Several movements of the past have shown the most effective way to make radical change in society is through grassroots organizing of and by the people most affected by the harsh realities of capitalism. Strong movements must have a strong community base to provide all the support and resources that a movement needs. If not, they will fail or only make short-sighted reforms.

People Get Ready! A Survival Handbook for Reality

by Errol Schweizer and Brielle Epstein

[Authors’ Note: This is a work in progress. These are just some ideas we have been talking about and working on. They are not to be seen as a new paradigm or ideology, but are meant to spark some new dialogue and action.]

Poor people fight a battle every day to put food on their tables and to keep a roof over their heads, and they cannot afford to waste energy on behalf of some abstract principles. Political action requires risk and presumes that short-term sacrifices will yield long-term benefits. But most poor people have no assurance that there will be a long run for them, and regardless of their sympathies, they cannot afford to think about political change. Ivory Perry came to feel that social change had to change the lives of people on the bottom of society to really make a difference, and that in order to reach these people it had to begin with their everyday needs and concerns.
–“A Life In The Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition”, by George Lipsitz.

Protest Culture and the Roots of Resistance

Over the last few years activism has surged tremendously, especially around issues of globalization, prisons, police brutality, the environment, and human rights. More and more people have gotten involved in an attempt to create social change through a variety of tactics, including legal protest, civil disobedience, and property destruction. Unfortunately, protest culture has been mostly composed of college educated, middle class people who are not the most impacted by the issues they are dealing with. These activists are disconnected from the everyday problems and struggles of low-income and working class people, especially people of color. The communities most impacted by these problems have continued to be as disenfranchised by these activists as they have by the mainstream.

Several movements of the past have shown the most effective way to make radical change in society is through grassroots organizing of and by the people most affected by the harsh realities of capitalism. Strong movements must have a strong community base to provide all the support and resources that a movement needs. If not, they will fail or only make short-sighted reforms. Neither organized protest by professional activists nor property destruction by underground radicals – in and of themselves – will change the structural and institutional problems that plague our everyday lives. These tactics will only be effective when there is a sustained base of popular participation; imagine if all of the disenfranchised, pissed off people in Seattle had joined the Black Bloc during N30.

Spain in the first half of this century is one example. For over 80 years, agitators, including anarchists and socialists, lived and worked alongside the people struggling to overcome the poverty and despair of their society. A revolution did not happen overnight, but only after decades of education and organizing. In fact, 20 years before the fabled July 19, 1936 uprising, a revolution took place and failed; yet the people kept struggling. Likewise, in the 1960s in the U.S., the Black Power Movement, influenced by anti-colonial wars around the world, exploded out of the desperation of a segregated society. Based in communities plagued by police brutality, failing schools and lack of social services, everyday people took to the streets to demand their inherent rights to freedom and equality. This movement was not spontaneous either; it too was built upon the decades of organizing by labor activists, grandmas, short-order cooks, teachers and other community members.

Today we see a number of social movements that reflect this pattern. In southern Mexico, the Zapatistas have built a democratic movement rooted in the needs and visions of their communities. This movement’s members did not pick up arms against the forces of globalization out of the blue, but instead worked for years to engage and educate each other about the problems they faced. And in Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) has created a massive, decentralized force for reoccupying the land. With few visible leaders, the largest popular movement in the world has made it possible for thousands to participate in the creation of a better society for themselves, their families, and their neighbors.

In this country, much of the activism around globalization has been led by students and middle class activists. These groups, despite their energy and dedication, can only temporarily disrupt the system because they are not integral to its everyday functioning. In fact, protesters strengthen the system by fulfilling the role of organized dissent. This gives the image to folks sitting at home that democracy is at work. It is just a spectacle that does not engage the participation of the vast majority of people observing it. It fails to create a popular dialogue that would create alternatives and solutions and question business as usual. Society cannot be reshaped without everyone, especially the workers running the factories, warehouses and infrastructure. Middle class revolutionaries rarely know how to fix cars, run a farm, install appliances, drive delivery trucks, clean the boilers, prepare the processed food and keep society running by doing the shitty jobs that no one thinks about. They believe society could and should be run differently but lack the knowledge and experience to implement those changes.

Consumerism and Dependency

There are number of obstacles that need to be overcome to move the struggle along. These obstacles are both material as well as psychological. For example, when people are poor they have to deal with the results of poverty, such as lack of education, housing and healthcare. People have to work so hard just to survive day to day that they can’t risk their livelihoods for the bigger picture, especially not for abstract ideas that won’t make immediate changes to their situation. This means working 14 hour days at some shit job, then having to come home and take care of the kids and household chores, all within the context of the fast-paced, overcrowded, overstimulated society. And then we are convinced that we need to watch TV or check e-mail to make the day complete. This is a result of the internalized oppression of believing in the American Dream: the ideology that immigrants are indoctrinated with when they first come here, including the early Irish, Jews, and Italians to more recent Latinos and Asians, as well as freed slaves and sharecroppers who fled north. This ideology says that no matter who you are and where you came from you can make it and move on up in society. It is the root of American patriotism, our way of life: if you work hard, you will get what you deserve.

The American Dream is not just about providing for your family’s well-being. It is based on material wealth – acquiring private property and luxury goods. The rise of global capitalism in the digital age has taken this to a new level, with the introduction of more affordable electronics such as TVs, VCRs and computers, the internet, especially through the use of the credit card. The companies making these products and creating debt are the primary beneficiaries of capitalism. To the contrary of the media image, not just third world countries are dependent and in debt – but first world consumers as well. This is obvious when you walk onto any college campus or retail store and see credit card companies signing up naive consumers by the dozen. The key to maintaining the capitalist social order – poverty, racism, exploitation – is the dependency that material culture creates. It is the opposite of self-reliance, where communities have the skills to acquire food, clothing, shelter and other necessities and are connected to how and where these things are made. Industrial society destroys such sustainable lifestyles and then makes them a privilege that few can enjoy, such as middle and upper class hippies and yuppies who can afford trips to the countryside, use natural remedies and buy organic food. The only option for most people is depending on the capitalist economy and all of its poisons for their needs.

Consumerism is a cancer that spreads through society, creating a cycle of social control and exploitation. They give you a credit card, you buy a TV, the commercials tell you to buy more, you run up more debt, they make more profits. Mass media from TV to the Internet have provided a valuable tool for the corporate elite. It all convinces people that they need these goods to survive. The sweatshop labor, toxic pollution, clearcutting and stripmining needed to keep store shelves full are never mentioned. Consumer confidence is the key to a successful economy; if people don’t believe in it, it falls apart, which is something that Wall Street and the Federal Reserve Board know well.

Community Organizing and Direct Action

The end goal of capitalism is to create a world of consumers disconnected from the political and economic forces that make all the junk they buy. In capitalism, liberty for the few means the enslavement of many. The perfect society for the capitalist would be something like the free-market “miracle” of Pinochet’s Chile, where a very small percentage of people were very wealthy and most of the others were very poor. Any sort of political dissent or independent thought was punishable by death. Only consumerism and material gain were encouraged.

Because consumer slavery means dependency, one solution could be to create a network of self-reliant and interdependent communities through grassroots organizing while simultaneously attacking the existing system. Protesting and rioting are necessary and exciting, but are not enough. True resistance means creating an alternative that makes the current system obsolete, an alternative that is both commonplace and visionary. Grassroots community organizing needs to be based on democratic ideas where the means equal the ends. This would be different than how things are done in our society, where everything is run top-down like in the military. A few people make the decisions, set the agendas, and take the credit. The so-called left replicates these models with its bureaucracy, personality-based activism, and tokenism. The worst part is that in left-wing and anarchist groups these power relationships are either denied or not acknowledged. Even when they say that decisions are made by consensus there are usually imbalances in power. In fact, the Green Party and socialist groups circulate literature on how to manipulate consensus to suit a particular agenda. Is this much different than the world we are fighting?

Community organizing must be based on direct participation and autonomy. Politics must not just be subversive, but must be completely subverted. No one should be the boss. No one’s opinion or ideas are better or count more than others. The issues of people in the community need to be addressed, not the issues of a select few who want to be in charge. And this organizing must give the space for personal development and individual expression, as well as collective responsibility and a sense of community. This is extremely difficult because people are not used to that kind of organizing. They are not used to having a voice. They are used to having things imposed on them, or being included at the last minute.

A community is a group with common interests and issues, usually distinguished by geographical area. Because of deliberately imposed historical segregation in the US, communities are usually distinguished by ethnicity, race, and class. Everyone who lives in the area is a member of the community. This includes working people as well as junkies, the elderly, the homeless, bikers, graffiti artists, school drop-outs, gang members, prostitutes and the mentally ill. It is not anyone’s right to judge who is or is not a legitimate member of the community. In fact, the people that organizers need to reach the most are those who are the most antisocial and marginalized.

Community organizing means doing outreach door to door and block by block.. It is done by talking with people about the issues affecting them, listening to the issues they think are important, telling them about things they might not know about, helping them find out about important things affecting them, and then relating the issues to the bigger picture. Listening to people, identifying their needs (such as healthcare, education, food, etc.), and identifying current problems and potential solutions are all integral. It means being aware of people’s constraints, whether economic, family, or cultural, as well as being self-aware and understanding what your personal stake is in the issues.

Understanding who your base is by knowing their language, their customs, etc., is really important; that is why it is good to organize where you came from and with whom you relate. Organizing means gaining a community’s trust and commitment. This is easier if you are from the neighborhood, but it can also be done by working on tangible issues that will make an immediate difference in peoples lives, or by being ready to act when a crisis is happening. Becoming a community organizer is a serious commitment. You can’t just blaze into town like John Wayne and then take off when you are ready to move on. When people depend on you, you have to be in it for the long haul.

Developing a democratic and autonomous practice is the opposite of the way many organizations and movements end up – a bureaucratic, ideological machine. Bureaucracy deals a death-blow to the energy and inspiration of a revolution. This happens when a movement becomes centralized, controlled from the top-down, by a select group of leaders who claim to work in the name the people. These people become so absorbed in both ideology and daily routines that they lose sight of the original goals and the voice of the people, lose the ability to reflect on their work and role, and become entrenched in their own positions of power.

That is why community organizing means rejecting Maoism, Marxist-Leninism, and other bureaucratic left-wing ideologies. These positions state that the we must all be guided by wise, learned academics and vanguards (yes, Lenin says that in “What Is To be Done?”). However, there is a position for academics: they could fulfill advisory and consultant roles for communities who need their expertise and historical knowledge.

No matter how difficult and time-consuming it is, respecting individual autonomy and working toward consensus are absolutely necessary. Preserving the individual is not mutually exclusive from operating collectively. In fact, the two cannot function without each other. In organizing, we must find a way to balance individual needs and responsibility to the community. Also, organizing needs to be fun. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing and you don’t plan exciting, enjoyable events, then what you are doing is pretty useless and people will respond accordingly.

To effectively organize, you must use a variety of tactics. A great example of how to do this is the struggle of a South Bronx community that successfully fought a massive waste facility. The defeat of this facility was a three year struggle which culminated with a Department of Environmental Conservation administrative law hearing on the permit. With only 30 days notice of the hearing, we knew it would be extremely difficult to get the necessary turnout. So after spending one day strategizing and developing an outreach plan we hit the streets.

First, we did outreach to existing organizations and groups, including schools, day care centers, religious institutions, senior citizen centers, housing organizations, tenant associations, and community centers. We spent the entire month going door to door to houses and apartment buildings. In total we knocked on over 5,000 doors. We asked people to sign a petition so that anyone who could not get to the hearing would still have a voice. Almost every night we held informational meetings at different apartment buildings and community centers. We reached out to local businesses and posted flyers in every storefront and apartment building. And finally, on the day of the hearing we took to the streets with drums and other instruments, calling out for people to come to the hearing. We covered every sidewalk with chalk saying “STOP AMR” and “NO MORE GARBAGE” in English and Spanish. As we walked down the street the day of the hearing people shouted “No Mas Basura!” We held a rally outside the auditorium where the hearing was to be held. Children and local musicians played music, some local youth did street theatre, people chanted and blocked the entrance when people from the DEC and company tried to enter. We danced through the auditorium dressed as garbage barges and dying fish. In addition, we spray painted “STOP AMR” on the side of the giant highway that looms over the main avenue of the community. We had discussed civil disobedience as an option, but concluded that the time was not right because many community members were working people who could not afford to get locked up, were parents who could not find childcare, or were ex-cons or illegal immigrants; there was also significant fear of police aggression, considering we were a mile away from Amadou Diallo’s neighborhood.

During the event we offered free childcare and helped senior citizens and people with disabilities with transportation. Over 700 people attended the hearing, which lasted until almost 1am. People said that they had never seen that many people come to an event in Hunts Point. Even if we had lost the battle, the turn out and energy of the community was a great victory in itself. But we didn’t lose: with the combined force of community outcry and our sound technical argument, the administrative law judge said that the DEC was wrong to grant a permit.

Organizing Means Making the System Obsolete

The point of community organizing should be to make the current political and economic system obsolete. People will not survive on rhetoric; actions that serve the community’s needs may help them envision a new world where freedom reigns. Because this cannot happen overnight, the other goal of community organizing must be to limit the daily negative impacts of the system on people and the environment. Most people are not yet ready for such sweeping changes and radicals need to let them build their own vision for a better society. This means combining visionary and revolutionary ideas with certain reforms that will help get us from here to there. Many people are already doing these sort of things around the world, but not always with a radical vision. While the following is a short list of suggestions towards this end, it is important that communities decide what’s best by developing a strategy through dialogue and education among themselves. These suggestions are relevant to some urban and rural low-income communities; people who are organizing wealthier areas such as suburbs need to find out their own relevant issues, such as sprawl, breast cancer rates, etc.

  1. Health Care: Proactive: It is important for people to learn CPR, First AID and EMT skills so they do not have to call 911 or go to the hospital.. The Black Panthers did this in order to keep the police out of the neighborhood as much as possible. Also, combining preventive medicine, as well as alternative medicine, such as homeopathy, midwifery and acupuncture, along with the necessary procedures of “modern” medicine can also reduce dependency on the flawed healthcare system so people use it only for major, life-threatening emergencies. Reactive: Communities will still need to organize around issues such as improved hospitals, affordable health care, building local health facilities and better response time by ambulances.
  2. Education: Proactive: Decentralizing education through community-based and youth-centered homeschooling and alternative schools; creating local schooling based on popular education, parent involvement and most importantly, what the young people want to learn. Reactive: Communities, depending on their concerns, could organize for more public schools, more teachers, local hiring, culturally appropriate curriculum and hiring, more parent/community input, bilingual education, less corporate influence, and many other issues.
  3. Food: Proactive: When dealing with food production, there may be several levels of action needed, including local production through gardening, urban farming, and potentially, aquaculture. What cannot be done locally could be done regionally through work exchanges with rural farmers and through community supported agriculture projects, where the community buys into a farmer’s crop. Finally, community-run food coops can act as distribution centers for these products. Reactive: Pressuring local stores to carry affordable, organic, non-genetically engineered foods, as well as organizing and education around issues such as corporate domination of the food supply, the disappearance of small family farms, and the use of hormones, genetically modified organisms and pesticides.
  4. Criminal Justice: Proactive: The community can make the “injustice” system less necessary through either community control or abolition of the police, restorative justice, community courts, and youth courts, drug treatment for addicts, job training and educational programs for both young people and released prisoners as well as creating more community centers and youth programs. Reactive: No more prisons! No more mandatory minimums! Decriminalize drug use and graffiti! Stop police brutality!
  5. Solid Waste Management: Proactive: Local composting and waste handling, waste reduction and reduction of household toxics through local production of non-toxic household necessities and the use of integrated pest management instead of using poisonous chemicals. Reactive: Heavily impacted communities should fight waste facilities and for recycling and waste reduction in other communities and the commercial sector; removing subsidies on virgin materials to provide incentives for reuse and recycling; reducing industrial pollution and using the best available technology to deal with waste would relieve many health burdens from the community. It is also important to build bridges between environmental and community activists with the scientists and academics who already know about this stuff.
  6. Local and Regional Production: Proactive: There are many human and environmental costs to the global production and trade in consumer goods, from air pollution that causes global warming, asthma and cancer, to the excess packaging and waste that is produced by moving things thousands of miles.

    Identifying the needs of the area and producing necessary goods close by, through environmentally sound, worker managed businesses and coops with a living wage are some ideas to subverting the current model. This way, any economic development would serve the needs of the community and the integrity of ecosystems, and not Wall Street’s desire for profits. Reactive: Fighting toxic industries, stopping free trade and capitalist/bureaucratic leftist globalization, stopping overproduction for consumer items, as well as preserving natural resources, supporting unionization campaigns and demanding living wages for workers.

  7. Housing: Proactive: Organize community people to reclaim vacant buildings, learn how to do general maintenance, including electrical wiring and plumbing, and form tenant and block associations. Reactive: Withholding rent money from unresponsive landlords and putting the money towards maintenance and repairs of the building; fighting slumlords and slum conditions; fighting against gentrification and for affordable housing.
  8. Energy: Proactive: Local production of alternative clean energy such as solar, geothermal, wind depending on areas; producing as much energy as possible on site at homes or apartment buildings and using power plants as secondary energy supply to reduce reliance on or get off the grid. Improving insulation in homes and energy conservation education. Reactive: Fight to shut down dirty power plants, including nuclear and coal, as well as stopping hydropower from mega-dams and fighting for small-scale, local power generation; forcing industry and commercial sectors to reduce energy usage.
  9. Land Use: Proactive: Using proper technology to clean up abandoned industrial spaces as much as possible or closing them off to public use if they are too toxic; protecting open space and biodiversity by starting parks and gardens on vacant lots, particularly providing for waterfront access, as well as protecting urban wild places for wildlife to flourish. People need to have contact with nature and some space for reflection and peace. Reclaiming land from industry to create community spaces for people to gather, and allowing other species besides humans to thrive, is essential to a healthy community. Reactive: Fighting to force corporations to clean up their messes and pay reparations to the community for health and environmental effects; demanding public funding of clean-up and creation of open space, greenways, and public waterfront access.
  10. Technology use. Proactive and Reactive: Taking a turn towards simpler, more accessible and cheaper technology would allow its use to become more democratic, less specialized and no longer driven by corporate profiteering. Also, simpler, slower-paced and smaller-scaled tech would be more relevant to the local area’s needs, more sustainable for the environment and would allow more human interaction unmediated by some machine. For example, computer reuse and repair centers should take precedence over further production. There are so many people who throw out their PCs every year when the new model comes out; why not donate it instead to keep it in good repair so it does not end up in a landfill? Also, producing technology to clean up messes such as brownfields, nuclear waste, and to help with river and natural resource restoration may unfortunately be necessary in the post-industrial age.

There are many other issues, such as providing services for people with disabilities, the homeless and treating drug addiction on a community level, that can only be done with some support on a larger scale. Once again, the issues need to be identified by the community through extensive outreach and dialogue; the solutions need to be picked democratically and conscientiously. However, organizers need to remember one very important thing. No matter who people are or where they come from, they can be as reactionary, close-minded and as dismissive of these ideas as anyone. That is just the world we live in.

Everyone is being fed massive doses of propaganda, distractions and lies, through the schools, the media, from friends, etc. The pressure to conform and to keep up business as usual is immense. There may be only a few people in any given area who will really want to get involved, but they are the ones that we will need to work with if we want things to get any better.

Survival Brigades: Self-Reliance and Mutual Aid

Communities cannot make these vast changes in isolation. Building networks between communities that are struggling will form a stronger movement for change. Because our society isolates people and teaches them to only think in terms of their self-interest without a regard for the bigger picture, a project such as the survival brigades could bring people, especially young people, together. Work exchange programs between urban and rural communities on many of the projects listed above could build both self-reliance and interdependency for individuals and their communities. There would be an emphasis on personal development, creativity and individual expression, as well as the importance of a shared sense of community. People could exchange skills, build support networks, and teach and learn life survival skills, such as conflict resolution, self-defense, food production, homesteading/home repair, wilderness survival, and medical skills. They could also develop alternative economics based on barter and labor exchange. These projects will give people a sense of accomplishment, commitment, and collective ownership of their work. It could be very fun and loaded with the adventure and promise of doing something real. And since people will be working within the context of a profound social and environmental crisis, they could work on learning strategies to crush the system, through direct action training, teaching organizing skills, political education, independent media and communications, surviving protests and other necessary skills for gaining their freedom. The difference between these survival programs and other liberation struggles would be the encouragement of critical and independent thought, not indoctrination, whether left-wing, right-wing or anarchist.


Life should not be about struggling to make ends meet or fighting for political change. Life should be about falling in love, gardening, eating good food, breathing fresh air, going fishing, spending time with friends and family, developing your talents and enjoying all that this world could offer. This is not some utopian dream, but the way things ought to be. Freedom should not have to be a privilege. It is sick that we have to fight for it.

But we are not there yet. If we want to live in a free world, the only ways that we are going to get there is by organizing from the grassroots and struggling as best we can.

Thanks to all of the people out there who are struggling everyday and to all of the political prisoners who are locked down for trying make positive change.

Copyleft (c) 2001 Errol Schweizer and Brielle Epstein. Please Duplicate and Distribute.

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