Social Justice Organizing Is Hard, But Sometimes It Can Be Done Right: A Case Study of the Philly Socialists

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Drawing of Freddie Gray with blood splatter next to Socialist logo.
Photo Credits: Philly Socialists Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/PhillySocialists)

It is hard to escape the late uproar about racist police shootings. Many of you may recognize the person in the picture above as Freddy Gray. Some of you may have Tweeted or wrote rants on Facebook, but most of you have done nothing. You care, but you have so much else going on. That’s a little USA, ces’t la vie. Truth is, the whole of the USA suffers from a sentiment of civic disengagement and we can see it in our struggling social justice groups.

Social justice is hard. Organizing for social justice is hard.

But sometimes, it’s done right.

Earlier this year, a group called the Philly Socialists took the initiative to come down to Eastern Kentucky University and educate our graduate students on social activism and Socialism. They have been successful not only in garnering activism about Socialism, but also in response to the Freddy Gray case and the many other racist police shootings, discriminatory work practices, homelessness, attacks on women’s rights, and many other issues. They have been successful despite the successful fear of Socialism that has been instilled in our culture since the capitalist economy’s conception; hence pro-socialist presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders are called Fascists and vastly misunderstood as working against the American workingman by the media and general population alike.

Misrepresentations of Socialism in popular culture as depicted in comic book images. Left: "America under Socialism" with factory forcibly shut down and protected from workers by a police officer. Right: Comic depicting conflation of Socialism with Nazism.
Misrepresentations of Socialism in popular culture. Photo Source: Comics With Problems http://www.ep.tc/problems/35/03.html (Left) and Bosh Fawstin http://fawstin.blogspot.com/2011/05/islam-means-peace_23.html (Right)

The irony is that the average American citizen keeps fighting for Neoliberalism, which is synonymous with the hyper Capitalist ideology that an unrestricted feeding frenzy of unregulated markets will make our world a better place, will cannibalize itself and cause the United States to implode. From there, it is predicted that either Fascism or Socialism will arise in immediacy. Socialism, as Sanders and the Philly Socialists conceptualize it, is a “democratic Socialism” meaning that our political system would be a democracy (something the USA is supposedly a protector of) with a socialist economic system that favors social ownership over private ownership. Under a socialist economy the class disparity narrows, especially combined with a welfare state. This system operates to help the working class in contrast to capitalism, which will only continue to keep the working class working harder for less. See the irony yet? The general idea is that people get along much better when they have all their needs met – if we are constantly fighting being overworked just to “get by,” how can we expect to take political control of our lives? To see crime rates to go down? To really care who is president? To protest racist cops? Socialism recognizes that we must all participate in our government to create a government that serves us rather than select wealthy.

Despite it all, the Philly Socialists have done a tremendous job mobilizing people in an anti-socialist environment, and they told us at Eastern Kentucky University how they did it. First, in order to tackle capitalism, people have to know how they are being oppressed. Education is of course the key, but what’s hard is that most people can’t handle too much education at once – they get bored, frightened, upset, confused, or frustrated when approached with political conversations. So the Philly Socialists are cleaver; they combine education with events (and also hold various forms of seminars for the hardcore or adventurous types that don’t get bored, upset, frightened, confused, or frustrated) that disguise the political nature of the group so you get 100% of your daily recommended dose of politics without even realizing it.

Philly Socialists at their Retreat 2013.
Philly Socialists at their Retreat 2013. Photo Credit: The North Star (http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=9533)

Their service project, “Red Plenty,” which involved giving out food to those in need, a tactic “used by the Black Panthers to embarrass the entire capitalist government when they provided free breakfast for children. This caused such an uproar that the capitalist state itself began the school breakfast programs which we all now accept as normal” (Saturn 2013). This time however, rather than normalizing it, the Philadelphia State decided to shut it down by trying to make feeding the homeless in open-air locations illegal (Saturn 2013).

But what do service projects like this one have to do with the success of the Philly Socialists? Quite a bit.

  1. Creates relationships: ask any business major and they will tell you how important networking is. At the next event, someone might bring a friend in or someone who liked the event may now join the group. You also create tighter bonds internal to the movement (hence solidarity below).
  2. Solidarity: gets people working for the cause together and closer to those whom they are helping. Fosters a closer bond between the movement and the individual member as well. Any response by the state (such as making food handouts to homeless people illegal), creates solidarity within the movement.
  3. Education: pamphlets, flyers, booklets, stickers, bookmarks, pins, etc. Also, simple chit chat rather than a formal lecture can make politics a lot more intriguing.
  4. Promotion: for obvious reasons. The image of the group is not only illustrated by the service project, but also dispersed to onlookers and the actors involved (e.g. the State)
  5. Uniting Diversity: gets people from all sorts of oppressed backgrounds to work towards the one cause that is creating the divisions in the first place. Please click here for an excellent article by Dr. Gary Potter on how identity politics is damaging to organizing.

Philly Socialists aren’t alone in recognizing the power of combining education with activism. Musicians and academics who study resistance music have witnessed a similar effect. Many scholars have documented that musicians find that the political content of their lyrics are better recognized when their music is played in conjunction with an event (Kauzlarich 2013). Most importantly, as service projects, retreats, formal lectures, and even community gardens continue to occur and knowledge is passed and spread, the individual becomes empowered with the knowledge they have gained. Or phrased a little more appropriately, liberated from the cultural hegemonic trance of powerful capitalists’ values. If everyone is a leader, then the movement becomes stronger as they can take their own initiative in social justice.

Beyond creating an informal community and combining education with events, there is one last tidbit of information that the Philly Socialists advised us at Eastern Kentucky University on our struggle to keep our social justice activism groups alive: just get it done. Whether you want to take down capitalism or take down the Ku Klux Klan, you need to decide what you want to do and take the initiative: spread flyers and tell people what they need to do to get things done. Too often we see activist groups disintegrate because they talk about everything they need or want to achieve, but rarely are any of those ideas achieved because they haven’t left the coffee shop. Likewise, not taking leadership and asking what the group wants to do will typically lead you nowhere – sometimes, people just need to be assigned to a task and they will get it done. Want to show a documentary on violence against women? Tell a few to take care of food, another few to spread flyers and put the event up on social media, some more to secure a location, etc.

So let’s recap: the Philly Socialists have been extraordinarily successful in fostering civic engagement in a very anti-Socialist, civically disengaged, and segregated country. This is not just due to personable members, but rather clever tactics and sociological theory. They build enthusiasm and solidarity through group projects and have a strong sense of initiative. They build strength and agency in each individual member by integrating their political ideologies into practice, creating independent leaders. All towards creating a more just and equal society. The Socialist Warrior award goes to Philly Socialists!

Kauzlarich, D. 2013. “Music as resistance to state crime.” In E. Stanley and J. McCulloch (Eds.), State Crime and Resistance, (pp. 154-167). New York, NY: Routledge.

Saturn. 2013.“Philly Socialists’ service model: outreach disguised as charity?”. Retrieved April 6th 2015 (https://rosadebsnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/philly-socialists-service-model-outreach-disguised-as-charity/).

Adrienne L. McCarthy
Graduate School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

1 Comment

  1. Perhaps it is straying into the realm of ad hominem, but you posed the unasked question yourself, what is it that you’ve done exactly? The exploration of the Philly Socialist’s model and approach is interesting, but your understanding of leadership and organizing seems disconnected from the on-the-ground realities of what it takes to move people to action, especially political action. In one paragraph you espouse the tenants of an anarchistic approach to leadership (‘everyone can be a leader’), which I entirely support, yet in the next paragraph you reveal a complete lack of understanding on how such a leadership style can actually operate. In truly equitable movements for social justice the hypocrisy of someone who would walk in and “tell” people what to do is mind boggling at best and a narcissistic miscalculation that will fail to empower anyone at worst. How does telling someone to ‘take care of food’ for a documentary increase their leadership capacity in such a way that they will be able to work with others (because that is what it will require) to dismantle a KKK chapter or dismantle capitalism itself? You must treat people with respect, foster their revolutionary potential, do not ‘tell’, but ask them to take on progressively more committed roles for an action with a deep understanding of the skills and expertise that they bring to the table. And to figure that out, you need to be ‘personable’. To often we see activist groups disintegrate for the exact opposite reason you lay out, because individuals that lack the necessary interpersonal skills attempt to take on small or medium-sized projects by ordering people around. Such behavior alienates and disintegrates the possibility of organizing these people in the future. Creating independent leaders goes beyond and is in many ways prior to tactics, theory, and ideology; it requires a deep commitment to those you work with and a willingness to give of yourself, your time, and your resources to empower their ability to fully recognize and exercise their own agency. Not leader as order-giver, not leader as center, not leader as the end all be all messianic figure with all the answers. Leader as second. “Or phrased a little more appropriately, liberated from the cultural hegemonic trance of powerful capitalists’ values.”

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