Tag Archives: organizing

In 1971, the People Didn’t Just March on Washington — They Shut It Down

L. A. Kauffman | Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism | Verso Books | February 2017 | 33 minutes (8,883 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Direct Action, by L. A. Kauffman. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.

The largest and most audacious direct action in US history is also among the least remembered, a protest that has slipped into deep historical obscurity. It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t part of the storied sixties, having taken place in 1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment. To many, infighting, violence, and police repression had effectively destroyed “the movement” two years earlier in 1969.

That year, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the totemic organization of the white New Left, had disintegrated into dogmatic and squabbling factions; the Black Panther Party, meanwhile, had been so thoroughly infiltrated and targeted by law enforcement that factionalism and paranoia had come to eclipse its expansive program of revolutionary nationalism. But the war had certainly not ended, and neither had the underlying economic and racial injustices that organizers had sought to address across a long decade of protest politics. If anything, the recent flourishing of heterodox new radicalisms—from the women’s and gay liberation movements to radical ecology to militant Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Asian-American movements—had given those who dreamed of a world free of war and oppression a sobering new awareness of the range and scale of the challenges they faced.

On May 3, 1971, after nearly two weeks of intense antiwar protest in Washington, DC, ranging from a half-million-person march to large-scale sit-ins outside the Selective Service, Justice Department, and other government agencies, some 25,000 young people set out to do something brash and extraordinary: disrupt the basic functioning of the federal government through nonviolent action. They called themselves the Mayday Tribe, and their slogan was as succinct as it was ambitious: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” The slogan was of course hyperbolic— even if Washington, DC were completely paralyzed by protest for a day or week or a month, that would not halt the collection of taxes, the delivery of mail, the dropping of bombs, or countless other government functions—but that made it no less electrifying as a rallying cry, and no less alarming to the Nixon administration (Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, called it “potentially a real threat”). An elaborate tactical manual distributed in advance detailed twenty-one key bridges and traffic circles for protesters to block nonviolently, with stalled vehicles, improvised barricades, or their bodies. The immediate goal was to snarl traffic so completely that government employees could not get to their jobs. The larger objective was “to create the spectre of social chaos while maintaining the support or at least toleration of the broad masses of American people.”

The protest certainly interfered with business as usual in Washington: traffic was snarled, and many government employees stayed home. Others commuted to their offices before dawn, and three members of Congress even resorted to canoeing across the Potomac to get themselves to Capitol Hill. But most of the planned blockades held only briefly, if at all, because most of the protesters were arrested before they even got into position. Thanks to the detailed tactical manual, the authorities knew exactly where protesters would be deployed. To stop them from paralyzing the city, the Nixon Administration had made the unprecedented decision to sweep them all up, using not just police but actual military forces.

Under direct presidential orders, Attorney General John Mitchell mobilized the National Guard and thousands of troops from the Army and the Marines to join the Washington, DC police in rounding up everyone suspected of participating in the protest. As one protester noted, “Anyone and everyone who looked at all freaky was scooped up off the street.” A staggering number of people— more than 7,000—were locked up before the day was over, in what remain the largest mass arrests in US history. Read more…

Using Technology to Fight the Power

In a new story for Wired, Bijan Stephen looks at how the Black Lives Matter movement uses social media to organize and fight for change. As Stephen writes, “any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it,” tailoring their goals and tactics to the media of their time. For the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, that technology has been platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But civil rights organizers were using technology to mobilize long before the advent of social media. Here’s what that looked like in the Jim Crow South:

In the 1960s, if you were a civil rights worker stationed in the Deep South and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world—word of a beating or an activist’s arrest or some brewing state of danger—you would likely head straight for a telephone.

From an office or a phone booth in hostile territory, you would place a call to one of the major national civil rights organizations. But you wouldn’t do it by dialing a standard long-distance number. That would involve speaking first to a switchboard operator—who was bound to be white and who might block your call. Instead you’d dial the number for something called a Wide Area Telephone Service, or WATS, line.

Like an 800 line, you could dial a WATS number from anywhere in the region and the call would patch directly through to the business or organization that paid for the line—in this case, say, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

On the other end of the line, another civil rights worker would be ready to take down your report and all the others pouring in from phones scattered across the South. The terse, action-packed write-ups would then be compiled into mimeographed “WATS reports” mailed out to organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country.

In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.

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Why Certain Workers Are More Vulnerable to Wage Theft

The problem of wage theft is not confined to any one industry, ethnicity, size of business, or corporate structure, says Labor Commissioner Julie Su. Each year, California loses approximately $8 billion in tax revenues to wage theft, and Su’s office has investigated millions of dollars’ worth of violations committed by, among others, a hospital, assisted living providers, and a construction project. But restaurants in Chinatown are particularly egregious offenders: A 2010 report by the CPA found that half of Chinatown restaurant workers have had their wages undercut, payments withheld, or tips stolen. A survey of low-wage workers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, performed by the National Employment Labor Project, reveals that close to 85 percent of foreign-born Asians, 78.8 percent of women, and nearly 85 percent of undocumented workers have experienced overtime violations.

Among the most likely victims of wage theft are nonunion workers, people who don’t speak English, and immigrants who lack an understanding of their rights. Not all of the workers involved in the Yank Sing campaign fell into these categories, but many still felt vulnerable. If they went public too soon, if they picketed the sidewalk or stormed the dining room or publicized their story in the media, they risked turning management against them and losing their livelihood— and many of them wanted to keep working for Yank Sing. Their situation was unusual: According to Kao of the Asian Law Caucus, three-quarters of the wage claims received by the organization’s free legal clinic in San Francisco are filed by workers who have already left their job. People who are still employed, notes Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Labor Center, typically don’t risk such actions without the protection of a union contract.

Vanessa Hua, writing for San Francisco Magazine about a brigade of kitchen workers who successfully fought to recoup $4 million in lost wages from Yank Sing, one of San Francisco’s premier dim sum restaurants.

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