Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 63rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a wide-ranging discussion with Jeff Ordower, the executive director of Global Exchange.
Sarah Jaffe: It is now August. That means we are in month eight of #Resistance. How do you think we are doing so far?
Jeff Ordower: We are not winning, obviously, but I think we are doing better than I would have anticipated. Obamacare still exists. Richard Cordray [at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] has not been fired yet. I remember being on location with some folks who worked on Wall Street reform and they were making plans for the response to his firing. They thought that was going to happen imminently. Even some smaller things around financial reform, like it is entirely possible that the new arbitration rule from the Obama administration is going to stay in effect, which will give folks the right to sue, for example, Wells Fargo if [bank employees] opened a fraudulent account and then used that money to sell you fraudulent auto insurance on that loan.
So, I actually think things are in some ways better than we could have imagined, and that is in large part thanks to the amazing work of the resistance. So many people have stepped forward, many people who had not been active before. Smart organizers have figured out how to harness that energy. Whether that is bringing hundreds of people to a mass arrest or giving people a really solid program for saying, “If you are going to your Congressperson’s office, here is how you create an alternative town hall” or “Here is how you bring a handwritten letter,” creating containers and vehicles so folks who are pretty new can be activated and do something that is really relevant. I think that is pretty inspiring.
That could all change momentarily if there is a terrorist attack or we pre-emptively invade somewhere. I think war changes the footing of everything and unfortunately changes what is possible in terms of overall repression. From my perch as the director of Global Exchange, the other worrisome thing is the shrinking of rights is just so possible. Around the world, there are so many templates for this….
Health care, obviously, took center stage for most of the last several months — ultimately, successfully. People immediately reacted and said, “We have got to stop cuts to Medicaid. We have got to stop them overturning the ACA,” and managed to get a lot of good work done. What are the lessons that you are taking from how that went down for the other fights that everybody now has to pivot to?
I think the story is really critical. Uprisings and movements happen because something horrible happened or something that affects people is going to happen…. as organizers we sometimes fall into the trap where we want to have the perfect thing; either it is the perfect narrative, the perfect story — I know in the early days of the health care fight, for example, people were like, “If you want to move McCain, you have to get seven veterans to go to McCain’s office.”
I think sometimes we try to be too strategic. Really, if people want to move, we have got to give them something to do that makes sense. Sometimes that is occupying a park or putting your bodies on the line and sometimes that is just like, “Show up with a handwritten letter. Here is your toolkit for organizing this alternative town hall.” I think creating those containers where everyone can take action is really, really important.
Trump, very notably, ran criticizing Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties, Ted Cruz’s Wall Street ties, everybody’s Wall Street ties, but, as you said, Wall Street is making tons of money under the Trump administration. Is making a point about Trump’s Wall Street connections a good place to put some energy now that health care is somewhat on the back burner?
Yes, but people are going to move on what they are going to move on. The pernicious effects of finance capital are apparent. You think about Goldman Sachs, that folks have been fighting them as “Government Sachs.” They would have been running the Clinton administration or the Trump administration. It is fascinating to think it is an organization that can accommodate as alumni Stephen Bannon and Gary Cohn. There [was] a separate set of Goldman Sachs folks that would have gone into the Clinton administration.
Yes, it is the right place to send resources, and if you do your power research, you can trace things not just in this country, but globally. The public/private partnerships that a Goldman Sachs is doing or that a Blackstone is doing, whether they are trying to get $40 billion with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to build infrastructure and privatize it all. That is real and we need to be fighting it. Then, these are the same institutions that are, for example, floating police bonds, charging cities exorbitant rates so that when their police murder people, they cannot make those payments. It is an intersectional fight. I think we have to do a better job of getting folks to see that. People feel it in their gut, but then it is less clear what they can do.
In solidarity with Standing Rock, there were hundreds of actions against Wells Fargo in big cities like in New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, all pulling their funds from Wells Fargo because of their financing behind the specific wrong…. The more we can name capitalism and finance capital as the enemy, the more folks are going to want to join in that fight.
We need a different model for us taking on corporate power, and we don’t really have that. Occupy was interesting around that because it told the story. I don’t think the banks feared — they feared the message, but I don’t think they feared that the Occupy movement was going to take down the banks. We need something in between just telling the story and the sophisticated campaigns where we are trying to change a piece of behavior. We need to have a fundamental conflict with the Blackstones, with the Goldmans, and with the Wells Fargos of the world, but we don’t really have a good model for doing that, and that is the thing we have got to figure out.
There are now 25,000 people who are paid-up members of the Democratic Socialists of America. There are others that have also grown since this election. After your years of organizing in different places, what do you see is different in the way people are organizing themselves now?
We are naming capitalism in a way that we haven’t named before. I think that is vital and critical.
My generation of organizers — I am in my mid-40s — was sort of raised and mentored by the Baby Boomers. A lot of the Baby Boomers who went into the nuts and bolts of organizing were non-ideological because they saw that as a reaction to the 1960s, when there were a lot of ideological groups, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to go and do the hard work of building organization and building a base. So they tended to be distrustful of that…. I think the vast majority who moved into the networks and into labor were not publically talking about vision, talking about ideology. That hurt us.
It is exciting to see the next generation really, really talking about socialism, really talking about capitalism. That is such an amazing thing. I think it opens a lot more freewheeling conversation. I think where we go next sometimes — I feel like we are starting to get there. If you take, let’s say, the Movement for Black Lives Vision platform that really articulates the world in which we want to live, that is amazing and that should be a north star for all of us. Then, we can talk about how we get there, but I think the more we are putting out utopias, if you will, the more we can really start to talk to real people about what it might mean to have free education, or what it might mean to not have the police, or what it might mean to not have banks. Is basic income on the table? Is a liveable wage on the table? Is a guaranteed right to housing? All of these things, I think, fit the world in which we want to live, and it is good that we are starting to get there.
Again, that gets back to the question of: What is the best way to achieve the changes that we want? But, it is exciting that all of that is on the table now and that we are moving into that era.
People are now saying, “We need to have a platform. We need to have goals”…
There is just so much vibrant and sophisticated organizing…. We need sophisticated campaign-style organizing. We need really electoral work with bite…. It can be ballot initiatives around abolishing the police or around basic income at the local level or even in some states that are intriguing, the smaller states and lower signature threshold. I think we are underutilizing that….
What is the thing that Standing Rock and Occupy and Ferguson all had in common? And the sit-in in the Wisconsin Capitol? … What they all have in common is that people showed up and then they didn’t go home. I think we need to try to do more of those kinds of things … where people are there and they are willing to stay there and fight it out. If we can do that, then we are going to see more disruptions.
Not all of them are going to work because not all of anything in organizing works, but the resources that we spend on sophisticated campaign work vastly outweigh, parsing the political moment, what we spend on really trying to create disruptions. I think that is super important that we really spend some resources and force some more conflicts.
And that isn’t to take anything away from such a rich fabric of really sophisticated anti-police campaigns, minimum wage campaigns … I think what is exciting about this anti-capitalist moment is also a desire for the work to be much more intersectional. Show Me $15 working with choice groups and being a racial justice organization deliberately — Show Me $15 being the Missouri component of the Fight for $15. Those are the kinds of things that are really, really interesting and important.
When Trump came out and made a big fuss about how the military is not going to allow transgender people to serve anymore because their health care is “too expensive,” even as Congress was voting on a health care bill that would take health care away from millions of people, it helped show that this is the full-scale assault on all of us and certain people become the most targeted. What advice do you have on how to counter the argument that issues are “divisive” or “a distraction” if they affect a certain marginalized group?
I was in central Pennsylvania a couple of months ago with folks. There is this great project, Small Towns Rising, that was helping make organizing materials available to lots and lots of folks. You would hear people be like, “Oh no, we have to fight immigration here and health care here and financial reform here,” and “What are we going to do? It is too many things.”
But there is a fundamental question, and it is about system change. I don’t know what that looks like. It is not just getting rid of Trump/Pence. It is a more fundamental change. Maybe it is changing our structure of government and how we work. Maybe it is just creating, within an existing framework, a different kind of thing…. We need to think about the fact that fundamentally the system is working the way it is designed to do. It isn’t working to help people. It was a Constitution written by landowning white men. So, what do we need to do to change things up and change the equation and make a very different world and change this regime more fundamentally?
About ten years ago now, I was in Bolivia. It was a few years after Evo Morales had been elected. We were meeting with some groups who had helped write the new constitution and they said that they had included LGBTQ issues in the new constitution … not just non-discrimination on sexual orientation, but also on gender identity…. They did that because there is a left government and because important forces asked them to do that.
Then, a couple of days later in La Paz I went to the most amazing drag show I have ever been to in my life that was held at a city hall, one of the neighborhood city halls of La Paz because the government had enshrined this right to non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. The deputy mayor came out and was at this drag show, as was the women’s group of the neighborhood, as was the queer community of La Paz. I had this “This is what it is like after the revolution” moment because if you really have governing power — folks get how things fit together and if you have governing power, you can change things fundamentally.
I think we are still trying to win on our issues and we are not thinking about how we peacefully, non-violently, but with enough force, do the things we need to do to disrupt the systems in a way that we can change everything for everyone and that it is interconnected. That isn’t to say we ignore issues until the revolution happens, but it is to say that we think much more strategically about governing power that is very different than the system we have.
A single-payer health care fight does seem like a good place to flex those muscles, because to win it you are not just going to have to get lawmakers to agree to pass laws, you are going to have to defeat really powerful and very well-financed corporate entities.
The health care companies rule a piece of the world and are making a buck but are also willing to cut deals when necessary. A lot of why the ACA passed was because a significant number of insurance companies had a certain price that they could meet to support it….
[Health care] is a place to flex our muscles if we could do that and if we could win. You think about how close folks came in California, they won in Vermont and then lost in Vermont. There is a lot of potential to really see concrete wins. That is the appeal. It is a fight for which there is a lot of momentum. Also, it really does create a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in a very clear-cut way….
We should also think about how we keep the fight against Wall Street alive, because that is about building a global movement for solidarity that seems really, really necessary…
Global solidarity is a good place to end, I think. There is a bill being pushed through Congress that is getting bipartisan support that would criminalize the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Since you have done work around this issue, as well, talk about that and what people can do to stop that.
I think this is sort of a last-gasp effort from the forces of the pro-Israel, pro-Israeli government forces to say, “Actually, if you say things against Israel, you are anti-Semitic,” and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a fascinating moment that is going to move very rapidly. Now, that doesn’t change what is happening on the ground, but because the Zionist establishment is so powerful right now, they are going to ram this bill through in so many places. I think close to a majority of states have passed criminalization of boycott/divestment/sanctions.
What can folks do to stop it? … I don’t always agree with [the ACLU], but they are talking about it being a free speech issue. That seems really, really important. I also think sometimes legislation is passed when the poll numbers aren’t moving your way, so you try to move things legislatively. I also think what is going to be exciting is there are people who are going to defy that ban. We think about folks in the climate movement who are willing to go to prison because of work that they have done, not just to jail. I think we are going to see some of that around BDS, as well. I think this is a minor setback, but the repression is going to backfire. Folks should be trying to fight the BDS bills, but at the end of the day, this is going to put the BDS movement, and the movement for human rights more internationally, much more in the forefront and it is going to have unintended consequences for folks who are trying to tamp down on dissent.
Excellent. How can people keep up with you and your work?
Folks should check out www.globalexchange.org. It is probably the most substantive piece of the work that I am doing right now. Then, also, I am involved with a lot of other wonderful organizations including Rising Tide of North America, and Showing Up for Racial Justice, and Jewish Voice for Peace. What is exciting about this time is there are so many wonderful groups doing so much sophisticated work and it is really important for folks to pick a couple of different places where they want to put their energy or one place that they are most passionate about. There is no absolute right answer. Hopefully, everyone will find the work that they want to do and get involved.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.