Last Tuesday, Alton Sterling was shot and killed while pinned on the ground by Baton Rouge police. The next day, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a cop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, as he reached for his ID. On Thursday, protests swept across the country calling for an end to police killings of black and brown men. At one of those peaceful protests, in Dallas, a sniper opened fire from a vantage point above the march, trying to kill white police officers. Five officers died.
It was against this backdrop of deep social turmoil that dozens of community organizing groups from across the country came together in Pittsburgh for the People’s Convention.
Over the weekend, more than 1,500 community organizers and leaders—many of them Black and Latino—convened to discuss ways to create a more cohesive, powerful progressive grassroots network. It was the first step by the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive organization that is trying to fill the vacuum left in the wake of ACORN’s demise in 2010.
On top of the recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, the convention also came at a critical political moment—on the Republican side, Donald Trump’s campaign is increasingly stoking racial animosity; on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has worked to push his party’s platform leftward.
“We wanted to make it both a statement in the electoral moment and really a statement that transcends the electoral moment,” Brian Kettenring, co-director of the Center for Popular Democracy, told the Prospect at the convention. “We’re trying to stand in this particular moment but also not be captive to the narrow partisan politics of our country.”
The convention started off Friday with a march of more than 1,000 activists through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, including stops outside the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to demand fair wages for workers; the Pittsburgh Federal Reserve to call for equitable economic policies for working families; and Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s office to protest his anti-immigration stances. Some onlookers joined the chanting—“What do we want? Justice. If we don’t get it? Shut it down,”—and raised their fists in solidarity. Others were visibly angry at the marchers’ message of justice for undocumented immigrants and victims of police brutality.
The following day, activists heard speeches from heavyweights of the progressive movement like Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison and the Reverend William Barber III, leader of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement, who both spoke powerfully about the recent killings and the need for a unified response.
“The country needs healing, but you can’t heal a dirty wound,” Ellison pronounced. “A dirty wound needs disinfectant.”
He pointed to the “amazingly poised” Diamond Reynolds, the fiancée of Philando Castile, who streamed the immediate aftermath of his shooting on Facebook, as a model for the movement. “We need to push back with the same presence of mind of Diamond Reynolds,” he said.
With the killings of Sterling and Castile fresh on everyone’s mind, the specter of police violence loomed large at the convention. But the People’s Convention also wove together the threads of today’s social justice movements—not just Black Lives Matter, but also those campaigning for immigration reform, the Fight for $15, LGBTQ rights, and environmental justice, in a way that made clear the intersectionality of modern progressive organizing.
“We’re all dealing with the various layers of oppression,” said Jose Lopez, organizing director for Make the Road New York. “Whether it’s workplace inequality, housing inequality, or the recent decision from the Supreme Court, which to a degree sent a message to our families that we’re going to create opportunity for a limited number of children but we’re going to throw away the key to the gate to this country when we begin to talk about their parents.”
“[This convention] created the space and now we have to make sure we continue to stay in contact—using CPD as the vehicle—so that we can build out a network of power that can transform everything from immigration reform to worker rights to housing rights to the attack of black and brown people in this country by police,” Lopez said.
Groups attending the convention included New York Communities for Change, which helped launch the Fight for $15 back in 2012 and is now turning its focus toward addressing affordable housing needs in the city; Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, which, in response to the police killing of Jamar Clark helped organize a protest occupation outside a North Minneapolis police precinct that lasted 16 days; the Texas Workers Defense Project, a worker advocacy group that has improved labor standards in the Texas construction industry; and Make the Road state chapters that have led local fights against deportations. Some of these groups have collaborated before, while others have been somewhat isolated from other community organizing groups.
Community organizations lost much of their national clout in the wake of ACORN’s demise, which was brought about in 2009 by a conservative smear campaign. CPD’s goal now—and that of the organizations represented at the conference—is to rebuild such groups’ institutional power and make it a critical part of the broader progressive movement.
In recent years, that movement has had some signal successes, which conference workshops showcased: how SEIU successfully organized for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle; how black community groups in St. Louis helped create lasting momentum for policing reform in the wake of Ferguson; how the New York Working Families Party established a powerful electoral presence; how organizers in Florida worked for climate justice in communities vulnerable to climate change.
“We are beginning to launch a real national organizing framework—that’s something that really hadn’t been seen since ACORN went under,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change. “I think this is the beginning of an intentional path forward to try to create real structural power for community institutions and neighborhoods that already exists in places like the labor movement.”
Creating such structural power, organizers admit, will be challenging. There’s a shortage of funding for community organizations, which has kept them closely tethered to more well-funded labor unions and foundations—and, in many ways, also tethered to their funders’ agendas. The central challenge is how to establish a sustainable and independent source of funding, as unions have done with member dues, in order for community power to become a singular force on its own.
Beyond that, a critical question for community organizers is how to capitalize on both the current social and political moment.
“The genie is out the bottle with progressive politics,” Kettenring said. He believes that a strong force of community organizations can help direct the progressive movement’s current political capital in a way that avoids pitfalls of the past. “One of the historic strategic failures of the progressive movement has been its failure on race. So when you look at this convention and look at how diverse it is and how many of the organizations are rooted communities of color, you see the potentiality of how the community organizing sector can help root a more progressive, but also diverse politics.”