The Coalition-Builder
Dan Spalding calls the World Trade Organization protests "the Paris '68 of our generation"--a defining utopian political moment that has risen to iconic status. Intoxicated by the sense that people taking to the streets can actually affect world events, Spalding progressed from Seattle to other large protests before finding his place with Midnight Special, a collective of activists with an interest in legal issues.

The collective had its start teaching "know your rights" workshops to protesters at large demonstrations, preparing them for police action and arrest and negotiating plea bargains for jail-bound activists. The Midnight Specialers stuck to this model for nearly a year, living in a communal house in Oakland, California, and traveling to other cities to coordinate trainings and jail support.

But Spalding and his cohorts were playing backup to a vision of social change that others had come to see as too narrow. "At all of these big protests you see people who have class privilege and are able to drop their jobs, buy tickets, and fly to these events, spending a great deal of money," says one protest-hopping Obie. "Oftentimes I feel that these people forget about activism in their local communities."

Such criticism became common among activists in the months following the International Monetary Fund protests, and nearly everybody interviewed for this article spoke fervently of the need to organize locally. The challenge lies in knowing how to start, and there are few high-profile models to follow.

The Midnight Specialers knew that to build relationships with local community groups, they had to learn who needed help--and how. One day Spalding strolled the four blocks from his house to the offices of People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO), an organization of low-income residents. One of the group's key projects--aiding citizens in reporting police misconduct--matched Spalding's former job experience at a police accountability agency in New York. PUEBLO wanted to develop advocates' training sessions and publish step-by-step manuals for lodging a complaint--an ideal project for Midnight Special. Four months later, the two groups had completed drafts of two manuals and begun planning the workshops. The team is now working on a comic book for youth of color in Oakland that explains their rights if stopped on the street by police.

Spalding praises the partnership as a promising model for cooperation between the mobile, mostly white world of anti-corporate-globalization activists and the low-income communities and communities of color these activists profess to care about so much.

"Plugging into community-based organizations is the best way to disabuse yourself of the notion that people of color or poor folks don't have any resources or aren't doing anything," Spalding says. "A lot of times, those groups are more organized than the white radicals."

In the end, his arguments for collaboration are more practical than anything else. Community-based groups excel at certain skills, like recruiting a membership base, responding to the concerns of low-income people and those of color, and directly affecting local politics. The newest crop of leftists, on the other hand, are good at throwing large demonstrations to propel issues onto the national radar screen, prompting glacial but tangible change at high levels. Both camps care about the same issues: the criminal justice system, environmental justice, and economic inequality--issues that are too big for any group to solve on its own.

"By working together, we develop the relationships we need to do long-term organizing together," Spalding says. "If we put our energies together, we're all more likely to win."

--by Sara Marcus '99

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