Why Popular Assemblies Sweeping the Country Are Building Blocks of the Resistance
“One thing that is very clear under the Trump administration is that we do not have the luxury of remaining in our silos and organizing around individual issues,” Manzoor Cheema, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based organizer with Muslims for Social Justice and Project South, told AlterNet. “Attacks are happening across the board against immigrants, refugees, Muslims, black communities, workers and Jews.”
Cheema is one of countless organizers across the country working to pull off large popular assemblies to empower and connect the communities caught in the crosshairs of this multi-pronged assault. With roots in the U.S. Black Freedom movement, Latin American encuentro and left formations across the globe, such forums appear to be gaining steam, as growing crowds cram into packed community meetings to plot out strategies for resistance. While the issues and tactics may vary, organizers from across the country emphasized to AlterNet that the aim is to fortify independent social movement infrastructure to enable a broader and more effective fightback—and determine the needs of the most-impacted communities during this harrowing political moment.
In Los Angeles alone, at least 10 popular assemblies since November have drawn crowds ranging from 900 to dozens. “We've gotten together to discuss the current political moment and to remind folks that they are not alone, and there are other people who will be working and struggling with them,” Armando Carmona, spokesperson for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told AlterNet in January. “Out of those assemblies, there have been mobilizations, know your rights workshops and other convenings to discuss neighborhood defense committees.”
These formations are part of a larger ecosystem of resistance to Trumpism that continues to build on a large scale, as millions around the world take to the streets, stage direct actions and use their bodies to resist the ongoing spike in immigration raids. “With this whole political crisis going on, reaction isn’t enough,” said Reed Ingalls, an organizer with the Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition, one of numerous bodies that has been organizing popular assemblies in districts across the city since election night. “Right now the aim is building support, mutual aid and community power. The basic idea is, let's start helping people get organized and let's do it neighborhood by neighborhood, connecting to where people live and connecting to issues they're facing.”
While some popular assemblies are connected to regional organizations like the Atlanta-based Project South, others are springing up independently. “People are building new mechanisms of community power,” David Abud, regional organizer from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told AlterNet. “This is coming from an understanding that there will continue to be state violence against our communities. The state isn't going to be the one to stop that violence coming to us; we are the ones that will be able to stop it.”
For Cheema, whose organizing of People’s Movement Assemblies (PMAs) is informed by Project South, it is critical to create meaningful spaces that center people most impacted by oppression and injustice—an aim that takes significant leg work. He noted that local PMAs date back to the early 1980s, with the group Black Workers for Justice laying the groundwork for the processes in motion today.
“We have what we call an anchor coalition that launched the PMAs in North Carolina’s triangle area,” he explained. “It was founded on May Day of 2016 by 15 organizations that are led by workers, people of color, latinxs, Muslims and Jews.” Groups in the mix include Black Workers for Justice, Muslims for Social Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace, Fight for 15 and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) Local 150.
“Our first assembly in December was led, organized, convened and facilitated by these organizations,” said Cheema, who noted that the PMAs provide translation and free childcare. “We are very particular that the leadership should rest with the communities most impacted by the struggles we're highlighting. At the same time, the meetings are open and transparent.”
“Out of that meeting, we developed working groups that will sustain the process and maintain the focus of the assembly,” continued Cheema. Since December, the coalition has organized three more PMAs attended by at least 100 people each.
An announcement for a January PMA in Raleigh addresses local and national issues, proclaiming, “Trump has appointed corporate and Wall St. executives and enemies of the working class and oppressed peoples to his cabinet, wealthy elites that hate the very people their departments are designed to safeguard. The right wing in Raleigh is trying to maintain their control of the governor's office and has made power grabs altering control in many state departments.”
According to Cheema, there is still work to be done to center the people most impacted by these trends. “We recognize that we need to do focused outreach to impacted people, which we call ‘growing deeper.’ At the last PMA we were reflecting on the need to reach people who are impacted but don’t have resources, and might not have transportation.”
“My understanding is that, since Trump, there is a bigger interest in the PMA model to build stronger coalitions and networks across the country,” he added. “But this movement is not geared towards getting Democrats elected. We need independent structures rooted outside political parties in the grassroots, where people hold accountable whoever is in power.”
From Alabama’s Black Belt to Zapatista Autonomous Zones
While the current iteration of Raleigh PMAs may be new, the model stems from deep-seated traditions.
“There is a history here,” said Kali Akuno, the co-director of the Mississippi-based group Cooperation Jackson and an organizer with the nationwide Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Akuno, who has been organizing popular assemblies in Jackson, underscored that “the history of the mass meetings tradition really goes back to slavery. Here in Mississippi, right after the Civil War, you had these well-organized and planned popular assemblies among formerly enslaved black people to spread information, spread news, try to find family and recreate community. That tradition and memory lived on into the 1950s and 60s, particularly around Freedom Summer.”
Project South looks to mid-1960s Black Freedom organizing in Alabama, led by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during Jim Crow. The effort focused in Alabama’s Black Belt, where white plantation owners maintained socio-economic control over black residents, many of whom they employed as sharecroppers. When black residents in Lowndes County began organizing against near-total suppression of the African-American vote, many faced retaliation in the form of evictions from white landowners. Organizers held mass meetings and erected tent cities to house the newly homeless, an infrastructure that lasted two years and included community defense against white supremacist violence.
At the age of 85, Nellie Nelson, a former sharecropper in Lowndes County, told journalist Connor Sheets in 2016, "I was very interested in the mass meetings because I wanted to learn all I could and do all I can because we needed better assistance here in Lowndes County and we needed to get together.”
But organizers also look beyond U.S. borders, including to the Sixth Pan-African Congress Congress held in Tanzania in 1974, as well as the Zapatista Movement for National Liberation, which launched an offensive against the Mexican government and the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The Zapatistas, who continue to organize and hold territory in Chiapas, Mexico, built community assemblies into their political tradition from the outset, as a form of self-governance and aotonomy for historically oppressed indigenous communities.
Meanwhile, World Social Forums date back to 2001, when people from across the globe gathered in Brazil to stage an alternative convergence to the World Economic Forum, a gathering of the global capitalist elite. Inspired by the Latin American encuentro, social forums have since been organized locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, including in Iraq, which held its first social forum in 2013 under the banner of “Another Iraq is Possible with Peace, Human Rights, and Social Justice.” Some of the first PMAs in the U.S. took place at such gatherings, including the 2006 Border Social Forum in El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juarez.
Project South began escalating its efforts to organize Southern Movement Assemblies in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, and the organization cites public assemblies at Tahrir Square as a source of inspiration. Groups at the helm of this resistance in Egypt, including the April 6th movement, today are aggressively persecuted and hunted by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with the backing of the United States. Nonetheless, Project South notes that Tahrir Square constituted an important site of resistance, writing: “The government suspended communications services, but people used other methods and set up medical tents, cultural events and political discussions.”
The 2012 launch of the Southern Freedom Movement was inspired, in part, by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Gulf Coast communities. "After witnessing and experiencing the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the inability of movement to respond effectively, Southern leaders initiated regional strategies to build stronger infrastructure to ensure capacity to respond to growing crises on every frontline," writes Project South.
Project South co-directors Stephanie Guilloud and Emery Wright told AlterNet over email that, since 2008, there have been at least 400 People's Movement Assemblies across the United States. “Organizations across the South facilitate what we call Frontline and Community Assemblies at the local level,” they explained.
“In the lead-up to the sixth Southern Movement Assembly in October of last year, anchor organizations that are part of the Southern Movement Assembly organized a dozen frontline Assemblies across the South, organizing formerly incarcerated people in Alabama, young people in Atlanta, and rural folks across the Black Belt,” Guilloud and Wright continued. “Project South and the other anchor groups expect that number to increase, possibly double, this year. Assemblies will be taking place throughout the summer and early fall.”
‘How Do We Fight Our Way Out of This?’
PMAs have played a critical role in connecting currently and formerly incarcerated people with each other and movements on the outside. In 2011, Montgomery, Alabama, hosted the the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Movement Assembly, described by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance as a "historic gathering committed to three shared strategies to challenge key areas of the prison industrial complex including discrimination in employment, shackling of women prisoners during labor, and voting disenfranchisement after time served.”
Kenneth Glasgow is an organizer with The Ordinary People Society and the Free Alabama Movement, which is led by incarcerated people and coordinated last September’s national prison strike “to end slavery in America.” He told AlterNet that people across Alabama have continued to organize PMAs “related to the criminal justice system and the drug war.” This includes assemblies led by formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families, which is accomplished via conference calls and going inside prisons.
“We put out questions and get feedback on what we need to address them, when and how,” Glasgow said of the PMA structure. “Once we do that, we are able to do some kind of action. Usually it is some kind of rally, march or protest to address that particular issue. We’ve been to prisons to protest and been in front of the Department of Corrections to hold marches and rallies.”
It was at such a PMA in January that the Free Alabama Movement decided to launch a boycott of Aramark, a leading distributor of food to prisons, and Corizon, a key medical company that profits from prisons. “PMAs work so well because they’re simple,” he said. “People come up with questions. We answer those questions with solutions. Everyone has a buy-in and a tie-in.”
According to Glasgow, who lives in the town of Dothan, Alabama, PMAs across the state and southern region “have grown tremendously since Trump was elected. People are really scared and want to get involved and get engaged.”
The PMAs are gaining steam as people across the country experiment with new formations. Ayako Maruyama and Kenneth Bailey work with the Design Studio for Social Intervention in Boston. Since November, their organization has created a "Social Emergency Response Center," modeled after natural disaster emergency response centers, but designed to respond to the current political crisis. The space, open to all, provides opportunities for communal food sharing, collective healing, political discussion, political art creation, film screenings, radical library perusing and music. “We need ways to train civil society to address social emergencies as part of our civic practice,” said Bailey.
Akuno underscored that “it is a constant struggle to build popular assemblies, keep them functioning, keep them vibrant, keep them responsive to the issues of the day and keep them from being sectarian vehicles. When done right, when done at its best, I think assemblies are the most profound tools of bottom-up, participatory democracy that holds the interests of the communities, unlike any other vehicle I have ever worked with.”
“Right now they are critical because so many people in our society are socially oriented towards being individuals and being individuated,” he continued. “This breeds an atmosphere and political culture where there is no solidarity. But solidarity is an absolute must right now. An assembly is a practical way to build solidarity and ask questions like, ‘How do we resist, how do we fight our way out of this and what is our program to create the future we want?’”
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.