The District of Columbia is the nation’s Capital and therefore a lightning rod for national organizing, but it is also the home of 600,000 people who deal day-to-day with the consequences of many of the important issues that get protested downtown. Often, there is a great divide in DC between locally and nationally focused groups even though these groups encounter the same difficulties, require many of the same resources and often have similar goals. This leads to competing for attention, attendees, media and support while wasting that most valuable of resources, time, by duplicating efforts. Often times there are class and race divides between local and national organizers, adding to the power dynamics and complicated relationships.
Thus begins the Washington Peace Center’s Principles for Organizing in DC, a set of guidelines constructed by DC activists in response to decades of frustration with missed opportunities and unintended consequences of poor communication with national action organizers.
The guide came from a workshop at the 2010 US Social Forum titled “DC’s Not Your Protest Playground” – a reference to the common misperception that DC is little more than the seat of federal government. This concept of DC is especially painful when it comes from allies, as it is the underlying logic that excuses DC’s status as the federal-tax-paying seat of federal government – whose 600,000 residents have no voting representation in that government.
“The colony of the District is a microcosm of a lot of the injustices that face the nation,” says long-time organizer and trainer Nadine Bloch, “and when people come here without acknowledging that, there is an underlying reinforcement of the problems that exist.”
The call to get buy-in from local organizers – a principle that applies in DC or in any other city – is not only a call for respect, but for efficiency and mutual aid. Like guerrilla fighters know their own terrain, DC organizers know their city – how to get permits quickly, how to negotiate the dozens of different types of police forces, and the politics of getting turnout from relevant groups.
“Why would you import all these people [from around the country],” says Robby Diesu, who often helps organize national actions in DC, “when there are five million people who live in the DC area? It’s Organizing 101 – if you don’t get buy-in, nobody’s going to help you.”
In turn, both local and national groups often miss out on providing each other crucial support.
Successful examples of mutually beneficial cooperation are hard to find, but they can make a difference. People who traveled to Occupy Chicago’s NATO protests might remember being recruited to march on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house to support a local campaign against his closure of mental health clinics, calling national, if brief, attention to the issue. Sonia Silbert, who helped write the Peace Center’s Principles, recalls watching Medea Benjamin get a crowd of mostly out-of-towners to call DC’s mayor and tell him not to give Lockheed Martin tax breaks to move to the city.
“We shouldn’t be anybody’s token,” says Basav Sen, a DC-based activist who helped organize large anti-globalization actions until he began to feel they were taking away from building a grassroots movement with staying power, and excluding the many people who can’t come to them, “people that should be your closest allies.”
“To be involved in the local struggles and in the global struggles, and to see them as part of the same struggle,” he says, “that’s vital.”