A Call for a Broad Coalition

As James Baldwin suggested, we must overnight become a revolutionary country. The need to heed Baldwin’s call is more pronounced than ever.

In the aftermath of the most recent election, we have witnessed the return of vitriolic and violent racism and explicit social antagonism to the public spotlight in the United States.

There is a well-publicized outburst of hate crimes and vandalism. The desecration of Jewish gravesites, the burning of mosques, the ongoing state sanctioned murder of black people, the massive efforts to deport immigrants, and the continued violation of Indigenous lands and sovereignty are not only individual acts of animosity but also the concerted actions of a rapidly growing white nationalist movement and the state itself.

To counter the growing force of white supremacy and combat the murderous violence that accompanies it will require a broad coalition across lines of race, ethnicity, and class.

This broad coalition is needed to combat the violence and to dismantle the deep economic inequality that fuels social enmity. People of all backgrounds must unite and form a sustainable and nuanced coalition based on economic liberation and self-determination for Indigenous people, people of color, and working class people.

While broad multi-ethnic, racial, and working class coalitions are not immune to further marginalization of the most vulnerable communities (especially poor black and Indigenous communities), coalitions established around the principles of decolonization and economic interdependence are the most viable possibilities to achieve the revolutionary possibilities Baldwin commanded of his contemporaries.

The remainder of this article draws on the history of previous efforts at coalition building and distills a set of principles and methods for building a broad and effective coalition set with the task of economic liberation.

Coalition Building: Historical Examples

Despite fundamental obstacles, there are various examples from the nineteenth and twentieth century where coalitions formed with varying results.

The history of Indigenous resistance is complex, and by no means should be reduced.

There are historical examples in early United States history, however, in which Indigenous communities and communities of color intersected, even informally, in nuanced acts of resistance. In 1814, for example, Africans, who had freed themselves from slavery, and Shawnee fighters, fought alongside the Red Sticks on a battlefield near present-day Alabama in one of the first displays of solidarity between Indigenous peoples and other people of color in the United States.

Twenty years prior, Benjamin Hawkins, a United States Indian Agent, asserted the logics of capitalism and White Supremacy over the Mvskoke nation. Hawkins directed the federal government’s “civilization project,” which tried to instill Euro-American values and practices on Indigenous people through both physically peaceful and violent means. The project’s tenets amounted to an imposition under threat of land dispossession of capitalistic values, privatization of property, and racial hierarchy through the institution of slavery — many concepts which were foreign or antithetical to the Mvskoke Nation (a federation of autonomous towns located in present-day Alabama, Tennessee, and parts of Georgia and Florida) way of life.

As a result of the project, the Mvskoke witnessed the inevitable consequence of capitalism: some Indigenous people turned into wealthy plantation and slave owners, while the majority became landless and poor.

The Shawnee and former African slaves heeded the call of the Red Sticks — traditionalist Mvskoke fighters — who began an offensive against hundreds of white squatters from the Northeast and the squatter’s Indigenous allies in an attempt to disrupt Hawkins’ program.[1]

African and Indigenous interests were not perfectly aligned. The Mvskoke were fighting for their lives and their lands, while the former slaves were trying to maintain the semblance of freedom they acquired. Regardless of their differing motivations, they unified in a moment of self preservation and symbiosis. After the warriors successfully disrupted the program, Andrew Jackson, the then-leader of the Tennessee Militia, carried out a brutal and savage counteroffensive, and decimated the resistance culminating in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

The spirit of broad coalitions in the 19th century did not end. The 20th century saw unlikely political affiliations develop throughout immigrant cities.

In New York City, for example, the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants in the early 1900s resulted in a political alliance of Puerto Rican and Italian immigrants. These immigrants aggregated their political capital and elected a politician who truly represented their communities to the United States House of Representatives–Vito Marcantonio. As a result of the coalition, these immigrants produced a political voice in Congress for almost 20 years.

During the liberation and self-determination movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the unification of different communities worked together to find cross-cultural solutions to their problems.

African Americans (The Black Panther Party), the white working class (Young Patriots Organization), Puerto Ricans (Young Lords Party), and many Indigenous groups (such as the American Indian Movement) joined forces across the country to not only demand a seat at the proverbial table, but also wage campaigns of self-determination through the decolonization of pedagogy (particularly in schools and in different forms of media), and substantive critiques of capitalism. These groups successfully started local medical clinics, programs that fed children and the poor, educated people on contemporary issues, and pressured local governments to provide basic services to their communities. These alliances demonstrated the true breadth of a broad coalition.

In the wake of the police state’s brutal war against liberation groups, which resulted in events such as the bombing of American citizens at home (MOVE), “abroad” (Puerto Rico),[2] the murders of social leaders (Fred Hampton), and the continued structural decimation of the Indigenous communities, the traumatic backlash to the Black Panther’s Rainbow Coalition was evident.

As a result of the states’ repressive campaign, the spirit of a broad coalition is in need of a resurgence.

The recent historic congregation of Indigenous tribes and many ethnic groups at Standing Rock, resulting in the temporary halt of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), showed our generation just how effective social movements can be when we unite for a cause, despite our cultural and socially constructed differences.

Principles & Methods of Coalition Work

With the understanding of fundamental obstacles and of a brief, yet rich, history of coalition building, several principles and methods of coalition work emerge.

I. Foremost we must recognize that it is possible to build a sustainable broad coalition engaged in the struggle against white supremacy and sharp inequality to work towards an egalitarian and humane society.

Community education must be a focal point for our efforts at building coalitions. We must engage in consciousness raising through an inclusive peoples’ pedagogy.

Mississippi Freedom Schools of 1964 serve as a model of a people’s pedagogy. At these “schools,” established by civil rights organizations throughout Mississippi, attendees learned about African American history, their power to enact social change, the power of their vote in a democratic republic, and how to register to vote. Through the Mississippi Freedom Schools, volunteer teachers were able to instruct thousands of African Americans of all ages and register those eligible to vote.

The premise of the freedom schools was reproduced throughout the country with a profound impact. Community education provided an intellectual demand for self-determination through a changing narrative of history. Community members organized spaces and speakers to teach attendees, both young and old, about their history.

The goal of these schools was to provide inclusive, autonomous spaces through which alternative narratives of history, through the alternative lens of people of color, could challenge and redefine the hegemonic construction of reality. People learned of the complex and sophisticated societies of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas and about the kings and queens of Africa. They learned about their ancestors and how they stared colonizers in the face and resisted. They learned about new heroes and new perspectives on the world. At these schools, the community’s conscious was slowly decolonized. People of all ages were provided with a re-imagination of their place in history.

This type of community-based education is needed now more than ever.

In the face of a growing gilded populist movement with a deeply xenophobic message, our communities need to be educated in pan-ethnic history that seeks to unite people through shared experiences. These types of programs do not need to be started by a person in a position of power. These programs need to begin with the everyday people, and we implore anyone who is even remotely interested in beginning a community school program to follow that interest, and see it come to fruition.

II. A sustainable broad coalition is impossible without outreach and organizing.

One of the most uncomfortable things to do is reach out to a community, particularly if there are some underlying tensions between that community and your own. The best thing you can do is simply attend an event sponsored by an affinity group and work to build robust relationships with those in attendance.

Whether it be an ethnic alumni association from your alma mater, or a local Black Lives Matter gathering, simply show up, participate, and engage with those in attendance. You will be surprised as to how inviting people are when they see that you are reaching out and getting involved.

Your participation, however, should not just end there. You are not just showing up for the sake of it; you are showing up to organize. A prime example of this principle in action is Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party forged a coalition consisting of groups from all communities ranging from Indigenous peoples to white working class people. The members of the coalition attended each other’s meetings in order to learn about their member’s issues, but their investment in other’s issues did not stop there. The members of the various organizations spoke with one another and then met to create programming that would better serve their communities. Their outreach and organizing efforts created a lively coalition that produced positive results in their communities.

In practicing this principle, mingle, speak to people, and explain that you want to be involved in their issues because you care about them as human beings, and then get involved.

By beginning that dialogue and working side by side with new communities, you then open the door for everyone to see that many of their issues are similar to those in your own community. Through the act of showing up. participating, and organizing at an event, you create a potential bridge through which different groups can amass resources and target obstacles in their communities.

A central focus of outreach and creation of a broader community should be to create unity through a non-hierarchical structure.

Although the time may come to create an organization that brings us all together, unity among groups instead of an organization with a hierarchy aids coalescing and frustrates most attempts at destroying such a coalition. The potential is unlimited, but it is wasted if we do not harness it.

III. Challenging the political establishment in our communities may be the most difficult, yet essential, task at hand.

Rocking the boat is a daunting task for anyone. In small towns, the repercussions could be harmful. In larger cities, the fallout could foreclose avenues of political connections. The Trump world, however, has facilitated this process. Many groups across the country are (unjustifiably) baffled by the election results. They are scrambling to find a voice that can act as a counteroffensive to the next four years, and there are some people in our communities who want to provide that alternative voice.

Groups such as Justice Democrats and Our Revolution are doing a fantastic job endorsing progressive candidates who challenge the establishment corporate wing of the left. These two groups seek progressive candidates in various levels of government and provide them with key exposure to voters. These groups, however, can only do so much.

We, as citizens of the body politic, must pick up the slack and support local progressive politicians with our vote and resources.

Attending rallies and any community organizing events remain top priorities for anyone challenging the norm. However, the vetting and support of fringe candidates is equally as pressing. These candidates stand in the peripheries because they have failed or refused to rise through the ranks of the political machine. They owe nothing to nobody, and their allegiance is to whatever they profess. By being an outsider, but still representing progressive values, these candidates embody the promise of change, without large corporate donors and other power players with a vested interest. If time allows, volunteer for these candidates. If your financial situation allows, donate money. Spread the message through your social media, and talk to your friends about it.

Challenge the political establishment that has oppressed people throughout our nation’s history. It will be no easy task, and it will require us to pick ourselves up and act.

A broad coalition is needed now more than ever. It is in our hands to educate ourselves and assist with the education of our communities. Through our education and outreach to other groups, we will facilitate the formation of another sustainable and amorphous Rainbow Coalition.