Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up?

​An article in the New York Times in 2015 provoked Michael Truscello and Ajamu Nangwaya to bring together the volume: "Why Don't the Poor Rise Up? Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance" (2017). This book is divided into two sections, one on the Global North and another on the Global South, and is an "anthology of radical perspectives on contemporary struggles" (p. 2). The book is a counter narrative to the idea suggested in the New York Times that the poor are not rising up. "The title is both challenging and provocative, in the sense that it is at once a question and an assumption. But is it true that the poor do not rise up? Or do we simply not recognize their resistance and rebellion?" (p. 1). In documenting stories of resistance, the authors seek to address an apparent gap: "We do not have enough knowledge and information on the diverse struggles waged around the world, the wealth of experiences gained, and the lessons learnt from them and numerous victories achieved. Consequently, we do not celebrate them nor gain inspiration from them to wage new struggles. The first-hand experiences and contributions shared in this collection serve as a radical attempt to reverse this trend" (p. 3).

There are eighteen examples, well beyond summary in a brief post. In general, I had hoped the book would have delved deeper. Many of the chapters are brief descriptive summaries of challenges faced and responses. Readers familiar with this literature might be left wanting. However, for those who do wonder 'why the poor do not rise up', this is a collection worth reading. Two thought provoking quotes:

From Praba Pilar and Alex Wilson: "An early example of these confining constructs was the "Inter Caetera," a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 that laid out the justification for the Doctrine of Discovery. It established that Christian nations had a divine right (based on the bible) to grant themselves legal ownerships of any "unoccupied" lands (where unoccupied was defined as the absence of Christian people) and dominion over any people on those lands. A current example of these confining constructs is the salvation narrative unconsciously reproduced by many in the white Left when approach Indigenous and other non-European communities as allies but present solutions that have been developed in isolation, are paternalistic, and/or are inappropriate to the context. Salvation narratives are often seen as benign, but they are not. hey reflect and perpetuate the early justification for colonization, i.e., that "God had directed [Europeans] to bring civilized ways and education and religion to Indigenous Peoples and to exercise paternalism and guardianship powers over them'" (p. 35)

From Gussai Sheikheldin: "States and markets normalize the exploitation and oppression of many in society through the pretext of order and justice… becoming aware of a phenomenon does not automatically imply that one will care to transform it, so understanding structural sources of oppression in society does not necessarily mean that one will seek to combat them. That is objectively true, but we should also be mindful that any genuine care is unlikely to happen without understanding. Then there's the difference between understanding on the one hand, and 'consciousness' (understanding and caring) on the other." (p. 233-235).

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Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky was one of the most influential community organizers, activists and rabble-rousers of his time (1909-1972). His most well known work is "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals" (1971). The book provides a wealth of interesting examples of community organizing, these stories and experiences make the book well worth the read, as do Alinsky's reader-friendly approach of having various lists of rules and principles to work with. He begins his work by situating his approach:

  • "As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. This means working in the system." (p. xix)

About his book he says that: "What follows is for those who want to change the world from what is it to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away" (p. 3). Alinsky deals with ethics (means and ends) and terminology (power, self-interest), without delving theory but focusing upon his experiences. The fourth chapter turns to the education of an organizer, which includes a list of traits and descriptions, as well as this interesting aside:

  • "There was a time when I believed that the basic quality that an organizer needed was a deep sense of anger against injustice and that this was the prime motivation that kept him going. I now know that it is something else: this abnormal imagination that sweeps him into close identification with mankind and projects him into its plight. He suffers with them and becomes angry at the injustice and begins to organize the rebellion." (p. 74)

About community organization, he writes:

  • "The first step in community organization is community disorganization. The disruption of the present organization is the first step toward community organization. Present arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced by new patterns that provide the opportunities and means for citizen participation. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new." (p. 116)
  • "The organization has to be used in every possible sense as an educational mechanism, but education is not propaganda. Real education is the means by which the membership will begin to make sense out of their relationship as individuals to the organization and to the world they live in, so that they can make informed and intelligent judgments. The stream of activities and programs of the organization provides a never-ending series of specific issues and situations that create a rich field for the learning process." (p. 124)

On participation, he explains:

  • "We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services. To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the deepest sense it is not giving but taking – taking their dignity. Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy." (p. 123)

In the middle class:

  • "The middle classes are numb, bewildered, scared into silence. They don't know what, if anything, they can do. This is the job for today's radical – to fan the embers of hopelessness into a flame to fight… It is a job first of bringing hope and doing what every organizer must do with all people, all classes, places, and times – communicate the means or tactics whereby the people can feel that they have the power to do this and that and on." (p. 194)
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Logan Cochrane

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