Monthly Archives: June 2008

Five Years of Counter Recruitment in Chicago

Reviewing Five Years of Counter Recruiting in Chicago

Counter recruitment is shorthand for a strategy by the peace movement to make the military withdraw from the occupation in Iraq and other countries through impacting the enlistment levels of willing soldiers. Countering military recruitment involves dissuading people who might interact with the recruiters from doing so and removing the public presence of military recruitment altogether.

Over the past five years of counter recruitment in Chicago there have been roughly four areas of struggle; confronting the military presence inside high schools, the military recruitment at public events, recruitment at universities and confronting military recruitment centers directly. Unfortunately there have been few moments to pause and allow ourselves to review our accomplishments and setbacks. Hopefully those engaged in counter recruitment and those who want to know more will be helped by this work which looks to outline some of the questions that need to be asked in order to help benchmark our progress.

Before discussing the individual arenas where counter recruiters have acted in Chicago, we have to acknowledge the fact that there will probably never be reliable statistics published on our efforts. Most likely the military will never keep statistics on counter recruitment, and if some government agency did receive a budget to track counter recruitment there would be a number of serious issues about reliability. This dearth of information on the regional and national levels however, does not prevent us from collecting information and drawing conclusions about our efforts at the city level. Although the need to collect data of more quantity and quality from actions is universal to the social justice movement, it is particularly necessary in our case because such data could help us choose between a number of possible strategies towards ending the war.


Counter Recruitment in High Schools

Countering recruitment in Chicago area high schools is generally done through students and by outside groups like the American Friends Service Committee. My experience has been that student led efforts at counter recruitment are few and far between and unfortunately are rarely communicated to the larger world. Large personal and social obstacles facing those who speak out against recruiters are part of the reason there are so few student led efforts at confronting high school military recruiters. Military personnel command respect in spheres private and public; we treat them as heroes. The recruiters attempt to use this universal respect as a wedge to advance their agenda, for students who disagree with the war this exploitation of social respect poses a problem. Like it or not, students confronting military recruiters are found by their peers guilty until proven innocent of being iconoclasts and misfits. Such an exclusion of political discourse is unhealthy, but one has to remember that its purpose is to serve as a social control mechanism. In America you don’t need a Gestapo or a KGB if you can get people to hum along with murderous policies.

Another often overlooked issue recruitment is the physical presence of military recruiters. Even as a football jock I was not always immune to the boasting and physical intimidation of military recruiters at my school; for average sized high school students it is even more intimidating to confront such imposing authority figures. Recruiters know that one’s physical presence in a space is just as important as the verbal message and frequently use it to their advantage, walking up to people who disagree with them nose to nose, circling, and basically exploiting opportunities to intimidate those who are not completely confident with their message of peace. Though it’s a pretty childish way to win arguments, it greatly increases the stress on potential counter recruiters and raises the personal investment needed to confront the military. The only effective way to counter such disparities in physical presence is thorough preparation; enough to build an unshakable confidence in the counter recruiter. A confident organizer that can win space from a recruiter then can either rap on about how the military lies to students or about the Iraq War, or inject humor into the situation to deescalate and to further dissolve the bravado and bullshit of the recruiters.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by students is the lack of a clear message to counter recruitment and the consequent lack of thorough preparation and training. I knew many students who would help me engage in counter recruitment but wouldn’t take individual initiative because they weren’t prepared to argue with a professional salesman for the military. Unfortunately, most of the literature around counter recruitment sends mixed messages because it is written by liberals arguing against the military with their hands tied behind their backs. The literature offered debunks military enlistment myths but does not include more general criticism of why we oppose military recruitment. This has served to distract and add another layer of complication for potential counter recruiters. Understanding a substantive critique of the occupation should be a much higher priority for counter recruitment than memorizing specifics about military enlistment contracts.  A clear and cogent message about the goal to end enlistment and end the occupation can help resolve issues about confidence and presentation when confronting military recruiters.

Another problem when straying from a debate on the merits of the Iraq occupation is the lack of alternative opportunities facing many students who are interested in the military. When emphasizing a career based approach to counter recruitment, one quickly realizes that there are few alternatives to military recruitment for those who don’t have the resources available for post secondary education. Viewing the compensation offered by the military without regard to the potential consequences or moral decision making, it compares pretty well for those with few occupational skills. An obvious corollary to this discussion is how our movement can generate employment and also leverage more employment from local institutions without compromising our values. Such questions come to the forefront when counter recruiters begin to engage in career counseling with high schoolers during counter recruitment sessions. I have seen first hand however how easily these discussions with military recruits fall apart, both because of the lack of a focused message about why we really oppose military recruitment and because of the inability of the counter recruiters to role play a career counselor.


How We Can Be More Effective in High Schools

What is necessary is an explicit opposition to military recruitment on the grounds that our military engages in occupations of nations around the world. Military recruiters almost uniformly recoil when engaged in arguments about the Iraq war; they even did in the good old days of the war when I was in high school and counter recruiting five years ago. Our literature and training however lacks such a critical edge, and instead students are burdened with calling our respected military personnel as liars to their face. Its much more inviting for a student to question the logic of the war and to oppose recruiters on that level then walk up to a soldier and call him a bald faced liar. Though we do need to call recruiters out on their lies; whether soldiers get 3,000 or 15,000 dollars for college is irrelevant to our ultimate goal of counter recruitment, namely the end of neo-imperialism and occupation.

When military recruiters enter into a high school, or are embedded into it, they might be ignored by students, but rarely are they confronted by students without some organizational support. SDS or CAN must embrace the rather fleeting high school counter recruiters that usually burn out before even being plugged into a city wide network. Whichever group that steps up to the plate must actively search for these high schoolers and must be able to provide trainings to these organizers on the Iraq War to make them more confident and effective when confronting military recruiters. A first step would be to connect to other groups who are actively engaging high school students like the American Friends Service Committee, CAWI, etc. Accessing contacts through social networking websites like facebook and myspace is key to expanding our own networks of who we know in high schools and are interested in opposing military recruitment.

Outreaching to students at events like concerts and shows has to be changed as well. Instead of sitting behind tables of pamphlets we have to be as enthusiastic and social as the recruiters we oppose. We should look to get commitments from people specifically for counter recruiting when we canvass events and already have a follow up meeting planned that contacts can attend for more information and training. Making sure canvassers at events are adequately prepared beforehand to deal with contacts helps the awkwardness of connecting with people out of the blue. Preparation includes not only having appropriate materials for potential counter recruiters that explain our strategy and why we oppose the occupation but also having an organized system to arrange contact information. Half of the battle is entering contact data into a useable form and making the effort at follow up.

Our movement’s goal should be to have high schoolers lead counter recruitment at high schools. Students listen to their peers much more so than older folks coming into high schools no matter how polished they are. We need to be aware that our strategy requires us to identify and access social networks of students who can be mobilized to confront military recruitment in high schools. Part of this is learning how to effectively organize data obtained from social networking websites like myspace, part of this is better data collection like finding out friend relations from contacts, and part of it is maintaining relationships with people who are in different social networks.

The most egregious oversight our movement has made in counter recruitment is failing to acknowledge the importance of our relationship with the Iraq Veteran’s Against the War. Military veterans are the single greatest resource to counter recruitment. Every high school student engaged in counter recruitment needs to meet someone from the IVAW. Nothing steels someone’s convictions like a personal interaction with someone who has been through what one’s fighting against. The IVAW is an autonomous organization with an agenda to organize veterans and active duty personnel but it has also tried to engage in counter recruiting through campaigns like “Talk to a Recruiter.” We have to articulate our movement’s needs to the IVAW and clearly state how they can help us further our objectives of ending further recruitment by the military.

Creating more social exposure for members of the IVAW should be a priority. We need to be organizing networking events like parties, shows, trainings and conferences where veterans can interact with high school students leading counter recruitment efforts. They need to learn from first hand sources why they are opposing the war. So far our movement has not associated social networking goals with political goals. Changing our perception about the importance of building relationships through social spheres is necessary to build a much broader movement. Cosponsored events would be mutually beneficial, especially since there are so many veterans in the Chicago area who oppose the war but are unaware of the IVAW and may only need an introduction from a friend at party to get involved.


Military Recruitment at Public Events

Chicago is a city of public celebration. From block parties, to music festivals, to ethnic celebrations, to the Taste of Chicago, the military takes advantage of dozens of opportunities to recruit more soldiers. Many of the same groups that have taken a leading role in counter recruitment in high schools have taken similar roles at counter recruitment at Chicago’s festivals. Two of the events with the best attendance by counter recruiters have been the Taste of Chicago and the annual Air and Water show. Several similar issues arise when counter recruitment is taken outside the context of the high school and into public space. Counter recruiters are still primarily targeting military age men and women but also have a broader audience of other attendees at the festival. Problems of accessibility for counter recruiters are still frequent however, only a few years ago at the Taste of Chicago the Chicago Police decided that the counter recruiters needed to leave the premises, leading to a number of arrests and a fiery response (a burning President Bush delievered in a wheel chair). The best defense against such bare knuckle oppression is usually having a contingency plan to deal with police harassment that includes legal support, if not a planned response that might deescalate the situation and allow for the counter recruitment to continue.

The importance of maintaining a clear message is elevated when addressing the general public. When groups engage in Direct Action to remove recruiters they remove their focus from the people in public who are being recruited and instead place their focus solely on the recruiters. It’s a calculation that most groups have not considered when using direct action to literally shut down the recruiter. Direct Action attempts to dislodge recruiters in public spaces through tactics like locking down on recruiter equipment has had mixed results. Sometimes it has lead to the frustration and departure of the recruiters but often it has lead to significant court fees and a less than supportive crowd response. The same factors for successful interactions in high schools are still true when the audience is the general public. Having confidence in and a broad knowledge of the argument against recruitment (our war in Iraq is wrong and you shouldn’t fight in it) is the only way people can be comfortable enough to be effective counter recruiters.

One of the biggest obstacles to communicating our message about the Iraq War and military enlistment to people is the distraction of the debate around first amendment rights of the military. In actuality the first amendment is not a justification for protecting the speech of an organization engaged in unlawful violence but it’s a debate that prevents a lot of people from becoming participants rather than supportive spectators of our work. Not enough attention has been paid to issues around the clarity of our message to our audience, who is the general public that would otherwise only interact with the recruiters. If at all possible it would be best to avoid unnecessary harassment from the police in order to maintain our focus on defeating the message of the military and its recruitment drive for war. Ultimately the military recruiters stay wherever they feel they will be the most productive. The military perceives hostility by the most sustained threats to its message, not necessarily privileging a few incidents of physical resistance that can bankrupt the resources and energy of the individuals and groups responsible. Transforming the recruitment experience into an explicit defense of the Iraq War powerfully takes away from the message of the recruiters and allows us to organize a much broader audience.

Similar to counter recruitment at high schools, we need to be more meticulous about collecting contact information. Appropriate organization of the data is crucial and in my experience has consistently been neglected by counter recruitment efforts. Part of the high turnover of people engaged in counter recruitment is a result of the failure of consistent follow up and because of the often sporadic nature of direct action approaches to counter recruitment. Unfortunately, conflict with the law and the potential for stress and legal consequences deters a lot of organizers from dedicating time to counter recruitment. Re-envisioning counter recruitment as an opportunity to canvass against the war and build relationships with people lowers the necessary personal investments from the counter recruiters and would encourage new and more consistent participation. Sometimes conflict with the law is inevitable and anyone engaged in counter recruitment needs to understand that organizing for change always incurs risks of financial and personal risks but we need to evaluate necessity of actions that lead to escalations of force.


Counter Recruitment in the University Setting

Military Recruitment at public universities, as in high schools, is explicitly endorsed by the No Child Left Behind Act. While Obama’s presidency and the Democratic control of Congress hopefully will mean a slight reprieve from the full court press by the military, we can expect that NCLB will continue on and that the legal enforcement of the military’s right to recruit in public schools will continue. Humor and attempts at detournment (using created pretenses to radically alter the context of a message from an institution) have been common in counter recruitment at the post-secondary level. Since college students are under much less scrutiny and college campuses are much more physically open institutions than high schools, more options are available for counter recruitment at colleges.

The military however acknowledges that there are less potential recruiters who are in four year institutions and only occasionally recruits on campuses in the Chicago area. More frequently the military or other agencies look for recruits at colleges to fill specialized programs like ROTC, combat nursing or intelligence analysis. Military recruitment at private universities and colleges is near non-existent except for the occasional job fair appearance recruiting for these specialized occupations. Not surprisingly the military recruits more frequently at the community colleges in the suburbs and within the CCC system.

Military recruitment efforts at universities and colleges should also be treated as opportunities to engage in a debate over the occupation and to canvass the public about opposition to the war. Such efforts do not always need to be somber affairs as humor can help deescalate awkwardness and tension between the public and the counter recruiters making conversations more comfortable and more productive. The main concern however should be maintaining the clarity of our message against the war and against recruitment while still incorporating humor. Ideally humor and communicating a clear message to an audience are mutually beneficial but sometimes the creation of a spectacle is privileged over the overarching goal of building popular opposition to the war and specifically recruitment.

One of the most overlooked resources available to counter recruiters at the post-secondary level is the ability to use students from multiple campuses to focus on a single campus. If SDS or CAN could create a network that has the capacity to be mobilized to counter recruitment efforts the military would be hard pressed to justify spending any money recruiting at universities in Chicago. Realistically it would take around a semester’s worth of effort to create a cell text communication system that could alert people interested in counter recruitment about recruitment at universities. The biggest investment would be getting schedules of recruiters from universities and widely distributing the information since the actual text networking technology would take a week or two to create.


Organizing Against Military Recruitment Centers

Chicago’s counter recruitment effort has had the least success confronting physical military recruitment centers, even though there has been a significant investment of resources and energy in opposing them. Military recruitment offices in Chicago have been expanding in our communities and on our campuses, even with military high schools opening on the physical campuses of existing high schools like Senn High School on the North Side. One recruitment office that has been protested since its inception has been the one recently opened in the “Superdorm” downtown, the world’s largest dorm with students from more than four schools.

Protesting physical institutions is problematic because the protests do not significantly affect recruitment. While organizing protests at recruitment centers expends hours of energy on behalf of organizers, the recruiters usually aren’t in the office when protesters are outside, and even when they are they can do most of their work over the phone or on their computers for the short duration of the protest. Recruiters are not particularly affected by the limited press around recruitment center protests. Serious escalations of force to close the recruitment centers have been sporadic and those organizing towards such goals don’t have the resources immediately available to sustain such high intensity campaigns.

Some recruitment centers have become targets of opportunity for protests and are often visited by crowds from unrelated protests. To my knowledge, one of the few longer term campaigns against a recruitment center was Columbia College SDS’s attempt to create a weekly drum circle around the recruitment center at the Superdorm downtown. Although such events do not represent an immediate threat to the operation of the recruitment center they are further opportunities to engage the surrounding community on the occupation.

The first question we have to ask ourselves when confronting physical spaces dedicated to recruitment is about the goal of our confrontation. Are we protesting in front of the recruitment center in order to shut it down or are we there to communicate to the community around the center, or both. If our goal is to use protests to actually shut down recruitment centers we have failed. Dislodging institutions like the ROTC from the University of Illinois Chicago campus, or the superdorm may not be immediately accomplishable. Confrontation at this point is likely unproductive because we don’t have the social resources to sustain the confrontation and to use its momentum. My limited experience around the superdorm organizing was that the organizers that dedicated their time to organizing for a confrontation over the superdorm were overwhelmed with obligations from the campaign with not enough effort was expended recruiting new participation. Unfortunately it’s a trade-off constantly faced in organizing. For Chicago, the onus should be on expanding the networks of contacts outside of the “activist” communities and being more selective about confrontations to increase our success. Participation in the movement is not limited to engaging in work around active campaigns and just as much relies on personal development and an expansion of relationships with people and communities.

Alternatively, our confrontation could be based on communication with the community around the center. Logically tactics with less legal consequences would be used, like dance parties, drum circles etc. and less emphasis would be placed on organizing for sit-ins or occupations of buildings. The strategy of using confrontation selectively and in a less escalatory manner to expand our movement’s interactions with the community and even with potential recruits would help build the resources necessary for more sustainable direct action. Essential is treating every public action around recruitment as an opportunity to find new participants in the movements and to canvass support for ending the occupation and radically challenging authority in our country.


On the Bicycle Bomber and Property Destruction Against Military Recruiters

No discussion about counter recruitment would be intellectually honest without citing the influence of advocates of property destruction. Public justification outside of the relatively anonymous communiqués and manifestos for property destruction has been sparse and incomplete at best. Many have led themselves to believe that the feelings around property destruction are held only by a disgruntled minority and carried out by an even more extreme fringe, but the reality is that there is a significant number within the counter recruitment movement who believe that property destruction targeting recruiters is not only legitimate but necessary immediately. Examples of attacks on recruitment stations are becoming more frequent and also more intense. Recently a New York City recruitment station was the target of an explosive device, later glorified on stickers by a number of insurrectionist anarchists as the bicycle bomber. Incidents are geographically widespread but are not limited to individual solo actors. With increasing regularity recruitment stations in Washington D.C. have been targeted by the revived tactic of the black bloc and have been physically attacked.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find an example of a recruitment station closed because of a physical assault post 9-11. What has been the pattern without exception has been escalated security around attacked stations, with the confrontation quickly ending and the station reopening. One of the few exceptions to the trend has been the persistent work around DC, including DC SDS chapters. When the sacrifices asked and risks taken are calculated however, many of physical confrontations are not worthwhile.

What has been lost to the counter recruitment advocates of property destruction is the breakdown of the parallel between the 1960’s counter recruitment and our contemporary efforts. During the 1960’s there were massive social resources available with which to literally launch guerilla warfare against military recruiters. The website details the dozens of attacks against military facilities on campuses that eventually succeeded in the military’s withdrawal. The key difference is that those engaging in the actions had communities to fall back on and to be protected within. There were many more opportunities to hide one’s identity because of the vibrant nature of the counter culture. The movement was at a popular height and that shared sense of community helped to protect members from intimidation by authority. Investigations were much harder pressed to find records from of communes and crash pads then from corporate employers or apartment management companies.

We need to focus on bringing in more people into the counter recruitment movement and creating a community than can marshal the resources for sustained direct action campaigns. Our goal is to end military recruitment and we have to be prepared to use any means necessary to end the occupation in Iraq. “By any means necessary” means that we have to be able to determine the most expedient ends to that goal. Redirecting effort towards canvassing and communicating to others over the individual work around direct action would yield multiplied benefits because of the greater number of participants contributing.

Those considering property destruction need to examine the true sacrifices in time and energy of their actions. While causing property destruction may seem like a small commitment from the individual, the planning to make sure one is not caught is significant, and the consequences if caught can make such actions totally consuming of their actor. If actions are to be taken its only logical that they can be envisioned as part of an immediate effort at the removal of the recruitment center and that there are the resources available to sustain the resistance against the center and win the campaign.


On Our Movement’s Fragmented Understanding of Economics

“Theory” about economics from the self-identified left is usually detached from how contemporary economies actually function. Participation in and identification with the movement is lopsidedly left brain. Our general lack of goals concerning the transformation of the economy, outside vague concepts like worker cooperatives and living wages, negatively impacts our ability to build organizations that have enough resources to effectively engage in counter recruiting.

The 900 pound gorilla in the room for counter recruiters is that there are few options available to those with no job skills, few job skills, or with too little social capital find a position. Taken at a morally neutral face value; with pay, housing, and the promise of job training, the military offers a compelling opportunity for young people to survive. Counter recruiters often have the unenviable job of playing the five minutes or less career consoler to potential recruits who are in even less enviable occupations and are looking for a way out and up.

Our central contradiction is that none of the major peace organizations, or even most organizations on the “left”, are engaged in building career paths for individuals being counseled away from military enlistment. Without these career paths open in other occupations, counter recruitment will always be an uphill battle and we will continue with mixed success. Chicago needs a coalition to step forward and tackle the lack of clear career paths for youth that do not involve taking on tens of thousands of debt in student loans. We are on the literal cusp of a green technology and manufacturing revolution but our internal discourse about the Chicago economy is pathetically unsophisticated and out of touch. Research and dedicated effort to identifying opportunities for entrepreneurship and effective engagement with existing companies embodying our core values is long overdue.

In Chicago the Daley family has built a political behemoth because of its ability to manipulate the local economy. The jobs provided by municipal and state governments and their contractors have lifted many out of poverty. Imagine an opposition, not based upon political cronyism and dynasty, but based upon creating equal opportunity for economic security and personal expression. Image a movement that could demonstrate that the values of solidarity and innovation are both competitive in a world economy but necessary to create the resources to save the planet. Some are working towards such an economy with their heads in the sand about America’s foreign policy and the stranglehold it places on our potential economic boom.

As long as there are desperate people there will be soldiers in desperate occupations. We need practitioners who organize for an end to the occupation but also who create the infrastructure necessary for a sustained fight against recruitment and against capitalism. Without clear alternatives to the military we will not be able to realize our goal of short circuiting enlistment to the levels necessary to end American imperialism. What is working to our advantage is the potential to realize the collateral benefits from engaging in creating a solidarity economy and counter recruitment. The social networks identified and mobilized for each effort can be incorporated into the mobilization for the other. Each opportunity to engage the public during counter recruitment is an opportunity to begin an extended dialogue about changing the fundamental forces driving our economy. America’s occupation in Iraq is a symptom of the domestic deterioration that we have allowed to happen but is now a self fulfilling prophecy for destruction. Our only solution from this point forward is to resolve our economic crisis at home as part of our fight against the occupation.



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Freedom Festival at Elmhurst College

SDS Organizing Lessons From Freedom Festival

Nick Kreitman Elmhurst College SDS

Freedom Festival was one of the events this year that marked a beginning of a dialogue between campus groups at Elmhurst College. It was an idea inspired by the Tent State and Revolutionary Democracy strategy of creating and participating in social spaces and institutions and using them to mobilize for political change. Originally conceived as a Tent State event with students pitching tents on the quad (mall), it eventually turned a three day series of concerts, events and an action. Freedom Festival was one of the most successful political events held on campus in recent years and its success will be a stepping stone if some of the lessons learned from organizing it can be applied to future efforts.

Rocking the Boat at Elmhurst College

Stories of glory from the expanding national Tent State movement originally inspired me to build a similar event on Elmhurst College campus in January (2008), to be held at the end of the school year in May. Tent State’s model was largely communicated through a number of organizers involved with Rutgers Tent State and those working on RD (Revolutionary Democracy). Motivating the organizers of the Tent State movement has been the RD strategy of creating social spaces within student communities to build the relationships necessary for social power.

Revolutionary Democracy understands “power” essentially as the breadth, intimacy, and material resources behind social networks that compose institutions and organizations. Such an understanding of power informs organizing efforts around engaging structures of power and the creation of alternative structures. Both efforts involve gathering information about relationships between people and organizational identities. The Tent State model is a synthesis of efforts to engage current student groups on campus, while organizing an entirely new space for student expression, socializing, and organization. Tent State University (TSU) is a student occupation of the public space on campus, usually on the open quad area, with events organized by SDS and other events organized by students groups within the TSU coalition. The TSU strategy motivates SDS chapters to become proactive in outreaching to other groups to open up dialogues and get their participation in the event.

Maximizing the mobilization of social networks is the goal, since these networks form the basis of our counter power against the social order. Artists, actors, jocks, Muslims, Christians; everyone is invited to participate in TSU. At other campuses TSU has focused on spending cuts by the state to education, abuse of disciplinary actions towards students, exploitation of workers on campus, abuse of overseas workers making university apparel and creating a space to talk about the Iraq war.

To say the least, Elmhurst College has little in common with the schools where TSU has been successful. Whereas TSU has been the product of organizing larger state and private universities usually having 10,000 or more students staying on campus, Elmhurst College is a private commuter school with about 1,500 students staying on campus. The sticker price of our tuition is around 30,000, with the College quietly working with most students to make the outrageous price workable. Quiet is an appropriate adjective for Elmhurst College, it is in the heart of the quiet suburb of Chicago named Chicago. While it’s on the border of Cook County and a short 30 minutes from Lake Michigan, along with its neighboring suburbs, Elmhurst has been an exclusive refuge for the white flight from Chicago.

If “Rich Liberal” could be materialized as an entire campus, Elmhurst College would be a good candidate. Everything superficial about the 90’s “Multiculturalism” fetish is at Elmhurst College in spades. This is not to insult the sincerity of many in the faculty or administration who want to see a positive social change, but this biting critique is necessary if we are ever going to move forward. Our administration loves anything “multicultural;” music, events, speakers, and even has endorsed a move to expand the general curriculum to include some subversive classes. We loved and interned for Obama when he was only a small fry US and state senator. We are affiliated with UCC, Obama’s [former] church. Elmhurst College is Obamanation.

While our college makes sure every promotional photograph is exploding in diversity, it has stalled on reacting to key issues on campus, for example circulating the hate crime email response to last year’s hate crime on campus, for the hate crimes happening again this year. It has also done away with our minority based scholarship fund; instead, folding its money into “less controversial” scholarships that we have been told will not affect any current students receiving money, but the future is uncertain for prospective students.

Holding fast to the “white flight” mindset that helped populate suburbs like Elmhurst, Lombard, Glen Ellyn etc., our institution has largely maintained this arm’s length separation from the problems of “the city,” even though the problems of the city can also be found in the suburbs as well. Our Theology department and other programs at EC mandate student service as part of the course work in different charities but outside of these limited commitments that usually are tangent to a student’s future work at the university, there is little connection to outside community organizations and few relationships to broader social justice movements.

Conceiving Freedom Festival and Reflecting on the Need to Engage Social Spaces at Elmhurst College

“Activism” at Elmhurst College has largely been a few faculty, administration employees, and students working individually on different movement issues. Such individual work was usually constrained to academic investigations of problems, with little engagement with the student body at large or with those directly involved in struggles studied. Many “Activists,” including myself, spent the past few years narrowly viewing movement organizing as an individual effort, asking how could I contribute, what could I do to stop my participation in this corrupt system.

What these questions obscured was a problematic motivation for movement organizing, namely, the fact that many of us “Activists” were working for social justice because we felt guilty about our community and what it was doing to other communities. This led to a negative motivation for organizing that emphasized individual catharsis over social organizing; the mindset of, “I need to speak out to clear my conscience,” not “How I can mobilize the most people towards collective liberation.”

Hegemonic culture, or the collection of “accepted” norms of how people should act, what are “acceptable” expectations and responsibilities towards society etc., created this stigma about social justice organizing in an attempt to protect the dominant social order. Those questioning the social order are ostracized and their identity and self imaged stripped from them. You aren’t an athlete, hip-hop fan, a construction worker, a frat brother or anything other than an “Activist” to the hegemonic culture when you start talking about how to change society.

While many embrace the title of “Activist,” hegemonic culture has successfully exiled political discussion to the small and socially insignificant “Activist” subculture. “Activist” subculture has both non-violent, and violent tendencies, but both suffer from the same contradiction. Both tendencies elevate tactics and “action” over strategic mobilization because of the motivation to release guilt instead of identifying as part of the oppressed and a desire to attain liberation from the social order.

At Elmhurst College the contradictions of the “Activist” subculture has been the creation of a socially segregated community of students and faculty pursuing social justice. Student and faculty efforts have often been diverted into career and academic advancing projects that do not work to organize others into a counter power. Sparsely attended lectures, video screenings, and small demonstrations organized largely by word of mouth within the “activist community” for social justice causes are frequent on campus, which have helped to maintain a clear distinction between “activism” and the social life on campus.

Collectively as EC organizers we need to address our motivations of why we are involved in movement work in the first place. We don’t need to feel guilty about ourselves, most of us are in precarious economic situations as it is, and even those who aren’t are still victims of the social order. Even though we aren’t dying of preventable diseases or living in squalor, the price we have to pay for material security is our dignity and autonomy to work for some corporation or government office. Our personhood is too important to sacrifice on America’s alter; the only option is to resist and recognize our situation is the same, though not identical, to those who are fighting for their right to survive. This Revolutionary Democracy philosophy demands the solidarity given to equals instead of the charity given to our inferiors.

Part of the resolution of “Activism’s” contradictions is the reassertion of our sociability as organizers. No more can we accept the imposed division between the social and the political, we have to recognize that our political effort is a social effort. Our movement is more than a subculture and we have to be ready to engage others outside of it to build the relationships necessary to restructure society. In addition to being political organizers, we have to adopt the role of social organizers, creating and engaging in social spaces that we can mobilize towards building our own social order.

It was towards this recognition that Freedom Festival was created. Freedom Festival was to be an effort to outreach to a number of campus groups and create a social space where we could introduce our movement politics. Each group was asked to host their own event, and we lined up a night of music that was planned to be a three day outdoor festival.

Challenges Faced Building the First Annual Freedom Festival

EC Students for a Democratic Society, and EC Amnesty International have always been loose organizations and during this past school year met separately even though there was a significant overlap of members. Freedom Festival emerged first as a Tent State type event after winter break. After the break none of the groups were meeting and I threw up flyers with pictures of Rutgers Tent State, a mission statement and a gmail/blog for the event. Not only did these flyers not get any response to the gmail account, they alarmed the campus administration who ordered them taken down.

The failure of the first few weeks of Freedom Festival outreach was symbolic of some of the greater problems with Elmhurst College’s organizing. It took a series of events on campus to help SDS realize that however cool a flyer, however interesting a blog, these impersonal forms of outreach did not accomplish the level of mobilization we were looking for, even though such tasks could be rather labor intensive. Unfortunately we never effectively overhauled our organizing efforts during the spring semester but the relative success of the Freedom Festival was largely a result of these realizations.

Later in the semester EC SDS and AI began meeting, and Freedom Festival was introduced to the larger group, who thought it would be a good event to build towards and end the year with. It took a number of meetings to hash out exactly what Freedom Festival would be, which expanded the planning time to nearly a month and a half before others outside of the group were contacted about Freedom Festival. In retrospect, the planning period for Freedom Festival could have been compressed to a few weeks if those most interested in it could have met outside the weekly meetings.

Freedom Festival began to take shape as two days of events on the college mall sponsored by different campus groups, with a concert on the first night and with the third day being Mayday and a focus on freedom of movement. At this point we called for a larger meeting where we divvied up the other campus groups to contact and invite to this planning meeting. We were able to expand our coalition to new groups such as the Black Student Union, Progressive Organization of Women, HABLAMOS (Hispanic culture group), Spiritual Life Council and the Music Business Student Union.

Our planning meeting had a good turnout of around 15 people from different groups on campus, but was changed mid meeting to being dedicated to planning the Hate Crimes rally that was happening the next week. After about an hour the person planning the Hate Crimes rally had to leave, and most other people couldn’t stay much longer, leaving us with only enough people for a framing session for Freedom Festival. We had a few roles given out that were not well defined for people and most of the tasks were put off until after out spring break which was the week after the Hate Crimes rally, leaving us with a little more than a month to put together Freedom Festival.

Throughout the end of March, where we diverted some of our attention to anti-war organizing, and April, we gave presentations to different groups on campus about Freedom Festival and obtained their support, forming a large coalition on paper similar to our Jena 6 rally. Our approach was to get endorsements from different groups, try to help them brainstorm different events they could host on the campus mall during Freedom Festival, but leave the commitment on them to actually follow through on hosting the events.

Unfortunately, most campus groups that were not purely social clubs like fraternities or Union Board (the event hosting arm of student government), suffered from the same problems we encountered when holding political events because there was no social understanding of power. Similar to SDS, many groups were embodied by a small number of people who were in leadership roles, with a somewhat larger periphery membership. While identity based groups like BSU and HABLAMOS held well attended social events like dances or family celebrations that were well funded by the student government; when they engaged in political events like other groups on campus such as SDS, Coalition for Multicultural Empowerment, Progressive Organization of Women, and Amnesty International the attendance and energy plummeted.

The problem with having a small group of people in leadership positions is that the larger social networks that must be mobilized for a successful social movement are out of touch unless those in leadership positions happen to be extraordinarily social. At Elmhurst College, when these leadership positions were combined with organizational work, and in many cases academic work related to the organization, the leadership often became too busy to seriously engage these social networks even if they did recognize those networks’ importance. This doomed their groups to irrelevancy since those members on the periphery were not invested enough in the organization to seriously outreach to their social networks.

After spring break EC SDS and AI continued to organize for Freedom Festival, reserving the bands for the night of music, reserving the space, equipment and maintaining contact with a groups committed to the event. A number of members made flyers for the event and most buildings had a number of different flyer styles for the event, which may have helped raise Freedom Festival’s profile. We did not get an advertisement in the student paper due to the lack of time, but we did get announcements in the low readership campus email listserve.

I was the only member to my knowledge who handbilled for the event, handing out around 150 humorous flyers for Freedom Festival with Barack Obama proudly endorsing the “Audacity of Freedom Festival” on the flyer, along with a skeleton schedule of events. While more handbilling would have further built the profile of the event and the handbilling that was done was much more successful than flyers on walls alone, I found that it was not the silver bullet to mobilizing students.

Far and away the most effective way to turn people out to our events was the personal ask, which happened both during “official” meetings and also during social interactions outside of meetings. Talking to individuals at length about Freedom Festival and trying to obtain a commitment to show up was the most effective mobilization technique. While it was labor intensive and forced the organizer to expand their social network, it was much more worthwhile investment than fuddling around with flyers, websites, etc. We did not recognize the importance of personal interactions, and our turnout reflected the mixed success of our flyering, handbilling, bannering etc.

Arrival of Freedom Festival

Eventually Freedom Festival rolled around, and we were caught relatively unprepared for its arrival. The last two weeks we focused on different avenues for advertising, as well as scrambling for confirming events. Luckily our AI chapter secured the participation of the American Friends Service Committee with their empty boot cost of war display that we were able to set up on the first day of the festival. The bands and the catering was also taken care ahead of time, as well as the space for the events the second day.

Freedom Festival was held April 29th-May 1st, during what could be considered one of the coldest springs in recent memory. Our “outdoor” festival had snowflakes, making the few brave organizers manning tables for various groups and serving the food pretty miserable. The turnout for the daytime of the first day was limited to members of participating organizations, with most of the events promised by groups other than SDS and AI falling through. We were able to secure our basement student union area for the night time concert and moved downstairs during the afternoon.

Our concert was much more successful than the daytime events, even though the visual representation of the cost of the Iraq War was powerful, with a class of grade school children taking a field trip to visit our Freedom Festival. Around 100 people filtered through the five hour concert, with some great music and organic stir fry provided reluctantly from Chartwells, our (non-union) cafeteria service. We also had an SDS/AI member deliver a powerful spoken word performance.

The second day of Freedom Festival was planned to be intentionally light, but ended up being even lighter than the schedule intended. Only one of the participating groups actually held their planned events. We found out later that one of the groups that had endorsed Freedom Festival did have an event that day but was not a part of Freedom Festival, which was snub or a really bad breakdown of communication. Our reforming public education financing event had five people from local political circles come talk about resolving the huge financing disparities in Illinois but turnout was limited to a few organizers.

Mayday was a pleasant surprise for organizers, with a dozen students skipping class to take the train to Chicago and demonstrate for freedom of movement and amnesty for immigrants. The weather improved for the Mayday rally, and the energy was high throughout the rally. Tens of thousands came out to the rally in downtown Chicago, with SDS Chicago finally participating as a bloc. While we did walk close to the SDS bloc, and we were one of the best represented schools marching, most of the time we spent marching together as a school and getting to know each other better and reflecting on the events of the past two days. Our contingent had an awesome FREEDOM FESTIVAL two part banner made as a favor by a talented art student that got our pictures taken throughout the day.

Moving Forward to the Second Annual Freedom Festival

Freedom Festival next year already has an entire week reserved on the campus, and now has a reputation as one of the most successful events held on campus. If we are going to build on the success this year however, we need to adapt our organizing efforts around the lessons learned. We need to press much harder to create social spaces leading up to Freedom Festival where we can make the “personal asks” necessary to get people seriously involved in organizing. Instead of having a number of disconnected events held as reactions to tragedies like the Morton West sit-in expulsions, the Jena 6 indictments, or our hate crimes on campus, we need to build a sustainable movement that can harness the momentum around each of these events to build a counter power on campus.

Specifically we need to have our organizers embedded in the larger social life of the college. Instead of regarding partying or socializing as something separate from political activity, we need to integrate it into our political organizing, we need to be at the parties talking about how we can change the world, and we need to be throwing our own parties, barbeques, bowling nights etc. to build a well-connected community and expand our subcultural past and overcome the challenges thrown at us by our hegemonic culture.

Many organizers, including myself, failed to accomplish the responsibilities taken on in a complete or timely manner, including compiling essential contact lists, and establishing formal means of communication with campus groups. As a first priority our SDS chapter needs to build an expansive contact list, with people’s names, numbers, emails, organizational affiliations and interests so we can maintain contact and encourage people to fulfill their responsibilities in a timely and complete fashion. Learning how to keep meetings productive with low attendance would help maintain the energy in organizing even when circumstances prevent some organizers from attending. Being punctual and thorough with following up with people will help us build commitments from individuals to SDS and AI and will encourage those in the periphery to join us in the leadership and expand the social networks we can mobilize for events.

In addition we need to change our engagement with different groups on campus. While talking to organizational leaders was a good first step in building a coalition on campus, it did not yield any results for Freedom Festival as the participating groups near universally failed to live up to their commitments. SDS should take the same approach to building coalitions as it should towards building its own social power. Interacting with a small number of organizational leaders in overly formal contexts did not build the necessary relationships to have them fulfill their commitments, or get such leaders to mobilize their social networks towards Freedom Festival’s goals. We need to identify the social networks that these organizations exist in, and then attempt to interact in social contexts with these organizations’ members and build relationships so we can make the all important “personal asks.”

While this organizing strategy may seem overly labor intensive, and may ring inauthentic at forcing oneself into other’s social networks, it is neither. Not only is this strategy less labor intensive then people working themselves to death making organizational material that is less effective at mobilizing people, it is much more authentic to outreach to people using the most effective means possible rather than treating “activism” as a hobby to release guilt where actual results are irrelevant. Only through an understanding of power as a factor of social relationships can we effectively deconstruct the power of the social order and build our own counter power. Towards this effort, building social spaces like Freedom Festival will continue to be essential, and hopefully analyses such as this one will continue to help improve the success of our organizing.

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