Author: Sopo Japaridze
Tbilisi Solidarity Network has created about a year and a half ago in the hopes of establishing a new organizing culture in Tbilisi and to the rest of Georgia. Our organizing approach is based on overcoming prior failures and a deep belief that people can transform themselves collectively. It’s true there hasn’t been a long history of organizing in Georgia, but the forms of “resistance” imported from developed countries have given organizing a distinctly “activist” flavor. Activists are at risk of being trapped in a cycle of reacting to media-driven agenda by focusing on issues that the media deems important instead of figuring out the priorities of the people they represent.The other danger is fulfilling the demands of donors thereby bypassing deeper organizing due to pressure from showing quick and measurable outputs. Material conditions have created this defective dynamic dominated by money from donors and personal ambitions that become almost impossible to curb when media lavishes disproportionate attention. Even though we are going to reserve the problem of donors for another article, we would like to offer our thoughts on deeper organizing and introduce the historical basis for Tbilisi Solidarity Network’s work.
Here is an example that Tbilisi Solidarity Network faces every day in organizing employees. Under Saakashvili, the labor code of conduct was one of the worst in the world. In 2013, through new regime change, involvement of union leadership, and demands for European Integration, a much better labor code was introduced. The changes were virtually kept from the entire county’s employed population. They were never asked to meaningfully participate, they were never involved nor did they have any idea of the process; therefore, the improvements in the labor code are barely relevant to most employees since they have no recollection of its existence nor how to effectively use the laws. What legal rights should workers defend when they aren’t aware of having any rights? When there are demands by unions, NGOs and other activists to create a viable labor inspection which would enforce the labor code, most employees cannot comprehend the significance of the demand since they don’t have a framework. If a new government came in tomorrow and reversed the labor code to the pre-2013 level, probably most employees wouldn’t fight against it.
Let’s imagine a different scenario: Through slow and deep organizing, employees would have been included in the drafting, the advocating, and disseminating of the new labor code that might have taken a longer time to become law, nevertheless, the internalization of being part of the fight and understanding the process would have cemented a much stronger base armed with experience and a framework to first know the improvements in the law, then to actually force the employers to comply with the law, and finally to make more demands from the state to create labor inspection.
Deep Organizing in the Delta
“We have plenty of men and women who can teach what they know; we have very few who can teach their own capacity to learn.”
In the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the organizing structure resembled the family and social structure of christian black community which was clearly demarcated on the lines of leader and follower: the Shepherd and the sheep. Through working within these boundaries for decades, this model found some challengers who saw its limitations. They went on to found a new organizing tradition that was based on the developmental style which stressed the importance of developing self-determination and efficacy. The school that was formed in 1930s to organize unions in the south, Highlander Folk school, turned into a training and sharing ground for civil rights organizers where ideas and experiences of building movements were exchanged and strengthened. The emphasis on developing others was crucial to Highlander’s conception of leadership. According to the cofounder of the school, Horton: “We debunk the leadership role of going back and telling people and providing the thinking for them. We aren’t into that. We’re into people who can help other people develop and provide educational leadership and ideas, but at the same time, bring people along.”
The prominent Civil Rights group led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was guilty of reinforcing the power of men over women and of the educated middle class over the uneducated and lower classes. Not surprising, most of the opposition to this type of activism were women who were the main organizers of SCLC and other prominent organizations like NAACP. The main challenger was the best organizer of the Civil Rights Movement, named Ella Baker. Through decades of organizing for black rights, she had time and time again reached the same conclusion that people must actively participate and take responsibility in their own liberation. When people aren’t strengthened on the ground, where they live, once the great charismatic leader is gone, the entire progress made is gone. If the ability to learn, grow and fight for one’s rights is not internalized and left at a shallow level, the changes aren’t transformational and can be taken away quickly by another leader.
Ella Baker was critical of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where she worked for decades because it was focused on a tiny minority of middle class blacks focusing on legal battles of Civil Rights leaving out majority of the members and the black population at large. The role for the people were to just cheer legal victories from the sidelines. Ella Baker wanted to strengthen the branches of NAACP, to host trainings and meetings to focus on issues that were central to that community, and do voter registration in rural areas that were entirely ignored. Ella came to reject her other organization, SCLC, that focused on big demonstrations led always by Martin Luther King, Jr. and media campaigns trying to appeal to middle class white people. She wanted to include organizing on all levels, from schools to rural cities and led by the locals. She stressed focusing on women and youth who had shown for years were the mainstay of the Civil Rights movement. Women did all the work of Civil Rights (churches was mostly run by women) and youth were on the frontlines of disobedience and risk-taking to challenge white supremacy. She was rejected by SCLC just like she was rejected by NAACP, and Martin Luther King, Jr. barely tolerated her. She said:
I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed people to depend so largely on a leader,
because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader
because he has found a spot in the public limelight. It usually means that the media made
him, and the media may undo him. There is also the danger in our culture that, because a
person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment,
such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement. Such people get so
involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their
time and they don’t do the work of actually organizing people.
Ella Baker helped form a new organization, Students for Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). SNCC came out of direct action campaigns of desegregating lunch-counters and other public places in 1960. Though there was division in the group whether to continue direct action or register voters in the South and the group almost split, it was decided to have both wings within the organization. Ella Baker knew that in the deep South, registering voters and direct action were not distinct, direct action was necessary for registration. SNCC went into the South especially in the Mississippi Delta where the most repressive conditions were to be found, and where no other Civil Rights organization existed. The kind of work necessary to move the sharecroppers that were basically living in slavery and challenge white supremacy would require much more the kind of organizing that Ella was talking about. The long term, people-centered and participatory yet militant and uncompromising model were crucial to get black people registered to vote. We have to remember that the white supremacists killed black people for even registering to vote. Most of the black people living there had not seen black people who weren’t afraid of whites, who stood up and demanded their rights. Just seeing people like that was the beginning of the process of transformation. SNCC workers were violently beaten by supremacists, other civil rights activists were murdered, yet SNCC still defiantly continued registering people to vote. SNCC workers lived and worked alongside the people they were trying to organize, being completely immersed in their everyday reality.
SNCC through lived experiences even reconsidered the nonviolence of the Civil Rights movement over time. Though SCLC and other Civil Rights Movements had taken up “nonviolence,” in some of the deep south areas, being armed was the only way to survive. The nonviolent protest was developed strategically in order to use the media to show the violence of the whites that was already occurring in reality but not broadcast in hopes to appeal to middle class white people’s consciousness and keep the Civil Rights Movement from being decimated by police and white supremacists. But in the deep south where there were no media cameras, having a gun may have been the only way to defend your family in the middle of the night when racists came to burn and shoot your family. Many of the families SNCC workers stayed with would stay up all night in shifts with guns protecting them while they slept.
SNCC’s successes include setting up an alternative to the all-white Democratic Party in Mississippi, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that also led to more challenges of white-dominated politics, registering voters that broke the back of racist laws and ultimately forced the hand of President Lyndon Johnson, ushered and developed local leaders that were mainly women, inspired student activism for years to come, and most of all challenged the idea that through deep and slow organizing can one bring comprehensive change rather than protests and media appearances.
So the most fundamental part of making a long-lasting change, transformational change and in reality that’s the only change there is, is to organize deeply, that is to engage people at various levels and long-term. Tbilisi Solidarity Network was born out of these ideas. Though we don’t have to contend with the centuries-long brutal racist regime, we can take the lessons of SNCC and apply them to our context. Instead of focusing on legal battles, shallow one-time protests or developing movements around one leader, we can go deeply into the areas where people live, get to know their needs and potential and slowly yet steadily help teach them to organize without recreating the debilitating media and charismatic leader led culture. As Ella Baker mentioned that leaders aren’t actually leaders because they have ties to the people they supposedly represent but created by public attention, by media spontaneously.
What we do to lessen the chances of recreating this model is to include people on a daily level, we stress the participatory model where we do not take care of their problems for them, but encourage them to take responsibility for their own efficacy. We believe that with solidarity and support, people will find their own power within themselves and that internalization makes them stronger and resilient towards whatever challenges come their way.
This is the beginning of a series of articles we are going to write to shed light on our organizing and our political point of view. We hope these articles will resonate with many of you and would love to hear feedback in order for us to think wider about our work.