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Grassroots Internationalism

Broadening struggles for self-determination and human rights

11-1 Page 13 Image 1In late February, veteran civil rights, anti-war and labor organizer Eric Mann sat down with Race, Poverty & the Environment to discuss social justice strategies in a global context, and the potential for working class people of color to lead an international movement. Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers. He is presently the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. His latest book is Dispatches from Durban: Firsthand Commentaries on the World Conference Against Racism, and Post-September 11 Movement Strategies (available from

RPE: Transportation justice and environmental justice are some of the primary issues that the Labor/Community Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union have been working on for the past 15 years. What do you see now as the biggest challenges for working class people of color in Los Angeles? Are they the same as 15 years ago or different?

Eric Mann: The political, economic and social conditions have gotten worse. The right-wing control of the country and the courts is a massive challenge. For example, in 2001 the Scalia/Rehnquist court, in a 5-4 decision, overturned 30 years of civil rights law in the Alexander vs. Sandoval decision. Sandoval, a Latina from Alabama, sued the department of motor vehicles, arguing that their “English only” tests discriminated against her based on race, and was prohibited by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars state and local governments that receive federal funds from discriminating based on race. The federal district court upheld her challenge, and the attorney general of Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court. Instead of dealing with the issue on its merits, the Court used that case to make a radical right-wing argument, i.e. that Congress never intended Title VI to be used by “private parties”—civil rights groups, impacted plaintiffs—but only by the attorney general. The majority ruled that private parties could still bring cases if they could prove “intentional discrimination.” But it prohibited the long accepted grounds of “disparate impact,” a standard by which plaintiffs only needed to document the racially discriminatory impact of a governmental policy regardless of intent. The overturning of the right to bring disparate impact cases challenging environmental racism, and all forms of racism, is a major setback for grassroots groups, low-income people and civil rights law.

The second setback for the EJ movement has been the deterioration of white liberal—and I would even say white radical—anti-racism. I am a product of the Black-led mass anti-racist consciousness of the 1960s. But over the last 20 years, I’ve seen white people turn away from affirmative action, and retreat into the comfort of predominantly or even all-white social structures. In Los Angeles, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) has built a movement of several hundred active members, thousands of on-the-bus supporters—overwhelmingly Black, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islanders—and a few dedicated anti-racist whites. And yet, we have received virtually no support from “the White, Westside liberals” or the white “anti-globalization movement” that challenges corporate abuses all over the world but cannot relate to an actual working class, people of color led movement.

RPE: So how do those two problems that you point out—the right-wing leaning of courts and the decline of white support—affect working class people in Los Angeles?

Mann: Black, Latino and Asian peoples, isolated and under attack, are far more likely to fight back if they feel support from white allies and the federal courts. If you go to court and win, as the BRU did, it reaffirms that the country has a policy to rectify past racism and generates more grassroots activism. But if your case is thrown out of court, and if white liberals turn on you, there’s a negative impact on movement building—not irreparable, but significant nonetheless.

11-1 Page 14 Image 1 Then we have the third, perhaps most controversial challenge [for working-class people of color], which is the growing hostility of significant segments of the Black and Latino middle and upper classes toward the Black and Latino poor. For instance, in 1994 in Los Angeles, the Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union sued the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transporation Authority (MTA) for running a separate and unequal mass transit system. This system consisted of a dilapidated rail system that served the urban working class (94 percent of all MTA passengers), and a pork barrel suburban rail system that served a far smaller, more white ridership.

Given that we won a temporary restraining order to prohibit MTA plans to cut out the monthly bus pass, and eventually won more than $1 billion in new clean fuel buses, you would think that the entire Civil Rights, Democratic Party, and Black and Latino Establishments would have rallied to our cause. Just the opposite. Many of them, such as Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, City Councilman Richard Alatorre, Supervisor Gloria Molina, and then-CEO Franklin White were defendants in the case, charged with the racist policies we were challenging. Why? Because the Black and Latino professional classes saw rail construction as a gold mine for contracts to build rail stations; to get minority set asides with larger white construction companies; and for Black, Latino, and women architects to get long overdue government contracts. They wanted billion dollar rail lines even if it destroyed public transportation for 400,000 low-income bus riders of color. So we’re starting to see a growing class divide inside communities of color.

Now here’s the good news. Working-class-of-color communities are growing, and occupy the most strategic position in the major urban centers of the empire—New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Oakland/San Francisco, Houston and Los Angeles. The problem is one of political consciousness and movement building. Can working-class communities of color transition from an objectively oppressed group to a strategically pivotal group in order to lead a broad united front of the entire working class? And then can they lead a national liberation movement of Blacks, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders of all classes that attracts progressive and anti-racist whites? In our work at the Strategy Center and BRU we target the hotel, garment and service workers; women and children on welfare; and high school and community college students facing overcrowded classes, limited opportunities and police harassment that begins their entry into the prison industrial complex. Our goal is to build a force led by the working class of color that can then re-approach middle class allies. That’s why our focus within communities of color is on the working class of color. Over time the Bus Riders Union has built a multi-class and multi-racial alliance, with the working class of color at its core.

RPE: Anti-racism and anti-imperialism have always been inherent to the Strategy Center’s mission. And we’re talking about it at Urban Habitat as not just a global challenge, but a challenge at local and regional levels. How do you see imperialism playing out in the lives of the working class communities in Los Angeles?

Mann: We see imperialism as a worldwide system of U.S. monopoly capitalism that begins in the United States and spreads its tentacles all over the world. My reading of U.S. history analyzes the United States as a white settler state based on conquest, genocide against Indigenous people, 300 years of slavery, and the stealing of half of Mexico. This is not “ancient history” but the material, cultural and psychological foundation of the United States today.

So, when organizers are working in East Los Angeles or Richmond or Fruitvale, [predominantly low-income, people-of-color communities in California], we see how Blacks and Latinos continue to suffer from the policies of imperialism that exploit and oppress them. There are more people in maximum security prisons, kids coming home to apartments that are far more over-crowded, and domestic workers working excruciating hours. Children in Los Angeles are exposed to more air toxins and carcinogens in the first two months of their lives than even the toothless Environmental Protection Agency recommends for a lifetime. So many young kids working at barely-above-minimum-wage jobs, with the system offering them a future as a security guard, prison guard, soldier or prisoner. With rents going up by 10 or 15 percent a year in some areas, the question is, how are these Black and Latino and Asian families living? And the best answer, I understand, is not very well.

There are some who see the United States as “capitalist” and what it does outside its borders as “imperialist.” But imperialism is a unified system; it exists inside and outside the U.S. borders. In my view, the dominant white culture is not just more privileged, but is literally an oppressor nation. As such, Black and Latino peoples, who are now being incarcerated at appalling rates, have the right to equality, and to challenge discrimination and racism. They also have the right of self-determination as an independent oppressed people able to shape their own destiny.

So at the Strategy Center, what we’re trying to say is, you know who the best allies of the Black, Latino and Korean communities in Los Angeles are? Brazil, China, India, Argentina, Cuba…

RPE: South Africa?

Mann: Absolutely, South Africa. We think if oppressed nationality working people see their plight and strategic placement in an international context, and see the Third World liberation movements as the main force in the world with which they can ally, those working people can see themselves as part of an international majority movement. This is not “solidarity work” that abandons the struggle for environmental justice and human rights inside the United States but rather, a movement that thinks about re-approaching the struggle within the United States from a more strategic position with greater leverage and stronger allies.

RPE: That brings me to your book, Dispatches from Durban, in which you write about South Africa and internationalism. Talk about why you felt that the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) was so important and what the connections are between that and the work you do at the Strategy Center.

Mann: The World Conference Against Racism was a truly amazing experience. Dispatches tries to rescue that experience from an historical “white-out.” We had no illusions that the WCAR would pass binding resolutions by nation-states against the crimes against humanity of Europe and the United States. But the resolutions of the non-governmental organizations (rejected by the governments) were very militant, called for reparations, and called for self-determination for the Palestinian people. That’s why the United States’ [delegates] walked out.

What I saw was the power of anti-racism as an ideology in the midst of a racist world.

Sometimes people in the movement need to look internationally for sources of inspiration, new ideas, and a world where the United States culture is not the dominant culture. Out of the work at WCAR, the Strategy Center initiated a Reparations discussion group, and out of that we formed our Community Rights Campaign to challenge the racism of the Prison Industrial Complex. A year later we returned to South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and, hearing the horror stories of the Organization of Small Island States and the flooding that threatens their civilizations, we formed our Clean Air, Clean Lungs, Clean Buses campaign to dramatically reduce the number of cars on L.A. roads, and protect the lungs of inner city children and the future of the planet from greenhouse gases.

RPE: What is the responsibility of people-of-color justice organizers to fight racism and imperialism? How can they think about their responsibility as U.S. citizens?

Mann: As we speak the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq has led to murders of civilians, the torture of prisoners, the deaths of U.S. GI’s, ecological disaster, and U.S. GI’s returning home mentally and physically ill. The war has diverted more than $150 billion for an occupation of a conquered people while U.S. schools, hospitals, mental health clinics and veteran’s administration facilities are falling apart at the seams. Given this context, how can we separate “international,” “national” and “local” struggles? The Strategy Center believes that you can’t build a movement in oppressed nationality communities without finding programmatic connections between people’s immediate suffering and oppression; a more ideological strategic narrative; a commitment to leadership development and movement building; and an international strategy. Generating on-the-ground campaigns with hard-hitting demands is critical to consciousness-raising, but also to winning real changes in policy.

11-1 Page 16 Image 1 These efforts need to be combined with explicit political education. I have always felt that Black people and Latino immigrants, with whom I work the most, are internationalists at heart. They love talking about Africa. They talk with great emotion about global warming, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, immigrants coming from Mexico to a land that was once theirs, or U.S. interference in the Salvadoran election. When we reported back from our trips to WCAR and WSSD, and when Manuel Criollo and Cynthia Rojas reported back on their recent trip to monitor the elections in El Salvador, our members were thrilled to have the discussions. We find, as organizers, that a more internationalist/anti-racist/anti-imperialist politics allows us to recruit and retain members for the long haul.

RPE: What about the issue of capacity? What are some of the barriers for environmental justice and social justice organizations fighting imperialism?

Mann: One of the greatest contradictions is between the acceleration of right-wing hegemony and the weak state of left movements. On the one hand are the rapid advance of global warming, the rapid pace of deterioration of Antarctica and Samoa, and the massive rise of conspicuous consumption and the SUV culture. On the other hand, there’s no comparable growth of a hard-hitting environmental movement that can radically restrict greenhouse gas production. At the Strategy Center, as just one example, we pride ourselves on the growth of our membership, but this work is arduous and exhausting. We’re picking up the most dedicated people in fives and tens, and general supporters in the thousands, when the need is for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people to get involved.

The second challenge, I think, is that with the decline of a world Left and the loss of any belief in a master narrative and comprehensive strategy, “grassroots organizing” has often been restricted to narrow, issue-based specialties. Each group fights a good fight, but doesn’t see itself as part of a broader movement, let alone an international one.

The third dilemma is that even at events like the World Social Forum, it is hard for U.S. organizers to develop concrete alliances with social movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I wish that there was a more clear international campaign—where we could all meet someplace, plan a set of demands, and say, “you go back to your community to raise these demands against Texaco or Shell or the World Bank, and then we’ll meet next year in Rio or Johannesburg, not just for a conference, but for an organizers’ movement.” I’m dreaming of a new Left international, which doesn’t exist right now, but which our organization, and this interview, is trying to help bring into being.

RPE: So what are the next steps? What are some key things that anti-imperialists must do now?

Mann: I think that every grassroots group should discuss what percentage of its time is spent on political education among its members. For example, you can show films such as the Battle of Algiers, one of the greatest revolutionary films, or Rising Waters, about global warming and the effect on the small island nations, and discuss the implications for your work with your members. Haskell Wexler, an academy-award-winning cinematographer, has produced a beautiful 110-minute, feature-length documentary about our work, Bus Riders Union.You can perhaps pick a book, such as Dispatches from Durban, and see if staff members can read and discuss one book together. (Both Dispatches and Bus Riders Union are available at

At our National School for Strategic Organizing we offer a six-month intensive political education program. We have the Thursday night group in which we bring guest speakers and reports from international trips. Would it be possible for grassroots groups to set aside one evening a month for political education discussions among key members and staff? Otherwise we run the risk of organizing and activism jumping ahead of any social theory guiding the work.

Another next step focuses on demand development. Our Clean Air Campaign is putting forth the demand to reduce L.A.’s 8 million cars to 4 million, which is what I call an agitational demand. Obviously that demand is not winnable in the present, but we’re saying that’s what needs to happen to achieve a 50-percent reduction in emissions to reverse global warming before human consumption destroys the planet. It’s an agitational demand to raise consciousness, and someday it will be turned into an action demand—what we are actually fighting for in terms of social policy. Another next step is to pick certain human rights issues that directly challenge U.S. policy, such as the movement to get the United States out of Iraq, or demanding a full federal investigation and international observers to protest and remedy the recent lynching of Roy Veal, a Vietnam Veteran in Wilkerson County, Mississippi.

At the BRU, the planning committee has been working for a year to update our principles of unity and mission statement. After three monthly general membership meetings at which more than 100 members discussed the statement word by word, our statement included the following language: “We see ourselves as part of an international movement to stop the U.S. government from intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign nations and to support the movements for self-determination inside and outside the United States.” Practicing what we preach, we have built our organization from the beginning with an internationalist perspective.

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