- Category: Culture
- Created on Saturday, 30 May 2009 09:06
- Written by Suzy Subways
The Kasama Project believes it is crucially important to deeply sum up previous attempts at developing a viable revolutionary movement in the U.S. -- this includes a wide range of organizations and strategies that dug into the challenges of radically transforming power and society here in North America. For that reason we are excited to receive the following piece, gathered by Suzy Subways, on the important experience of SLAM -- a radical student movement based in CUNY during the 1990s.
This article was originally published in Upping the Anti #8. For the full issue, with articles on the economic crisis, Gaza, indigenous organizing and more, buy a copy at your local radical bookstore or visit upping the anti website. Please consider making a donation to this all-volunteer project.
As always sharing this piece here on Kasama does not mean that the Kasama Project endorses the analysis it contains. It is offered here for discussion and debate.
A Culture of Resistance:
Lessons Learned from the Student Liberation Action Movement
By SLAM Herstory Project Interviews by Suzy Subways
In March 1995, 20,000 students from City University of New York (CUNY) were attacked by police after surrounding city hall to protest a draconian tuition increase. This protest, organized by the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts, marked an upsurge in student movement activity that continued into 1996, when the group transformed into the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM), a multiracial radical organization. Before disbanding in 2004, SLAM established chapters at CUNY colleges in all five boroughs of the city. This roundtable focuses on the chapter at Hunter College in Manhattan and explores SLAM’s legacy of building a left culture in New York City and across the country.
SLAM’s legacy is bound up with the evolution of CUNY, which became the primary route out of poverty for the city’s Black, Latino, and immigrant communities starting in the 1970s. Prior to that, despite offering free education since 1847, CUNY was predominantly white. In 1969, Black and Latino students at City College in Harlem, with support from the Black Panthers and Young Lords, occupied CUNY campus buildings and won an open admissions policy that made CUNY accessible to students who needed remedial classes because they had attended substandard high schools. By 1976, the student body was predominantly people of color, and CUNY started charging tuition, the first of many changes to push students of color back out. The policy of open admissions was reversed in 1999, despite SLAM’s militant opposition.
This roundtable is part of a larger and ongoing SLAM oral history project (see http://SLAMherstory.wordpress.com). While many people helped build SLAM, this article highlights the voices of some of the women of colour members. These women represent different generations of SLAM, from founders to younger leaders. Their insights reflect their experiences in SLAM and draw out lessons about building organic leadership and creating multiracial, feminist organizations that are accountable to communities directly affected by the issues.
Lenina Nadal was a founding member of the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts and SLAM. Having graduated in 1997, she returned in 2000 to help create SLAM’s organizer training institute. She is a filmmaker, playwright, and poet, and works for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Visit http://www.performingprofound.com
Rachèl Laforest was president of Hunter College’s Black Student Union in 1995 and SLAM’s first student government president in 1996. Before leaving SLAM in 2003, she defended open admissions and worked on SLAM’s High School Organizing Program and the Mumia Youth Task Force. She is Director of Organizing for New York City’s Transport Workers Union (TWU, Local 100).
Luz Schreiber worked on SLAM’s open admissions campaign and other projects between 1998 and 2000. Co-founder of Ollin Imagination (a cultural circle of resistance of parents, artists, students, and educators of colour), Luz is a creative writing major and Hunter Student Union organizer.
Suzan Hammad was president of Hunter’s Palestinian Club before joining SLAM and becoming a lead anti-war organizer in the early part of this decade. She is a painter (see www.cafepress.com/LailatiNar) and continues fighting for a free Palestine.
Tamieka Byer organized college and high school student walkouts against police brutality and the Iraq war as a member of SLAM between 2000 and 2004. She currently works with Amnesty International USA as the Board Liaison.
How did student clubs at Hunter come together in 1995, work in the CUNY Coalition, and start SLAM?
Suzan: Pre-SLAM, some of the first CUNY movement meetings were happening in the Palestinian Club. It was like we were all saying the same thing: “Oh shit, they’re raising our tuition! Oh shit, they’re bombing Palestine! Oh shit!”
Lenina: There was a lot of anxiety among the students, because tuition was going to be raised by $1,000. The Black Student Union had members who were responsible for some of the major takeovers of the Hunter campus and other CUNY campuses in 1990 and ’91. The other clubs that had political consciousness included the Palestinian Club and the Arab Club, which were very strongly affiliated. And right across the hall was the Puerto Rican Club, which had some progressive membership. Those were the organizations that solidified a people of colour Left.
The only alternative we were being offered was from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), which was like, “Let’s lobby our representatives to see if we can change it from within.” But the frustration was already building up and working class students were feeling like this might be the last chance they would have at a CUNY education. The stakes were very, very high. It was really a mass movement. It’s like most movements — the leadership can claim it, but they have to claim it after the masses have already said, “This is what we want.” Those of us who had been part of organizations, or who grew up with leftist parents, started to get to know each other and see that we had something to offer to sustain a movement. That’s how some of SLAM’s leadership started to come together.
SLAM was a student group. Why did it fight for political prisoners, visit Zapatista communities, bring medical supplies to Iraq, and protest police brutality and the navy occupation of Vieques?
Tamieka: CUNY doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I mean, you talk about a tuition hike — which seems like a strictly CUNY issue — but you have to ask the question, “Why the hike?” The first thing I learned in SLAM was that tuition was free until the first year people of colour forced their way in. SLAM always made the point that tuition hikes were forcing out lower-income New Yorkers, while the government was spending more money recruiting these same lower-income people of colour to join the military.
Lenina: Despite the fact that SLAM had new leadership every year as people graduated and moved on with their lives, the last group of people in SLAM were still talking about police brutality and saying, “We can’t forget what’s going on in our own neighbourhoods.” It was really amazing for me to see that a radical movement can be sustained if certain values are maintained. Instead of just a political organization, we developed our own culture to pass down.
Rachèl: There were a lot of young people on Hunter’s campus who wound up being attracted to SLAM because we were speaking their language, politically and socially. Our Mumia Youth Task Force concert was a really dynamic event. We packed the entire 2,000-seat Hunter College auditorium. Mos Def and Dead Prez performed. People in the Mumia Coalition knew how valuable SLAM’s level of organizing and sexiness was. Young people wanted to be around folks who really had their finger on the pulse of what was happening in terms of hip-hop. That’s what made SLAM an easy thing to gravitate towards. Once you heard people talk about what they were really about, folks stuck around to listen and had ideas of their own.
I think the Amadou Diallo1 issue made it easier to pull young people into the Mumia stuff. Even though young people had heard about Mumia, he wasn’t a New Yorker. He wasn’t someone that you might have seen when you left the house to go to school that morning. Amadou was. Especially for young people in the Bronx who lived right next to him, Amadou’s murder and the acquittal of those cops allowed them to look at a situation like Mumia’s, and really believe that he was framed for killing a cop.
There are serious lulls in organizing work, and what’s terrible is that sometimes events like this are catalysts. We realized that folks were angry because there were so many spontaneous gatherings throughout the city. Now, I have to tell you, I was very disappointed, because I think those mobilizations also showed how much people had gotten used to things. The response was angry, but I don’t believe it went far enough. There were young people just running through the streets. But nothing really happened. When a community finds itself completely backed into a corner and is angry, fear drops away. Flipping over a police car, setting something on fire, rawly expressing the rage that you feel — there’s nothing to hold it back. It showed SLAM that young people were so lulled by what the system offers that they were angry, but they weren’t angry enough. We weren’t angry enough.
How did people bring in traditions of resistance from their own communities?
Lenina: People learned about who they were. A lot of people came out of the closet and started to engage in queer political theory by bringing that analysis into the organization to challenge people. We had a Cambodian member who was taken out of Cambodia during a very repressive time and brought to the US. She was discovering what the repression in Cambodia had to do with US foreign policy. Another member taught us how Mao used pop culture to create cultural resistance. He was saying, “how can we have our cultural resistance?” That’s what helped feed Mao’s revolution, and that was going to help feed our revolution. The Puerto Rican students, because we had a department of Puerto Rican Studies, and Black students had access to institutions created in the ’60s and ’70s by young revolutionaries like ourselves. Together, this created a very sensual space: it wasn’t a clash of cultures so much as a joint discovery.
Rachèl: I was a red diaper baby. My parents were an interracial couple at a time when that wasn’t popular in any way. My mom’s parents had been union organizers; both were involved in the Communist Party during the 1920s and ’30s. When I was younger, my mom was a tenant organizer. My father participated in one of the first formations of the Communist Party in Haiti. His family was asked to leave the country because of it. Until I was about 14 years old, he delivered plastic slipcovers for furniture but still was politically involved in things that were happening in Nicaragua, in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Haiti. For me coming up, what I learned is that if there were liberation struggles that affected your life, they were things that you participated in no matter what. “Yes, I have to work. Yes, I have to help the children with their homework.” And interweaved into all of that has to be this fight. SLAM’s creation was unique because most of the core group of people came from a similar background. Lenina – her very name shows you the kind of home she came from.
Luz: The village in Oaxaca where I’m from has a great spirit of resistance. It is said that it was a very militant town back in the Revolution in 1910. The APPO took over in June 2006 and ruled the town for a year— it was autonomous. I came to New York in 1998, four years into the Zapatista rebellion against neoliberalism’s economic policies. People in Chiapas and elsewhere are displaced by these policies. The struggle in CUNY to keep admissions open was also about stopping students being displaced from the university. I was surprised that people in SLAM knew about the Zapatistas. From that, I knew that this was a group of people that cared about what was going on in the world and were eager to learn how indigenous people resisted. The Zapatistas declared, “We want a world that can fit many worlds,” and that resonated with people everywhere. In New York there are many worlds, but the people in power don’t want to make room for all of us.
How did SLAM develop leadership?
Luz: I think I was only able to imagine myself as a leader because I saw powerful Latina and Black women — leaders, intellectual, strong — doing stuff. They said, “We have to make you speak. There’s a rally, and you have to testify because you’re a remedial student.” So they made me get up on top of a desk and recite a Nelson Mandela poem. It wasn’t the most orthodox way to teach public speaking, but it worked. If someone had just said, “It’s important to have women of colour leadership,” that wouldn’t have clicked as much as seeing it in practice.
Tamieka: Lots of trainings! Doing readings and coming back to the group to discuss them. And we were doing the readings while simultaneously doing the work: it was easy to look at something we had just read about imperialism and see how it was still relevant to how we interact with each other, and how America interacts with the rest of the world.
SLAM helped develop new leaders by actually having leaders that represented me. I’ve been at three other organizations since SLAM, and not once has there been more than one strong woman of colour at a time in each organization. In SLAM, part of what developed me was knowing that these strong women of colour had done the same readings I did, made many of the same mistakes I was currently making, and were the better for it.
Lenina: When we started the organizer training institute, we used the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL)2 curriculum. We recruited about 25 students a semester, and taught them organizing skills like campaign development, power analysis, public speaking, media relations and messaging, graphic design and web design. We also did political education using current events and older texts to define imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalism. In the high school organizing program, we had a video instructor. The young people were looking into the Anthony Baez3 case, so they did a short documentary about that.
Suzan: I felt a very strong connection to our mentors from the Black Nationalist movement. They gave me good advice when I felt confused. I was mentored by their example of devoting their whole lives to the struggle for liberation and peace. They were experienced in organizing, and I really respected their anti-imperialism, anarchism, and Black Nationalism. Palestinians and the Black Panthers had worked together. To this day, not everyone works with Palestinians; we’re still marginalized in the movement.
Why and how did SLAM become a women of colour-led organization? How did SLAM deal with questions of whiteness and male leadership?
Rachèl: The white men did much of the theorizing and writing. The women of colour did much of the relationship-building. The number of people recruited into the organization by white men was very slim. They built relationships with new people who didn’t know them by having theoretical conversations about what was happening and pushed people little by little. The women – and mainly the women of colour – met people at a party or were handing out flyers and getting into a conversation about food or an event, or about our community, and developed many more relationships at a time.
Internally, the women ran the show. Because we had a better understanding of the population we were dealing with and what folks were going to respond to, we made decisions about what should happen. While some of the white men in SLAM had some great ideas, sometimes people said no for the sake of saying no, just to not move on another idea the white man had put forward. People were angry about not hearing their voices come through in the work. It was in the second year that people started to shut them down, and it came out angrily at first, but eventually it came out respectfully and it was for the right reason. It wasn’t to shush up the white man but because, “Actually, we genuinely don’t think that’s a good idea right here, right now. But we love you, and we want you to keep putting ideas out on the table.”
Luz: I learned to become aware of power dynamics within the group. We called out white privilege, sexism, and homophobia during meetings or any kind of gathering. All these forms of oppression persist because we internalize them. At times it was challenging and even painful. But if a man spoke for too long, someone would ask, “So what do women think of this?” I wasn’t used to seeing a man following a woman’s direction or being challenged for his behavior, and that was amazing. Many men preferred to only engage in theoretical work, write articles, speak at meetings, and argue ideas. For a lot of men, it’s easier to take on the role of the intellectual and leave the organizing and networking to women. The men in the group acknowledged that women were better at organizing. But sometimes it was a cop out: men aren’t good relationship-builders because they don’t practice or try hard enough.
Lenina: SLAM allowed people of colour to have their voices at the forefront by teaching people public speaking, writing, and documentation skills. For white people who have had some level of privilege, who are good writers or speakers, or who have had a good education, their role is really to be a trainer. And they can continue to write because if you’re teaching someone how to be a writer, but you’re also writing yourself, that person feels like, “I’m being taught by someone who really does this stuff and takes it seriously.” You have to see if you can play a role in helping somebody who is afraid that what they say or how they’ll say something won’t be accepted. Historically it hasn’t been.
How did Maoism and anarchism shape SLAM’s decisions and goals?
Rachèl: Those ideologies were interwoven in the work. Anarchism shaped our involvement in the global justice convergence protests against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. What we learned from Maoism showed up in the more institutionalized organizing work we did in the High School Organizing Program, the Hunter clubs, and our community anti-police brutality work. All of the folks involved had a genuine desire to be led by those most affected by what was happening. Sometimes it was SLAM members, and sometimes it wasn’t. And I think our struggle to be a multicultural, multi-ideological group allowed us to ask about the needs of a particular community and figure out what role SLAM could play.
The anarchists leaned toward Maoism because the majority of the group leaned toward a Maoist tendency. Folks that subscribed to more Maoist ideas felt safer playing on both ends and were excited by a lot of the anarchist ideas that were put on the table. However, the fact that we had this institution to run that was university-based and had all of these rules and regulations played a role in quelling the more anarchist activities. The anarchist notion of tearing things down and resisting any structure that was not built by us was important. And where Maoism came into play was that it wasn’t just tearing down for the sake of showing outrage. Institution building was meant to replace what we were tearing down with a different approach, new ideas, and a new way of relating to people. I think the two played hand in hand.
Luz: It was amazing to learn theory and see it applied. I remember a demonstration against Herman Badillo, a man on the Board of Trustees that wanted to end open admissions. This was someone who fought for education for minorities early in his political career, and then he made racist statements to the media about Mexicans. Coming from a Latino, it was internalized racism. He said things like, these short people from the hills are coming here and taking over our schools, and we can’t allow this to happen. I was like, “Fuck, this shit is real, this is not something from a book.” The ideology that as people of color, we are intellectually inferior, culturally inferior, and therefore we have to be segregated. That we should not have a right to education or do not have a capacity to be in the same educational space as other people.
You can hear all you want about theory, the masses, and how class relations work, but it’s experiences like this that really bring it home and make you understand not only intellectually, but with all your senses. Mobilizing people to fight police brutality and for
Mumia Abu-Jamal put ideas into practice. It wasn’t just preaching. Because then Mao only becomes a gospel; it’s not something you can live. I lived it with SLAM. Not only “What does it mean that women were disempowered systematically throughout the centuries?” but also “What does it mean to have women leadership? How does that look, how does that feel?”
Lenina: SLAM’s Little Red Study Group brought together a group of radical teachers and community organizers: people who wanted to have a more radical nonprofit space. We decided to study Marxism seriously. We studied a lot of Mao, a little queer theory, a little feminism. That group evolved into the New York Study Group, which includes former members of Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM).4 We felt a kind of identification and connection with STORM because it had the same goals around women of colour-led organization.
How did SLAM’s militance relate to issues affecting its members’ communities?
Suzan: I really am glad we were very loud when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq broke out in 2001 and 2003. I wish a lot of people had stayed that loud, maybe because I related to it so much, because I’m from the Middle East, and there’s been a lot of war in my history. What happened in the Nakba 60 years ago is happening today in Afghanistan, it’s happening today in Iraq. When we took over the Hunter president’s office in February 2003, we just wanted to make a really bold statement. We had a speak-out before it, and we picked up people that day who would later become SLAM members. Did we expect to stop the war that day? No. We were upset and angry, and we wanted the school to recognize what was going on and say something. Or don’t side with the war. It was just an actual expression of a lot of people’s feelings: “Fuck this!” The next day, we had a speak-out to support the takeover, and students were just running in line to speak. I’ll never forget this girl, I think she was Lebanese, and her family had been bombed in the past. And she was like, “I’m so glad you guys did something.” And you could just feel it from her heart. Everyone started clapping for her. I think in America today, there’s a lot of people suffering under the surface of things. I think people were feeling it, but nobody was saying anything.
Lenina: We were of the sentiment that we had to find the most revolutionary way to react. And that was being more militant, at a time when this society is constantly encouraged to choose comfort, to choose being passive, to choose doing things without doing anything. Is it something that’s also inside of you, like, this feels good? Yes, of course it feels good. Because you’re really connecting, doing what’s in your heart, despite whatever the state says. You know it’s wrong that you’re marching for someone to remove their troops from your place on the earth, or a war that’s completely unjust and none of the American people support, and then there’s a cop on a horse pushing you out of the way. And then you had a supportive community. So why not take over a bridge? A lot of younger people tell us, “I wish I was around when SLAM was around.” We used to say that about the Young Lords, and the Young Lords probably said that about somebody else. Just do the best you can, you know?
What were some of the contradictions in SLAM becoming student government at Hunter College?
Tamieka: Trying to appease the administration and still hold true to our politics at the same time. Making other student groups and clubs feel welcomed and not like SLAM was a special club that benefited from student government while they were given crumbs. Feeling overwhelmed with hard, emotional, full-time jobs at 20, 21, 22 years of age, in addition to SLAM work.
Lenina: I think you’re hitting at the core of the nonprofit industrial complex. Any time anything becomes institutionalized, it loses a certain amount of energy. It’s like running a small country like Cuba or Nicaragua, where you’re no longer an outside guerrilla. All of a sudden we had money and power within the structure of our college. We had access to CUNY by-laws and knowledge of important meetings where real decisions were going to be made for students. We received this information in memos. And we would raise hell in all those meetings. We had unlimited photocopying, and basically anything we needed for organizing (walkie-talkies, things we needed for rallies, for security), we could purchase with student government funds as long as we put it on the books. Plus, several organizations that weren’t funded at the time — groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and the Taxi Workers’ Alliance — could freely come in and use our copy machine, space, computers, and web access. Hunter was a hub for organizing work.
As time went by, we became a top priority for the Board of Trustees, which wanted to get rid of us. There were very explicit conversations about our organization. We took a very strong stance on Palestine in a city where, to be honest, it got us into a lot of trouble. And taking a stance on police brutality was very important to us, and we didn’t give a shit. If it was going to mean losing student government, then F-it, you know?
Rachèl: We really did capitalize on a moment of a lot of young people being pissed off and wanting a space to channel that energy. You build institutions to try to carry people through the valleys until the next peak of movement activity arrives. People have to be better prepared, and have stronger and tighter language for how to talk about the peaks when they get there. But as far as our organizing capacity, I think it was a double-edged sword. SLAM could not have done the things we did without the resources student government provided. And I think the obligations to run the student government prevented SLAM from doing some of the greatest things it could have done. I lived in the office. I got caught up in so much of the financial bullshit that it didn’t allow me to really go out amongst the students and talk about what SLAM did, why I was a part of it, and how important the issues we were dealing with were.
What do you think led to SLAM falling apart?
Rachèl: In 2000, it was easier to link police brutality to CUNY students. At that time, Hunter was still a majority of people of colour college, so students went home to the very communities we were talking about. Tuition was going up every year, so the class and complexion of the school changed. It became more of a challenge for SLAM to link the antiwar organizing with the student body because students didn’t see the connection between undocumented immigrants being detained and CUNY students being targeted. They didn’t see it as their struggle.
There was also a stigma tied to SLAM being in student government for eight years, as if it had been a dictatorship. Sometimes the student body didn’t want to hear shit anymore.
Lenina: In the end, we were an institution getting money from students. A lot of the people who were getting a salary in SLAM didn’t want to work on student issues. They wanted to work on issues in their communities. It wasn’t too hard for the administration to tell the students, “These people aren’t really serving you.” The problem when you get money from any particular source is that you’re beholden to that source of funding. Because open admissions ended, you began to see more middle-class students that were easily persuaded that we were a little too radical.
Also, when you have a job, it’s no longer really a movement for you. It becomes your 9 to 5. You almost get sick of it, like any job. And it’s funny, because small businesses are encouraged to constantly make people feel a sense of the team and a commitment to the cause. We didn’t really do that, because we didn’t know how. So we were functioning the way you would in a grassroots movement, where it’s like, “You’re not holding up your end of the stick here, what’s wrong with you?” as opposed to “Let’s go back to our mission, our values.” What were we doing to heal ourselves, to reinvigorate ourselves, to keep ourselves excited and to be engaged and understand why this was so important? When you don’t have that consistently, it’s difficult. Especially when you have an administration connected to mayor Giuliani, and they’re mobilizing against you, and you’re doing your darnedest to stay in there, but you don’t have as strong a connection to the student body that was initially so all about you being there.
Tamieka: The older generations of SLAM did the best they could with transferring information and skills to the incoming generation. Looking back, I see that there is a problem if the organization is unable to function without some of its founding members. If we can’t survive without a member who has been in the organization for over eight years, then we’re lacking the self-sustaining part, right? I look back and think, “Boy, if we had those contacts... I didn’t know we had a contact in X organization! Wow, that could’ve been helpful.” But folks get burnt out and are ready to wrap it up. We had a haphazard transfer of institutional knowledge. I’ve seen it everywhere; it’s not just a SLAM problem. How to effectively pass knowledge and history along, and make sure new folks are receptive to this kind of learning. We all have such huge egos. I think too often we wanted to work on our own; we could’ve shouldered some of our work better if we partnered with more organizations, in my generation at least.
SLAM was great at movement building and leadership development, but not so successful at winning immediate victories. The loss of Open Admissions was especially painful. Why do you think SLAM lost so much, and how much do you think it matters?
Lenina: In 1995 they raised tuition by $750 instead of the initial threat of $1,000. Of course, the reformist groups took a lot of credit for that, like the threat of 20,000 young people showing up out of nowhere and running around Wall Street had nothing to do with it! The administration also didn’t cut financial aid as much, but our vision was so much larger. We wanted a school where we didn’t have to pay tuition, period. Some of the most amazing, transformative experiences are experiences where you lose. Those anti-globalization protests were so deeply transformative in terms of like, wow, we could actually build sectors of society with just who we have. We could build a little media sector and a little law sector, and a little sector of doctors, and we could really make this happen on our own. And we didn’t win crap in that, you know?
Rachèl: SLAM chose issues sometimes that we knew weren’t winnable, but were core issues that people could be unified and gathered around. And the strength built by people learning about each other and building that community was a kind of victory. If you are a longstanding organization, and you come down from a peak and you’re in a valley for a while, there are times when choosing small, winnable issues is important for the morale of your members. People have to know that the organization has the strength to win things, even if they’re tiny. But even if the issue itself is not winnable at this point in history it’s a win to bring people together around it, especially if they’re able to stay stuck together around that issue and grow outward. They say to pick your battles wisely, even in interpersonal relationships. And yeah, sometimes you only want to focus on the battles you know are significant to the relationship. And then other times, you just want to have the battle for the sake of making sure that something that’s important to you doesn’t just die by the wayside.
Suzan: Unfortunately, it’s a very unfair power dynamic. The forces against us have a lot of power. But our spirit is stronger, and what we want is greater. Look at what just happened to Bush. He had a shoe thrown at him! Please. People are realizing, look, this is not acceptable, and it’s not necessary.
What can SLAM teach the CUNY movement and the Left today?
Rachèl: The one-on-one relationship-building approach to organizing. The internet makes it so that you don’t have to be in human contact with anybody anymore, and that’s not such a great thing. My first boyfriend at Hunter became politicized because every single time I saw him by the cafeteria, I would stop to have a discussion with him about what was happening in the Black Student Union, and how he might be able to get involved. You sort of met a friend and didn’t let them go. Working at Jobs With Justice, they had me running around East Harlem, door-knocking, and they had this whole laid-out script that I never used. That Alinsky5 style is devoid of any real, genuine investment in the issue. Because of SLAM, I had learned how to look for the elements in it that I identified with personally, and let that shape the discussion. And to sit down and try to figure out who folks were, where they were coming from, did this affect them, and if it didn’t, why? Did it move them, and if it didn’t, why? You’ve got to deal with people where they’re at if you want them to move forward in another direction. I brought what I learned in SLAM about the relationship-building approach into my work at the transit union also.
Luz: One of the core philosophies in SLAM was the personal is political. We really took time to build relationships. Sometimes people think that part is not really organizing, because it’s just social. But that’s the foundation of organizing. If you cannot build personal relationships, how can you build organizational capacity? When people set up 1,000 barricades in Oaxaca in 2006 to protect themselves against the government, it was instinctual, because in Oaxaca people have really large, closely knit families. That is a natural social network. People were guarding all the entrances of town and if they said, “Go get your family,” your family means like 200 people. In Oaxaca, those relationships are already built; you just have to tap into them. Here, you have to start from scratch.
For students who come to Hunter now, there’s a student government in the service of the administration. Just knowing that there was this other alternative for so long is amazing. Some people can’t get over it. They ask me, “How did it happen?”
I see less intergenerational work happening now. SLAM really had these mentors from older generations in the community; they weren’t scholars. People who are active now at Hunter have a professor they look up to. Right now, everybody learns from each other, but I don’t feel like there’s leadership. Horizontalism is more attractive, because everyone gets to participate, and more ideas are exchanged. But I think it’s equally important to have systematic accountability. Some people are very repulsed by the idea of leadership. But if there hadn’t been true leadership in the Cuban revolution, it would have failed.
Lenina: We were visionary, because we weren’t just about the economic revolution and the political revolution. It wasn’t just about these capitalist pigs, and socialism was the answer; it was about how the hell does that relate to hip-hop? It’s like, we’re going to take this boring message, something you’d read in a newspaper, and present it in a way that you can understand, like something that happened to your mom or could happen to your best friend, and make it that personal and real for you. It was about love and kindness and getting excited, not just about a new, different type of order in this society.
1. Amadou Diallo was an unarmed 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Africa, who was killed on February 4, 1999, by four New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers. They fired a total of 41 rounds at Diallo, mistaking his wallet for a gun when he reached for his identification.
2. SOUL works to lay the groundwork for a powerful liberation movement by supporting the development of a new generation of young organizers, especially young women, young people of colour, queer youth, and working-class young people. See www.schoolofunityandliberation.org.
3. Anthony Baez was a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He was killed in 1994 by asphyxiation during a chokehold by Officer Francis Livoti, after his family’s football hit a police car.
4. STORM was a multi-racial, internationalist, left cadre organization based in the Bay Area from 1994 to 2001. See leftspot.com/blog/files/docs/STORMSummation.pdf.
5. Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals and has inspired many neighbourhood activist groups like ACORN that have single-issue campaigns. The Midwest Academy is a training center that draws heavily from Alinskyism.