Can Virtual Organizing Build Coalitions?

E-activists rally on the Web, but can they build a movement?

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Last November’s “Battle in Seattle” and more recent International Monetary Fund/World Bank protests in Washington, D.C., have elevated the long-suffering American left to a state of giddiness unmatched since Richard Nixon fled to San Clemente. Thousands of spirited activists from across the country descended on these cities to highlight the harmful effects of globalization, sparking a lively debate on a subject the major media had all but ignored.

“The Washington demonstrations added to the political organizing miracle of Seattle,” wrote Don Hazen in the alternative press news service Alternet (April 21, 2000). “It further solidified the growing sense that finally, 30 years after the women’s, civil rights, and antiwar movements, a mass movement of young people is emerging with the ability to change the nature of the debate about the future of the globe, with help from their elders, whose political values may be coming out of hibernation to join the fray.”

Behind all this good cheer is a unique organizing tool unavailable to ’60s activists: the Internet. As Hazen and others have noted, communications technology may profoundly affect the future of this new activism era. Whether organizing efforts are local, national, or global, e-mail listservs and Web sites have become a vital link. “The Internet is an agitator’s dream: fast, cheap, far-reaching,” writes L.A. Kauffman in an Alternet essay following the D.C. action. “And with the planetary reach of the World Wide Web, activist networks are globalizing at nearly the pace of the corporate order they oppose.”

Prior to the D.C. rally, for instance, activists could download pamphlets, fact sheets, and even poster art from the official protest Web site (www.a16.org). They could log onto list serves to work out travel arrangements and other logistics. The Web not only helps individuals; it’s also a godsend for the small, cash-strapped organizations that drive most social change efforts. “We don’t have any money, but it’s not a problem at all,” Yale University activist Terra Lawson-Remer, national organizer of the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations, told The Nation (April 24, 2000). “We post all of our information and training packets on the Web so campus groups can just download them. Almost every student has access to a computer.”

But can you build a movement that extends beyond New Haven and Ann Arbor, Berkeley and Eugene, with a technology designed for virtual, rather than real, community? America’s last great social movement era was fueled by face-to-face local organizing, endless meetings, teach-ins, and speeches—everyday gestures of trust and commitment that solidified personal relationships. It’s not clear whether e-mail or Web conferences can build those relationships. “Movements aren’t born on the Internet,” writes Kauffman. “The digital realm can’t supply the mysterious spark that turns an obscure cause into a widespread passion that motivates scattered individuals to take collective action.”

Kauffman, whose weekly cyber column (www.free-radical.org) chronicles “the new unrest,” says the Internet’s information dissemination capabilities have, in many areas, eliminated the need for a central gathering place for activists. “There’s a real question about physical space here,” she said in an interview. “When, back in the day, there would be some kind of progressive center, you would go there and pick up information and meet people. Very few places have that anymore.”

And, as Andrew Shapiro notes in The Nation, virtual organizing may be able to gather large numbers of people for a specific action, but its ability to unify disparate factions to support a broader cause remains suspect. The medium simply doesn’t work that way. “Online associations tend to splinter into narrower and narrower factions,” he explains. “They also don’t have the sticking power of physical communities.”

In other words, this is no tool for building a mass movement, especially when you consider what Kauffman calls “the digital divide” separating the Internet “haves” from the “have-nots.” Poor and working-class folks—often people of color—tend not to be wired. How does a mass movement reach these communities?

“It’s a major issue, but you’d be fooling yourself to think that for decades there hasn’t been a divide in cultural capital between movements of people of color and white, middle-class movements,” she says. “Good organizing happens face to face. The Internet can’t be a replacement for that.”

The real issue, says Kauffman, is what she sees as ’60s nostalgia for the larger-than-life cultural/political movement, with well-defined programs, ideology, and leadership. The “new unrest” is not about building a mass movement, she says; it’s about building coalitions between scores of affinity groups, both local and national. “The movement exploding now is an amalgamation of many, many smaller groups and campaigns that are close to people’s hearts that are building bridges to other groups,” she explains. “The movement is strongest when people feel rooted in a community that is comfortable to them. And it is from that strong base that you can do the most effective alliance- and coalition-building.”

So, rather than the hegemonic “blue-green” movement of labor and environmentalists Seattle observers dreamily envisioned last year, Kauffman sees a pastiche of beliefs, strategies, campaigns, and communities uniting periodically under a common banner of social justice and self-determination. Such a vision always will require a healthy dose of street-level organizing, she says. And more often than not these days, it also requires a fast modem.