The civil rights movement was no more embodied in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than the socialist movement was embodied in Eugene V. Debs. As the civil rights leader Ella Baker understood, the civil rights movement made King; King did not make the civil rights movement. We must focus on building new, radical movements that do not depend on foundation grants, a media platform or the Democratic Party or revolve around the cult of leadership. Otherwise, we will remain powerless. No leader, no matter how charismatic or courageous, will save us. We must save ourselves.
All of our radical and populist organizations, including unions and the press, are decimated or destroyed. If we are to successfully pit power against power we must reject the cult of the self, the deadly I-consciousness that seduces many, including those on the left, to construct little monuments to themselves. We must understand that it is not about us. It is about our neighbor. We must not be crippled by despair. Our job is to name and confront evil. All great crusades for justice outlast us. We are measured not by what we achieve but by how passionately and honestly we fight. Only then do we have a chance to thwart corporate power and protect a rapidly degrading ecosystem.
What does this mean?
It means receding into the landscape to build community organizations and relationships that for months, maybe years, will be unseen by mass culture. It means beginning where people are. It means listening. It means establishing credentials as a member of a community willing to make personal sacrifices for the well-being of others. It means being unassuming, humble and often unnamed and unrecognized.
One of the most important aspects of organizing is grass-roots educational programs that teach people, by engaging them in dialogue, about the structures of corporate power and the nature of oppression. One cannot fight what one does not understand. Effective political change, as Baker knew, is not primarily politically motivated. It is grounded in human solidarity, mutual trust and consciousness.
The building of consciousness and mass organizations will not be quick. But these mass movements cannot become public until they are strong enough to carry out sustained actions, including civil disobedience and campaigns of noncooperation. The response by the state will be vicious. Without a dedicated and organized base we will not succeed.
Moses warned movements, such as Black Lives Matter, about establishing a huge media profile without a strong organizational base. Too often protests are little more than spectacles, credentialing protesters as radicals or dissidents while doing little to confront the power of the state. The state, in fact, often collaborates with protesters, carrying out symbolic arrests choreographed in advance. This boutique activism is largely useless. Protests must take the state by surprise and, as with the water protectors at Standing Rock, cause serious disruption. When that happens, the state will drop all pretense of civility, as it did at Standing Rock, and react with excessive force.
The mass mobilizations, such as the Women’s March, have little impact unless they are part of a campaign centered around a specific goal. The goal—in the case of SNCC, voter registration—becomes the organizing tool for greater political consciousness and eventually a broader challenge to established power. People need to be organized around issues they care about, Moses said. They need to formulate their own strategy. If strategy is dictated to them, then the movement will fail.