While the Obama administration was often disappointing to progressives, the past eight years have seen the maturation of a new generation of activists on the left. I sat down with Providence Student Union Executive Director Zack Mezera to get his perspectives on post-Occupy organizing and activism as we enter the age of Trump. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Starting with Occupy — 2011
Zack Mezera: There was a lot of disappointment around Occupy, but I didn't feel disappointed by it. A lot of folks thought that it was under-structured, and it didn't have clear goals. There were leadership battles. Too many committees. Aspirations of being so horizontal that it was useless.
We tried out that ideal, which was very theoretical, for a while and saw that it had some serious shortcomings. It was an important growth moment for leftist organizers. Just because you say everything is going to be horizontal and transparent doesn't mean that it will actually work.
As far as I can tell on the left, we still have some of those ideals about working transparently and working horizontally and everyone having an equal voice. We've taken communication in general much more seriously. But yeah, there's a lot more maturity now about remembering that structure is important.
It was a movement at the beginning of tech and surveillance, which is something I'm interested in, although I'm not some Mr. Robot hacker. I think it was a shock to some people when they saw the penetration by the FBI, and they saw how tech was being used, phone calls being reported. I'm glad to see that we're taking that more seriously now, and that there's folks like Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept that are pushing this narrative about encryption. That's a big point of maturity for the left. Those are some concrete benefits that we got out of it.
I think it prepared us for this much scarier time. There are some regrets that we all have about not having seized the time as well, but I do think we're better off for that having happened.
Organizations to watch in 2017
ZM: There are some organizations that I am really impressed with now that are thinking about communications in the right way. You can have really broad-based communications as a way of doing organizing. I think we've undervalued that for a while.
Groups like Cosecha are really impressive doing mass mobilization, rapid response work mostly around immigration issues. It has really blown up in the past year. The sanctuary walkouts that happened this past Wednesday, the 16th of November, were organized by Cosecha. There were walkouts on 60 campuses or so through tactical use of Facebook to promote narratives and target the right people using Facebook's algorithms. Using Facebook live video and other kinds of live videos to do demonstrations publicly for people to see, and you have to scroll past them so it puts it right in their face. That's smart.
They’ve been using mass coordination calls. Political folks have done this for a while. I think Obama was one of the first to do this, where he'd have staff calls and then invite everyone to call in on the conference line and listen in, to break open and make transparent the strategic work of the campaign. That's a big thing now, and Cosecha, in particular, has been smart about doing these regular calls. The last one they did in advance of the walkouts on Tuesday had like 900 people on in from cities across the country who are trying to do their own campus walkouts. They're targeting those. There's a call tonight or tomorrow for faith leaders who are concerned about immigration policy organized by them. Hundreds of people are going to call in.
What they're trying to do is motivate and provide tools to organizers in a smart way, and then they don't have to be branded as "Cosecha" at the local level. It was not branded as a Cosecha walkout that happened at Brown on Wednesday, as far as I can tell, but it was on their map of sixty something places that had done so. That's smart, that's mixing the hierarchical with the horizontal, providing strategy from the top down that you can choose to accept or not at the local level. That's good stuff.
We're also seeing some thinking from smaller local organizing groups based on identities and affinities. Organizations for people of color grappling with the need to first turn inward and protect their own people. Taking a close look at the strategies that we've been working on for a while that aren't really working. We're not winning the campaigns that we need to win by staying so insular. It’s a tough position to be in. We wanted to do really strong LGBTQ organizing, and dammit we did it. We had the strongest family of 20 queer and trans youth ever, and they will protect each other, but then driving policy from such a small body is tough.
Provided they get the resources and support they need, PrYSM, the Providence Youth Student Movement, is going to be out front on this stuff, because they're ready to take bold stances and do that second thing of throwing themselves in front of systems in a way that a lot of other organizations are not. They're going to be out front. It is not fair that they have to be out front, so we have to back them up.
Then Working Families Party in Rhode Island is doing really smart stuff, they're thinking very strategically, and starting to hold centrist Democrats accountable and building up a popular front for an actual left wing platform in the state. I'm on the board of WFP, but I think they're moving in the right direction and have a long term plan that's smart, and it has a national connection.
ZM: There's this new publication that's been going for about a year that's called Its Going Down. Brilliant. It's just doing on the ground local coverage of anti-white supremacist work, anti-fascist work that's edited really well. They have been following around a millennial alt-right leader and going to all his rallies and reporting on the shit that he's doing, in a really smart way. They’re providing a platform for the best analysis I've seen from organizers and activists. Even Jacobin magazine, for it’s poor editing, is still changing some of the dialog and reasserting a left media which we haven't had for a long time.
Finding common ground
ZM: We need to articulate an alternative vision. We have totally failed at that, both because there's been structural power that's been promoting the liberal Democratic Party that favors Wall Street and the professional class, and because we haven't provided ourselves with enough margin of error for us to come up with something together. Very radical shut-the-system-down groups have not been able to bridge the gap with progressive leftist electoral groups and identity affinity power groups, and unions.
We haven't been able to put anything together I think in part because we've all been so self-critical of each other for not meeting each other's standards or following each other's game plans. I'm seeing the first steps of us saying, "I know we don't agree on everything, but our final vision is 95% the same. Let's come up with some language, let's put some stuff together.” That's heartening, but it should have happened eight years ago, and a lot of people are going to be hurt because of that.