Organizing after September 11

I hear people saying everything is different now, but I see that there is a lot that is not so different. —Gabriel Sayegh, Prisoner Within


This article is from the March/April 2002 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the March/April 2002 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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For the last seven years, United for a Fair Economy has provided media skills, face-to-face economic literacy education, and training resources for people and organizations working against the widening economic gap in the United States. Our "movement support" work is grounded in the belief that the United States would be a far more democratic, prosperous, and caring community if we narrowed the chasm between the very wealthy and everyone else.

Along with many organizations dedicated to social change and economic justice, we were rocked by the events of September 11. We felt that we needed more than anything to listen to other organizers around the country. We called direct-action organizers, prison-justice activists, labor-union members, immigrant-rights organizers, youth of color, queer activists, and community organizers. In all, we spoke with 54 activists—31% of them people of color; 11%, queer activists; and 55%, women—and asked them, "What is the state of organizing now?" This is what they told us.

What Is Happening in Different Movements?

Organized Labor

One immediate result of September 11 was the AFL-CIO's withdrawal from planned protests against the International Monetary Fund-World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., later that month. "The labor movement's pulling out [of the globalization movement]," said Russ Davis, the director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, soon after September 11, "students will go off to form a new antiwar movement, and community-based groups will go back to local organizing. I don't know if there is a movement now."

More recently, however, labor's root interests have begun pulling the AFL-CIO and its member unions back in. During the fall, unions fought the "fast track" authority Bush sought for negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)—and almost defeated it. On January 31, the New York City Central Labor Council and the AFL-CIO stuck their necks out and organized a rally against the World Economic Forum with the help of Jobs with Justice. There is still not much space in the labor movement, however, for activists to oppose the war.

While service unions are preoccupied with disaster relief and with supporting New York members who have lost their jobs, the economic downturn is turning many unions into an opposition force. "Labor is focusing on the recession," said Jobs with Justice national director Fred Azcarate a few weeks after September 11. "There are already a quarter million layoffs." Union members and leaders are infuriated with the Republicans for enriching their campaign contributors with airline bailouts and "stimulus packages," while stiffing the workers. Many are also unhappy with the Democrats for taking cover as the GOP wages a one-sided class war.

People of Color

Strong Latino/a and African-American-led anti-war coalitions in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and other major metropolitan areas have helped build a new urban peace movement. This movement is drawing connections between the war abroad and the assault on low-income communities and communities of color in the United States. There is no way this could have happened without long-term institution building. Groups such as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and the October 22nd Coalition in New York, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Center for Third World Organizing in the Bay Area, and AGENDA in Los Angeles have worked for years developing strong leaders with an analysis linking "local" issues (police brutality, gentrification, welfare reform, immigrant rights, etc.) to the global economic system of oppression and control.

Many young people of color are involved in anti-war activism, but do not necessarily identify with the traditional symbols of the U.S. peace movement, such as peace signs and doves. Some are creating new ways to express opposition to war through art and culture. Underground Railroad, a member organization of the Youth Empowerment Center in Oakland, has been doing political street theatre, dance, music, and visual arts. AWOL, a magazine and CD of anti-militarist hip-hop art, poetry, and music, has come out of a collaboration between the Philadelphia-based Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors' Third World Outreach Program and the New York-based War Resisters League's Youth Peace Program. And in the greater Boston area, the American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) Urban Youth Program has organized Critical Breakdown, a series of "open mic" nights featuring "hip-hop, spoken word and other forms of socially conscious performance art."

White Youth

Many white youth have thrown themselves into creating an antiwar movement, or an antiwar-antiracist movement. That has taken some of the youth base away from anti-corporate and global economic justice campaigns. Some white youth have taken on "double duty," adding antiwar work to their global or labor activism. White students and students of color are continuing anti-sweatshop campaigns, living-wage campaigns, and other campus-based economic justice campaigns which bring them together with organized labor and, potentially, community-based organizations.

Community-Based Organizations

The September 11 attacks did not reduce the urgent needs community groups are trying to address, so many of them have gone on with their work. Many local organizations led by people of color, however, have been undermined by the loss of funding since September 11. Many individual and institutional donors are channeling funds toward relief efforts in New York and Washington, D.C., leaving local groups' budgets in doubt. Even in New York and Washington, community organizations are asking whether any of the relief money will get to their communities.


Women have been among those hardest hit by the recession and post-September 11 layoffs. Job loss has been most severe in the public sector and the tourist industries, where women work in disproportionate numbers. Unemployment insurance only covers 40% of those laid off, health coverage is spotty, and welfare rules have been tightened.

Consequently, many women's organizations have put long-range work on hold and are focusing on immediate rescue work instead. One Boston-area immigrant women's organization used to organize educational programs that empowered young women. Now, it is urgently helping members obtain immigration documents. Meanwhile, fear among immigrant women, especially those from Muslim countries, is setting back the relationship-building that is vital to organizing.

Christie Mase, director of the Somerville Women's Commission in Massachusetts, says many women's organizations feel that women's voices are not being heard—as workers, as public service users, or as unwilling participants in a widening war.


Immigrant amnesty was on the political agenda before September 11 because U.S. business needed immigrant workers, unions needed to organize them, and immigrant voters could swing an election. September 11 "set us back five to ten years," according to several organizers.

Racial attacks and new anti-immigrant legislation hit this sector harder than any other. According to Eunice Cho of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the group has been documenting increased "human rights abuses by police, civilians, and Immigration [the Immigration and Naturalization Service]." While this seems to be a time for people of color to rally in support of one another, fears of terrorism are being used to divide people of color. Two recent polls, for example, found a majority of African Americans supporting racial profiling of Middle Easterners. Coalitions of young African Americans and Latinos/as are opposing the targeting of immigrants, but their partnerships with Middle Eastern and South Asian communities are limited.

In Denver, said AFSC organizer Minsun Ji, immigrant day laborers are very cautious about trying to claim their wages when they are not paid as promised. Before the September 11 attacks, they were starting to organize around these issues. Now, most are willing to take their losses rather than risk deportation.

Border Communities

Since September 11, the U.S. Border Patrol has gained support in cities, like Tucson, Arizona, that are near the U.S.-Mexico border. Organizations like the Southwest Alliance to Resist Militarization and Derechos Humanos (Human Rights), both from Tucson, and the Austin office of the AFSC, are continuing their human-rights efforts under even more difficult circumstances than before September 11. In Texas border cities like Laredo and El Paso, many workers from Mexico cross the border daily to work in U.S.-based companies (at lower wages than U.S. workers). Since September 11, they have not been able to cross as freely—often not at all—costing many their jobs.

Queer Organizing

Scapegoating, harassment, and verbal and physical abuse are nothing new for queer communities, but queer organizers said that they see the need for solidarity even more strongly in the increased climate of repression. "September 11th has actually made it pretty clear that our organization [a progressive multi-issue queer group] is not involved in the same communities as the white Gay and Lesbian communities," said Shawn Luby of the North Carolina Lambda Youth Network. "It has strengthened [our] connections with low-income organizations and other social justice groups led by folks of color."

Other queer organizations have also been making such connections. Cincinnati queer activist Kim Burden noted that fighting police brutality in Cincinnati is not just "a black issue," as it has often been portrayed in the media, just as fighting homophobia is not just the work of white people. Another queer organizer we spoke with stated that the support of communities of color is essential to defeating anti-gay legislation.

Prison Activists

Prison-rights activists described a swift, severe crackdown on prisoners, the most socially controlled population in the United States, since September 11. Many prisoners lost visitation rights and had their mail even more carefully searched than before September 11. Inmates in one prison told Angela Davis, the longtime activist and co-founder of the prison-rights group Critical Resistance, that they fear all prisoners will be left alone to die slowly in their cells.

Prison activists are worried about the effect of a strengthened police state on people opposing racial profiling, unequal sentencing, and other forms of criminal injustice. While staying focused on prisons, some groups are examining possible alliances with people in the new antiwar movement.


Many environmental organizations thought their work would grind to a halt after September 11. After a short recovery period, however, organizers have begun reviving campaigns against corporate wrongdoers like CitiGroup and Staples. While most environmental problems remain the same—as one activist said, "trees are still going to get cut down"—environmentalists are also facing some new threats. Bush and many members of Congress, for example, are using "united we stand" sentiments to push through their pre-September 11 agendas, including anti-environmental legislation like drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.

Mass Movements Abroad

Governments around the world used September 11 as a pretense to crack down on opposition. About two weeks after the attacks, for example, the Salvadoran government expelled about 200 workers at gunpoint from the international airport in San Salvador, accusing the workers' union of "wanting to associate with terrorist groups." Riot police occupied the main health-care union's offices.

The Salvadoran government is also using "national security" as a rationale for its ongoing privatization drive. For instance, government officials cited "national security measures following the events of September 11 in New York and Washington" to justify firing 10,000 public sector workers.


Overall, activists told us that:

  • September 11 "hit the pause button" for many organizers. People across the country were in shock and so were their worldviews. But the issues are still there, and the organizing is continuing. "People are still getting kicked out of their houses and people are still getting kicked off welfare," said Galen Tyler of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. While some of the coalition partners may have changed, the issues that pushed them into action have not gone away. "The war is not going to divide us at all," said Kristi Disney of the labor-community coalition group Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN), "because we're really still focused on the reason that brought us together. It's not disintegrating, not at all. But it has definitely added to the discussion." Most people we talked to plan to keep working on the issues they focused on before September 11, though some have added antiwar work as well.
  • There are new opportunities. While it is a hard time to openly oppose the government—due to both repression and the pressure for "national unity"—it is also an excellent time to bring deeper analysis to mainstream society. "This is one hell of a teachable moment. Globalization is on everyone's minds now," said Jerome Scott of Atlanta's Project South. Kristi Disney of TIRN echoed this view, saying, "People here are more excited than ever about working on globalization. It's kind of like after the World War [II] when people said if we don't start to equalize power, we're going to see more of this happen."
  • Movements need to reframe their work. A broad social analysis—including race, class, gender, and sexuality—is needed to bring together new movement partners and strengthen existing alliances. Whether it is peace, immigrant rights, labor, or fair housing work, organizing today requires an awareness that immigrant communities and communities of color face increasing racial profiling and repression. "Clearly Arab-Americans are being victimized and attacked here in Chicago. They are afraid," said Louise Cainkar of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Anyone can be picked up and held for anything. It has paralyzed our ability to campaign and work on local issues." Organizers also need to understand that recession and war will have a different impact on people in different income brackets. "Many [of our staff] are poor and working class," said Si Kahn of the Charlotte, North Carolina, group Grassroots Leadership, "they have people in the military, there are issues that have to be taken care of."

What To Do Now

Organizers do not need to invent a whole new set of campaigns, because the campaigns already exist. Movements were putting effective pressure on the driving institutions of the global economy, such as the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank, before September 11. The events of September 11, however, sent many activists into a tailspin. White globalization activists were among the most disoriented. Many of them had been drawn to global economic justice organizing by the change in the national mood after the "Battle in Seattle." Few grounded their work locally. With the new political atmosphere after September 11, many college-age activists shifted over to antiwar work—unsure if there still was a globalization movement or what their relationship was to it. Meanwhile, many community activists and activists of color whose political work was grounded in urgent local struggles were faster to integrate September 11 into their analysis, develop strategic responses, and take action.

In movements led by people of color, those most affected by injustice are framing the analysis and putting forward solutions. For white activists, however, it often doesn't come naturally to accept the leadership of people of color. Middle-class white folks tend to get more media attention, allowing them to jump into existing movements and take over, instead of looking around and asking, "Is anyone here more qualified than me?" White activists have enormous contributions to make to movements. They can form alliances with community-based groups, build relationships and trust, and become accountable. They have to resist the habit, however, of coming in with a "take charge" attitude. "It's good you're in a listening mode and not falling into the white male culture of having an answer," said Shea Howell of the youth organization Detroit Summer. Right now it is more important than ever to listen.

When "globalization" organizers start to build connections with local organizing, they will see that a lot of people have been fighting corporate globalization on the local level for a long time. Community, labor, and youth interests overlap when services and jobs are threatened. The recession will cut tax revenues, and cities, counties, and states will try to privatize or cut services to economize. Opposition to budget cuts and privatization at the state and local level connects to the mass movements that are opposing IMF-World Bank "structural adjustment" policies, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

Now is a good time for U.S. movements to recognize the leadership offerered by sister movements around the world. Despite the heightened repression, justice movements abroad are not pulling back now. As Honduran activist Berta Caceres put it: "They have always called us terrorists because we fight for land and bread." Economic and social justice movements in different countries need to build concrete alliances to support each others' battles, the way unions in different countries sometimes join forces against a common employer. This is a crucial moment for U.S. activists not to isolate themselves, but to reach across borders.

Autumn Leonard is the Creative Action coordinator and a national organizer at United for a Fair Economy (UFE). Tomás Aguilar is a national organizer at UFE and a native of Laredo, Texas. He is helping create a Spanish-language popular economics program for UFE. Mike Prokosch coordinates UFE's global economy education and organizing programs. Dara Silverman is a national organizer at UFE and is working on strategies for holding elected officials accountable for the United States' wage and wealth gap.