website relaunch coming soon

by: Beyond the Choir

Thu Aug 27, 2015 at 12:59 PM EDT

We are relaunching our website this fall (2015) in order to reflect the current training and movement support work of Beyond the Choir. The current site was constructed to serve as an online forum for grassroots mobilization — for people who are working for social justice to share practical strategies, tactics and tools, and to analyze the constraints and openings in our political terrain. We will be archiving past posts so that they are still available, but the new site will serve our organizational mission. Please check back this fall to find out more about Beyond the Choir's work.

Beyond the Choir strategy training in Atlanta, GA
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The danger of fetishizing revolution

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Tue Jul 01, 2014 at 08:00 AM EDT

Originally published at Waging Nonviolence.


What do contact with extraterrestrials, the return of Jesus Christ, apocalypse, and revolution all have in common? In a sense, they are all imagined redemptions — epic reset buttons for humanity. Onto these we can pin our heartbreaks and frustrations with the world as it is, with all its suffering, mire and messy details. Any of these redemptive apocalypses can serve as the X that solves the daunting problem of our sense of impotency. This messianic X — this unknown and imaginary seismic intervention — might help us to hold onto a kind of hope despite overwhelming evidence of a hopeless reality. Somehow, someday, something will occur that stops the madness, and we will be able to begin anew.

We need hope — in life and also in political mobilization. Hope is an essential ingredient in scaling up collective action beyond the limited pool of martyrs, saints and counter-cultural usual suspects. Organizing large-scale collective power requires something of an art of raising popular hopes and expectations. A long-term vision of a radically transformed world can be an important grounding for such hope. And isn’t such radical transformation precisely the idea of social and political revolution? Isn’t it a bit unfair to include revolution as an item on the same list as the Biblical end of days?

Perhaps it is a bit unfair. It depends on whether we mean revolution as horizon or revolution as apocalypse. Do we imagine a revolutionary restructuring of power relations in society as an all-or-nothing totalizing moment or as an aspirational horizon, something to always be moving towards? If the former, then what incentive do we have to study the details of the terrain where we are presently situated? Why would we bother to strategize about overcoming the particular obstacles that block our way today, if we believe that the accumulation of all obstacles will ultimately add up to a grand crisis that will somehow magically usher in a new era? Believing that things will “have to get worse before they get better,” we may become disinterested in — perhaps even sabotaging of — efforts to improve real-life conditions in the here and now. After all, why put a band-aid on a gaping wound? Why prolong the life of an oppressive system? With such logic we can excuse ourselves from the trouble of getting to know our political terrain. It is, after all, the very mess we hope to avoid.

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Let the culture have Mandela

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 00:00 AM EST

Originally published December 10, 2013 at Waging Nonviolence.

A screenshot of Apple’s homepage. (WNV/Jonathan Matthew Smucker)

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is not the exclusive property of the revolutionary Left, and we should not want it to be. Bob Herbert and many others are certainly right to insist on the inclusion of Mandela’s revolutionary content in the popular story told about him. This is not at all to disagree with such insistence, but to add a fine point: It is important that we who are involved in social justice movements understand that Mandela wanted the popular culture to embrace him.

Moreover, Mandela wanted to be popularly embraced precisely because he was a revolutionary. As “a revolutionary committed to the wholesale transformation of his society,” Mandela understood very well that toppling the Apartheid regime would depend both on a strong fighting core and also a broad and unlikely alignment of social forces. Winning over such broad alignment is hardly a matter of proving how revolutionary you are. It depends upon many critical factors, including telling a popular moral story, raising expectations and demonstrating skillful leadership. Each of these aspects undermined the ruling regime, while bolstering the aligned opposition, over the course of a protracted struggle. In the case of the anti-Apartheid struggle, winning allies was perhaps especially important.

What can be hard to grasp is that revolutionary leaders like Mandela are often quite okay with using — and even themselves being — ambiguous symbols. As an ambiguous catalyzing symbol, Mandela was able to move whole swaths of society that would not have signed up for a full revolutionary platform had it been presented as a laundry list or manifesto (or a broadsheet sold at the periphery of a protest).

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Occupy: A Name Fixed to a Flashpoint

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 08:30 AM EDT

From my article in The Sociological Quarterly's new special issue on Occupy Wall Street:

Public Performance and Backstage

We know that Rosa Parks was not merely tired when she refused to give up her bus seat. She was acting with agency, and the appearance of spontaneity was part of an intentional performance designed for strategic effect (Polletta 2006). It was fine—intended even—for most people to see and sympathize with her as a tired woman who had simply had enough. It would not be fine, however, for students and strategists of social movements to take her performance at face value. We must also look behind the scenes.

Accordingly, it behooves us to explore Occupy Wall Street's (OWS's) backstage and not take its bountiful public performances at face value when assessing the movement (Goffman 1954). What complicates matters is that what we might usually think of as a movement's backstage—for example, decision-making processes, general meetings, working groups, planning, and so on—is not really behind the scenes with OWS. It is all part of the public performance. To many OWS participants, internal democratic processes were often indistinguishable from external messages. To me OWS's hyperdemocratic process was an important part of the public message. General Assemblies at Zuccotti Park in New York City operated as a brilliant theater, dramatically juxtaposing a visibly participatory people's movement against what OWS participants and sympathizers perceived to be a rotted political system that has effectively disenfranchised most Americans. The downside is that General Assemblies were not functional forums for actual decision making. Because they were so cumbersome and easily derailed, many of the most active OWS organizers, myself included, eventually stopped going to them. Thus, much of the real decision making was pushed back-backstage into underground centers of informal power...

Read the full article on The Sociological Quarterly website (no paywall). Check out the full special section on Occupy Wall Street here.

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Shifting Frontlines

by: Phil Aroneanu

Sun Mar 03, 2013 at 14:28 PM EST

If you've spent as many hours in meetings and on phone calls with climate change activists as I have for the past few years, you'll have heard the word “frontline” a lot. It typically refers to communities and people who are currently dealing with the direct impacts of fossil fuel extraction, transportation and burning. Many of these people have been marginalized over the years because of their race, class, culture or creed, and because of that history, have been saddled with the refuse of our fossil-fuel intensive economy: mines, incinerators, pipelines, toxic manufacturing plants, nuclear waste, refineries, coal-fired power plants.

People in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, for example, have been fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining, and all its attendant sludge dams, property destruction, toxic runoff and more, for many years. I remember visiting Whitesville, a ramshackle town on a winding road in the middle of the state as a college student almost ten years ago, taking photos of what had previously been a majestic mountain, but now looked like a great bombed-out hole in the woods with toxic sludge filling the valley next to it, held back by a leaky earthen dam 200 feet behind the local elementary school. It was powerful and shocking, and though many of the local people fighting against mountaintop removal mining were poor, threatened and marginalized by the coal companies and nearly every local, state and national government official, they had managed to inspire thousands outside their communities to stand with them. It was clear to me, and to many other young college students who have since wound their way through West Virginia to meet with movement legends like Larry Gibson (RIP) and Maria Gunnoe, that this pitched battle, and the many others like it, is an early warning sign for a larger war between civilization and the fossil fuel industry. Those tireless West Virginians are literally at the front lines of that fight.

I'm not one to use war metaphor lightly—my Jewish grandparents lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Romania, and still talk about that era as if it had passed just a few years ago—but I can't seem to find any other suitable metaphor. On one side are the robber barons of oil, coal and gas, who take advantage of the most vulnerable people in our country while dumping carbon into the atmosphere for free and rigging the political system in their favor. On the other side are those same vulnerable people, largely poor, black, brown and young, a few enlightened elders, a bevy of nerdy scientists. If the fossil fuel companies were even remotely interested in becoming energy companies, investing in solar, wind, geothermal and efficiency instead of coal, oil and gas, this wouldn't even be a war. But as it turns out, their business model depends on burning carbon until there isn't any left to burn, and so we have a real fight on our hands, albeit an uneven one. As Bill McKibben writes in Rolling Stone, “It's obvious how this should end.”

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It Takes A Movement

by: Tyler Cullis

Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 11:24 AM EST

Havaar protests against Ahmadinejad, Obama and Netanyahu.

We're not doing enough. That much is clear. With every other month bringing a tightening of the noose on Iran (via U.S. sanctions) and mid-2013 promising U.S.-Israel military action, there can be little doubt that all the momentum at this time sides with the belligerents. Even now, as the U.S., Europe, and Iran gear up for what could be a final round of talks, we're hearing the incessant clamoring for war, all with the aim of making dialogue and compromise impossible between the parties. It looks increasingly like no deal will be had and the red-line will be reached and war will be provoked.

This is our problem. In the run-up to the Iraq War, the U.S. peace movement organized a mass demo in New York City and other major cities across the country and the world. Many consider February 15th to be the largest day of action ever recorded in human history, as literally millions the world over rose up to express their deep-rooted opposition to military conflict with Iraq. However, it was too late. The U.S. public had already been prepped for war and little could stop the single-minded focus of the Bush White House from carrying out their long-planned takeover of Iraq. Without an active and robust peace movement already in existence, the narrative for war could not be effectively challenged and war could not be averted. It's time the lesson was learned. It's time the belligerents calling for war on Iran — many the same exact people who led us into war with Iraq — face an organized opposition with long tentacles in cities and communities throughout the country.

Not long ago, the U.S. peace movement was putting in place exactly this kind of opposition. United For Peace and Justice, the largest of the U.S. antiwar coalitions, was composed of national, regional, and local groups, including church and labor, racial justice and student organizations, with a presence in almost every urban area of note. Programmatic work was being developed to aid local groups in building bases of support. In Washington D.C., some of the long-time inside-the-Beltway peace groups had won over significant numbers of Congress in opposition to the Iraq War's continuance. Mass rallies were planned. Local demos were supported. The U.S. public started to reject endless war and put their votes in candidates calling for the troops to come home. The tide was changing, and the kind of institutional base the peace movement needed to sustain itself over the long term was taking shape.

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It's Time for the Real Fight

by: Harmony Goldberg

Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 15:36 PM EST

I think that last night's re-election of Barack Obama represents one of the most important political opportunities of our time.  I know that many people on the left will read that opening line, dismiss me as a hopeless radical-turned-liberal and refuse to read any further. They'll be wrong.

Do I say that because I believe that Obama is our savior? No. I am not blind to his neoliberal policies, and I know that he consistently advances an imperial agenda. I don't think that he's suddenly going to start locking up bankers and granting amnesty to the undocumented, now that he doesn't have to worry about re-election. To me, Obama himself is not the question. He is a complicated figure, politically and historically. As significant as it still is to have a Black man as our President, I do not think that Obama has the intention or capacity to advance a radical, progressive or even very liberal agenda.

So what is the political opportunity I'm talking about? It's that fact that - for the first time in my political lifetime - a wide cross-section of the left and the progressive movements knows that now is the time to really fight. Had we seen a Romney victory last night, we would have had a year of demoralization and disorientation. We would have been pulled into innumerable defensive battles over the next several years, and we would have continued to fight over whether the main strategy should be to protest or to engage in electoral organizing to make sure the same thing doesn't happen in four years. Instead, we know where we stand, and - while there are undoubtedly still defensive battles ahead - we are (almost) ready to fight.

I talk with many different kinds of people from across the left and from many different progressive movements, and almost everyone agrees that we need to get in the streets as soon as possible and build a head-to-head challenge to the Obama administration over the next four years. For the first time that I've ever seen, we have the possibility of building a strategic convergence between what has come to be called the "institutional left" - unions, political organization, community groups, independent worker organizations - and the more "outsider" activist movements like Occupy. Last year, when Occupy burst onto the scene, you could see that re-alignment start to take shape. But we never quite got there because we didn't know how to navigate our political and organizational differences, and the window of opportunity was short. These different forces have real differences on innumerable questions: ideology, relationship to electoral politics, racial composition, revenue name it, we have differences. But I believe we are at a point where everyone agrees on a few core points:

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Infinitely More Than Nothing

by: Astra Taylor

Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 10:22 AM EDT

Last summer I heard through the grapevine that a small group was meeting weekly in Tompkins Square Park to plan a protest against Wall Street.  A few friends invited me to attend, but I never made the time. I had been to a couple of demonstrations in the financial district and none had made me feel particularly empowered or inspired. I wasn't very optimistic that this time would be different.

Still, on September 17th, 2011, I got up and took the subway into Manhattan, answering the call that had been issued to come and Occupy Wall Street. While there was hardly a mass uprising underway—I would have estimated maybe four hundred people, tops—something was clearly different. There were plenty of people I didn't recognize, which was striking, and many looked to be quite young, evidence of a new generation of politicos.  And while everyone chanted for a few blocks as the group made its way up Broadway to a park I had never been to before ("Zucchini Park?" someone said, when I asked where we were), the afternoon was not spent marching and shouting but sitting and talking. As the crowd spilled into the innocuous plaza everyone began convening in small circles.  Those of us who happened to be standing near each other sat down on the concrete. We said our names and began to share, one by one, why we were there and what we thought could be done. When the conversation ended a few hours later we all agreed, if nothing else, to meet again. That was my first experience of a general assembly.

By then dusk had settled and the little impromptu groups were converging into a single large circle to discuss how to proceed. The police ringing the periphery of the park looked menacing, and while some people had sleeping bags I didn't think they would be able to stay the night, so I slipped away and headed home. I had seen the crackdown on dissent in the wake of 9/11 and expected the worst. I returned the next morning and as I turned the corner to catch a glimpse of that little park in the shadow of the Freedom Tower, I was amazed to see they had made it to day two. Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed we'd see Occupy continue into a second year.

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Falling in love with ourselves

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 08:15 AM EDT

Also published in Occupy! #5. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.


In late October of last year my cousin came down to Liberty Square, then home of a thriving Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived early so he could check things out for himself. I was eager to hear his impressions.

"What stood out to me," he told me at a bar around the corner, "was how you all are recreating society—or creating a microcosm of society. It's all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It's fascinating!"

Much has been made about the prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country, when they existed. The camps, for example, served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants consciously prefigured the kind of society that they were striving to build. It was indeed a compelling moment for my cousin—or for any stranger—to witness. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers like him could walk in off the street and join our world—could even speak up during a General Assembly meeting if they felt so moved. Everyone's participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings so that decisions have to take into account everyone's input and ideas, thus prefiguring a kind of direct democracy lacking in the wider world, particularly in the realm of mainstream politics.

"It's kind of utopian," my cousin suggested.

"I hope not!" I replied.

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Radicals and the 99%: Core and Mass Movement

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 13:40 PM EDT

This essay is a chapter in the new book from AK Press We Are Many: Critical Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation. The book is 450 pages with contributions from 50 authors — most of whom have been active in Occupy Wall Street. Order it here!


Occupy Wall Street audaciously claimed to be a movement of "the 99%," challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is little more than a handful of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.

They're not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.

What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist—as a means to "otherize" the movement. But clearly the radicals did something right here. We flipped the script by framing the top 1% as the real extremists—as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises—by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street's doorstep—a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed core of radicals quickly and dramatically broadened its appeal.

Radicals will likely continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the radicals have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement's core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensable.

However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, a strong movement needs a hundred more people in the next "tier" of participation—folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world (e.g. capitalism), we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people—folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough next tier of participants, it will certainly fail to maintain effective engagement with the broader society. These "next tier" participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our big-picture aims.

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