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99% Spring Training Is Mixed Bag, But Has Potential for Inspiring New Activists

The campaign has plenty to offer (reaching older activists, for instance) if individual organizers are passionate enough and take advantage of participants' enthusiasm.

Photo Credit: The 99% Spring


Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, is a small suburb to the north of Philadelphia, home to the regional headquarters of the United Automobile Workers. The venerable union hosted the last 99% Spring training in the Philly metropolitan area last Monday. The 99% Spring campaign has gained a lot of press in progressive circles, either as a hopeful sign of Occupy Wall Street’s influence, or as a harbinger of imminent co-option by the Democratic Party. The Fort Washington training was underwhelming, but nationwide there is much more evidence of the former than the latter.

The 99% Spring was organized by a broad array of progressive groups to train thousands of participants in direct-action tactics. The most active groups include the UAW, Jobs With Justice, MoveOn, National People’s Action, Greenpeace and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Dozens of other organizations have proclaimed their support too. Signatories include representatives from the direct action-devotees of the Ruckus Society to progressive establishment bedrocks like the National Education Association.

This is unusual. The larger unions, not to mention MoveOn, generally do not devote their time, funds and energy to non-electoral strategy, particularly in a presidential election year. The very fact that the 99% Spring is as much their work as it is, say, National People’s Action's is unusual, if not unprecedented, in recent years.

“Within the current margins of our politics you are not going to truly address the political and economic inequality just through elections,” said George Gohel, executive director of National People’s Action, an innovative and confrontational nonviolent activist group. “The missing ingredient is not that there isn’t enough energy or noise around elections, it’s this other piece that’s been missing. The primary goal of the 99% Spring is to equip more people to engage in nonviolent direct action and to inspire and move more nonviolent direct action.”

The Fort Washington training was housed in a nondescript building shared by the UAW and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 54. The 50-plus-person crowd was mostly silver-haired, which made sense considering the Monday morning meeting time, with younger to-middle-aged attendees comprising a quarter of the crowd. The hall buzzed with talk of the Koch brothers, upstate fracking and the future of Medicaid. The opening introductions revealed a mix of retired autoworkers, MoveOn members, representatives from Communications Workers of America (CWA), and a couple occupiers. The Saturday meeting in downtown Philadelphia, led by Greenpeace, numbered approximately 100, also with an average age well above last year’s Occupy Philly encampment.

Neither the Fort Washington nor downtown trainings attracted as many adherents as organizers had hoped. But the campaign comprises 981 trainings in 49 states, and organizers for National People’s Action and the National Alliance of Domestic Workers held events in Chicago, New York, Iowa, and Michigan that were filled to capacity. The UAW organizers leading the Fort Washington training, who had just returned from upstate New York, told me they had 60 attendees in Buffalo, and 40 in Syracuse.

“We hear every day that trainings have had to be moved because they’ve outgrown the spaces they were originally scheduled for,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, citing tiny Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle as an example. “We are reaching remote places where this kind of activism isn’t necessarily a big part of the culture.”

I sat next to two disabled, bearded Vietnam veterans with faded tattoos and canes. We perused the literature provided by the UAW organizers: copies of Martin Luther King’s famed “ Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Daniel Hunter’s “ The Power of Nonviolent Direct Action,” which defines the strategy as apart from, if complementary to, such activities as voting or taking a case to court. “People turn to nonviolent direct action after the institutional modes fail,” Hunter writes.

The attendees of the Fort Washington meeting seemed ready for new modes of action. We broke into groups of four to learn each other’s stories and get motivated. Almost everyone in my group was unemployed and over 50. The one woman with a job said she’s the only employed member of her family of five and is afraid of relying on “welfare.” Everyone had stories of lost jobs, evaporated 401(k)s and spiraling healthcare costs. Tales of high suicide rates, mass layoffs and bankruptcy abounded -- the human cost of austerity.

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