What the South Can Teach the Rest of the Country About Resisting the Right

A conversation with organizers of the Southern Movement Assembly, a convergence of bottom-up organizations rooted in Black struggle.

Sarah Jaffe November 16, 2017

(Photo courtesy of Southern Movement Assembly)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. We’re now sev­er­al months into the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, and activists have scored some impor­tant vic­to­ries in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many peo­ple, the ques­tion of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with orga­niz­ers, agi­ta­tors, and edu­ca­tors about how to resist and build a bet­ter world.

“What is the nature of the organization we have to build to win?”

Lib­by Devlin: I am Lib­by Devlin. I am the south­ern region direc­tor for Nation­al Nurs­es Orga­niz­ing Committee/​National Nurs­es Unit­ed. I am on the gov­ern­ing coun­cil of the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly, and I am on the coor­di­nat­ing com­mit­tee for the South­ern Work­ers Assem­bly which runs the South­ern Work­ers School.

Sal­adin Muham­mad: I’m Sal­adin Muham­mad, retired inter­na­tion­al rep for the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers union, found­ing mem­ber of the Black Work­ers for Jus­tice and co-coor­di­na­tor of the South­ern Move­ment Assembly.

Rita Valen­ti: I am Rita Valen­ti. I am a reg­is­tered nurse. I work with Nation­al Nurs­es Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee. I’m on the Board of Health­care-NOW! I am a Project South founder.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talk­ing a lit­tle while after the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly hap­pened. Tell our read­ers what that was.

Sal­adin: It is a con­ver­gence of orga­ni­za­tions and grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions that are large­ly anchored in the African-Amer­i­can grass­roots strug­gles in all of the states in the South. It is aimed at build­ing a sense of strat­e­gy and pro­gram in people’s under­stand­ing of the South­ern free­dom movement.

Sarah: Tell us a lit­tle bit about the his­to­ry of the Move­ment Assem­bly; how long this has been going on, and why did you come together?

Rita: This is the sev­enth South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly. Our first one was in 2012 in Lown­des Coun­ty, Alaba­ma. Each Move­ment Assem­bly has built on the one before it and has devel­oped a sense of prin­ci­ples. Peo­ple work togeth­er and prac­tice con­scious­ness, vision and strat­e­gy. Ulti­mate­ly, we are try­ing to build pow­er from the bot­tom up and end oppres­sion and exploita­tion of our peo­ple in the South.

Lib­by: There are around 20 orga­ni­za­tions that par­tic­i­pate in the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly. We have all agreed to a blue­print, which is the South­ern People’s Ini­tia­tive. This includes work­ing to build a new econ­o­my, to estab­lish more of a people’s democ­ra­cy and to pro­tect and defend each oth­er with­in that democracy.

Sarah: Let’s talk about how this past assem­bly went. Was it at all dif­fer­ent now that Trump is pres­i­dent, or are you still focused on the same things that were hap­pen­ing before?

Sal­adin: We have a long-term per­spec­tive regard­less of who is pres­i­dent. Obvi­ous­ly, the Trump pres­i­den­cy has some influ­ence on how we think about the long-term per­spec­tive, because it cer­tain­ly is a part of the long-term per­spec­tive of the elite class and the direc­tion of the sys­tem. We felt that it is impor­tant that peo­ple have a per­spec­tive so that we don’t just pan­ic because of this open facil­i­ta­tion of white suprema­cy and white nation­al­ism. So, build­ing on the past assem­bly informed us on the road ahead. It has had some influ­ence, but it didn’t dis­rupt perspective.

Sarah: Some of the south­ern orga­niz­ers I have talked to recent­ly have said, We have already been strug­gling with peo­ple who are a lot like Trump.”

Tell us a lit­tle bit about what hap­pened at this assem­bly. What were some of the ses­sions like? Who was there? What were some of the con­ver­sa­tions that peo­ple were having?

Rita: There were about 300 peo­ple there. That showed a deep com­mit­ment. To get to Whitak­er, North Car­oli­na, you can’t just land in an air­port some­place. You actu­al­ly have to be engaged and real­ly com­mit­ted to build­ing this work.

Essen­tial­ly, it was a series of front­line assem­blies. One engaged a Nation­al Stu­dent Bill of Rights. Anoth­er assem­bly dealt with mass incar­cer­a­tion and de-incar­cer­at­ing the assem­blies. There was one on cli­mate change, one on people’s democ­ra­cy. And then there was the assem­bly that I, Lib­by, Sal­adin and a lot of oth­er folks put togeth­er: The Work­ers Jus­tice Assem­bly. There was an assem­bly on migra­tion and one on economies for sur­vival. Plus, there were a num­ber of skill build­ing assem­blies that dealt with strat­e­gy and tac­tic, as well as vision.

It was a beau­ti­ful space. In a lot of ways, it cre­at­ed a harm-free lib­er­a­tion zone where peo­ple felt very com­fort­able shar­ing their views and real­ly try­ing to come togeth­er to devel­op polit­i­cal strategy.

Lib­by: I know Black Work­ers for Jus­tice has been involved in the past, and I think this is the third assem­bly that the NNU has par­tic­i­pat­ed in. But this par­tic­u­lar assem­bly had, I think, more focus on the idea of work­place democ­ra­cy and build­ing work­er orga­ni­za­tions as a way to expand democ­ra­cy and pro­tect and defend each oth­er. There was a lit­tle bit more atten­tion to the idea that we need to have a work­er-based move­ment if we intend to real­ly do any­thing about income inequal­i­ty and the lack of democ­ra­cy in our country.

Sarah: On that note, why don’t we talk a lit­tle bit about the Work­ers Jus­tice Assembly.

Sal­adin: The Work­ers Jus­tice Assem­bly rep­re­sent­ed a new enti­ty, or — as described in the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly — a new front­line. That is, a new bat­tle­front, a new issue struggle.

The Work­ers Assem­bly pro­vid­ed an expe­ri­ence that has been a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from oth­er front­line assem­blies. We involved par­tic­i­pants in a prac­tice that trade union orga­niz­ing does: meet­ing oth­er peo­ple, ask­ing them where they work, ask­ing them about what issues they face where they work, etc. Then, we went out to some real work­places to leaflet, talk to work­ers and report back that expe­ri­ence, to have a sense of some of the things that work­place orga­niz­ing entails. I think that was a new expe­ri­ence and a new practice.

Lib­by: Obvi­ous­ly a lot of the unions have a real vest­ed inter­est­ed in hav­ing strong alliances with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions. The nurs­es are nat­ur­al allies with our patients and com­mu­ni­ty. It is impor­tant for the unions to be involved in the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly, because it engages unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er. The unions bring some­thing impor­tant to this rela­tion­ship in that we, as unions, are the ones who direct­ly con­front cap­i­tal every day at work. Many of the com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions engage in real­ly impor­tant orga­niz­ing, but they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have an auto­mat­ic rela­tion­ship via their union to direct­ly con­front some of the eco­nom­ic sys­tems that are par­tic­u­lar­ly exploita­tive and unfair to people.

So, we bring that alliance togeth­er to fig­ure out, Where do these com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers them­selves work, and are they inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in a broad­er eco­nom­ic strug­gle for eco­nom­ic justice?”

Rita: I was very, very excit­ed about the pres­ence of some of the key unions that have an under­stand­ing of social union­ism, which brings togeth­er the work­place and com­mu­ni­ty issues and sees those things inter­con­nect­ed. This is opposed to a more elit­ist busi­ness union­ism mod­el that tends to col­lab­o­rate with the boss.

The oth­er thing that I think also came out of this is this is a focus on the gig econ­o­my. We talked about what a lot of young work­ers are fac­ing in terms of intern­ships and con­tract­ing and some of the real prob­lems that young work­ers face in an econ­o­my that is con­stant­ly chang­ing and has been devel­op­ing in a way that unpaid labor and lack of ben­e­fits are the norm for so many young workers.

How does this col­lab­o­ra­tion between union­ism and grass­roots orga­niz­ing actu­al­ly begin to chal­lenge pow­er and trans­form our soci­ety in ways that address the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion? In our assem­bly we had nurs­es, we had retired work­ers, we had rep­re­sen­ta­tives from UE and NNU, as well as a lot of work­ers who are work­ing in 501©3s and strug­gling to bring togeth­er their work expe­ri­ence with their desire to trans­form this country.

Lib­by: We also had some online jour­nal­ists as part of the Work­ers Jus­tice Assem­bly. This was before Rick­etts closed down his busi­ness rather than deal with unions. I don’t know if I would call online jour­nal­ists part of the gig econ­o­my, but it cer­tain­ly is pre­car­i­ous work. How are we going to approach the pre­car­i­ous work to be able to have peo­ple take pow­er? What do we learn from that, and how do we build on that and fig­ure out what the next and prop­er steps are?

Sal­adin: For me, the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly rais­es the issue of how a move­ment has to deal with con­tra­dic­tions that emerge out of orga­niz­ing in a chang­ing econ­o­my and also in a chang­ing polit­i­cal real­i­ty. We have to ask whether or not the dif­fer­ences that exist should be viewed as antag­o­nis­tic with­in the move­ment, or a learn­ing curve that the move­ment has to under­stand in order to be able to move for­ward collectively.

We learned that even in lib­er­at­ed spaces, some­times there will be dif­fer­ences that a move­ment has to try to nav­i­gate and work out. Under­stand­ing chal­lenges in the course of car­ry­ing out a strat­e­gy and a pro­gram is some­thing that I think the assem­bly helped us to learn.

Sarah: One of the chal­lenges that sev­er­al places have faced this year has been hur­ri­canes and look­ing for­ward into a world of cli­mate change. I won­der how much you guys talked about these storms and what being ready for the next ones would look like.

Rita: I think one of the leaps that has occurred in the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly process was South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly 5, Gulf South Ris­ing. That marked the tenth anniver­sary of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na and the after­math of Kat­ri­na, includ­ing the huge amount of pri­va­ti­za­tion that went along on New Orleans. So, what is it that we have to do in terms of build­ing lever­age and pow­er? One of the rea­sons I love this move­ment assem­bly process is because it is begin­ning to address that.

Also, NNU start­ed the RN-to-RN pro­gram with Kat­ri­na that brought nurs­es into the Gulf after Kat­ri­na and has also sent nurs­es into Puer­to Rico. Not from the per­spec­tive of col­o­niz­ers, but from the per­spec­tive of, What is on the ground and how do we assist with that?” Part of the bring­ing unions — pro­gres­sive unions — into the Move­ment Assem­bly is the build­ing of capac­i­ty and orga­ni­za­tion. The oth­er ques­tion that comes out of the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly process is, What is the nature of the orga­ni­za­tion we have to build to win?”

Sal­adin: Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, for many of us, brought for­ward the begin­ning under­stand­ing of dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism. That is an impor­tant aspect of our under­stand­ing about the ques­tion of cli­mate change and the role of the state, the fail­ures of the state.

There are so many con­fer­ences that take on sim­i­lar, not iden­ti­cal, char­ac­ters as the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly. But, the dif­fer­ence between the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly and a con­fer­ence and work­shops is that it is part of an ongo­ing process of forg­ing and build­ing a move­ment with a con­scious­ness that is local, nation­al and inter­na­tion­al. To real­ly see how those fea­tures are forged is a way to look at the expe­ri­ence of the South­ern Move­ment Assem­bly and its annu­al convergence.

Sarah: What are a cou­ple of the lessons from this past assem­bly and from the work of doing these assem­blies more broad­ly that peo­ple from out­side the South should take?

Lib­by: I guess I always kind of hoped that the stan­dards in the north­ern states would move South, not vice ver­sa. So, when you look at income inequal­i­ty, it is worse in the South. Health out­comes are worse in the South. Edu­ca­tion qual­i­ty is worse in the South. Infant mor­tal­i­ty rates are worse in the South. The per­cent of union­iza­tion is direct­ly linked to all of that, as well.

What we bring from the South is that we have been liv­ing under these same con­di­tions that the exist­ing gov­ern­ment and their fun­ders would like to see brought through­out the coun­try. We have exist­ed. We have sur­vived. We can say we have done that. I think a lot of peo­ple in places like Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin, Illi­nois, Indi­ana and Mis­souri are all going to be faced with the same con­di­tions that we have now. I know that they are work­ing to try to fig­ure out, How do you fight back in that envi­ron­ment?” Because the polit­i­cal cli­mate has been dif­fer­ent there. One thing that peo­ple can learn from us is how to be scrap­pi­er. How you fight in that con­text. There has been a lot of cross-state dis­cus­sion that has been going on, and I think that is help­ful and useful.

Sal­adin: His­tor­i­cal­ly, the labor move­ment has not rec­og­nized the strate­gic role of the South in a nation­al strat­e­gy. The south is a zone of glob­al cap­i­tal very much like the maquilado­ras. Inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal is now see­ing it as a region of con­cen­tra­tion that is pro­tect­ed by a state that is dom­i­nant inter­na­tion­al­ly. Econ­o­mists have said that the region­al econ­o­my of the South would be con­sid­ered as the world’s fourth largest econ­o­my, fol­low­ing Japan. If we are not rec­og­niz­ing this con­cen­tra­tion of glob­al cap­i­tal in the South and under­stand­ing how to chal­lenge the out­ra­geous actions of U.S. and glob­al cap­i­tal, then I don’t think we are look­ing at a strat­e­gy correctly.

When Wis­con­sin hap­pened and the issue of Right to Work was raised, it appeared as if the sky had fall­en. We have been liv­ing under Right to Work, and it nev­er sounds like the sky is falling for the South. It’s almost as if that is nor­mal for us. In terms of so-called de-indus­tri­al­iza­tion and the Rust Belt, I don’t think that we have a good han­dle out­side of the South on under­stand­ing what that is going to mean for the labor move­ment in terms of the shrink­age. Again, I think you can look at the South almost as a kind of inter­nal colony, if you will, in terms of how cap­i­tal has used it in reor­ga­niz­ing itself. I think that is some­thing that the north­ern forces have to get a bet­ter han­dle on.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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