July 11, 2019
The Most Valuable
Information Free To All

It's Time for the Left to Ask "What Are We For?"

By Sarah Jaffe, Truthout | Interview

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 33rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Maria Poblet who has been working in base building and community organizing in the Bay Area for 18 years, building Causa Justa :: Just Cause, a democratically held grassroots organization where she is currently transitioning out of the role of executive director.

Sarah Jaffe: What have you been working on for your last couple of weeks/months at Causa :: Justa?

Maria Poblet: I have been supporting the team of community organizers and the internal leadership in trying to understand the new political moment and the impact we could have. Some of what we have been working on is really reclaiming democracy as a value that comes from communities of color and benefits communities of color and benefits society as a whole.

We are one of the few spots in the country that on November 9 had something to celebrate, which was the vast expansion of tenant protections that we won kind of against all odds in the area that is controlled by tech corporations and their interests. We won these huge protections for the tenants that are threatened by displacement. It is because of the long-term organizing and the ability that organizing builds to lead society as a whole, which is really necessary at this moment.

We have been talking internally about that struggle for democracy, even though we come from a sector of society that doesn't have that many illusions about how democracy works and doesn't work. Many of us can't vote and have been pushed out of voting and have been pushed out of parties that say they defend our interests. We are trying to build a new kind of relationship to democracy and are really trying to defend civil liberties as we advance immigrant rights, as we fight gentrification and displacement. As I am exiting [the role of executive director], I am trying to figure out how to support the next crop of leaders because they are up against enormous challenges.

We are in Oakland, here in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is this complicated thing -- on one hand it is the most progressive part of the country. You have got some of the first places to get the $15 an hour minimum wage, really impressive protections for retail workers, and on the other hand, there is all this tech money and there is all this gentrification and there is sort of the kind of liberalism that dresses itself up very nicely, but is also supporting policies and economic growth that displaces the people who have always been here. Talk about the Bay Area and what it is like to be in this weird world.

I think we are in Detroit in the 1960s. This is a boom town. What you have in the boom town is the most powerful people, the most powerful corporations in the world, and you also have some of what could be the most powerful movements if they were linked with other movements and if they were building this broader agenda. That is what we are trying to do. When you look at Detroit, when the auto industry left, Detroit has suffered for decades with massive disinvestment, massive unemployment. But, all of that came after this period of massive expansion and growth and venture capital and this feeling that it was invincible.

That is where we are. We are at the top of the bubble. The contradictions are starting to show. These tech corporations that are driving displacement are having to contend with the anti-immigrant sentiment that is inside their culture, that is maybe against their culture. They are kind of having to choose sides and what is really interesting is how they relate to the grassroots. What can we do to build a movement much broader than our base? Our base traditionally has been Black and Latino families. We were the ones at the airport fighting against the Muslim ban in coalition and solidarity with people we have known 20-30 years, but also the CEO of Google was there. It is so great that he was there. What are we going to do with that?

That is a really interesting thing because the response to the airport protests -- a lot of people were like, "Oh, this is this spontaneous thing." For some people it was spontaneous. For the CEO of Google being there, it was pretty spontaneous. But, for y'all, this is what you do.

Yes. I think there is a danger when you have been in community organizing in grassroots communities that have been marginalized for a long time to say to everybody else, "Well, where have you been all this time?" That is a completely understandable emotional response, but politically ... politically, it is a huge opportunity to say, "These are problems that you never even knew were problems. We have been fighting to resolve these problems for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. Come along. Let's tell you what we have learned so far. You tell us what you have to contribute." It is a different posture of leadership, which our movements need to take on at this point. It is a time of polarization. Neither of the established parties [is] really going to offer anything to everyday people. It is a time for social movements to lead.

Demonstrators march through the San Francisco Financial District on Inauguration Day in 2017. (Photo: Hunter King)

It has been a few months since the election and inauguration. What has it been like? Have you been bringing in a lot of new people? Have people been showing up and saying, "What can we do here? Maria, tell us what to do here?"

A lot of people and organizations who sort of believe that things were generally working turned around in this moment and said, "Wait a minute. It doesn't seem like things are working, and you guys have been saying this, this whole time. So, what should I do?" It is a very interesting moment. Part of what we did in response was to, with a lot of other organizations, help start Bay Resistance which is -- I think now we are 50 organizations building a network of individuals who aren't part of our base. They aren't service workers in SEIU. They aren't Black and Latino families fighting displacement at Causa :: Justa. They aren't Asians fighting pollution in Richmond that are in the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. They are people that haven't joined organizations before and they want to take action now.

We built this text loop, this mobilization machine, turned all those people out, and now we are trying to figure out how that connects to long-term strategy. How do those folks start to get connected to the strategy that has been developing at the grassroots, and how do they influence the strategy, as well? They have a different position to play in the game.

And, when you think about it from a movement-building perspective, the question isn't, "Do I have a role?" The question is "What role?" Most of us haven't been trained to answer that. We have been trained to do one piece of the project and not look at the project as a whole. That is what is keeping us back when you think about being drivers of a really revolutionary change. It is looking at the whole picture, which most of us haven't been trained to do.

Globally, the center is collapsing, so now people are looking to the left, looking to people who have been doing this kind of organizing for a long time and saying, "What can you teach us?" But in terms of broad politics, there is still this weird binary of Democrats versus Republicans that in so many ways is not even the conversation we should be having. For so long, so many people have been doing their part of the thing, doing their part of the puzzle, trying to maintain some space for radical ideas. Now there is a lot more space for those ideas, but also there are these constant horrors coming from Washington. I wonder if you have advice for people who are trying to expand the way they look at the world and the way they think about the world to meet this moment.

It is interesting, when it comes to that -- it is both something we have never experienced and something societies have experienced forever. We are in a massive moment of transition. What is going to come next is a different economic system than capitalism. The question is "Is it going to be more democratic and offer more equity or is it going to be less democratic and more unequal?" We can't control every part of it. This isn't like you go into a room and make a plan. That is not how history works, but can we build forms of organization and political vision that really drive toward a more democratic, more egalitarian society?

What is really interesting is this moment of polarization where everything feels unfamiliar, that is actually the space that we needed to make the arguments that we have been wanting to make, because limiting politics to "You are either a Republican or you are a Democrat" misses the vast majority of people and the vast majority of their experience and certainly their longing, their vision, what they want for their own families or their children. My kid is going to be growing up in a world after Trump shaped the economy. Oh man! A lot of us are thinking about that. What are we going to do that sets the stage for who is next? When you think about young people -- my kid is two. He is not a good example right now. He is very young. But, their vision is really different. Their criticism of capitalism is much deeper than anybody's before.

The question is "What are we for?" In the United States, we have been really good in the progressive movement about listing very explicitly everything that we are against and why. What are we for? That is a huge risk.

Maria Poblet raises awareness for Measure JJ -- an Oakland renters protection ordinance that was voted into effect in November 2016 -- near Oakland's Lake Merritt in October 2016. (Photo: Josh Warren White) Often people have had to say very specifically what we are against because we can't broadly say what we are against. You couldn't say, "No, we just are against capitalism." You have to say, "We are against displacement.... We are against this, this.... " You couldn't say, "This system is killing us." That is where we are now.

I think what is interesting about this moment is that a lot of people are saying there are systemic problems. If somebody could run for president and get millions of votes and say, "I am a socialist" then conditions are new. Conditions in people's minds and hearts and in our communities are new. How is our organizing going to address those new conditions?

That brings us to LeftRoots. Tell us what LeftRoots is and where it came from.

LeftRoots comes out of people doing community organizing, long-term committed organizers in communities of color who have been fighting around issues of pollution and displacement and expulsions in schools, issues that are visceral in people's lives and that mainstream progressives often didn't care about. We are trying to build the capacities of that group of people for long-term strategy for really transformational change in our society. LeftRoots is kind of a capacity-building project, really.

In these conditions, we can't avoid the question of some strategic realignment. Everybody is in strategic realignment. There are people who had some shades of difference among progressives that are now building long-term partnerships together because of the conditions. There is a lot of opportunity for people who came into this work that is about concrete reforms. But really, they weren't in it for the reforms. It was important to have a new stoplight. It was important to have rent control. It was important to have a higher minimum wage. But, I wasn't in it for the higher minimum wage. I was in it because I thought exploitation was wrong. So, what am I doing about that initial commitment, that value that I held? How is it that value doesn't have organizational form? LeftRoots is trying to create the network of relationships that can give that value organizational form.

We have been talking about how there is that space for that now. People are looking for that now. People are looking for the thing that says, "This is my political home and this expresses my political values as a whole." We have seen a lot of growth of different organizations since this election. My short question is: What is next?

I think what is next is a real reckoning with where we made mistakes. Really, in the US, in communities of color and community organizing, actually, in organizing in general it is easy to say, "Well, that was them. Democrats made this mistake," It is true and it is not true. All of us have a family member who voted for Trump. Given that reality, what are we going to do to address that? We weren't built to organize those people. What do we need to build to organize those people? What is the new scale? What is the new campaign?

There are promising possibilities around universal health care in California, single payer in California. There are the possibilities of a sanctuary state in California. California is a really interesting place because we have been majority people of color for a long time and it hasn't always meant progressive change. In fact, what you have had is people of color and women who "represent" progressive change by their standing in leadership, but not by their exercising of leadership. The difference between standing in the leadership position and being from a marginalized community and acting on behalf of marginalized communities is the organizing of those communities, which is stronger than it has ever been.

There is this trend that says, "California and New York should secede." But, on the other hand, there is the possibility for California to pass really incredible progressive legislation and lead the rest of the country.

Absolutely. When the Bay Area with the most progressive policy ideas that come from the most progressive grassroots organizing leads California, California can lead the nation. Instead of disengaging from the nation, you could have California say, "We are not going to pay our taxes unless these values that we hold core around diversity, inclusion and this vision of what a majority of people of color in the nation looks like get met." That would be amazing. We are far from that at this point, but we are a lot closer to that than we were just two years ago.

I was involved in this fight to create the sanctuary policies in San Francisco applying to economic refugees instead of political refugees. That was in the 1990s and 2000s. There was no way that was going to pass on the state level. We had no shot at all. There was nobody who would talk to us about it. After Trump got elected, the governor was saying, "I am for a sanctuary state." "I have no idea what it means" is what he was saying to himself on the side, but "All of a sudden I need to stand for immigrants and I don't know what that means and I have to reach all the way to the grassroots to grab a policy to tell me what that means." Well, that is a huge opportunity for us.

The center road is bombed out. You either have to make a hard left or a hard right.

Whether or not that is real depends on the level of organizing, how much we push. When the federal government comes down, however they come down, are [California politicians] going to stand in defense of immigrant communities and against exploitation or not? That depends on the level of organizing. The rise of the right has created all of these opportunities for the left because ... the center road is bombed out. You either have to make a hard left or a hard right. We are like, "Hard left! We are over here! Put me in, Coach!"

Appeared at truth-out.org