National Student Power Convergence, Forming Liquid Concrete
In the first few days of the convergence students exuberantly engaged with one another, recognizing their commonalities and sharing the highs and lows of their activism experiences, building a network of student solidarity. However, at moments, the honeymoon feeling gave way to underlying tensions. So far, students have demonstrated their differences by reacting to speakers. As we begin to build our own campaigns, it’s unclear if those prickly divisions will add excitement, wake people up, or start to hurt.
On Friday, students from around the country, Quebec, and Mexico, trickled into the Ohio State University Student Union Building for ice breakers, a video from Naomi Klein, and an insightful speech by Joshua Kahn Russel from the Ruckus Society. Russel discussed his personal journey through environmental activism, and how he learned that being the “righteous few” may be tempting, but is ultimately ineffective. Perhaps anticipating ideological divisions among students, Russel described how trying to achieve “perfect politics” had torn apart movements he had participated in. Instead, he advocated for both self-expressive protest and organizing strategy that can reach masses. Rather than fighting from the margins, trying to widen the righteous few, Russel realized through anti-fracking campaigns that his politics could be popular, and espoused crafting “a movement that’s big enough for grandmas,” that is “more nurturing than the rest of society.” Russel closed out his speech (to significant applause) by underscoring the importance of the moment, claiming that we are a “transitional generation.”
On Saturday morning, activists gathered for the opening “Public Narrative” workshop. The convergence attendees told “stories of self” to explore the power of sharing stories to create unity in groups that include a range of experiences. The morning workshops focused on organizing tools, like facilitation and press basics, while delving into analysis to discuss power on campuses and strategies of non-violent conflict.
The afternoon large group training “How Did We Get Here and Who is Responsible?” was led by labor organizer Stephen Lerner and youth organizer Nelini Stamp. Lerner focused on pitfalls of political strategy, explaining that “we often end up fighting the wrong folks.” In Lerner’s analysis, the wealthy elite have learned that they no longer need the middle and working classes’ approval to maintain power, claiming that “it doesn’t help us to think that we need them.” But in Lerner’s discussion of alternative mechanisms for change, like exercising eminent domain on banks with goals like renegotiating public debt, students challenged him. One student argued that Lerner did not acknowledge that “these are all symptoms of capitalism.” Lerner responded that fighting “financial capitalism” implies a broader fight but that speaking in more tangible aims is better for recruitment. “It’s amazing to me how quickly people move when you talk about the experience of their life.” In terms of organizational structures, Lerner recounted his organizing experiences to argue for “alignment” rather than a traditional coalition or bureaucratic model. Although the discussion was largely tactical, several students raised the issue of safe spaces. Several students critiqued the prevalence of white men in the discussion, demonstrating that political analysis cannot be divorced from identity politics. In a poignant moment of praxis, Lerner recognized that Stamp had answered all questions about identity while he had addressed all questions about organizing.
Before dinner, activists broke out into workshops as varied as “Theatre and Activism” and All In The Red’s “Creative Action Planning” session that discussed how to create multi-function protests that send messages, recruit folks on the ground, and explicitly create spectacle for the media.
At 7:00pm, students filed into the Performance Hall for a large group training, “Power and Strategy” facilitated by Keron Blair from the Midwest Academy. Almost immediately, students took issue with his professorial candor and challenged his definitional use of “direct action” organizing, which included “electing good people.” While Blair repeatedly emphasized that he was only offering one tool among many, activists from the Bronx debated him relentlessly, arguing that they would put up their own stop signs in their communities before asking an alderman to do so — with several activists ultimately walking out on the lecture. More activists tumbled into the ideological fissure, with one student arguing that pushing for new laws is fruitless since perhaps laws themselves were the root of the problem, while one Baltimore activist claimed that we cannot critique the system if not enough people are turning out to vote. Another student organizer decried the role of NGOs, the Democratic Party, and argued that “single issue organizing is the biggest threat to the system,” rather than watered-down organizing. After nearly thirty minutes, a student temporarily quelled the debate by citing Marx’s theory that in organizing against wage increases, laborers will recognize that the wage labor system must ultimately be abolished. Students continued to bristle at Blair’s patronizing tone towards “revolutionaries,” but with more calm.
It seemed as though students treated Blair, and even Lerner, as political punching bags. Students could see the different angles from which they were taking shots at the older organizers, but could remain united because they didn’t have to directly fight one another. Still, some students felt frustrated at the anarchist contingent that they felt weren’t willing to work with less radical activists. After free beer and pizza at a local bar, a group met for an anti-capitalist meeting at midnight to plan an action later in the week. More affinity meetings, including Queer and People of Color caucuses, are scheduled for Sunday night.
On Monday and Tuesday, the trainings will give way to assemblies and strategy sessions, like “How Do We Build the Movement that We Need?” which will likely force students to deal with their differences, confronting one another. Spirits are very high, but to make the National Student Power Convergence a first brick in a long building process rather than just a wonderful networking event, it will have to mix its diverse participants into a sturdy concrete. Perhaps not into one block, but into a liquid concrete — a composite material with strong bonds, which can be formed into all sorts of shapes and sizes.