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 69th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Molly Gott, a researcher with the Public Accountability Initiative, which oversees the LittleSis power research database.
Sarah Jaffe: You are one of the people who is starting the new Map the Power project. Start out by telling us a little bit about what this project is and what you aim to do with it.
Molly Gott: It is called LittleSis because we are the opposite of Big Brother. So, instead of the state or governments looking down on you, we are activists, organizers, journalists looking up at the power structure. We specialize in doing what we call our power structure research — that is, really identifying and understanding the corporations, the super ultra-wealthy people, the elite class that wields a lot of power in our society and in our economy — and really digging in, understanding the relationships that they have and doing research that can help grow and support social movements.
Map the Power is a project to train folks in how to do that research and to support activists, organizers, and people who are newly politicized and looking to engage in social movements and how to do that power research in a way that supports local organizing across a variety of issues.
Tell us a little bit more about what it is you are doing in these trainings. What is power mapping, for people who don’t know?
The key part that we often use to describe what power mapping is [involves] the context of going up the food chain and really understanding who wields power in our society, and thinking beyond traditional targets that oftentimes we think about in organizing, like elected officials. So [we are] looking at above those folks to identify who are the corporations that are donating to those people? Who are the corporations that are massive employers in our society and therefore wield a lot of influence, and how are they all connected to one another?
We have a database called LittleSis.org that is like a Wikipedia-style database where anyone can sign up and add information and search for information on the 1 percent of [the US]. Part of the idea of Map the Power grew out of that work that we had done and training people on how to use that database and the concepts, because so much information is available on the internet that anyone can do this kind of power structure research.
After the Trump election … we saw that despite the fact that he ran on this quasi-populist agenda, criticizing Wall Street and hedge fund managers and all that, he was really surrounding himself with the very people that he was criticizing. Even at times the more supposedly “moderate” members of the corporate class who hadn’t supported him during the election were kind of lining up behind him and excited about things like tax reform and massive rollbacks of regulations and all these things that were going to really intensify income inequality. So, as we were realizing that, we thought one key part of the resistance work and doing that is going to be understanding who those corporate players really are and how we understand their network to organize to diminish their power.
That was part of where the idea for it came from, and at the same time, there were all these people who were looking to engage in organizing and in resistance in a deeper way. So, we also thought there needs to be lots of different kinds of structures to absorb those people and give them roles in our movement; which, for me, is one of the cooler parts of our project, like having archival librarians coming to our trainings and people that are public health researchers or stay-at-home parents who are like, “I can’t go to a march, but I can do research for two hours while my kid is napping in the afternoon.” So, we’re pairing people’s skill sets with power research, which most groups don’t really have a lot of capacity to do.
Can you tell us about a couple of examples of campaigns that have used LittleSis and this kind of power mapping so people can get a better idea of what it is?
I live in Philly, so we have a crew of folks who are the Map the Power Philly crew that have been doing power structure research about both the local power structure in Philly, and then also ties to Trump in this moment.
The first project that we did was on corporate collaborators of Trump in Philadelphia. We went through and looked at “Who are the key donors to Trump in Philly? Who are people that he had created business relationships for? Who are people that were leading business councils or members of business councils that he was appointing?” to really put those folks on display. We released that set of information ahead of May Day when there were some actions happening in Philly, to bring the focus not just on Pat Toomey, who is our Republican Senator, but also on these corporate villains that are in Philly and didn’t really want to be publicly associated with Trump. That was one thing.
Then, the other example of a particular person we have done a lot of work around and worked with other groups around organizing that is happening and that is starting to happen at a bigger scale, also, is billionaire Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone. We’ve been mapping out all the ways that Blackstone and Schwarzman touches down in the economy, whether as a landlord or as an employer and as a financer of fossil fuel infrastructure and showing that it all leads back to this one guy.
Part of understanding who rules our economy and who is responsible for the inequality that we see right now is pointing that out and really thinking about how we organize to diminish that power.
You sent me the zine that you made to go along with this project. In there, you have a couple of examples of the movements and organizations that understood and valued the role of this kind of research. I wonder if you could talk about that and the role that research like this has played in different movements. I think a lot of people don’t really know that history.
I think some of the history that we were really inspired by when putting together this project was about SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the role that their research department played in their strategy, which I didn’t really know a lot about at the time. Since then we started putting out some archival research about that department, but there are some really interesting materials in there about the way that the SNCC field team and the SNCC research department worked together.
A good example is this document that the research department put out that was called “The Mississippi Structure” that was this really in-depth look at the question of who has power in Mississippi and tying things back from local struggles that are happening there to the Queen of England and massive banks and looking at particular political figures that are on many power boards, which is what we call them sometimes, and having a really clear understanding of what they were up against in Mississippi beyond just everyday racist folks that they were encountering on the streets.
I think that is a really interesting point right now when we are looking at this resurgence of open white supremacy. You see these reactions — I forget who it was the other day who was like, “I feel bad picking on these white supremacists because they are the poorest in society.” Research like this can actually show that that is not really true.
Yes, I think particularly in the last week it has been interesting because … Trump’s business council shut down, and CEOs are publically distancing themselves from him a little bit since Charlottesville, but at the same time JP Morgan Chase just gave a million dollars to groups saying that they are donating to fight white supremacy, [and] at the same time, the Business Roundtable which CEO Jamie Dimon chairs just launched a massive advertising campaign for tax reform that is supported by the White House and by all the Republican leadership…. The corporate folks play both sides, and it is a little bit more obscured the way their white supremacy manifests. I think that is an important role of research right now.
That is a good point, too. When we think about what movements are, we don’t tend to think about people behind computer screens or in libraries, we think of people in the streets. It is really useful to think about other ways that you can contribute and ways for people to target different types of power.
Yes. Some of my thinking around “What is the role of research in our movements?” came about because I was involved in building some of the jail support apparatus in Ferguson and seeing the ways that actually attracted and gave roles in that movement to folks who maybe couldn’t do other things and gave them a home to be doing political work. So, I was thinking about the way that research can do that, as well. We have been pushing folks, which has been really fun to be doing research in community more. In Philly, we have research pizza nights where we all just bring our computers and do a bunch of tasks really quickly. It is way more fun than just being by yourself behind a computer screen, for sure.
You mentioned the tax reform issue. We have got plenty of things coming up. There is never any shortage of things coming up here. But are there any particular items on Trump’s agenda that you are keeping an eye on to see who is pulling the strings?
The one project that we are doing right now that is related to that is also looking at the corporate beneficiaries and funders and backers of Islamophobia. We have been working with a set of volunteers and a couple other partner groups to look at a list of the most active Islamophobia-promoting groups right now, that are shooting through the roof in terms of activity now that Trump is in office. Really chasing back to “Who are their funders? Who are the key corporate people that don’t really publicly want to be associated with Islamophobia but are working behind the scenes to do it?” I think that is one thing that is on our mind.
And, of course, the tax reform stuff, like you said, just because it has so many far-reaching and catastrophic effects in terms of income inequality and the material conditions of folks’ lives.
We know, from unfortunate experience, that just exposing people as being supporters of Trump isn’t enough. Talk a little bit about the different ways that activists have put pressure on these people.
I think one thing is understanding points of pressure to really hit them where it hurts and understanding what they really care about and where they are making their money. So, thinking about all of the tax loopholes — like the carried-interest loophole that Wilbur Ross and other private equity billionaires that Trump has surrounded himself with care about — and putting more energy into those things. That is what some of the groups are working on.
Also, just thinking about the way that research like this can help inform direct action and doing particularly more disruptive direct actions on these folks in a way that helps tell the story of how they are disrupting our lives. So, we have to disrupt them in the same way. Then, also, going into more escalated spaces, like their social clubs like with some of the stuff that the Government Sachs folks were doing around Steve Mnuchin’s art gallery on the Upper East Side. I think there is an element of power research that goes into that, of understanding where their social networks are, as well.
How can people take one of these trainings or get involved in doing this work?
We have monthly online trainings and we do in-person trainings for folks, too, and have a variety of ways that people who are doing this research across the country can connect with and support one another. If you go to LittleSis.org/toolkit that is the best place to go. We have an Intro toolkit, postings of past training events, and a sign-up form so you can get more information.
How can people keep up with you?
You can follow LittleSis on Twitter. We are @twittlesis. That is mostly where my work is.
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.