Perhaps the most chilling thing about Lewis Powell’s memo is the way he views the public. To Powell, the public is an inherently untrustworthy external force that is to be subdued and contained rather than engaged. When viewed in light of the memo as a whole, Powell’s question “What Can Be Done About the Public?” is actually asking, How we can have power over the public?
This is why our aim must not be to revise the Powell strategy with a progressive flavor but to invert it entirely. Our question must not be: How do we get the right people in place? Instead, our question must be: How can the public be empowered?
- Out of the foundations and into the streets! Funding is critical, but it’s not a panacea. Direct action brings a certain clarity of purpose and vision. I know of no faster way to test and tighten one’s messaging than to take it to the streets. This is not an invitation to observe and promote such actions but to actively participate. Establishment progressives must not simply laud the causes of grassroots groups but stand in solidarity. Giving money to a cause and then walking away (or worse still, issuing demands) is not communion with the people. Consciously listening and learning through a long meeting, sweating in a basement packaging books to prisoners, or joining us in the streets for nonviolent direct action is.
Unite against the new Jim Crow. We cannot speak honestly about empowering the public without taking an honest look at discriminatory policing and the rates of incarceration in communities of color. Ending the war on drugs is no longer a radical idea, yet little to no political will remains to tackle the issue. The most important organizing on ending mass incarceration is happening at the state and local levels. “Know your rights” trainings, bail funds like the Bronx Freedom Fund, and cop-watch programs are essential tools in communities besieged by police violence. We must insist that no serious discussion about the economy or about education can happen without addressing the vast impact that mass incarceration has on both.
Embrace targeted direct action during periods of leverage. Combining politicians’ desire for power with a real and present threat to the source of said power is a potent cocktail. When activists for the DREAM Act locked themselves inside Organizing for America offices, they instilled a self-preservational urgency in the administration, because they represented a crucial voting bloc. Their direct-action campaign threatened the administration enough to move the president to issue an executive order. Thoughtful direct-action campaigns can be aimed directly at sources of political power, forcing movement on stalled issues.
Challenge the criminalization of dissent. Powell’s scaremongering about the vast power of the “communists” and “New Leftists” seems comical when viewed through today’s lens. Yet, because of its effectiveness, this tactic continues today in an ongoing effort to stamp out radical thought. The right regularly hurls accusations of “socialism,” “anarchism” and “anti-capitalism,” despite not knowing what those words mean. This country is no stranger to activist suppression, having practiced it for decades, but we have hardly evolved out of this problem. As just one example, two activists in the Pacific Northwest are currently incarcerated for refusing to testify before a grand jury about other activists. We must collectively defend all attacks on political dissent, or one day we will not have a progressive movement about which to strategize.
Perhaps the most unsung benefits of the strategies I have outlined are the personal ones. There is something transformational about the kind of community that can only come from shared hardship. Even shared discomfort, like the cold of a public square after a long open-air meeting, necessitates mutual aid and support. These are not the same as opportunistic communities borne of blog followings, networking at fundraisers, or schmoozing at conferences. It is community borne from the heart, bound together by solidarity and trust. It can be only created if we aim not to build power over people but power with them.