Subhash Kateel is one of my heroes. He launched one of the most visionary, cutting edge community based organizations in the country, Families for Freedom. While I want to make clear what I attempted to convey in my original piece that any form of struggle is inherently worthwhile and admirable, two things about Families for Freedom caught my eye initially.
First, it was an organization not started by well-meaning white folks who wanted to help immigrants. Those are great, but we have plenty of ‘em. Families for Freedom was started by two visionary organizers of color in touch with the communities they were organizing and personally shaped by the issue of deportation.
Second, yes, Families for Freedom sometimes protested for protest’s sake — understandable given the desperation and powerlessness many of their members felt. But they also used creative tactics designed to make a real impact. Once, passing by some embassies in Washington, D.C., I noticed folks wearing Families for Freedom t-shirts. Huh? It turns out, rather than just pressuring the United States government to stop deportations, Families for Freedom was enlisting the home countries of immigrants to fight for their nationals. Their campaign drew on novel interpretations of international law to push bold and tangible demands. It was strategically and tactically brilliant. [As a footnote/disclaimer: I was so inspired by Subhash and Families for Freedom’s work, I agreed to serve on the board for a period and helped the organization raise money.]
My piece in the American Prospect, imperfect though it may be, was intended as a constructive critique and prompt for self-reflection about all of our organizing and protest tactics, using Occupy Wall Street as a timely lens. Apparently, the jokes about smelly anarchists fell flat with many (though I suspect just as many laughed) — but I’m more saddened that my defenses of Occupy Wall Street and the value of their taking action were apparently obscured by my critique. I’d encourage those interested to read my piece for CNN.com (actually, written before the American Prospect post) in which I defend not only Occupy Wall Street but the necessity of protest and direct action in general.
That said, a lot of things understandably ruffled Subhash and others about my critique of Occupy Wall Street. But I hope that being ruffled — that challenging our assumptions, reflecting on what works and doesn’t work in our field, engaging in healthy debate not among our opponents but our friends — is precisely what will make us stronger.
I quoted the New York Times not because I believe it is a bastion of truth but because I believe it fairly closely represents what I would call “official mainstream opinion” — that is, most Americans don’t read the New York Times but they get their news and information from media makers who almost exclusively rely on the reporting and framing of the Times. So if our goal is to get out on the streets and vent and protest, it doesn’t matter what the Times thinks. If our goal is to reach the progressive choir through progressive media outlets, it doesn’t matter what the Times thinks. But if our goal is to reach mainstream America, to shape and shift popular opinion and popular will, then at the very least the New York Times is an appropriate barometer.
My favorite part of Subhash’s post was, “To be sure, Sally’s point about the disconnect between seemingly privileged participants of Occupy Wall Street, and the struggling folks of the five boroughs is well taken. I have heard the same criticism from a bunch of people on the ground.” In fact, that was the entire point of my piece — that we should see protest as a “collective art form”, the collective coming from “deeper, sustained work of movement building”, the art coming from innovative and unexpected forms of disobedience.
Subhash ends by reminding us “Another world is possible.” Yes, and another movement is possible, too. If I’m guilty of wanting that movement to be as grounded and representative of all Americans, especially those on the front-lines of suffering in our broken economy, springing from the very same well of accountable leadership Subhash has demonstrated throughout his work, I can live with that.
Sally Kohn is a grassroots strategist actively engaged in movement building for equality and justice. She is a regular on Fox News (Hannity, O’Reilly Factor, Megyn Kelly) and MSNBC (Ed Show). Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, FoxNews.com, Reuters, The Guardian and the American Prospect among other outlets.