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Build Grassroots Political Organization, Fight for Governing Power

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Black and white photo of protesters at a march

Contending for political power on the state level, especially in the South, is critical for winning fights in the short and long term.

The current political moment is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

An explosive uprising is taking place across the United States. The catalyst was a series of high-profile lynchings of Black people at the hands of police. While George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin was the spark that lit this most recent flame, the terror imposed by law enforcement, and the rising up of Black communities and our allies against such violence, didn’t start with George Floyd. It won’t stop there either. The lynchings of Nina Pop, Breonna Taylor, and so many more have galvanized a new movement.

It is incredibly exciting to see so many people actively engaged in fierce struggle against what I call the “New Confederacy” – the alliance of reactionary rich and middle class whites using the Republican Party to push forward an austerity-driven, racist, and patriarchal agenda. The scale of today’s upsurge poses the question of what kind of organizations can sustain and focus the fight for popular power with more urgency than ever.

The aspirations and aims of the Black-led people’s movement have short, intermediate, and long-term implications.

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Key focus: Power at the state level

The Carolina Federation is a political organization in North Carolina founded at the tail end of the last decade. Its purpose is building grassroots-based muscle able to contest and capture governing power at the state level.

We in the Federation believe that pushing forward fights for housing, food security, and police-free communities is a crucial task. However, if we don’t have organizations that put independent political power-building at the center of our program, if we do not generalize our struggles, we will always be on the defensive and fragmented. We need to fight inside, not remain outside, the electoral battlegrounds that determine the political architecture shaping our conditions. Our commitment to putting governmental power in the hands of the left allows us to move towards the offensive against the New Confederacy and provides the opportunity to struggle against and isolate neoliberal Democrats.

In North Carolina, the New Confederacy has used the state to organize “up and down.” The General Assembly has “organized down” by passing state-level legislation and programs that prevent progressive and radical progress at the city and county level. Our opponents have also “organized up” by using the state as a springboard to launch their minions into the federal government. This has been the New Confederacy’s strategy for taking political power nationwide. Southern white elites have been the anchor for spreading their reactionary agenda across the country.

Contending for political power within state governments, especially in the South, is critical for winning fights on a host of issues – healthcare, labor rights, reproductive justice, electoral laws, and more. Historically, the state level has been a major decision-making point in shaping the political contours of the country. State governments are often in contention with the federal government over their constitutional power. This makes the state government level central in our enemy’s ability to accrue and maintain their power.

Target and isolate the main enemy

On the local level, our grassroots political organization can provide logistics and infrastructure for people who are being swept into motion by the moment. We consistently face terror campaigns and police repression, so we need an organized permanent vehicle that will be able to resist, articulate our demands, and affirm a left political program. Since the uprising began, I have come across large numbers of people who are becoming interested in joining political organizations. We have been stressing to people that the political organization we are constructing is permanent and will exist when these moments come, when they subside, and whether or not the corporate media is covering mass protest or our organization’s work.

The uprising has reinforced my belief in the centrality of using independent political organization to build and wield the political power of working-class people across race and people of color across the popular classes. Our mass struggles are fights to win federal level resources to keep people in their homes, to win funding for a transformative county-wide school bond, to move forward city policies that #DefundThePolice. However, the county government is controlled by Republicans, and they continue to have the final say on the allocation of millions of dollars that could be used to transform our communities. Our ability to transform society overall, to gain enough popular power to build socialism in the long run, requires us to concentrate on removing the New Confederacy from government in the short term.

We can only do that by uniting the broadest possible alliance of social forces and narrowing the target to the main enemy.

What I and other organizers like me are seeing is that we need people in government that come out of the left and popular movements. Otherwise, it is incredibly difficult to move our agenda forward. At the county level, the Republicans refuse to even speak to our movement demands to fully fund education or to use the federal CARES money to assist people struggling to stay housed. The Right is our enemy and we have to move consistently against them.

Government as target, tool and terrain

In Greensboro, Republicans are not in the picture. Therefore, we are focusing on removing the right-wing of the Democratic Party from power. That is crucial for advancing a more popular agenda. Over the past four or five years we have worked hard to get activists and organizers from our movement elected to government in Durham. There are two important lessons we are learning when it comes to having our folks in governing positions:

First, government is a target, a tool, and a terrain of struggle. The government is often a target of righteous protest. We have also learned that the government can be a tool of people’s movements. And government is a complicated terrain for movements to navigate.

Second, I deeply agree with the statement that we need to both correct mistakes made by our people in government and protect them from attacks coming from our main enemy. The orientation of correcting them must include genuine curiosity about why they made the decisions they did, how they assess how power is distributed and concentrated on the governing body. Additionally, we have to use our political power to protect them from a state government that is looking for any reason to take more power away from city governments that are trying to chart an alternative path.

Mass action and electoral struggle

Aligning mass demonstrations with grassroots political organizations that build power within and beyond the electoral terrain is critical. There are a number of people I organize with who have been fighting around specific issues – education, housing, or addressing state/police violence – for years. Many people have been newly invigorated and moved by the current upsurge. The role of political organization is to let people know that in addition to these massive, incredible uprisings, there is a way to move forward that generalizes our struggle to make sure that people in government are responsive to our movements and come out of the movements we are building.

Our enemies know they are being challenged. The fight for Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic presidential nomination was unsuccessful, and now the New Confederacy is salivating at the prospect of facing off against Biden. They are actively using the Coronavirus calamity to hold illegitimate elections, and under cover of the pandemic are furthering their agenda of transferring even more wealth from the poorest peoples to the already wealthy.

The racist right has far larger goals than just four more years of Trump. They are aiming for a constitutional convention to destroy the Reconstruction & Civil Rights Amendments (Nos 13-15, 23, 24 and 26) and suffocate the small pockets of democracy left here and around the world.

The South in the upsurge and beyond

Historically the South is the origin of both the most revolutionary and most reactionary movements in U.S. politics. The abolitionist movement began in the South. The slave system began in the South. The Black freedom struggle has always been deeply interwoven with southern history. Post-slave system reactionary movements have also been interwoven with southern history. The struggle to break with climate change denialism faces a huge obstacle because southern states are still under our enemy’s control.

Amid the current uprising, southern states like North Carolina and Virginia and numerous southern cities are being forced to respond to people’s movements demanding that they defund the police and invest in our communities.

The historical concentration of our enemy’s power is in the South, and this is a huge factor in the Right’s ability to dominate national politics. Building left governments in the South will play a leading role in our ability to change national politics to favor the multi-gendered, multi-racial working-class.

My hopes and dreams

I feel hopeful knowing that the future is an incomplete project. It is not set in stone. Radical change comes from organized people’s movements responding to the conditions under which they live. There is new momentum for change in the country because of the disasters stemming from the Coronavirus, capitalist inequality, climate change, and conquest. Change is afoot. The wind is at our backs.

Grassroots political organizations like the Carolina Federation are a certain kind of vehicle, a particular form of organization that allows peoples movements to fight for what the U.S. left has lacked: left government. We need more and larger permanent, independent, political organizations. These organizations take on the challenge of capturing the base that is currently under the sway of the Democratic Party – the millions of Black people, people of color, and working people that are crucial for making radical change. We pose an alternative to the barbarity and calamity that will afflict our communities if the Right maintains its control.

I’m hopeful there will be more independent political organizations that will be built as entry points for millions into political struggle. Together we can set goals five and ten years ahead. Though state governments are subject to the framework of the U.S. Constitution, there are many key policies and decisions that are determined at the state level, under the specific political architecture of each state. What would be possible if, by 2030, our political organizations and unions gained enough power to re-write state constitutions across the South, change state laws, and meet the main demands of our people’s movements?

Revolutionary movements must center the goal of left governing power. We need examples of left government for our descendants to look to, in the same way we look to  Harriet Tubman and the revolutionary gains of Reconstruction, the democratic legacy of Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas in Haiti, and the experiences of popular movements in power throughout the world.

Our moment is now. Let’s join together to build long-term grassroots political organizations to defeat the New Confederacy.

The author would like to thank Whitney Maxey for assistance in crafting this article. 



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