infighting on the other; whatever successes they did get were immediately followed by setbacks. They were, in short, in a situation that will be awfully familiar to a lot of grassroots conservatives, which means there are lessons for grassroots conservatives in how Stomp Out Slumlords managed to turn things around.

And turn things around they did. Stomp Out Slumlords began 2020 with 13 organizers working seven properties, and ended it with over 40 organizers working in 20 sites, with a committee of tenants in every building they were working, supporting a dozen rent strikes, with the ability to put a couple hundred people in the streets. The change is remarkable, and anybody who wants to know how to improve effect should pay attention.

The short version—and sorry, this will be disappointing—was that they didn’t turn it around on their own. They had help. But how they got it, and the circumstances under which they got it, is instructive.

There were three big things that turned things around for Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS). These were:

The pandemicThe George Floyd protestsTraining

When the pandemic hit, Stomp Out Slumlord’s immediate reaction was panic. How could they possibly organize people under these conditions? To their surprise, though, the level of interest in what they were selling skyrocketed because the lockdowns meant a lot of people couldn’t make rent. So, lots of people were suddenly on board with aspects of their agenda. What’s more, the government was more open than usual to changing the status quo—because the pandemic had already changed the status quo, other kinds of change were suddenly less unthinkable.

And although SOS’s efforts hadn’t been as successful as they’d hoped, they weren’t trying to mobilize from scratch in response to this crisis. SOS already existed. It was plugged in with other groups, and had some people in useful places, such as on the board of the D.C. Tenants Union (DCTU). So, in early March things started happening. First were calls and emails to close landlord-tenant court, to make evictions impossible; they got that quickly. Next up was a petition in favor of cancelling rent, which got over 4,000 signatures, leading to D.C. enacting a rent moratorium through July. When a news media mention resulted in a flurry of calls to SOS’s hotline, SOS used their existing volunteers to man phones, connected people with their neighbors, and plugged in with groups assembled by the DCTU. They were able to use a lot of DSA manpower because so many DSA members were homebound—again, they were drawing on structures that already existed.

The George Floyd protests also helped SOS build. Lots of different people and organizations mobilizing, lots of people looking to change the system, the shift back to on-the-street protests: all of it combined for real opportunities in recruiting, community building among leftist organizers, and in showing value.

But the real key to Stomp Out Slumlords’ turnaround wasn’t external conditions. Even when interest had skyrocketed, keeping momentum going still proved difficult. The biggest difference came when people who worked at Reagan National Airport couldn’t make rent. This mattered for two reasons: first, a lot of those people lived at the same housing complex. Second, among them were militant union members who were active in Local 23 of Unite Here.

I’ve mentioned before that labor unions are the key to understanding leftist organizing, because they are a legally protected repository of hard-won skills relevant to a place that almost every adult goes to every day. It should not surprise you that when members of a militant union want to organize against their landlord, they’re good at it. The Unite Here members started putting a group together. They asked tenants in their social networks to sign a petition, created an organizing committee, turned the petition signers into recruiters, turned the most successful ones into members of the organizing committee, and soon had over 300 tenants who had signed the petition.

Some of SOS’s people who had done some work for Local 23 heard about this. (That’s an underrated, important part of organizing: having friends in different organizations and hearing about what they’re doing.) So they asked Unite Here for training, and in June of 2020 they got it. The biggest lessons they got were in a) building structures and b) recruiting and supporting organic leaders.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, an organic leader is a key concept in organizing, particularly union organizing. When recruiting people for (say) a union, you are actually not looking for the most radical leftist you can find on a job site. You are looking for people who others will follow. Not just popular, but respected. Those are the people who will bring more people in. Think about it this way: among the people you know, who would you ask for advice if you had to make a tough decision? That person might be an organic leader.

Thanks to training from Unite Here, SOS understood organic leaders’ importance, and knew how to find them. So SOS took up a new approach: they would make developing leadership and building structures that could be mobilized their top priorities. They would focus on large apartment complexes, not houses or small apartment buildings, because doing so was more efficient. They would ease the workload of their core organizers by creating organizing committees in every building they organized, and to do so they turned to the organic leaders, people who could recruit their neighbors: “church group leaders, pickup soccer team captains, grill-masters, organizers of service industry group chats, gossips who know everyone’s business, and people who won their neighbors over with charisma, confidence, empathy, and calm under pressure.”

Usually these people were not the first ones who reached out to them. And convincing these people to come over with facts and logic didn’t work. SOS had to learn to work with people’s feelings. They had to open themselves up. They had to really get to know people in order to build trust. And then they had to bring them on board. As they put it:

Our role as organizers is to persuade organic leaders that radical action is both necessary and possible, get them to self-identify as leaders so that they can move their networks to action, too, and then to link up with other emergent leaders. In the process, we accomplish nothing by abdicating our own roles as leaders and the responsibilities that entails — namely, to bring more people into the struggle and build up more leaders by teaching them what we’ve learned.

They used pandemic aid to radicalize people. Mutual aid projects and grocery deliveries were useful for identifying people who needed help, and before long SOS had over a thousand petition signers in over a dozen buildings.

SOS built up a new volunteer structure. Every volunteer was on a team of two to four, ideally mixing beginners and veterans, focused on an assigned location. Each team was part of a squad. Squads and teams were supervised by senior organizers controlling mobilizations. Squad leaders coordinated training and overall work and checked in regularly with more senior organizers.

When SOS people in the D.C. Tenants Union board proposed a mass rally against rent, other leftist groups endorsed it. Using the techniques taught them by Unite Here, SOS’s building teams set turnout goals and identified individuals for turnout, then had one-on-ones with every potential, then a follow-up one-on-one for a firm commit. They turned out over 150 tenants and another 50 from social networks on their own; with other organizations’ people, they raised a crowd of over 300. Not long thereafter, they started doing similar turnouts to block landlords from trying to evict tenants from suburban houses, turning out over a hundred people (albeit mostly dedicated activists rather than fellow tenants). This helped them connect with organizations in the suburbs. They continued to do street protests, turning out confrontational crowds at management offices, owners’ homes, and rich neighborhoods.

They marched 200 people to the mayor’s house in October. Then the rent moratorium was extended into summer 2021, and a rent relief program was established that covered 80 percent of back rent and required landlords forgive the rest. Much of future action depends on what government does. (SOS had frankly assessed government assistance to the public as a potential threat to their organizing: If people could pursue individual solutions by applying for aid, they would have no need for rent strikes and collective action. But the aid turned out to be too small, so SOS was fine.) After conflict with affiliated nonprofits’ conciliatory approach, SOS exited D.C. Tenant Union in September and began working to create a new organization of tenants, focusing on street organizing rather than passing legislation.

The training from Unite Here gave SOS new skills, new direction, and a new goal: “to build an organization of organizers embedded in the daily life of the working class that can disseminate the lessons we’ve learned and help people get into motion and win what they can when opportunities present themselves.” And in their April 2018 report, SOS is pretty frank about why they want to do that:

We think we can most effectively press for structural changes if we push the housing market into a crisis. Landlords need the threat of eviction to do business. We want to make their business impossible by preventing them from evicting tenants. We believe doing so can give us the leverage to mount demands, whether that’s the right to an attorney at landlord-tenant court or more funding for social housing.

All that sounds fair enough for left-of-center proposals, but there’s a little more. I left out the opening of that first sentence. It actually opens: “We see the whole system of private land ownership and rent as illegitimate (all the land on this continent is stolen goods anyway).”

That’s the real goal: not just stomping out slumlords, and not just helping poor people fight eviction; Stomp Out Slumlords wants to use the fact that plenty of people have normal conflicts with their landlords as a springboard to the idea that Americans should not be allowed to own real estate at all.

That’s something that almost nobody actually wants, so they’re not leading with it. But make no mistake: These groups are deeply radical, even revolutionary, and they want to change America in ways that would make it unrecognizable. They’re serious about it and we should take them seriously. But until they can get in a position to end your right to own a home, they are showing value and trying to get people to take the first step in the direction they’d like to go. And if it doesn’t work at first, they try, try again.

Righties, even mainstream Righties like the ones reading this, aren’t very good at this. We like to write off the Lefties as whiners, but the truth is that they’re a lot better at handling failure than we are. Lefties tend to handle failure by bluntly assessing their failures and making concrete plans for the future. Righties tend to handle failure by grousing about how the world is tremendously unfair. Which may be true, but doesn’t help you mitigate unfairness and persevere in the face of it. So we have a lot of room for improvement, and if you want to learn something it makes sense to learn from the example of people who are good at it.

Socialists from gentrified neighborhoods are cliched, faintly ridiculous figures, but they’re out there on the ground interacting with the people they want support from for their agenda. And they are learning that those people may have different ideas about what will benefit them than the organizers do. So they’re creating plans, revising them, learning how to interact with other organizations, and when they get stuck they have institutions to help them.

Grassroots-minded righties: wouldn’t that be nice?

David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.

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