‘All power to the people’ resonates across a multitude of movements as a slogan, and one that means precisely what it says. It is central to the belief, possibly better described as faith, of community organisers that everyday people working collectively should have power over the many decisions that impact their lives, and that overall this power will work for good. Saul Alinsky—founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation, organiser of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in 1930s and a huge influence over social justice movement organisations from the United Farm Workers to Acorn to London Citizens—wrote in Rules for Radicals:
when we respect the dignity of the people…they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems … Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work. (122-23)
There is a whole worldview underpinning such a statement, even if many organisers might exchange the word participate for something stronger like drive. It rests less on fundamental views of human nature being bad or good—Alinsky can be rather controversial for his lack of idealism and strategising based on the driving nature of self-interest—and more around belief in direct democracy as precisely the best way to manage any narrow self-interest to benefit the larger common good. It joins a radical multitude practising and theorising a collective approach to the transformation of self and society more broadly, such as Frederick Douglas, Franz Fanon, Camillo Torres, Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, the Combahee Collective, Angela Davis and so many others.
It is clear to all of these people and millions more that wider structures of oppression must change, that this world is intolerable if they do not, that these are things worth fighting and dying for.
It isn’t entirely surprising that such a worldview stands in some contrast to much of the academic literature on social movement. An often openly displayed distrust in collective action ensures that all too often the key research question revolves around a kind of wonder: why on earth would people revolt? Volumes are written explaining the ‘aberrations’ of resistance and mass movement, just as volumes are written on the pathologies of the masses. The spaces between these two views are riven by the fractures of race, class, nationality, immigration status, ideology, love and rage. This space is not necessarily defined by the distance between right and left; the socialist Fabians could be as fearful of working-class mass movement and as any of their Tory peers. For some writers such as Marco Revelli, our current moment is defined as much by the abandonment of the masses by the left as anything else.
A level of faith in something we think of as the people must remain there somewhere for any kind of belief in a bottom-up left politics. The challenge then becomes to understand the rise of the popular right across the world in this current conjuncture, from the Alt Right and the election of Trump to Brexit, Orbán in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, the AfD in Germany. This challenge goes deeper than simply shrugging off the bulk of the popular writing on such ‘populist’ movements of our time, many of which seem to simply fall into fears of the masses on the move. That fear can’t be allowed to stand on the left. And yet. In a passage just preceding the quote above, Alinksy wrote:
If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, then his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed…
This is basic to organising and if you come from a neighbourhood like the one I come from you know that respect is everything and yet…the real question raised in a country like America is, what are the values and ways of working and fighting that we are dealing with here?
For those organising in white communities, America’s history of violence and conquest that many pundits wish we could just get over already continues to shape the values of the present. It makes this a difficult, if incredibly important question to answer. It is not a hopeful thing to turn to the past to look for the well-worn grooves that have brought us into the present and made it possible, alongside a very particular set of additional conditions, for a president like Trump to be elected. But it is necessary to explore the ways not just that the present has been shaped by the past, but the dynamics that have continued to ensure its relevance. Ultimately it is necessary to be able to envision the work needed towards the creation of a world where this past is in reality no longer relevant, the better world that remains for us to create.
This very brief historical account of white communities organising themselves to keep their neighbourhoods white is, then, a contribution to understanding not just one set of particular histories that shape our present, but perhaps also points a way forward to what work might prove useful in other places. It allows communities their own voice, improving our understanding of the current strength of the alt right and the resonances of its present rhetoric.
It focuses on Los Angeles, in the state of California. Carved from the lands taken from Mexico in 1848, Anglo-American control caused the Native American population to plummet from 72,000 to 15,000. Most of the original Spanish landowners were dispossessed. The right to space in the western US was always founded on a conquest legitimised through doctrines of manifest destiny. In 1871, Angelenos lynched 19 people, most of them Chinese, in a single night. But the violence of these early frontier days was quietly allowed to slide into oblivion while its goals of white American domination were celebrated. A Chamber of Commerce booster article titled ‘The Los Angeles of Tomorrow’ declared in 1921: ‘For centuries, the Anglo-Saxon race has been marching westward. It is now on the shores of the Pacific. It can go no farther. The apex of this movement is Los Angeles County’.
The open rhetoric of white supremacy that underpinned the enslavement of Blacks and manifest destiny’s genocide is pervasive in the multiple ways that it was marshalled to protect white-only space. Land, and particularly housing has always been a unique commodity shaping both wealth and lives. In terms of wealth it is house as asset that matters, something that can be bought, sold, borrowed against. But in many ways it is house as home that is far more important to people’s lives. In a white supremacist world view, space is not be shared given the ways that it shapes identity, opportunity, friendships and marriage. It defines the air that is breathed, the knowledge that is taught, the jobs that lie in store. Schools and neighbourhoods must be segregated to preserve white chastity and innocence, jobs and resources are to be protected for white security and wealth.
Most early homeowner associations in LA grew up around efforts to ensure neighbourhoods were protected for whites only through the use of race restrictive covenants inserted into housing deeds. Some of their rhetoric has been preserved through the African American paper The California Eagle, whose owner and editor Charlotta Bass spearheaded much of the grassroots civil rights struggle to integrate neighbourhoods over a period of 40 years. From the West Jefferson Press:
… each white man co-operates with his own color, and, demands white supremacy, socially, politically and otherwise. If the southern states can enforce segregation so can the Northern states, providing there is proper cooperation (CE 30 April 1926).
From the Fremont Improvement Association:
Since time began and people found it necessary to associate or live together, organization for political and economic convenience has been necessary if community progress and stability are to be maintained.
The Fremont Improvement Association is organized for the general welfare of the district radiating from the wonderful Fremont High School, particularly south of Slauson from Hooper to Main Street. Much has been accomplished, but much must yet be accomplished.
The integrity of our homes is endangered. We must preserve the schools and district for our own race. The safe guarding of all property against the encroachment of the Negro and Mongolian races into the district is our most urgent work. Your co-operation and membership in the Association is necessary – it is your Association – you owe it to yourself and the community in which you are a vital part to join and give all possible assistance in keeping your district WHITE” (CE 10 December 1926).
From the Crestmore Improvement Association:
We are not trying to crush or humiliate the black race, which is much younger than our own; we are only following a law of nature which has ben [sic] obeyed, respected, and fought for ever since time began – the right of living among our own KIND. The Negro, in his attempt for the uplifting of his own race, is dragging the Caucasian race down to his own level, which is Wholly a selfish and unnatural effort at self advancement and we are thoroughly justified in protecting our families and our homes against this injustice (CE 10 December 1926).
There are three things to note here that should be very familiar. The first, the natural and eternal nature of races and the ‘natural’ logics of racial separation. The second, the way that cooperation and neighbourliness are being constructed and celebrated as white-only in opposition to a dangerous other – a clear-cut ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Third, the sense of victimhood despite the many privileges legally belonging to whites. This declaration that they should be left in peace is repeated over and over again. Where they were not, whites clearly claimed for themselves the right to defend themselves.
Defend themselves they did. The California Eagle is full of testimony to the mobs, threats and acts of violence inflicted on those who attempted to cross the racial boundaries. The early attempts of people of colour to establish the right to live where they chose and escape the boundaries of desperately overcrowded ghetto areas full of substandard housing were brave. Yet people of colour faced a well-armed opposition of white families determined to defend the racial purity of their neighbourhoods. They described the hate directed at them by family groups including housewives and their children: thrown rocks, broken bottles, bombs, burning crosses, home invasions all documented by Charlotta Bass in the pages of her paper. White gangs formed like the ‘Spook Hunters’, where youth wearing jackets adorned with images of lynching patrolled the white-only factory neighbourhoods east of Alameda Street. Grassroots white violence was a primary mechanism protecting white space.
The white supremacist beliefs underpinning this violences were also being inscribed into real estate industry standards. The National Real Estate Board (NAREB) 1924 code of ethics stated: ‘A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood’ (quoted in Helper 1969, 201). The LA Realty Board explicitly shared this view. A 1927 article in their magazine highlighted ‘that court records show that most of the crime in this country is committed by members of these [non-white] races’. This well-worn link between criminality and skin colour was used more broadly in ways that remain central to right-wing rhetoric now to justify violent ‘defense’ and police brutality to ensure that people of colour kept in their place. The same article makes a second equation that continued into the present, that of US citizenship and whiteness. Their rhetoric makes clear the ways that non-whites remain by definition outside of full citizenship just as they remain outside of community.
These beliefs were also inscribed into government regulation, policy and subsidy after the Great Depression led the federal government to completely restructure the mortgage market. Neighbourhoods were graded by a number of factors, principal among them the ‘percent of Negroes’, the presence of other racial groups and immigrants, and to a lesser extent class. To quote from the guidelines to these maps: ‘Red areas represent those neighborhoods … characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it.’ From the Federal Housing Authority’s (FHA) underwriting criteria of 1936:
The Valuator should investigate areas surrounding the location to determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present, to the end that an intelligent prediction may be made regarding the possibility or probability of the location being invaded by such groups. If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.
From the valuation of an actual LA neighbourhood:
There is a threat of subversive racial infiltration (Negroes largely) in the southeast portion of area. An attempt was made to break the area down but it is in a transition period present, and it was not feasible. However, it is believed that in the course of time it will be necessary that this be done and will result in a number of areas grading from “low blue” to 4th grade (HOLC 1939).
There is little distinction in content, although some in style, between this official language and that used by early homeowner associations. These maps would form the basis of redlining as a practice. Race was made central to the appraisal of property value in the process, and the FHA required race restrictive deeds on properties for the provision of subsidies. Thus the immateriality of white supremacy and fear of non-whites became inscribed into the all too material economics of land and housing, ensuring that any non-white presence would impact on home values. A most un-natural connection between whiteness and home value would define the geographies of the city to come, even as these geographies would serve to further shape and define the nature of white racism.
From the Maywood Chamber of Commerce in 1943:
Race restrictions concern each and every one of us. If you are interested in saving your investment, if you are interested in preserving that for which you have labored many years; if you are interested in keeping Maywood Caucasian and the type of community that you can be proud of raising your children in, then you will get on the band wagon and help win the fight which immediately confronts us.
Over and over again there is the use of the words infiltration, absorption, invasion. There is a discourse around fear for wives and children intertwined around fear for property values.
WWII shook this all up of course, particularly the powerful civil rights campaign of the Double V – V for Victory against fascism abroad but also at home. The parallels between Hitler’s genocide and white supremacism within the US, even as the US was looking to take a new leadership role in the world as a defender of democracy and justice, could not be ignored. The post-WWII era represents a huge victory for African American struggle and the first real shift in the legal structures supporting white supremacy, with the legality of race-restrictive covenants struck down and much of the rhetoric toned down in public discourse. This is not to say that more virulent forms of white supremacism did not continue alive and well, but they moved from the centre to the (somewhat) less acceptable margins. This quote from a 1944 letter from a Los Angeles resident to California’s Governor Warren to ask for his help against the ‘Negroes’ embodies these changes:
I don’t believe in intermarriage, of course, I don’t believe in residential mixing, believing that the colored folks should live in their respective sections and fraternize among themselves, not feel they have a right to ‘mix’ with the whites.
I believe in the unalienable rights of every man, whatever his race cred (sic) or color; but only so long as he minds his own business and does not tread on the toes of others.
Crashing against the rocks of such beliefs, the civil rights celebration of victory and hope that segregation would end with race restrictive covenants was short-lived, not least due to the ways whites fought long and hard in the appeals courts. One brief filed before the Supreme Court by eleven homeowner associations from LA described higher murder and crime rates in non-white areas, and continued:
Every national Negro magazine known to petitioners on the news stands this month, June, contains one or more articles, either featuring or displaying intermarriage between Negroes and whites … There is no room in the philosophy being taught to Negroes for the white man’s personal freedom of choice of associates. This attitude among Negroes who move into white neighborhoods adds to the other factors which, equally understandably, make them unwelcome neighbors (1953 Petition for rehearing, Barrows v Jackson 9346 US 249).
Whites also fought street by street to preserve their neighbourhoods. Groups like Neighborly Endeavours, Inc. held meetings of over 150 people, this is from notes taken in 1950:
This experience has drawn us much closer together in Leimert Park. We had to buy up one piece of property and we’re going to sue the person who sold it to a Negro. There are a lot of constructive things that we can do now that we are organized… We chose the name Neighborly Endeavors, Inc. because we realize that it is only through loving our neighbors that we are going to be able to protect our community.
Again it is love and mutual aid within the white community that is called upon to defend it from people of colour. Where legal means of keeping non-whites out failed, whites continued to respond with violence. In the neighbourhood being defended by Neighborly Endeavours Inc., one family had their kitchen and basement flooded when neighbours ran their hose pipe through their window while they were out. In others, crosses were burned, tacks strewn in lawns, hateful graffiti sprayed across homes and sidewalks, rocks and bullets sent through windows in addition to arson and a handful of bombs.
Where whites could not hold the line they fled, and this only accelerated as the fight for civil rights swelled through the 1950s and 1960s. White flight was, of course, also heavily subsidised by the government through infrastructure and tax breaks for the developers of massive suburban communities as well as the provision of loans to primarily white soldiers after the war. The new suburbs exerted a powerful pull, yet for many families this move was a traumatic process. Communities came together to organise and fight for a cause they believed in, and in failing they lost their neighbourhood networks and their homes, as well as the investment that those homes represented. Despite this loss being caused by the embeddedness of violent racism and their own fear within the economics of real estate, it is arguably the memory of victimisation that remained.
Yet when they moved to the suburbs, resources and urban infrastructure moved with them leaving central areas desolate. More and more city neighbourhoods and inner suburbs like Compton fell victim to redlining with businesses closing and banks shutting down offices. Loren Miller, a key NAACP lawyer in the Supreme Court litigation against deed restrictions, described the pain of realising that their victory had not ended the ghetto but only expanded it. The struggle continued, but on a new suburban front.
When civil rights movement groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began to campaign for the integration of the new affluent suburbs, homeowners again fought back. Again we find the same kinds of discourse, this is from the Torrence Press on 31 July, 1963.
We want for ourselves the same civil rights they claim to be demonstrating for. … We are not wealthy people. To many of us, our homes represent most of what we own and hold dear. Many in the area have made substantial sacrifices to purchase homes in this neighborhood. Now we want to live in them in peace. We respect the civil and human right of every individual, whatever his race, creed or color and we ask that our own rights be respected as well. (Press 31 July 1963)
They posted signs saying ‘Without property rights there are no human rights’ and ‘We have civil rights too’. Despite mobilising thousands of people, including Hollywood stars, CORE’s campaign would be a failure.
New ways of protecting the resources of white neighbourhoods emerged. An ingenious mechanism for contracting for county services allowed multiple white areas to incorporate as small cities, thereby removing their tax base and schools from a multi-ethnic LA and giving them greater control over police forces. The greater LA metropolitan area is now a patchwork of 276 cities and pieces of land that are still unincorporated and therefore under the jurisdiction of LA county alone.
This period also saw the rise of Common Interest Developments, or CIDs. These are communities, many of them gated, managed by a self-taxing homeowners’ association. This association both enforces covenants placed on homes to protect property values and manages privatised streets, security and other services which would traditionally belong to a municipality. The United States Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reported in 1989 that the rise of CIDs ‘probably accounts for the most significant privatization of US local government responsibilities this century’ (1989, 18). In 1964, there were fewer than 500 of these associations. By 1970, 10,000 and by 1992, 150,000 associations governed an estimated 32 million Americans. After all the many victories of the civil rights movement, this period saw segregation increase rather than decrease across the US. Segregation would ensure a growing white ignorance of the pain and poverty that resulted from their flight. Freeways allow suburbanites to travel at speed across and above desolate neighbourhoods stripped of resources even as the increased distance only facilitated the demonization and increased fear of these communities. This is the terrible recursive loop at the centre of what Robert Reich has called ‘the secession of the successful’ .
Arguably, this is the secession we continue to witness, but an increasingly violent one since the 2008 crisis, particularly since the campaign and election of Trump.
There are many different views of quite what populism is, but one point of agreement is that it arises in just such times of crisis. It is a response to changes in the world beyond people’s control, and while capitalism limps along, the global economic crisis did change everything. For some this hit with a crash, for many others, a long slow decline. This seems to be a key driver of renewed violence: whites continue to be ready to defend what they perceive to be theirs and that they now believe to be at risk. This is not a revolt of the poor. Instead as the numbers show (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/05/its-time-to-bust-the-myth-most-trump-voters-were-not-working-class/ ) it is a revolt of the middle and upper classes of whites who feel not just loss, but that others have actively divested them of key aspects of their lives and identities: race privilege, male privilege, income, social status, recognition of work, respect for faith and country, their place in the world. Yet as David Neiwert writes in Alt-America, this is strongest in those areas once wealthy in union jobs and thereby rich in resources. Areas where decline has been felt the strongest and where white solidarity has always been strong.
Again there is some consensus that populism takes place when one portion of the population declares itself as ‘the people’, an organic whole that sets itself against those who fall outside of its definitions. It is built around an antagonistic line of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The long struggle to prevent integration is one strand of the formation of white identities that shows clearly how membership of community and neighbourhood as well as citizenship have been constructed as white possessions. This history ensures that whiteness remains central to many an understanding of citizenship and definition of good neighbour, and therefore remains central to the identity of ‘the people’. This is true even as the complexity of racial politics today means that there has been some widening and blurring of racial boundaries – yet the reaction to Black Lives Matter, the protests of the North Dakota Pipeline, the murder of children such as Trayvon Martin and the defense of immigrant children in cages at the border show just how far removed most people of colour remain from white common sense conceptions of ‘us’. The complexities of economic crisis also mean that immigrants and most people of colour have been lumped together with the ‘liberals’ that have defended their rights (however poorly) and the swamp of Washington, the worlds of finance and banks, the forces of globalisation, LGBT activists and Hollywood celebrities.
In some ways, today’s movement can be read as just another attempt at defense of home and privilege from a population perceived to be on the attack. The quote below from Trump’s January 2019 speech on immigration makes this eerily clear in light of this longer history:
Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences, and gates around their homes? They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside but because they love the people on the inside. The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized.
‘Make America Great Again’ insists on a return to a past that clearly privileged some (primarily white men) over others, and as such serves as a broad rallying call for a wealth of otherwise disparate causes and movements that make up what is broadly termed the alt right. It also resonates with a wide swathe of Americans who share a longer trajectory of white flight and the trading of belonging to a wider civic polity along with multiple freedoms to safeguard their property and the homogeneity of their neighbourhoods. Once again they feel under threat, and once again they are responding. Once again it is violently, under a leader who encourages and applauds this violence. This is from a speech on 1st February, 2016:
Democratic power is surrendered to the leader in return for a sense of wider belonging to a familiar and comfortable definition of ‘the people’ along with the empowerment at individual level to ‘make America great again’ as people see fit. The Southern Poverty Law Action Centre has documented the devastatingly huge rise in everyday incidents of hate crime alongside the rise in more visible acts of violence and white terror that reach the mainstream press.
It is in this aspect that populism differs completely from ‘all power to the people’. Marco Revelli describes is as ‘populism-as-project’, and the history of grassroots white struggle can be heard echoing through endless broadcasts on Fox News and Breitbart in the promotion of the love of home, family and country to be defended against the crimes and violence of various enemies. From titles of books like Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole (2016) by Ann Coulter to this from Sean Hannity on Fox News, 13 October 2009:
Here you are, you’re a liberal, probably define peace as the absence of conflict. I define peace as the ability to defend yourself and blow your enemies into smithereens
The US Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) elimination of the fairness doctrine in 1987 – the requirement that the holders of broadcast licenses present news of public importance and that their coverage be honest, equitable and balanced – opened the door for such right-wing news to promote and shape a new right politics. It is a politics that disdains facts, is quick to judgment, full of fear, comfortable with violence, impatient and often scornful of political process, and absolutely lacking in critical self-reflection on self or country.
This is a failure of democracy, not a symptom of too much of it.
It is, in a word, the opposite of the world and the communities that community organisers and popular educators seek to build. To return to Saul Alinsky, he noted long ago that the (white) folks from Chicago’s back of the yards organized under ‘equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture’ (16). Community organising has developed over the intervening years precisely to address these wider issues, particularly around intersectionality. We need a left movement that works towards developing critical collective thought while confronting these histories and dismantling this racist, discriminatory culture.
I think we have the tools for such a response. Both community organising and popular education are founded on the belief that through collective dialogue and action, people can confront and overcome these histories. It is in this work that people transform themselves and their society. The very fact that we can understand how certain attitudes have been constructed and developed over time means that they can be deconstructed. Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that our vocation is in fact to confront just these histories, reflect on them critically, transform them. That this is the way we reclaim our full humanity, and this is the task before us. Part of the danger with the way populism is argued and discussed lies in its distrust of the masses all together, and the response so easily becomes more restrictive democracies. But it is the abandoning of people and their collective ability to name and transform their reality that is in fact at issue here. The only way to escape the histories of white supremacism, imperialism, colonialism is to take them apart collectively to be able to rebuild together a better world. We owe it to the generations who have fought before us. As Charlotta Bass editorialised in the California Eagle in 1943
On the one hand, there is the Ku Klux Klan, the National Rifle Association, and the scores of race property restriction organizations…
On the other hand, there is the labor movement, both CIO and AFL, the Negro people, the Jewish and Mexican minorities. These forces compose the basic win-the-war element of our city. These are the workers who build the ships, guns, planes of victory. These are the legions of patriots who will fight for the reality of the Four Freedoms, and understand within their own lives, the menace of fascism.
In the middle, there is a bulk of Americans dangerously open to the fascist incitement of the racists (CE 11 November 1943).
As much as things have changed, they still remain the same. Especially, it turns out, the National Rifle Association. We still have work to do.