Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Alinsky Connection

It has been some time since my last post. But here is an essay that was printed today in the Ventura County Star. A dear friend in Texas also emailed me stating that the San Benito News also published this essay. Peter Richardson provided feedback on earlier drafts of this piece. Thanks Queta and Peter.


Ventura County Star November 2, 2008

The Alinsky, Chavez, Obama connection
Sunday, November 2, 2008

If recent polling holds true, a former community organizer from Chicago will be America's next president. Barack Obama's success thus far has been largely attributed to his efficient grass-roots voter-registration campaign and pensive eloquence. Meanwhile, detractors like Fox News and author Jerome Corsi have sought to discredit Obama by linking him to Saul Alinsky.

Before John McCain, Corsi, on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes," accused the Obama campaign of seeking to redistribute wealth and creating a "cult of personality" similar to that of Cesar Chavez "borrowed directly from the organization of the farm workers going back four decades."

According to Corsi, Obama must be feared for his promotion of economic justice and empowering the near powerless — two core principles of Alinsky.

Cesar Chavez I know, but who is Saul Alinsky? I asked the same question 10 years ago after attending a Teatro Campesino production in Orange County. The theater company was inspired by Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the 1960s, and after the show, UFW activists led a series of call-and-response cheers: "Que viva Cesar Chavez! Que viva! Que viva Dolores Huerta! Que viva!"

Paeans to other Chicano icons followed. Then came a less-familiar blast: "Que viva Saul Alinsky!" The crowd roared its answer, but I was stumped. Alinsky wasn't a surname I had heard during my Chicano upbringing. Saul, yes. But not Alinsky! As a history professor at Cypress College, I was too embarrassed to ask anyone in the crowd that day.

Later, I learned that Alinsky founded the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation, which sent battle-tested organizers to train and develop local leaders on issues related to voting, discrimination and police brutality. In his classic treatise, "Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals," Alinsky showed how working-class blacks and white ethnics could work together to end employer discrimination and municipal neglect.

For example, to influence elites holding power to make concessions, "Rules for Radicals" proposed the tactic of threatening to have community activists purchase 100 seats for a symphony performance in Rochester, N.Y. Beforehand, the attendees would enjoy bowls of baked beans with subsequent "obvious consequences" as they sat in their concert seats.

To persuade an upscale department store to change its discriminatory hiring practices, Alinsky suggested that protesters order all items in sight, have them shipped C.O.D., and then refuse delivery later. These two tactics signaled that long-standing privileges would be threatened if a community withheld basic rights from its most disadvantaged residents.

One of Alinsky's disciples, Fred Ross, founded Community Service Organization chapters throughout California after World War II. In Los Angeles, the CSO worked with Chicano activists to promote English and citizenship classes, voter-registration drives, and get-out-the vote campaigns. To aid Edward R. Roybal's election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, the CSO registered 12,000 new voters. Roybal became the first Mexican-American to sit on the City Council since the 1880s, and he later represented Los Angeles in Congress for 30 years.

One of Ross' protégés was Cesar Chavez. Like his mentor, Chavez traveled the state developing CSO chapters and leaders. After asking community members to invite neighbors, co-workers and family to a house meeting, Chavez listened to their problems and organized them to demand redresses to their grievances. His success led Alinsky and Ralph Helstein, president of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, to summon Ross and Chavez to San Francisco in 1958 to discuss the creation of a CSO chapter in Ventura County. Helstein believed that a CSO there could buttress the UPWA's efforts to combat the citrus industry's exploitation of bracero guest workers.

Impact on Ventura County
So, with a hefty budget worth about $144,000 now, Chavez listened to community complaints in house meetings, tapped into the energies of activists and assisted Mexican residents with their everyday problems. From a long series of house and community meetings, the Ventura County CSO increased enrollments in English language classes, guided longtime Mexican residents through the naturalization process and registered citizens for the 1958 election. On Election Day, CSO organizers worked tirelessly to get out the vote. In the Oxnard barrio community of La Colonia, turnout was an impressive 82 percent. The CSO had convinced residents that showing up to the polls could bring about social change.

Months later, Chavez would use the apparatus of the 1958 election to organize Ventura County domestic farm workers to combat the Goliath-like might of the agricultural industry. Indeed, short-lived successes in this struggle inspired Chavez to leave the CSO a few years later to start his own national farmer workers union in Delano. It was here that Chavez used the strategy of organizing one true believer, one household, one community at a time to bring about hope for the future.

So, in the midst of an economic recession in 1958, disciples of Alinsky used his rules of radicalism to empower men, women and children to believe in themselves.

And today Obama's ground game of true believers is getting out the vote in highly contested states such as Florida, Missouri and Ohio. Similar to the diligent work of Chicago's Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and California's CSO, the Obama campaign has inspired a new generation of citizens to participate actively in our democracy and this is good, no matter what Fox News and Corsi would want you to believe. Que viva Saul Alinsky!

— Frank P. Barajas is an associate professor of history at California State University Channel Islands. Barajas is writing a book on labor and community in Ventura County titled, "A Curious Union: Activism and Community to the Rise of Cesar Chavez."

©2008 Ventura County Star