Mainstream liberal-progressive activism suffers from a number of strategic deficits, such as the focus on one-off theatrics run by non-profits and NGOs, and the emphasis on media attention. These deficits tend to be inherent to liberal politics, insofar as liberalism seeks to reform capitalism, rather than mobilize the working class to overthrow it. Thus liberal political cadres tend to be middle-class activists who have the time, energy, and money to plan and participate in mobilizations aimed primarily at lobbying, raising awareness, etc. But these strategies typically don’t build power in the communities and populations that they claim to speak and act for.
The limitations of liberalism became especially clear in Ferguson, in the aftermath of the protests and riots in August 2014, as seen in an essay on the struggles of local working-class activists published in Politico a year later. These activists struggled to balance their commitment to fight racist exploitative policing with their day-to-day financial needs.
Ferguson began as a movement led by the people who had lost. Protesters took to the streets not only to rail against racism and police brutality, but also to decry decades of deeper divides: in housing, education, jobs and the court system. But as the months wore on, the media frenzy built up and the money rolled in, Ferguson turned into something else. A struggling suburb without a prominent industry suddenly had one: Ferguson Inc., a national protest movement.
Unsurprisingly for a cause that overnight became an international drama, donation money from both individuals and large non-profit foundations (such as the George Soros’ Open Society Foundations) began hunting for good investments in Ferguson and the surrounding area. This in turn drove local activists to orient themselves and their strategies around these sources of funding.
As the interviewees for the article state, some of their most important activities as local activists involved taking care of basic day-to-day needs, with mutual aid playing a large role. People helped each other buy food, pay off phone bills, and find housing. The initial waves of protests had a traumatic impact on people’s lives, with many facing job losses and evictions. Many faced downward mobility, grappling with hunger and homelessness even as they continued to valiantly strove to keep the larger movement simmering.
Some of the money sloshing around managed to find its way into the pockets of those who needed it the most. But a lot of it didn’t. Another unsurprising trend, given the class character of who tends to be able to best capitalize media attention and solicit funding from non-profits and NGOs. Some donations funded tourist-esque trips for outsiders to take buses to Ferguson so that they could take selfies in front of burned-down gas stations; other donations funded national NGOs who called one-off protests so that they could write a press release and snap some photos of locals to put into their next round of grant requests; yet others funded panels for middle-class activists to tweet and blog about.
As the protest movement goes national, Ferguson has been reduced to “where it began.” But the economic hardship that both predated and predicated the protests has only been exacerbated. Most activists who entered the movement in poverty remain in poverty. Some who entered with means have lost them, while a tiny fraction has found money and opportunity. For St. Louis’ impoverished youth, it is the same old story, with an audience that diminishes each day.
All of this confirms my own suspicions that all sustainable working-class movements put money in people’s pockets. In the context of Ferguson, protests sort of did that, but only indirectly, and in a way that forced locals to depend on a fickle and amorphous blob of media attention and Internet chatter — and only a minority of locals, at that. Politics became co-opted by the interests of the nonprofit-industrial complex. And what material help this funding did achieve might very well be undermined by the fact that it escalated competition between people who are precisely those who should be working together.
The most sustainable venture in Ferguson that came out of the rebellions seems to be a non-profit called Operation Help Or Hush, which was founded for the explicit purpose of helping protesters and activists deal with day-to-day needs, helping secure people everything from food to housing to jobs. Hardly a radical venture, but its tactics are an indispensable part of any aspiring proletarian mass movement.
There are lot of lessons in Ferguson. And a clear one is that mainstream liberal-progressive activism is utterly unsuitable for the actual needs of the working classes. Contrast the protests-turned-photo-ops with the directly material nature of the Black Panther Party’s self-defense squads of the ’60s. The former sucks up energy while bringing little concrete benefit to locals, except perhaps a sense of recognition; the latter could directly intervene against the police robbing residents. We need to bring this kind of materialist strategy to the forefront, and put it at the center of our theories and practices.