Occasionally, President Barack Obama reminds us that he was once a community organizer. In his interview Monday night with BET News, Obama said that he had invited some people who have been organizing protests against police misconduct to meet with him at the White House last week. “Because the old adage, power concedes nothing without a fight — I think that’s true,” Obama said. Obama was closely paraphrasing a statement by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass that is well-known among community organizers and activists: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” This is not a phrase that most politicians would be familiar with. Obama probably first heard Douglass’ words during his three years as a community organizer …
Occasionally, President Barack Obama reminds us that he was once a community organizer.
In his interview Monday night with BET News, Obama said that he had invited some people who have been organizing protests against police misconduct to meet with him at the White House last week.
“Because the old adage, power concedes nothing without a fight — I think that’s true,” Obama said.
Obama was closely paraphrasing a statement by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass that is well-known among community organizers and activists: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
This is not a phrase that most politicians would be familiar with. Obama probably first heard Douglass’ words during his three years as a community organizer in Chicago during the 1980s. Douglass’ famous one-liner was actually part of a speech he gave on August 3, 1857 in Canandaigua, New York. Civil rights and community organizers rediscovered Douglass’ words in the 1960s and they’ve become a key part of the ideas that young activists imbibe, especially these two paragraphs:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Obama echoed Douglass’ sentiments in several parts of his BET interview. He said that he supported the protests over police killings of unarmed black males so long as they are peaceful.
“A country’s conscience sometimes has to be triggered by some inconvenience, because I think a lot of people who saw the Eric Garner video are troubled, even if they haven’t had that same experience themselves. Even if they’re not African-American or Latino,” said Obama.
He noted that the news media and the public, sometimes lose interest in an issue as new topics grab their attention, “so the value of peaceful protests — activism, organizing — is it reminds the society this is not yet done.”
In 1985, at age 23, Obama was hired by the Developing Communities Project, a coalition of churches on Chicago’s South Side, to help empower residents to win improved playgrounds, after-school programs, job training, housing, and other concerns affecting a neighborhood hurt by large-scale layoffs from the nearby steel mills and neglect by banks, retail stores, and the local government. He knocked on doors and talked to people in their kitchens, living rooms, and churches about the problems they faced and why they needed to get involved to change things.
As an organizer, Obama learned the skills of motivating and mobilizing people who had little faith in their ability to make politicians, corporations and other powerful institutions accountable. Obama taught low-income people how to analyze power relations, gain confidence in their own leadership abilities, and work together.
For example, he organized tenants in the troubled Altgelt Gardens public housing project to push the city to remove dangerous asbestos in their apartments, a campaign that he acknowledged resulted in only a partial victory. After Obama helped organize a large mass meeting of angry tenants, the city government started to test and seal asbestos in some apartments, but ran out of money to complete the task.
Although he didn’t make community organizing a lifetime career — he left Chicago to attend Harvard Law School — Obama said that his organizing experience had shaped his approach to politics. After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to practice and teach law. But in the mid-1990s, he also began contemplating running for office. In 1995, he told a Chicago newspaper, “What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer — as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?”
During his 2008 campaign for president, Obama frequently referred to the three years he spent as a community organizer as “the best education I ever had.” He often referred to the valuable lessons he learned working “in the streets” of Chicago.
“I’ve won some good fights and I’ve also lost some fights, because good intentions are not enough, when not fortified with political will and political power,” echoing Frederick Douglass’ sentiments.
In 2008, Obama enlisted Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor who is one of the country’s leading organizing theorists and practitioners, to help train organizers and volunteers as a key component of his presidential campaign. Ganz was instrumental in shaping the volunteer training experience.
Many Obama campaign volunteers went through several days of intense training sessions called “Camp Obama.” The sessions were led by Ganz and other experienced organizers, including Mike Kruglik, one of Obama’s organizing mentors in Chicago. Potential field organizers were given an overview of the history of grassroots organizing techniques and the key lessons of campaigns that have succeeded and failed.
During that contest, the Obama campaign drew on community organizing techniques to build an effective grassroots organization that increased registration and turnout among voters, particularly African Americans and 18 to 29 year olds. Both groups not only voted overwhelmingly for Obama but also came to the polls in relatively high numbers.
Throughout that 2008 campaign, Obama consistently praised the young organizers working on his staff and the role of organizers in American history.
“Nothing in this country worthwhile has ever happened except when somebody somewhere was willing to hope,” Obama said during that first campaign for the White House. “That is how workers won the right to organize against violence and intimidation. That’s how women won the right to vote. That’s how young people traveled south to march and to sit in and to be beaten, and some went to jail and some died for freedom’s cause.” Change comes about, Obama said, by “imagining, and then fighting for, and then working for, what did not seem possible before.”
In town forums and living-room meetings, Obama told audiences that “real change” only comes about from the “bottom up,” but that as president, he can give voice to those organizing in their workplaces, communities, and congregations around a positive vision for change. “That’s leadership,” he says.
Many of the organizers who worked on Obama’s first campaign wound up working for Organizing for America (now called Organizing for Action), a White House-led organization that was intended to keep the campaign volunteers involved in issue battles in-between election cycles. OFA has not lived up to its early promise, but many people trained in organizing skills in the first and second Obama campaigns went on to play key roles in other Democratic Party contests for Congress, governor races, and various issue campaign.
As soon as Obama won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and even more since entering the White House, he has been subjected to constant attacks by right-wing talk show hosts and bloggers for his background as a community organizer. They’ve sought to demonize Obama as a “radical” and a “socialist” by linking him to Saul Alinsky, one of the founders of modern community organizing who died at 63 in 1972. Obama never met Alinsky but he was no doubt familiar with his ideas, summarized in two books — Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971).
Tens of thousands of organizers and activists have been directly or indirectly influenced by Alinsky’s ideas about organizing. Most of them — like the young Barack Obama — have been liberals and progressives, following Alinsky’s instincts to challenge the rich and powerful. The left, however, has no monopoly on using Alinsky’s techniques. After Obama took office in 2009, even as the Tea Party and conservatives like Glenn Beck attacked Obama for being a radical, they began recommending Alinsky’s books as training tools for building a right-wing movement. Freedom Works, a corporate-funded conservative group started by former Republican congressman Dick Armey, used Rules for Radicals as a primer for its training of Tea Party activists. One Tea Party leader explained, “Alinsky’s book is important because there really is no equivalent book for conservatives. There’s no ‘Rules for Counter-Radicals.'”
There are tens of thousands of Americans today who earn a living as organizers for unions, environmental groups, LGBT and women’s rights groups, community organizations, school reform groups, and others causes, and millions of people who participate in the meetings, lobbying campaigns, get-out-the-vote efforts, and occasional protests that these groups sponsor.
The mainstream media routinely ignores community organizing except when groups engage in dramatic protest, such as the current turmoil in Ferguson and elsewhere. Not a single daily newspaper has a reporter assigned full-time to cover community organizing. Environmental reporters mainly focus on scientific debates or politicians’ maneuverings over legislation, not the grassroots activism that helps turn pollution problems into public issues. Every newspaper has a business section that typically regurgitates the activities of corporate America, but the New York Times is the only major daily newspaper with a full-time reporter covering the labor movement, but last week that reporter, Steve Greenhouse, announced he would soon leave the paper and it isn’t clear whether the Times will replace him on the labor beat.
The editors of most major newspapers and TV networks can probably tell you the name of the CEO of at least one major Wall Street bank or the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but few likely could identify the leaders of the AFL-CIO, SEIU, the Center for Community Change, National Peoples Action, PICO, U.S. Action, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, or the NAACP, and few reporters for local papers cover the day-to-day activities of the thousands of groups that mobilize people at work, in their neighborhoods, and through their faith-based congregations. Occasionally, a mainstream media outlet will highlight the impressive work of a local grassroots organizing group — such as Greenhouse’s recent profile of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and stories by the Washington Post’s Dina ElBoghdady and the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Light about the growing success of a network of local community groups to pressure banks and Fannie Mae to halt foreclosures and instead renegotiate loans with “underwater” homeowners. But organizers know that if they want to get their campaigns and issues in the news, they usually have disrupt business-as-usual, because otherwise they are invisible to the vast majority of reporters and columnists.
Activists in the environmental, immigrant rights, community organizer, and labor movements had hoped that Obama would use the growing network of grassroots organizers to his advantage. They figured that he would understand that protest in the streets, workplaces, and neighborhoods would make it easier for the president to achieve his liberal policy agenda. They wanted Obama to follow the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who recognized that his ability to push New Deal legislation through Congress depended on the pressure generated by protesters — workers, World War I veterans, the jobless, the homeless, and farmers — even though he didn’t always welcome it. They thought that Obama would learn the lessons that Lyndon Johnson learned in the 1960s, when the willingness of civil rights activists to put their bodies on the line against fists and fire hoses shifted public opinion and transformed LBJ from a reluctant advocate to a powerful ally, joining forces with Rev. Martin Luther King and others to get Congress to pass his Great Society plans, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
But Obama seemed to abandon his affinity for organizing soon after he entered the White House. He tried to be a consensus-builder, eschewing conflict, even with those in Congress and in corporate boardrooms who pledged not only to defeat his policy agenda but also to undermine his legitimacy as president.
The battle over health care reform in 2009 and 2010 reflected Obama’s ambivalence toward disruptive activism. At first, White House staffers discouraged Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a coalition of labor, consumer, and community groups, from mobilizing protests, worried that it would alienate moderate Democrats who had close ties to the drug and insurance industries. But when it appeared that Obama’s signature legislative initiative was going down to embarrassing defeat — due to the rise of the Tea Party movement and the insurance industry’s unwillingness to broker a deal — Obama undertook a cross-country speaking tour to energize voters to pressure Congress members to vote for reform.
“Let’s seize reform. It’s within our grasp,” Obama implored his audience at Arcadia University outside Philadelphia. He denounced the insurance companies, which “continue to ration care on the basis of who’s sick and who’s healthy.” Forgoing the bipartisan rhetoric that for months had frustrated activists, Obama taunted Republican critics who have stymied reform: “You had 10 years. What happened? What were you doing?”
“I’m kind of fired up,” Obama continued, repeating a phrase he used in his campaign. Then he again appealed for help. “So I need you to knock on doors. Talk to your neighbors. Pick up the phone,” he said.
While Obama was firing up audiences, HCAN — with the White House’s quiet support — organized protests at the offices of leading insurance companies, and even at the homes of top industry executives. The group mounted more than 200 increasingly feisty protest events in 46 states.
It represented an escalation in HCAN’s efforts to spotlight the industry’s outrageous profits, abuse of consumers, and outsized political influence. HCAN publicly warned Democrats not to get duped by the industry’s pledges of cooperation, echoing the old union song, “which side are you on? The industry or consumers?” The protests and media attention emboldened the Obama House to treat the industry as a target rather than an ally, reflected in his increasingly aggressive speeches critical of the insurance giants. Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, although he failed to give HCAN the credit it deserved for salvaging health care reform.
Today’s organizers have mostly been disappointed that Obama has been reluctant to play this “inside/outside” game. Instead, he has often been the target of protests by progressive movements, such as the crusade to stop the Keystone Pipeline and the battle to pass immigrant reform. On both issues, however, these movements have influenced and shifted Obama’s stance. He has indicated his willingness to stop the oil pipeline and he recently issues an executive order protecting at least 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Although he’s been unable to push Congress to increase the federal minimum wage, he recently took the labor movement’s advice to use his executive authority to increase wages for employees of private companies that have federal government contracts.
Every so often, however, Obama seems to remember his activist background and uses it to encourage a new generation to organize for change.
“I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a global leader in the fight against climate change,” Obama told students at Georgetown University in June of last year, during a speech announcing his proposal to cut pollution from power plants, expand renewable energy development on public lands, and support climate-resilient investments. Noting that big corporations will resist calls to reduce their unhealthy practices, Obama urged the students to “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
The word “divest” was like a dog whistle to campus activists who’ve been pushing their colleges and universities to rid their endowments of stock in companies that are part of the fossil fuel industry. It looked like the former community organizer was embracing the movement to dump stock holdings in order to compel corporations to be more socially responsible?
“‘Invest, divest’ is the most crypto-radical line the president has ever uttered,” tweeted Chris Hayes, host of a news show on MSNBC.
“President Obama’s shout-out to the fossil fuel divestment movement is a huge endorsement for the students on over 300 campuses across the country who are running this campaign,” said Jamie Henn, Communications Director for 350.org, a key advocacy group for campus divestment. “If the U.S. president supports divestment, surely university presidents should do the same. My Twitter feed absolutely lit up with students tweeting the news, people are pumped.”
Two days later, while visiting Senegal, Obama recalled his first foray into activism.
“My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College. As a 19-year-old, I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979, 1980, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.”
Now, another protest movement against racist injustice — triggered by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the failure of the criminal justice to indict their killers — has propelled Obama to recall his community organizing roots.
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).