Monthly Archives: August 2008

Building Participatory Democracy in Chicago

If you are interested in organizing for local power in Chicago please get in touch with Nick Kreitman at mrsituationist@gmail.com

Building Participatory Democracy in Chicago

We live in a unique time in Chicago history; finally we are witnessing the erosion of the political machine in local politics. After decades of scandals, an increased eye turned towards city hall from federal investigators, and the defection of many major labor unions from Daley’s coalition, the political machine is limping along on the major contributions from downtown developers. Another blow to the political machine has been the mobilization of the progressive Hispanic community over issues of immigration and assimilation. Similarly, Chicago’s progressive white community has been invigorated by the anti-war movement and is engaged in a myriad of “greening” projects which have largely been frustrated by Daley, either used solely as symbolic propaganda tools, or totally fumbled like the city recycling program.

Frustration in Chicago’s black communities is also coming to a head, with rampant gang and police violence wracking neighborhoods already suffering from limited school resources and an increasing number of school closings. Although the problems of Chicago’s predominately black neighborhoods are dire, hope is being restored as Obama’s campaign, along with other rising local black figures like Jesse Jackson Jr., are bringing a new momentum towards the impetus for change in Chicago.

Most importantly, Chicago’s youth are again paying attention to politics and are becoming active participants in politics. The Jena 6 mobilizations saw hundreds of student across the city organize busses to Jena, Louisiana, in addition to organizing solidarity actions to support the defendants. Much of the energy of the recent immigration rallies was from the youth, organizing by the thousands through myspace, text messaging and at high schools and shopping malls. Mobilizing this generation more than any other issue however has been the occupation of Iraq and imperialistic foreign policies of mainstream politicians of both parties. Barack Obama has managed to direct this upsurge in youth enthusiasm to launch a historic presidential campaign, which has already trained hundreds of dedicated youth/student volunteers from Chicago, who will be returning from positions around the country as seasoned electoral veterans after the election in November. We are in an exciting time; we need a strategy that can combine our peers’ heightened expectations from politicians and an enormous reservoir of trained volunteers returning from Obama’s campaign into a lasting transformation of society.

Substantive political change is possible only through political organizing at the most fundamental levels. In Chicago the most fundamental political identity is the ward, or neighborhood district that is guaranteed a representative on City Council. Our focus has largely been on challenging corporations like Boeing, or on challenging national political figures like Dick Durbin. This approach has not yielded results because we have not challenged the source of these institutions’ power, the Chicago Democratic Party Machine. Boeing is in Chicago because of the enticement package given to it by City Council, and Durbin banks on the turnout efforts of the machine each election. Our explicit agenda outlined in SDS’s name is to build a democratic society, but we have ignored the fact that the most logical launching point for a democratic society is the neighborhood we live in and the precinct we cast our vote at. Instead we have made “radical demands” on City Council, only to have our demands fall on deaf ears. Without building our own power in Chicago we will forever be at the mercy of the well organized political machine that will never deliver a resolution against a war on Iran, or for supporting military desertion, nevermind materially support such efforts, no matter how “militantly” we “demand.”

We can change direction however. Not only are we students, but we are situated in Chicago wards. Together with others in our communities we have the leverage to build a democratic society beginning in the wards in which we live. If we can use our talents and energies to build a democratic society in our wards we can present a new challenge to Daley’s machine, one that is directly democratic and empowering to everyone in the ward community. We have the potential transform the role of alderman from an authoritarian “representative” of the machine, into a delegate on City Council voting the wishes of a participatory ward assembly where the entire community can be empowered. Precincts, or district divisions within the ward with a physical location where people can vote, can be organized as the basic units of political deliberation within a new democratic framework for a ward.

Changing the identity of the ward into a directly democratic community, with a candidate selected from the ward assembly to serve as a delegate on city council would be revolutionary. Almost all social services received by Chicagoans are directed by all-important departments of city government. If we are serious about improving public housing, ensuring quality public education, ending police harassment, and transforming our local economy, organizing along ward lines is imperative. Ignoring City government will only make us irrelevant as we will continue to be locked out of making the decisions materially affecting our communities. Revolutionary organizing means working to build directly democratic institutions today, and building these institutions will require engaging and challenging the power of the machine in the wards.

The success of this campaign depends on the energy of those interested in making participatory democracy in Chicago a reality. Our success will hinge on our ability to engage in meticulous and democratic project planning, including our ability to execute our decisions. The rest of the document is structured as a project plan for the initiation of a local, ward-based political organization, tentatively called Chicago Solidarity Movement (the name is irrelevant).

If you are interested in organizing for local power in Chicago please get in touch with Nick Kreitman at mrsituationist@gmail.com

September/October 2008

-Attract around a dozen interested organizers to hold an initial meeting of the Chicago Solidarity Movement

-Hold a weekly or biweekly study circle on Chicago politics, focus on Harold Washington’s campaign in 1983, Richard J. Daley’s Democratic Machine, and the contemporary “growth-coalition” of Richard M. Daley

-Establish an online domain where directed reading sessions can be followed by those unable to attend meetings

-Outreach to graphic designers to begin designing thematic graphics for organization

-Debate and select which ward to begin the initial ward organization

-Build a database of 200 potential student volunteers at campuses across the city through organizing successful social events like movie showings, parties and activities like softball/Frisbee

-Make contact with every existing student group on each university campus across the city

-Outline a budget for the next two month period, write a provisional constitution for Chicago Solidarity Movement

-Map out points of interest in the selected ward with volunteers and local establishments who offer to host events

November/December 2008

Dedicate time from the study circle to research issues within selected ward

-Make contact with all influential social organizations in ward, identify allies and begin discussion about creating a process for a creating a search committee for an aldermanic candidate for 2011 election

-Identify provisional structure for resident participation in ward assembly

-Build a database of 100 ward resident supporters

-Expand student volunteer database to 500 names

-Create orientation program to student volunteers about the ward, its history and its issues

-Begin outreach (canvass) effort to ward residents about a ward specific platform, and a city-wide platform

-Identify opportunities for student volunteers to build social programs to help serve ward issues, begin recruiting students specifically for Chicago Solidarity Movement operated social programs (for example free SAT tutoring)

-Identify space within the ward to use as a temporary office, begin planning to move to a permanent office space

-Begin full scale fundraising operation to finance temporary/permanent space and draft compensation procedures for organizing expenses e.g. gas, coffee for meetings etc.

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Draft Article for Platypus, Leveraging Social Power Through Wards in Chicago

Leveraging Social Power Through Wards in Chicago
Nick Kreitman

Chicago is a city of opportunity and has a unique potential to fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to political institutions. The social power sustaining contemporary political institutions is a matrix of personal relationships between those identifying with the institutions and those on the periphery of such institutions. Those on the periphery perceive a marginal benefit from participating in relationships defined by those institutions. Successful efforts at building social power will begin with an understanding of where social movements have the most leverage to engage and alter our political institutions and the web of relationships nourishing them.

Towards this end, identifying which institutions are the most relevant in people’s lives and building the social power to transform their operation is critical. Social transformation occurs when enough people live and experience alternative ways of life. Revolution will only materialize once enough people live in institutions that are based around the revolutionary principals of democratic cooperation and mutual respect. This is a process that requires organization, which in turn takes political strategy. Revolutionary Democracy (Rev Dem) is a political strategy of building a dual power. Dual Power builds alternative institutions in our communities with the goal of building commitment from the people towards a social transformation while also leveraging our social power to engage existing institutions.

Think of an organization as a rope connecting two people together, two families, two neighborhoods, or whatever scale you want. The more strands in the rope the stronger the bond between the two. Rev Dem asks organizers to identify the relationships in their lives, and asks them to reshape them around the principals of mutual respect and democratic cooperation (relationships like how you treat your partner, how your job is organized, how your education is organized, how you find housing etc.). Each relationship based upon these principals is another strand in the rope. Each strand advances the larger goal of the rope, tying people together, transforming society. Rev Dem employs the strategy of building dual power, creating new institutions that connect people around revolutionary principals, strengthening their relationships with each other, realizing our own strength and realizing our own society. Dual Power is about creating new institutions and reorganizing how we relate to existing institutions.

Chicago’s recent social movement history has been in contrast to the strategy of Rev Dem. Our powerlessness has been the result of a strategy emphasizing critical advocacy petitioning existing institutions and fetishizing the tactic of protest. In Chicago alone, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been expended, with the movement banking on the success of mass demonstrations. Costs for these demonstrations (in the “radical” community mass “direct actions”) have only escalated each year bankrupting organizations and individuals. While many regressive politicians (like the 06’ Congressional Republicans) have had their political careers evaporate because of their support for the war or for racist attacks on immigrants, it has largely been the result of progressive organizing within the Democratic Party that is more parallel to Rev Dem than the mass demonstration mentality of ANSWER, mainstream “radical” thought or UFPJ.

A phenomenon of particular interest to Chicago has been the path of our progressive immigration movement. During the debate on the fascist Sensennbrenner bill that would have turned the undocumented into felons, it was effective to create a visual reminder of the cost of racist legislation to uncommitted voters and legislators. Additionally in Chicago the large coalition supporting the undocumented threatened to use its electoral weight to win concessions from the City government; forcing it to neglect its obligation to enforce immigration law through the Sanctuary City ordinance. These victories however have not translated into further success because of the failure to identify where the movement could employ the most leverage; constructing a dual power to challenge the City Government. While there are a myriad of programs that address particular needs of Chicago’s immigrant population there has been little coordination of these programs to substantively challenge the most relevant institutions in the city, City Council and the Mayor.

Chicago has a long history of a powerful local government, composed of a county government, a City Council and Mayor. Chicago City government is the most ubiquitous set of institutions that social movements have a formal opportunity to participate in. While opportunities to challenge the capitalist relationships commanding Chicago’s economy are available, without control of the local government such efforts would necessarily remain on a small scale.

Chicago’s ward divisions facilitate the construction of dual power. Although the wards do not necessarily align with self-identified communities, they present the opportunity for the growth of directly democratic neighborhood committees which can direct the decisions of movement aldermen (such committees could be organized around existing voter precincts). Aldermen could be explicitly run by our movement on the promise to be directly accountable to these neighborhood committees until their power could be formally amended to reflect this relationship, adding the ability to immediately recall aldermen. The obstacle that has prevented a sustained challenge to City Hall has been Chicago’s infamous Democratic machine. While manipulation of elections has played a significant role in the supremacy of the machine, it has also relied on an extensive network of relationships, leveraging its resources to employ armies of city workers in elections, obstructing services and investment in politically rebellious areas and harassing challengers through inspections, spurious legal challenges and outright intimidation.

Two other important obstacles face a Rev Dem challenge to City hall; the lack of a reputation in Chicago’s communities and the lack of infrastructure (including financing). Confronting Chicago’s political machine would be quixotic at best without a reputation in the community, the all-important name recognition, without a strong commitment from community allies who would have to deal with consequences of the machine, and without any infrastructure such as office and meeting spaces.

Understanding the concept of concentric interactions is important since our challenge to the city machine does not have to rely exclusively on electioneering. Commitment towards a political idea is engendered through increasing the number and intensity of relationships sharing similar dynamics. Commitment from neighborhoods to a Rev Dem ward organization can be built through community programs managed by the ward organization in a directly democratic manner. People can become involved, and more importantly stay involved, in the ward organization in off election years through programs like free SAT-prep courses, free yoga and nutrition classes, community gardens, legal clinics, etc. Existing social programs can also be invited into the ward organization’s network with each benefiting from the other’s resources.

Critical to implementing an effort to build a political dual power through Rev Dem ward organizations will be the participation and massive mobilization of Chicago’s students. There is clearly a huge potential for mobilization when outfits like World Can’t Wait can routinely bring out hundreds of students while having no identifiable goals except “Driving out the Bush regime.” Our movement must engage students in ways that encourage long-term commitment. Instead of just asking for another body in a march we need to apply the skills of students. Organizing departmentally and at-large at universities will be crucial to this effort, as we will need students who can staff community programs like legal and medical clinics, and who can share important project management skills. Students will be an invaluable component in building the ward organization as community canvassers. Only through utilizing the free time and disposable incomes of hundreds of Chicago students will we be able to match the visibility and outreach of the political machine. Obama’s campaign has both politicized and trained hundreds of Chicago students in canvassing and community outreach, whose student manpower must become involved in our effort.

Since our ward organizations will rely so heavily on student participation it is necessary to focus on potential wards where there are significant numbers of students. A cursory look at which wards have aldermen that are not progressive in proximity to students reveals around ten wards where we could begin building a ward organization and community social programs. To win an election in the most favorable wards would require around 3,500 votes. Each ward should be evaluated for potential student support, the strength of the machine ward organization and existing neighborhood institutions that our organization can network with.

Clarity of purpose coupled with effective cooperative management and a strategy that can command the most leverage towards building our own social power will lead to our movement’s success. By engaging people on multiple levels, through student supported social programs directed by the ward organization and by community allies, as well as through neighborhood committees to ensure community control over aldermen, we will be able to overcome the obstacles posed by Chicago’s machine and build a directly democratic dual power in Chicago.

Revolutionary Democracy can be further explored at www.piratecaucus.com and at www.nextleftchicago.com

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A Chicago Response to “Hipster, the Dead End of Western Civilization.”

Read the Adbusters Article, “Hipster, the Dead End of Western Civilization,” at http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html

A Chicago Response to “Hipster, the Dead End of Western Civilization.”

One of the few things more depressing than the explosion of the Hipster consumer culture is the collapse of the critical engagement with this culture. Instead of acknowledging our movement’s enormous influence on the mainstream hipster culture and using it as a springboard towards organizing we have reverted to the same elitism that is so pervasive in the Hipster scene. Adbusters, have you forgotten that it was you that helped give birth to the Hipster culture? You have finally become popular but your response has been to toss away your opportunity to reach millions of youth because of your own subcultural snobbery. Who do you think made those bandannas so fucking hip? Who brought Che back from the garbage bin of history after the cultural wasteland of the 90’s, Nelly and popped collars? We did, it was our sweat, blood and tears, our bricks through their windows, our blackspot sneakers and our insistence on wearing only USA made, lifted shit and thrift store clothing. Our ideas have finally started to become mainstream and now you are demanding that we march back into our ivory towers of radicalism.

This isn’t a letter in support of the superficiality of the Hipster culture. Chicago is home to more hipsters than anywhere in the Midwest; they have overrun Milwaukee avenue with the trendy thrift stores, their clubs dot Wicker Park and Lincoln Park (and are making inroads into Humbolt Park, the South Loop and Pilsen) and their chic, yet totally confusing, band stickers are on every light pole and every abandoned store front up and down Division, Grand, North and Milwaukee for blocks in Wicker Park. Most hipsters in Chicago are refugees from the choking consumer culture of the suburbs, home to more people in Illinois than the rest of the state, who are mostly working and middle class white folks. Contrary to Adbusters’ demographers, Hipster culture is definitely not an exclusively white, upper class phenomenon. Many Hipsters are refugees from oppressive working class cultures. You’ll find that most born and raised Chicago hipsters are people of color trying to build their own identity from the stifling expectations of their parents and importantly, the church (And if you forgot, white people are a minority in Chicago). Chicago Hipster culture has taken from “radical” punk, emo, metal, hip-hop, Puerto Rican, Mexican and many more cultures.

From reading your essay it seems that the reason you judge Hipster culture as the “dead-end of Western Civilization” is because it lacks an ambiguous and undefined notion of “authenticity” and that it lacks an explicit challenge to authority. Hipster consumer culture does not challenge capitalism, but why you single out people who wear skinny jeans, bug sunglasses, or shop at thrift stores over those who wear Cubs jerseys and fight after nights of drinking at Wrigelyfield bars seems unfair. Clothing, music taste, etc. seems pretty value neutral. My opinion is that your singling out of Hipsters is a Freudian projection our movement’s secret, collective shame at creating Hipster culture and our subsequent failure to mobilize it politically.

One could say that my own organization, Students for a Democratic Society, is largely an expression of those that helped define the current Hipster culture. Unlike the old SDS, which took flight in college towns in the 60’s, the new SDS has largely exploded in urban centers, from students who live in Hipster neighborhoods. You’ll find more SDSers at an art institute than at a state school; you’ll find more skinny jeans and bug sun glasses at our conventions than blue jeans or Adidas sportswear. SDS however, like the rest of America’s political left (including Adbusters), has largely failed to expand past our own cultural ghetto, and now we have adopted our own past time of jeering our cultural progeny, the Hipsters. But we haven’t asked why most of these people have chosen to opt out of “politics”.

First, we have to drop the double standard. Expecting more from one community over all the other communities we could have singled out is patently unfair. We should ask with the same conviction why sports fans, or why metal fans, or why most women have stayed away from politics. Blaming a lack of political commitment on an entire group’s superficiality is a sorry and dangerous rationalization, especially when Hipsters are becoming the dominant demographic of global youth. We need to break with our traditional excuses that have reinforced our own “radical” elitism. Political organization is a process of building relationships with people and then progressively leaning on those relationships to build a similar commitment towards liberation from those being organized.

Your article is part of our collective, though irrational, set of higher expectations made on Hipsters. Why should Hipsters be more disposed to join the merry-go-round of stale and pointless meetings, protests and police stompings? Building relationships starts with meeting new people, something that has been de-prioritized by our movement behind online debates on the meaning of “violence” and criticizing irrelevant Marxist wing-nuts. If the same energy was put towards throwing parties when most schools start on September 2nd, where we could meet a hundred new contacts at each SDS chapter, as will be put towards driving all our people to the DNC/RNC and subsequently paying their legal costs, SDS could expand ten-fold. People haven’t come to our protests in front of empty recruitment stations because they know it won’t make a difference. We need to be out in the neighborhoods where those going into recruitment centers live, organizing them to engage in power structures that affect them.

As a movement we need to reevaluate our targets. Sure multi-national corporations need to be toppled, but so do our corrupt local aldermen, who win Chicago elections in student wards(voting districts in the city) with a meager 3,500 votes. Our movement talks a big talk about direct democracy; why can’t we start holding neighborhood assemblies to talk about how to challenge the crooks in local office and local boardrooms? Empty lots in student wards can be used to grow food that can be stored and cooked at community meals at the lofts that Hipsters throw parties at. Hell, why don’t we get in with the best DJ’s in town and make a few jones off those Hipster parties we so despise? All politics are local, and local politics means encouraging people to vote early and often.

Adbusters, you are free to take me up on my suggestions and to call me on my own bullshit if I don’t live up to my own talk. But right now you are in the hot seat and I’m calling out your condescending bullshit. Hipsters are people too, and criticizing them without suggesting a strategy to transform and mobilize them makes you come off as pompous and arrogant as the Hipster connoisseurs of cheap plastic jewelry, thrift store fur jackets in July and obscure emo-core bands we all lament.

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