Legacies: Being the World we Want

Hola mi Gente,

The two things that bother me the most about Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that, first, it’s a campaign of diminished expectations and, secondly and more importantly, that the left has bought into that cynicism wholeheartedly. Her campaign motto should be, No we can’t! I can’t — I refuse — to respect that.  I have come to see neoliberals like Hillary Clinton is much the way that Martin Luther King eventually came to see white moderates:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. — Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963

* * *

03-22-06_ Community Organizing_ 002

Organizing is getting the masses off their asses.

— Saul Alinsky

 

It’s not much, it’s a small patch – a lot – in the middle of a Brooklyn block. The lot is teeming with children on a bright NYC day and there are flowers, and a playground. There’s even a wooden stage and on some evenings, you can come to this lot and watch plays, or listen to music. Towards the back of the lot, there’s a patch devoted to growing vegetables, and Don Americo, an aged and gentle man tends to his “children,” this year’s crop of corn and tomatoes. There’s talk of building a casita, so that the people of the neighborhood can use the lot during cold winter months.

To step into this little green oasis in the middle of the stark urban decay that surrounded it, is to be transformed. And I smile because it wasn’t always like this…

As I sit down on one of the benches, I reflect back to several years before when this lot was a rat-infested abandoned lot where crack addicts and sex workers took care of business under the cover of overgrown weeds. I never imagined it at the time, that it could become something like this – a safe place for children and the people of the neighborhood.

Several years before, I took a job as an organizer for a national organization. The pay was miserable, the hours long, and it was a thankless job, but I took it because I hadn’t been able to work steadily for almost two years. My past was serving as an obstacle to gainful employment. I had to quit graduate school and a long-term relationship had dissolved. It seemed as if everything I had worked for was imploding. So I took this job as an organizer and they put me in one of the neighborhoods I was raised in — Bushwick, in Brooklyn.

Organizing is a very difficult job under any circumstances, but on top of trying to convince a largely disaffected population to get involved, I also had to convince them to pay me for the opportunity to do it. The organization I worked for relied on membership dues and collecting those dues was a large part of my job. Now, I have a lot of experience in separating people from their money and in the beginning, I was getting members left and right. Then, one day, a woman gave me five of the last ten dollars she had because she believed in what I was saying. After that, I said fuck the membership dues.

By then, I had become disillusioned with the organization and with the people I was trying to organize. People didn’t care and nothing was being done. I had returned to Bushwick hoping to make a difference, but the neighborhood had changed tremendously since I had last set foot there and, well, shit wasn’t working.

One day I walked by this empty lot and decided that I would concentrate on that. I really didn’t have a plan, but somehow that lot called to me. I began by knocking on each and every door on the block. My pitch was simple: I would ask people how they felt about the lot, what they would do with it if they had the power to change it, and then tell them that there was a group composed of their neighbors working to make such changes — basic organizing 101 type-shit.

I knocked on every door on that block and I got, like, maybe five people who were interested. One of them was a girlfriend from when I attended Bushwick High School, who had become a teacher. She would become my champion. She was the true organizer, fast on her feet, full of energy, and really aggressive. Three were church people who wanted to make their neighborhood safer. Lastly, there was Doña Maria, who would become my leader, my muscle. Doña Maria could browbeat anyone into submission. She was the Universal Mother, who knew everybody’s business, and joined my group because she was watching me walk up and down the block, and demanded to know what the fuck I was up to.

The lot was really Doña Maria’s idea. She took me the front of the lot and told me that if I wanted to do something, do something about that fuckin’ lot. And that’s how it started. Enid printed up flyers, started a database of members, and was in charge of recruiting. Doña Maria and her daughters made sure people on the block joined, and the church people convinced their pastors/ ministers/ priests to let me address their respective congregations. My personal story is pretty much a variation on a redemption song and I would use that as part of my orientation. Soon, my ragtag group of women had managed to create a stir on the block, people were getting interested, but the majority was still laying back, checking out to see if this was the real thing.

When people — strangers really — first get together they are merely a crowd. They are just a group of people thrown together by economic or political forces. That crowd can eventually become a group – an informal network of people somehow connected through these same circumstances. Eventually, that group can become a force once they get to know one another and learn of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. My crowd had become a group very quickly and was now evolving into a force to be reckoned with and I needed to help them realize their power. I noticed a street lamp wasn’t working, so I made that our first campaign. My group did the research, learned who to petition and they got the streetlamp fixed. Now, maybe to you it doesn’t sound like a lot, but for my people, it was a big thing. They had effected change. They had tasted their power and now were thirsty for more.

The next step was to get the city to clean the lot. This is where lives were changed. It was decided we hold a protest and during the protest, a police officer pushed one of the church ladies. Now this particular individual was as far removed from me, politically speaking, as could be. She probably was very conservative, socially speaking. But that officer unwittingly created my fiercest, most radical member by his action. She was outraged that she was treated that way.

One step at a time, that group was successful in taking over that empty lot and creating a community garden. That garden has the seal of the New York City Parks Department and it can never be taken away. That community garden transformed that block, driving away the drug dealers and the sex trade. I was fired from my job for not collecting membership dues and by that time, the group had grown into over a 100 members — and growing. Neighboring blocks saw what was happening on our block and had become interested. When I told them I could no longer work with them, they pooled all their money, they held a block party and collected money, and they offered it to me.

Of course, I refused the money. I told them to use it for the community garden to plant something for me. Doña Maria, always the hard ass, told me that she always knew I would leave them. But her face had a shadow if a smile, which is probably the greatest compliment you could get from that woman. I had also been offered another job as a counselor, so staying on officially was not realistic. But they didn’t need me. They had become a force of their own. When I left, the group was strong and in reality, I wasn’t leading jack. They were leading and teaching me. It was time for me to move on anyway.

A year later, they created the most beautiful garden. I love that garden. They were also successful in taking over an abandoned property and developing affordable housing.

Did it change the world? Did Bushwick change? Did it make that much of a difference? I don’t know. One day I asked Doña Maria, who has now become an organizer herself – I asked her, “Why do all this if it isn’t going to make a difference?” Her answer is what drives me; it’s what gives my life meaning. She told me that it didn’t matter if you effected change. She told me she would fight even if she knew her struggle would be useless. “I fight because I’m not going to let these motherfuckers get the last word. That’s why I fight,” she told me.

Listening to Doña Maria that day, I was reminded of the following words, spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr toward the end of his life, that still hold power for me:

There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.”

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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