Wade Rathke is a seasoned organizer who helped found ACORN and SEIU Local 100 in the 1970s. He has remained strongly active in both groups and in a number of others. It is therefore all the more disturbing to see Rathke, a key player in building an organization that "pioneered multi- racial and multi-issue organizing," make such an concerted and destructive attack on Community Labor United and its Black leader Curtis Muhammad. On Friday, on his blog, Chief Organizer, Rathke was unbelievably condescending.
The most bizarre, and in some ways insulting, question I have been asked in the wake of Katrina is to identify groups to act as sponsor go betweens, just as if New Orleans was another foreign country like Iraq. It is insulting because whether we are talking about almost 10000 family members of ACORN in New Orleans or a couple of thousand members of Local 100 from the city – we have a base, it just doesn't happen to be in New Orleans, since it is caught in the diaspora now.
A good example is something called Community Labor United (CLU). This is a little bitty thing of maybe a dozen or two activists that has convened meetings off and on for years mostly on Saturdays for a while at Dillard and last I heard at the Treme Community Center. Mainly it is not labor but it has a couple of well intentioned AFT teachers that are personally involved and Curtis Muhammad, who ran a small local union for UNITE for a couple of years before he retired, was often in attendance. Mostly I didn't recognize the few other folks there, but some may have been students or whatever. Curtis is a good guy, but good love him, he wouldn't be able to really move any thing in New Orleans, because he doesn't have the base, the weight, the contacts, or the history god love him. To the best of my knowledge CLU was semi-defunct in recent years and certainly never had a paid staff or any capacity. Back 5-6 years ago when it was trying to first get started, we used to send folks to some of the Saturday meetings because they wanted to support our work and act as a bridge to other communities, but over the last couple of years that has also petered out. But now a wave of water moves through New Orleans and I actually get inquires about whether or not CLU can help in some way.
Huh? What? They are nice people and we count them as friends and allies, but are we talking about something real there? Of course not! Could they handle money? No reason to believe that. Do they have a base in New Orleans? No not whatsoever. Heck, I don't know if they could organize a two car funeral if they were driving both cars. They have only convened forums in the past to talk about stuff. If that was needed, they could do that I suppose, but there are a lot of folks who can do that.
What is truly bizarre about this attack is that the passing reference to Iraq is actually part of an extended conceit, in which Rathke compares CLU and Curtis Muhammad to Ahmad Chalabi.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a candidate to front for the Iraqi people – Dr. Ahmad Chalabi. He had been running the Iraqi National Congress for many years from the United Kingdom. He had a degree from the University of Chicago. He was connected. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was not as certain and neither was the Army. Each in turn had their own ex-pat Iraqi leaders who they hoped would get traction once repatriated to home soil.
Make no mistake though. When they were not in Iraqi, but working the world promoting schemes for liberation armies or business ventures or this or that, they had friends and sponsors based on the value that these men and their political formations served to their sponsors, not for the Iraqi people. They were tools in the hands of others.
Watching the embarrassment of the Bush Administration when it was trying harder to install provisional and puppet fronts for the invading force, I would have thought we might have all learned lessons about making sure as an a priori in these matters that one should be very, very careful not to anoint someone from afar, who can not operate on the ground. Now in the middle of the post-Katrina shakeout, I can see that this is not the case. Progressives seem not to want to learn what the conservatives have taught us. We want to make sure we learn the lessons the hard way with our own embarrassment.
In the wake of Katrina everyone and their brother seems to suddenly be interested in New Orleans and trying to figure out a way to insert themselves and their issues into the muck that remains of the city. Some of this is a good thing.
Where it gets hairy is when people try to create representatives for the people for the purposes of the sponsors and the donor community, just like we have seen in Iraq.
The obvious implication here is that CLU and Curtis Muhammad are not only corrupt, but pawns of the Bush administration. Complicating matters for Rathke is Naomi Klein, who has written positively of CLU in The Nation. Thus, in addition to his racist dismissal of Muhammad ("Curtis is a good guy, but good love him [sic], he wouldn't be able to really move any thing in New Orleans"), Rathke takes a sexist swipe at Klein.
How do Calabi's happen? Just this way! CLU was somehow mentioned by Naomi Klein in a piece in the Nation. I have no idea what she knows about New Orleans, but I imagine she was grabbing something out of the hat. The article gets reprinted some places, and all of a sudden Chalabi is out and about in New Orleans.
Naomi Klein isn't from New Orleans, but she is a good investigative reporter, who went to New Orleans early in the disaster and did important work. The article Rathke alludes to certainly shows Klein to have done her homework about community organizations, political leaders, and business interests in NOLA. Further, organizers who support the interests of low-income people should be very interested in what Klein turned up about the housing situation in New Orleans.
More to the point, however, CLU did not simply ride the wave of the fifteen minutes of fame that Klein afforded them. From the first weeks following the disaster, there was a steady stream of press releases and media appearances that indicated a broad political vision and ambitious and determined political organizing, which I was also hearing about through my own contacts among the Civil Right Movement veterans community, of which Muhammad is a well-known part.
If Rathke has a legitimate argument with CLU about organizing tactics or a different political vision, that's fine. He has not articulated anything concrete. Rather, he has engaged in the worst kind of baseless attack that plays on racial power dynamics and has the potential to be highly destructive to a grassroots people's movement.
I have more to say about the racism involved in Rathke's attack and in some of the responses to it and to Curtis Muhammad's response. But first I will post an important response to Rathke from a coalition of activists (next up).