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Class Matters book cover

Order Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers, 2005).

Press Coverage of CM

Classist Comments

What's the most classist thing you ever heard someone say?

(I'm not talking about someone like Bill O'Reilly or your right-wing uncle. More specifically, what's the most classist thing you ever heard a liberal or progressive person say?)

Read five interviewees' answers — and my own.

Class and Other Identities

How do you experience class differently because of your race, ethnic group, religion, gender, age, or other identity? What class dynamics do you notice within your identity groups?

Here's how a few ClassMatters.org visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Missed Opportunities at the 2000 Democratic National Convention

Cameron Levin

Cameron Levin

Cameron Levin, then with Rise Up and the Direct Action Network

For me the biggest challenge was bridging the activist world and the community-based non-profit world, because in L.A. there is a greater divide than in other parts of the country.

The activist groups include leftist, police brutality, globalization, and anti-war groups. Except for the police brutality group, which includes low-income youth of color, most of them are majority middle-class. The community-based organizations (CBOs) who do community organizing on economic issues really have nothing to do with these activist groups. The CBOs have a mixed-class staff, but their members and constituency are 95% poor working class.

The divide is along race lines too. L.A. is an interesting city because there isn't a large poor or working class white community. So the activist groups are mostly white and the CBOs are mostly people of color.

Before the Democratic National Convention, the activist groups took the initiative, but we tried to include the CBOs. In the Direct Action Network, most of us had worked for CBOs, so we knew people. I had worked at LAANE (L.A. Alliance for a New Economy) and two others. We talked with them, and some decided not to get involved with the Democratic convention. But some came to the meetings, including the Bus Riders Union, and we began planning a series of protests, with a different issue on each day. The idea was that we would each support each other's issues.

Woodrow Coleman with a group of Bus Riders union members

Woodrow Coleman with a group of Bus Riders union members

Woodrow Coleman, Bus Riders union

The Bus Riders Union saw marching at the convention as a way to send a message to the Democrats. We had particular demands we wanted from Al Gore. We went to the planning meetings, but in the end we decided not to march with the Direct Action Network. They wanted every demonstration to include direct action. Some of our members, women of color, feared retaliation from the cops. The students would leave town, and we'd still be here. We had a more long-term and strategic view than the young middle-class protestors. They wanted to smash the state, and we wanted to build the movement.

Roxana Tynan

Roxana Tynan

Roxana Tynan, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy

Some of the young middle-class activists from L.A. were really thoughtful about working with the community. They were as frustrated as we were about the folks from the Bay Area who didn't respect enough the local work that was happening, who saw it as a fun party to show up and run from the cops. One example was protestors from out of town who came and smoked dope in the park — a park where the neighborhood was fighting to get rid of the drug dealers. Cameron Levin was one of the young middle-class activists who worked with us to figure out how to link it all up, how to build each other's power by trying to do things jointly.

Cameron Levin

The breakdown happened at the last minute, when the Bus Riders Union pulled out. It got kind of messy. They had organized their own march, and they asked us not to turn people out for it. The issue was civil disobedience. The activist groups wanted to include a sit-in or other illegal action as part of each day. The CBOs raised the concern that civil disobedience nearby might jeopardize their members of color, who were more subject to police brutality, and especially undocumented immigrants. They pulled out and asked Rise Up/DAN not to mobilize people for it.

In the end, some of the events were done jointly, like the days focused on police brutality and education. Those were issues where the prior links were stronger between the activist groups and the CBOs. But the Bus Riders Union march happened separately. Some of them didn't trust us to keep their members safe.

The police were threatening to crack down and arrest everyone, and TV stations were showing footage of the Seattle protests and saying "the anarchists are coming." The police chief actually went to community groups and warned them that these out-of-town protestors were coming to cause trouble. This hysteria raised the level of fear and mistrust. There was an us-versus-them mentality, with community groups saying that "this is our home and you don't respect it; we are going to have to live with the consequences."

At the end I started pushing DAN hard to drop civil disobedience connected to any legal demonstrations, to keep the community folks safe and keep our ties with them. It was one of the reasons Rise Up broke up, which was very painful for me. We had envisioned building a community/activist coalition, an ongoing relationship, and that didn't happen.

For me, a white middle-class person, civil disobedience is less risky than for a poor or working class youth of color. The problem is the lack of awareness by white middle-class people about the different implications of the same action, and so an over-reliance on that one strategy. Historically civil disobedience was used as an escalation, not as the first tactic. That's how I see the class difference in using civil disobedience: for poor people it's the last resort, and for some white middle-class leftist activists, risking arrest is the first thing they do.

Community-based organizations also have to worry about their institutional sustainability, their funders and their membership when they get involved with a movement like the globalization movement. They have to consider the long-term cost of working with ad hoc groups whose nonhierarchical nature can make them less accountable than more formal organizations. If a volunteer activist group falls apart, maybe feelings are hurt, but there are no larger consequences.

A coalition between CBOs and activist groups would take a lot of trust. Organizational structure can help provide accountability mechanisms and help build trust. But it's hard to create a coalition structure when some groups have constituencies and formal decision-making methods and other groups are a bunch of individuals, with no geographical or common identity.