San Francisco, California

Organizing as a Machine

Robin Marty was interviewed by Bridget Read about the potential of losing Roe v. Wade and how we can fight it. But this part here is what caught my attention:

Reproductive rights are never going to be a priority. Never look at federal elections as something that’s going to save us. [...] It’s all about local power. One of the things that happened in 2009 that still upsets me is that we had built an entire grassroots state-by-state movement to get Obama elected into the White House and to get electoral change at the federal level. And as soon as everybody was seated, as soon as that election was over, it all got dismantled. It all got trashed. It was like, okay, the work is done, we can go home now. And everybody took away their resources and all of these groups were left floundering. They died.

This is something that Obama talks about in his book Dreams of My Father, written before he became president, where he argued that building a political movement is like building a machine. It’s this vast infrastructure and database, these connections between people. But if we’re not paying enough attention then all of that can fall apart so very quickly.

Also this morning I’m slowly reading John Lewis’s autobiography and that’s precisely how he describes the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s; organizing as a machine. The pamphlet-making, the lunch-making, pulling out chairs for a sermon, calling people, going to meetings. It requires painstaking discipline and nerve.

And maintaining that machine is so often boring.

The most important parts of the Civil Rights movement, it seems to me, were these small acts of bravery then. Not just those famous moments, those pictures of courage. People back then realized what we’re relearning now: that we have a responsibility to build that machine and then to continuously maintain it. It’s not enough to retweet a thing here, retweet a thing there. Or even to just elect Biden this year. This is the most important election of our lifetime, but once #45 is discarded like the useless bag of mulch that he is, we still have so much work left ahead of us.

The machine must be built and then it must be maintained.

I see a lot of anger about 2020 being a terrible year, evidence that we live in the worst timeline, and that worries me a great deal. Because once we’re out of the worst timeline we have to focus on it staying that way. For example: today I can open my porch windows and breathe fresh air for the first time in weeks. But that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. The Climate Crisis is still a problem, whether I’m experiencing it or not.

So being a good citizen of this Republic, I realize now, is about making sustained contributions to that great machine; making sure it’s funded and well-oiled, making sure that the people at the front of the line can take a break for a minute.

Smaller acts of courage but constant and unending, unwavering.