How can a small group make a difference with genocide-level violence happening half a world away? When some of us faced that question in 1971, we learned something about leveraging our power. We also learned something new about how people from different classes can form an alliance.
President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger denied that the U.S. was sending weapons to Yaya Khan, the Pakistani dictator who was waging massive war against the Bengalis who wanted to secede. Our Philadelphia Movement for a New Society (MNS) collective soon learned the truth: a Pakistani freighter was at that moment on its way to Baltimore to pick up a shipload of weapons.
MNS members went to Baltimore to see what could be done. They first visited the ships’ pilots association, asking that the pilots refuse to bring the Al Ahmadi into the Baltimore harbor. The answer was no.
The next step was to go to the bars where longshoremen (dockers) congregated, and sound them out. They had a power we didn’t. Maybe they would refuse to load the weapons.
East Coast longshoremen have traditionally had somewhat right-wing politics. The workers we talked with thought U.S. policy was wrong on this one. Still, the workers’ families counted on the daily wages, and the men said they would need to load the ship when it arrived.
MNS people liked drama, so the collective hatched a plan. They found Baltimore allies with boats to bring to the harbor to practice setting up a blockade. One observer called the flotilla a “dis-armada.” MNS invited the media, who were happy to come and report on the foolish activists, since everyone knows that an assortment of canoes and small sailboats can’t stop a giant freighter. MNS organized special “days:” a “clergy day,” a “students’ day” — any excuse to keep the TV crews coming to film the maneuvers. The narrative grew, complete with suspense about the ending: Just what would happen when the Al Ahmadi arrived?
Activists continued to hang out with the longshoremen and found the attitude shifting. The men were watching on TV the repeated boat maneuvers and realized that they, the longshoremen, were suddenly part of history! Their decision of whether to load the weapons mattered in a way it hadn’t mattered before. The men listened with heightened interest to the activists’ stories about the slaughter in East Pakistan, passion rising at the thought that their very own government was complicit with the outrage.
A deal was struck. If the activists set up a picket line, the union would refuse to cross it and load the weapons.
The captain of the Al Ahmadi got the word and redirected his ship to Philadelphia, a port not far away. MNS members raced back to Philadelphia, jubilant. They used the Baltimore model: The blockade’s drama motivates the workers to realize that their decision mattered, then the union decides not to cross the picket line.
The frustrated captain docked the ship anyway. He encountered not only multiple small boats and a picket line, but activists grabbing hawsers and flinging themselves into the water to impede the ship’s tying up.
After repeat performances in New York City and Boston, enough of a base had been built within the longshoremen’s union. The MNS collective and Sultana Alam, the Bengali woman who worked closely with them, went to Florida to lobby the International Longshoremen’s convention. Sultana was allowed to speak to the entire convention. The entire ILA voted to refuse to load weapons for Pakistan anywhere in the U.S.
What do you “bring to the table?”
The dockworkers came to realize that they are a part of history, a realization about themselves that comes rarely to working class people. To understand how this can be so, we need to take a closer look at how class society organizes the assumptions we make about ourselves and each other.
Activist-sociologist Betsy Leondar-Wright — project director of Class Action — led a class workshop for activists that I observed in Boston. She formed small groups based on the class of the participants when they were children. She asked, “What do you bring to the table in social movements that was encouraged by your class background?”
The groups dug into their awareness and came up with strengths, which they reported to the others. What was striking was that there was little overlap; each class affinity group identified different strengths within itself, much as traditional gender distinctions assigned different qualities to women and to men.
The middle class workshop participants reported that as children they got the message that they could make a difference to the larger scheme of things. The participants brought up working class and poor were not given that message, but they did learn the value of fighting, something most middle class people are taught is a negative value.
In the campaign for the birth of Bangladesh, the longshoremen joined their willingness to struggle to the middle class activists’ belief that a difference can be made. Together, they succeeded.
Understanding each other better
Movements will grow stronger if we understand each other better across class lines, but class is often made a matter of statistics instead of lived experience. In class workshops some activists who have thought deeply about their own experience have shared the following. I made composites of their statements. Incomplete as they are, the statements have helped many activists sharpen their understanding of people different from themselves.
Owning class person:
When I think of characteristics that being raised owning class encouraged in me, I think of my sense of big possibilities, my curiosity, my love of learning, my love of “high culture” like classical music. I was brought up to develop a big picture of what’s going on, and interest in the wider world, even globally.
I’m aware, though, of habits encouraged by being raised owning class that put other people off: I sometimes talk too much, I’m opinionated, I often have a patronizing tone, I’m confident that I know something even when I don’t.
I’d appreciate it if, when I’m showing some of these irritating behaviors, you could remember that I’m a human being, feeling isolated, feeling confused and not knowing what’s going on. These behaviors are defenses I use. If you can reach to me firmly with kindness you’ll get the cooperation that we both want. You may encounter my fear, so please insist that we can make contact. Underneath, I’m a decent and ordinary human being.
Middle class person:
I was trained by my class membership to be hopeful, and I’m glad for that. I carry a belief that we can change things and it’s worthwhile persisting because individuals can make a difference. In organizational work I usually bring a confidence that we can think our way through things; I value a lot the process of thinking, reasoning, discussing.
Something that may drive others crazy about me, though, is that I’ve been trained to be obsessed with “appropriateness.” I’m concerned that my spontaneous feelings won’t fit into the rules in the situation. I hold back, and work very hard to figure out what is appropriate in each situation so I won’t go outside the unwritten rules.
For people from other classes who might like to be my allies and support my being a more effective and powerful activist, please remember that underneath my facade of correctness lies a living, breathing passionate person who would love to show it.
Working class person:
I appreciate how my being brought up working class encourages me to be direct and not beat around the bush. I like being real, pushing others to be their authentic selves. Conflict is usually okay with me as long as people fight fair, because conflict brings out the truths that folks often hide underneath. Honesty matters, because then we know what we can count on. Solidarity is basic because life is a struggle, and if we don’t stick together we’re lost. I like to work in a team way even on tasks that can be done by one person. As a worker I’m willing to accept direction if it will really make me more productive, but I hate bossing when it’s just about ego and authority. Equality is a big value for me.
People from other classes can have a hard time with the anger that often lies just beneath the surface. I’m angry about my oppression; sometimes it erupts when folks aren’t ready for it; sometimes I take it out on myself or those closest to me. I’m glad I’m passionate and I don’t want to hide, and I don’t want to scare people either.
I hope you will make contact with my heart. That’s more important than getting our political positions in exact agreement. Underneath any frustration and anger is the heart, and working class people are likely to remember that first and foremost, so that’s the way to reach us. We’ve never believed that the key thing in intelligence is being verbose and smooth talkers — intelligence is about survival, about practicality, and about heart. We are intelligent. Don’t focus on talking to us; to be our ally, focus on listening to us. Especially those of us raised poor have been silenced so often, have been shut down in our communication by the message that we are dumb. If we’re not speaking up it’s not because we don’t have something valuable to say. To work successfully with us, listen.
One reason some people dismiss strategic thinking is that they think it’s wonkish, but I think the opposite. Ender, the youth who makes the difference in a fight for survival in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, draws on his empathy to win: It’s his awareness that guides him.
Our chance to defeat the 1 percent depends on our willingness to give up demanding that others become like us, and instead learn to walk in their shoes. That’s true when it comes to race and gender, and other differences including class.
I’m not advocating a dismissal of action in favor of obsessing about political correctness. A living revolution focuses not on rigid rules but on opening ourselves to others’ realities, and being grateful when they are willing to express them. We can open in the course of an action campaign, as MNS did in its blockade. We can open in the safety of a workshop. It means going outside our comfort zones, in workshops as well as campaigns.
The result is expansion, of ourselves and of our movements.
As K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, joyful, powerful movements draw more people in and reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high.
Uganda’s COVID-19 experience underscores the seemingly universal opportunism of authoritarians amidst crisis, as well as opportunities for resistance.