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Left Turn & The Movement: 2000 – 2010

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Photo of a woman yelling at a protest overlaid by text that says Engaging Crisis

As we reflect on Organizing Upgrade’s one-year anniversary, Left Turn is celebrating ten years since it first launched as a much-needed magazine for the emergent social movements of our time.Organizing Upgrade is excited to share this reflective piece written by two members of the editorial collective of Left Turn magazine,Max Uhlenbeck and Rami El-Amine.

The spring of 2006 saw Left Turn magazine celebrate its five-year anniversary with a special (104 page!) publication of “Reflections on Resistance (issue #20).” Among the 25 articles featured was an extended editorial titled ‘Notes from the Global Intifada,’ describing the development of the political project. Reflecting on the two key political shifts that the movement was grappling with between the late 90s and the early 2000s, the editorial read; Left Turn was born from the hopeful energy in the streets of Seattle, but matured in “the age of terrorism.” Indeed it was only months after the magazine launched in the spring of 2001 that the attacks of September 11th would change the world, and how activists would respond to that world dramatically.

Global intifada

From the start, Left Turn was very much an internationalist project, highlighting both the disastrous effects of US imperialism in the world while simultaneously documenting resistance movements to those policies and local struggles for justice and self-determination.  The tag line on the magazine mast head ‘Notes from the Global Intifada’ was inspired by the ongoing Palestinian struggle to ‘shake off’ (the literal translation of intifada) the ongoing, quite ruthless, Israeli occupation of their homelands.

In some ways, the second Palestinian intifada which erupted in September of 2000, had just as much of an impact on those who started Left Turn as the protests in Seattle. The popular uprising came on the heels of the Lebanese resistance’s eviction of Israel from southern Lebanon, the first major defeat of Israel since its creation in 1948. The protests throughout the Middle East in solidarity with the intifada were massive and in almost every Arab country turned to issues of democracy, poverty and corruption and, inevitably, against the dictators that ruled over them.

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While the September 11 attacks didn’t derail the intifada in the same way they had the anti-globalization protests, they took the wind out of the sails of the international solidarity movement which was playing a significant role in preventing Israel from launching an all out war on the Palestinians. After September 11th, Israel immediately launched a propaganda war around the world, particularly in the US, linking Al Qaeda to Hamas and, of course, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran so that they could more easily get away with brutally putting down the intifada. In April of 2002 it launched Operation Defensive Shield, the largest invasion of the Occupied Territories since the 1967 war, killing almost 500 Palestinians and injuring more than 1400.

US protest movements

Between 2000 and 2003, movements for social justice, and a left anti-imperialist pole within those movements, were visible in the streets on a regular basis. Although increased policing and preemptive mass arrests changed the nature of summit protests in places like Philadelphia, Washington DC and New York City between 2000-2002, a new, larger, and much more broad based anti-war movement soon took center stage. Between October of 2002 and March of 2003, the US saw six mass mobilizations take place, involving between 10,000 and 500,000 people.

Left Turn magazine, which an early profile piece by the Columbia School of Journalism Review called ‘a trade publication for a new generation of activists’ would grow organically in tandem with the movement that poured into the streets those years, as a non-staffed, all volunteer initiative looking to give voice to the organizers and participants in some of these movements. Left Turn played a big role in the April 2002 mass mobilizations in DC that brought together key sectors of the peace movement together with the burgeoning Palestine solidarity movement and the various activist networks still focusing on the IMF & World Bank and global justice issues. The sometimes difficult, other times dynamic, transition and tension that many activists and organizers working on issues of US imperialism felt during the 2001-2003 period were chronicled and debated in the pages of the magazine in a way that seemed helpful to a young movement still finding it’s voice.

Initial goals

Some of the initial goals that the magazine laid out in those early years included;

– Produce a non-sectarian left publication that would be attractive and accessible to an inter-generational group of activists, including, importantly, new layers of young organizers who had been politicized since Seattle and September 11th, 2001.

– Bring an anti-imperialist analysis to the maturing global justice movement, rooted in the complexities of the Middle East and specifically Palestine as the focus of US led imperialism and our governments ‘special relationship’ with Israel.

– Highlight exciting new movements across Latin America which were at the forefront of experiments in radical democracy and left electoral strategies (and which we saw as the primary counter-force to US imperialism in the current period).

– Become an open and inviting space where a cross section of left organizers and grassroots activists can come for substantive and meaningful cross-sector dialogue and debate in a way that could model such discussion for future national networks or organizations.

Think global, act local

As the vibrant protest movements that led up to the invasion of Iraq died down after 2003, and we saw Bush get reelected in November of 2004—even after a number of huge demonstrations just a few months prior at the Republican National Convention—many organizers, including many of us involved with Left Turn, began to turn greater attention to questions of community organizing strategies and building organizations locally that could take on critical fights or long term capacity building. Important conversations on the relationship between occasional mass mobilizations in the streets (almost always focusing on international issues) and more deeply rooted work locally fighting ‘the war at home’ in communities most targeted by the post-September 11th government crack-downs and the ongoing criminalization of Black and brown communities more generally, specifically through the prison industrial complex which had reached epic proportions by the early 21st century.

This meant among other things;

– Building increased power in local organizations and coalitions led by low-income people of color, specifically Black and Latino led organizing efforts.

– Supporting the work and writing of Arab-American and Muslim activists and communities who found themselves on the front lines of nativist and white supremacist attacks in the wake of September 11th.

– Highlighting the work of radical US based LGBTQ organizations, especially those oriented around issues of working class and poor communities and those attempting to do base-building work.

– Documenting the growth and struggles of workers movements that traditionally have fallen outside of the official US labor movement—specifically farmworkers and domestic workers, as some of the most dynamic organizing that has happened in the past decade.

Building bridges

One of the things that was in large part missing from the movement when Left Turn was founded were spaces where different sectors; students, labor, community organizers, academics, cultural workers, Palestine solidarity & anti-war activists, could come together and discuss ideas and strategic orientation, especially across ideological differences. This is something important that has changed for the better over the past decade, due in part to the large and diverse gatherings at the US Social Forum in Atlanta (2007) and Detroit (2010) but also the evolution of conferences like the National Conference of Organized Resistance (1998-2008), the Allied Media Conference—specifically, since it’s move to Detroit in 2007, and the Left Forum, which evolved out of the Socialist Scholars conference in 2005.

The Revolutionary Work in Our Times (RWIOT) summer schools in 2008 and 2009 contributed to this dynamic as well on a smaller, more defined level, as it worked to build unity between explicitly left and revolutionary organizations that had in the past not often collaborated on joint projects. This larger shift towards more communication and collaboration however has also been aided by the evolution of non-sectarian left media projects, which sought to highlight a wide array of voices instead of pontificating from the pulpit. Since the folding of Crossroads magazine (in some ways different, in others very similar to Left Turn) in 1996, Left Turn in many ways sought to fill the void back when it was launched in 2001 and Organizing Upgrade certainly builds on this important tradition with a much more advanced online forum for substantive exchanges between engaged activists and organizers. This general good will and inclination towards collaboration was certainly not inevitable, especially in the context of a still very fractured and weak left in the US but we like to think we made our modest contribution to this overall push.

Where are we going?

If a new generation has felt a growing openness towards collaboration and the breaking down of some of the unnecessary walls that have divided many of us in the past (we are all Facebook friends now, right?), we are certainly still a long way away from reaching clarity on where we might go together. In some sense, now that we have struggled to achieve a higher level of respectful dialogue, the question of principled disagreements, much less bold proposals that move beyond our individual or organizational comfort zones, have become harder.

Such proposals for larger unity projects however, will have to be put forward by those representing real organizational infrastructure. Although the blogosphere is filled on a daily basis with this and that ‘way forward for the left’ (usually alongside it’s condemnation of various organizations and coalitions of course—the left loves to eat it’s young), such proposals have not and will never by moved forward individual activists. Serious proposals will have to be advanced by (most likely a network of individuals) who represent an organized base of some kind—people who will be held accountable by a larger group they are claiming to in part represent. The RWIOT initiative in this sense was an important, although in the end perhaps slightly too narrow, an attempt to begin such conversations.

Significant work still has to be done on this front. Beyond crucial differences on such key questions as the relationship to electoral politics and the Democratic Party, there also seems to be a clearer and growing gap between those radicals politicized in the 50s and 60s and those who have come of age in the past twenty years. This is both true within left cadre organizations as well as larger informal networks of activists across the country. Having learned a lot of lessons from the previous decades of struggle, the generation on the younger side of 50 will have to make it’s move on some sort of consolidated and collective political effort, and (without creating unnecessary or unhelpful lines in the sand) the other side of that coin will have to put some faith and take some leadership from this new generation in a way that many have been unwilling to do so far.

Among the questions we will have to collectively think and write more about is the relationship between the left non-profit wing of the movement, best represented in the US by Grassroots Global Justice and the coalition of exciting grassroots basebuilding organizations that they bring together and at least two other sectors; the progressive wing of the netroots (and even more mainstream media and prominent story tellers) as well as the activist networks and cadre organizations whom have not yet deteriorated into small sects and remain relevant in the current political landscape. Perhaps one of the few bright sides of awknowledging our relative weakness as an organized left in the US, might be the growing sense of the need to get on the same page and create something new and more powerful.

Franz Fanon summed it up eloquently in his classic ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ when he wrote ‘each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.’ This generation, living through particularly scary times, will have to take into account the real limitations as well as possibilities that the current political moment presents us with right now. As De La Soul, representing an older generation of progressive hip-hop artists, said in 1996—‘Stakes is High.’

Looking out the window, we live on the intersection of ecological catastrophe, the decline of US empire and imperial hegemony in the world and the ongoing capitalist economic crisis, all of which will intensify in the coming years creating a volatile mix along the lines of which we have yet to experience as a species. Indeed, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.


Rami El-Amine is an Arab/Muslim activist who has been involved in a wide range of social justice struggles in the DC metro area for the past 16 years. He has been involved with Left Turn since its founding in 2001.

Max Uhlenbeck is an editor, writer and organizer who works and lives in New York City. He has been on the Left Turn editorial collective since 2004 and works at the Brecht Forum, a Left movement space and cultural center, doing grassroots fundraising.