a discussion about occupations, tactics, and the future of the student-worker movement
outside 8/oakes dining hall
outside 9/10 dining hall
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2 Responses to “We’ve Been Robbed Of Our Future. Now What?”
for a radical defense of the conference, check this out..
In Defense of the 10/24 Conference to Save Public Education
By Lucy Carrillo, Xochil Frausto, Juan Garcia, Rico Blanc, Desiree Angelo, Reyes Zavalza, Raquel Parra, and Jonathan Nuñez
The October 24 Conference to Save Public Education was an historic event and an inspiration for all fighters in defense of public education. Though evidently most people felt that the conference was a tremendous step forward and success, a few leftwing student activists have chosen to go on a bit of a political offensive to discredit the conference and its decisions, arguing that it was run “anti-democratically” and that the actions it decided to carry out were politically flawed.
We do not claim to speak in the name of the full organizing committee for the October 24th conference, which was a broad united front of individuals and activists (ranging from members of the UC Berkeley student government and the Muslim Student Association to rank-and-file union members and radicals of various backgrounds). But as individuals who are proud to have been builders and organizers of the 10/24 conference, we think a clear defense, from a radical political standpoint, of both the collective decisions and democratic process of the conference is in order.
The purpose of this text is not to denounce the critics of the conference, but to try to convince as many folks as possible to work in a statewide united front against the cuts, layoffs, fee hikes, and educational segregation and to build for the UC-CSU mobilizations of November 17-20, 2009, a strike on March 4 and beyond. Political debate is crucial to advancing the struggle, but it should not prevent us from taking common action when possible and necessary. And today this is both necessary and possible.
The first half of this text will focus on the political questions — and the second half will refute the allegation that the conference was “anti-democratic.”
On the Politics: Why the March 4 Strike and Day of Action Makes Sense
Just the fact alone that a conference of more than 800 participants from all over the state and close to 200 different organizations and schools took place is an amazing feat; it testifies to the depth of anger against the cuts. The fact that this conference voted collectively to organize, as its principal decision, a Strike and Day of Action on March 4 is an historic step forward, with the potential to galvanize and mobilize large sectors of workers, teachers, and students.
The exact resolution that was passed by a large majority reads as follows: “The conference calls for a Strike and Day of Action that is inclusive of all different tactics, including: walkouts, rallies, march to Sacramento, teach ins, occupations, and all other forms of protests chosen by schools and organization. It starts on this day ______ and its up to each school and organization if and how long to continue it.” (A vote on the dates followed this vote; March 4 won overwhelmingly.)
The conference also decided to call for solidarity with the UC-CSU November 17-20 strikes and actions; to call for a conference in Southern California in early 2010; and to establish a volunteer coordinating committee.
Nevertheless, a few political activists have sent out critiques of the conference on the internet, and it is necessary — and politically educational — to answer these criticisms, the most coherent and serious of which is the text “Oct. 24th Mobilizing Conference to Save Public Education: Analysis and Next Steps” by the “Aufheben Collective.” [See Indybay.org to read this analysis.]
A Bit of Perspective Is Needed
The first thing that strikes us about the political criticisms of the Aufheben Collective and the other leftwing critics (who were generally supportive of some form of General Strike, as opposed to just protests and rallies) is that they let their political criticisms completely overshadow even a mention of the positive features of the conference and its decisions.
Instead of saying, “Well, the conference could have been organized better and we would have preferred a call for General Strike in all of the public sector, but over all it is a great thing that there is a call for a strike/action on March 4 and we should go all out to build this!”, these critics either completely fail to mention or they downplay the fact that the conference called for a strike!
Political disagreements and discussions are normal, but in politics, as in life, balance and a bit of perspective is crucial. Shouldn’t the balance sheets of these critics at the very least include a recognition of the major breakthrough represented by the holding of the conference, the call for March 4, as well as the decision to organize solidarity actions with the November 17-20, 2009 UC and CSU actions?
It remains to be seen whether the critics will build for a strike on March 4, or whether they will prefer to abstain and criticize. We hope that the former is the case.
All Radicals Want a General Strike
There was/is a serious political debate about whether it made more sense for the Conference to have called for a Strike and Day of Action in public education, as opposed to an Indefinite General Strike in all the public sector.
The disagreements do not center around the desirability of seeing a general strike in public education and/or the public sector as a whole.
For our part, we have been — and will continue to be — firm advocates for the need for a strike in public education against the cuts, layoffs, fee hikes, and educational segregation. We will go all out to convince as many schools and unions to shut down their institutions on March 4. We will urge going beyond just protests and rallies — and we, of course, agree that writing letters and lobbying the Democrats is a dead-end.
All revolutionaries would love to see not just a one-day strike, but an indefinite general strike Š not just in public education, but in all the public services, and not just in California, but throughout the country. We would love to see a strike of all workers — public, private, and unemployed — a strike not just against the cuts, but against the whole capitalist state and economy. But clearly we’re not there yet.
The question is: How best can we fight for a strike today? And what was the role of the 10/24 Conference in this process?
First let’s deal with the debate of whether the call should have been for just public education or for all public services. This question revolves around the mandate and political capital/organizational apparatus of the 10/24 conference.
The conference was explicitly called to organize a fightback in defense of public education. The overwhelming majority of participants were students, plus about 150 teachers and labor activists.
In this context, it would have been wrong for the conference to have called for a strike in sectors (such as health care, community services, etc.) that were hardly even present at the conference. Organizers in these other sectors already have been organizing against the cuts. Radicals in these sectors should push for the unions and community organizations to adopt an independent class perspective. And it would be a good idea, for example, for them to call a statewide conference of health care unions and activists to determine collectively how they want to move the struggle forward. Our conference and organizing can serve as an inspiration in this sense.
Organizing in defense of public education is far from being mutually exclusive with building a fightback of all workers. As the March 4 Call states, “Building a powerful movement to defend public education will, in turn, advance the struggle in defense of all public-sector workers and services.”
But it is not our role to decide for other sectors or to speak in their name. To issue such a call would only have served to isolate and marginalize our forces in relation to the life-or-death struggle of unions, community groups, and activists fighting day and night against the cuts. It is hard to imagine that they would appreciate a bunch of student activists telling them what they should do. Winning other organizations and sectors to the need for a strike requires a political battle inside many different sectors and organizations by the actual members of these organizations–not just a paper resolution from a conference of mostly students.
“Strike and Day of Action” and/or “Strike”?
Let’s turn to the question of whether the conference should have called for just a strike, as opposed to a strike and day of action.
First of all, it is necessary to note that the conference did not call just for a Day of Action with a diversity of tactics. This would have marginalized the importance of striking. It is not an accident that the word Strike is the first part of the resolution that was passed, as well as the March 4 call. As the Call explains: “We have the power to shut down business-as-usual and to force those in power to grant our demands.”
Some critics have respond to this by saying: “Well, if you are for a strike, why include the formulation ‘Day of action’, which dilutes the strike and allows the bureaucrats to push just for protests (versus a strike)?
Here are the interlinked reasons:
a) A United Front is Needed
By including the formulation “and Day of Action,” the Conference preserved the united-front character of the gathering and March 4 Call and prevented an unnecessary split between the radical and more moderate forces, particularly the trade unions, by allowing organizations and activists that are unable or unwilling to strike on March 4 to still participate through whatever action they see fit (rallies, march to Sacramento, etc.). It is important not to alienate the vanguard from the less politically advanced sectors of the working class and students.
b) The Political Struggle for a Strike Has Just Begun
Far from being opportunist, the “freedom for schools and organizations to decide” argument reflects the reality that we have to wage a political battle to win individuals and organizations to the strike perspective.
The conference — unlike, say, a mass General Assembly or a labor council or a strike committee — did not have the mandate, authority or political/organizational apparatus to organize a real general strike. Most participants at the conference were not delegated representatives of their organizations, schools, or general assemblies.
So if there is a real strike in the spring, starting on March 4, will depend on what we do in the coming months to win the majority of individuals at our schools and our unions to this perspective.
Rather than cutting this discussion off at the conference, the decision for a strike and day of action gives us a tool to pose politically the need and date of a united action in each school and union while we jointly build for March 4. Maybe we’ll win the argument, maybe not, depending on each school, union, and organization. It will be a process. There are no shortcuts.
What was important about the conference was that it got the ball rolling in large sectors of the union and student movements for a united action — which, if we succeed politically, will be a strike in most sectors and schools.
c) It is Necessary to Orient to the Existing Working Class
The critics seriously underestimate what it takes to organize a strike among the existing working class, a class which in public education is (fortunately) organized for the most part into unions.
It is easy for students to walk out of class. On colleges, there are virtually no consequences for doing so. In high schools at most you might get suspended. But for workers — who live from pay-check to pay-check, who (given the economic crisis) are usually happy just to have a job, whose families depend on them to survive — a strike is not a political statement, but a necessary last resort when all other options have failed. Particularly due to this country’s repressive anti-labor laws, to strike might mean losing your job; it is not a decision taken lightly.
Taking this reality into account is crucial if student organizers want to relate to and help mobilize the actual working class (not the working class of our imaginations nor one that we’ve read about in books.)
Real general strikes have occurred periodically, but infrequently, in U.S. history. All of these — e.g., the Great Railroad Rebellion of 1877, the 1919 Seattle General Strike, the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, and the 1946 Oakland General Strike — were the organic climax and culmination of months of struggles and sectoral strikes of the workers themselves and their organizations, not the result of a call by a group of radicals.
But what is the concrete level of struggle of the working class in California today? People are angry and willing to mobilize, but, at most, the process of mobilization toward something like a general strike is in its early stages. Of course, in a time of crisis, workers’ consciousness and mobilization can advance quickly, but there is nothing automatic about this process.
A little bit of modesty as radicals and as student organizers is therefore necessary. This modesty is expressed in the small phrase “Šand Day of Action” which carries with it the political implication that, “We want a strike, but we will understand if you can’t. In any case, we want to unite and fight back together with you on March 4 and beyond.”
The Aufheben Collective writes that: “The power of a strike lies in its Manichaen nature — you are either on strike, or a scab.” This is true — and this is why it would be wrong for the conference to issue on a statewide level, for all sectors of public education a call that implies that “If you don’t strike on March 4 you are a scab!” If we are unable to convince the AFSCME 3299 trade union to strike on March 4, should we denounce as scabs the janitors who go to work, rightly fearing they might lose their job if they go on an illegal wildcat strike?
Why should a conference of mostly students pose an ultimatum to the workers’ movement, rather than open a dialogue with it?
That said, it is a whole different matter when a union calls for a strike and a worker crosses the picket line — then they are a scab. This brings us to the following pointŠ
d) An Orientation to the Trade Unions is Crucial
Unlike many sectors, public education is relatively highly unionized. This is a good thing: it means that workers have more rights, better wages, better benefits, etc. Workers need trade unions to defend their interests and fight the bosses. It is precisely because of the huge political importance and power of the trade unions that the capitalists consistently try to buy off the union leaderships. But even being part of a bureaucratized union is better 99% of the time for workers than being part of no union at all.
It is because of the objectively positive role of the unions (independently of the generally class-collaborationist nature of their leaderships) that the majority of workers and teachers in public education look to their unions to fight for their rights.
Any political strategy to build for a strike (not just of students, but of workers) that fails to engage with the unions is a recipe for having no strike at all. The formulation “freedom for schools and organizations to decide” is crucial because it orients activists and rank-and-file workers to push for the existing organizations of the working-class — first and foremost the unions — to strike on March 4 and beyond.
Radicals should reject any illusion that a general strike can come about if we as individuals or left organizations issue a call for a general strike and spend a lot of time leafleting rank-and-file workers.
Realistically, most workers will not strike if their union as a whole is not striking, because to do so could jeopardize their jobs and their ability to survive.
And if there are illegal wildcat strikes on March 4 (which we should support and, depending on the sector, perhaps even advocate if we can’t win the union to strike), it will be only be if large amounts of workers and militant unionists have first gone on a sustained campaign to get their unions to strike. (Non-unionized workers likewise will be much more likely to strike if at least some unions are on board.)
For our part, we think it is possible to successfully win many unions to strike on March 4 — indeed the huge walkouts of September 24 were triggered by the UPTE strike; the Oakland Educators Association has called for a statewide strike in public education; AFSCME 3299 has organized a militant strike in 2005; and many K-12 teachers are being hit so hard by the cuts that they could push many of their unions to strike.
e) Building for a Strike is a Process
If we think dialectically (i.e., if we look at things as a process), rather than mechanically, we can see how having the formulation “and Day of Action” will actually make a mass strike in public education (and perhaps beyond) more likely than if we just called for a strike. Why? Because of the relatively algebraic (open-ended) character of the March 4 Call, we can get many unions as of now to endorse the March 4 Call (even if the union doesn’t yet commit to strike), which will build lots of momentum and legitimize March 4 in the eyes of many workers.
The idea that we all — students, workers, and teachers and our organizations– must take action on the same day can spread widely, which would not have been possible if we had issued a call that implicitly argued that anybody who doesn’t strike on March 4 is a scab.
As momentum builds, and as some of the more advanced unions and schools decide to strike (not just protest), more and more pressure will build from the ranks in the unions that have endorsed the March 4 call to press their unions to strike as well. Up until the day of the strike, debates will rage in all schools and organizations concerning how far we can go in our actions. In all likelihood, if there is a real general strike in education, the decisions of many workers and unions to strike will be made in the last few weeks and days. The art of organizing is knowing how to get the ball rolling for this process today.
f) The Struggle Has Just Begun
This struggle will be not be decided on March 4. More actions and strikes will likely be necessary. Maybe some workers and unions (and students and student organizations!) that we are unable to convince to strike on March 4 can be convinced to strike the next time. Why alienate these forces from the beginning, rather than seek to work with them on the basis of a common united-front call that allows for a diversity of tactics?
These are the reasons why we think it made sense that the conference called for a Strike and Day of Action on March 4. Now let’s look at the arguments claiming that this decision was somehow imposed against the will of the majority of conference participants.
On the Process: Democracy at the Conference
According to the Aufheben Collective, the conference was “non-transparent, non-democratic, even authoritarian.” Is there any merit to such an accusation?
There is no need to defend every single organizational decision of the conference. The conference was not perfect. Far from being a well-oiled bureaucratic machine, the conference was organized by a loose united front of mostly student activists who had zero experience organizing a conference of such huge numbers. Many of the decisions of the day were made on the spur-of-the moment and improvised. But, in this context, the significant fact about the conference is not that organizational mistakes were made — mistakes are inevitable — but that, overall, the conference went so well.
What are their specific criticisms? Some individual activists have argued that (a) the conference “avoided political discussion” because it didn’t vote on demands, (b) the time limits on speakers prevented serious discussion, (c) democracy was stilted because the break-out groups did not report back to the conference as whole, and (d) the will of majority was silenced because a “compromise proposal” was submitted to the conference for a vote.
a) Political Discussion
Who can deny that freedom of discussion was the norm at the conference? In both the morning and breakout sessions (and prior to the specific votes), anybody could simply get in line and present their point of view. Not a single activist or group was prevented from speaking, and widely differing political viewpoints and proposals were expressed — from liberalism, to calls for socialist revolution, to ultraleft demands for “general strikes tomorrow.”
Though the facilitators encouraged people to focus on concrete action proposals (seeing as that was the explicit purpose of the conference), most people simply went up and made their political viewpoints known (even when they were not particularly relevant to the discussion). All votes, without exception, were preceded by arguments for and against the proposals.
Everybody agrees that discussing and deciding on demands is a crucial aspect of developing a serious social movement. Demands were raised throughout the day (as well as in a specific session dedicated just to raising demands) and were listed and sent out to the attendees– though they were not voted on, due to basic time constraints. The next Conference will vote on the main demands, allowing in the coming months for sufficient time for activists and organizations to discuss their top demands, thus promoting a deeper political discussion.
Not everything was put up for a vote at the 10/24 Conference, but this hardly meant “circumventing discussion.”
b) Time Limits
Time limits for speakers allowed for the maximum number of folks to speak — thus increasing, not decreasing, democracy. There were over 800 people present – if folks had been given longer times to speak, fewer voices would have been heard.
c) Breakout groups
It was never planned for the breakout groups to report back to the conference in the afternoon, because of major time constraints and because, as the program explained, the breakout groups were meant primarily as places for different sectors of education (K-12, etc.) to self-organize and network.
The program was clear about this: “Proposals that are specific to a particular educational sector (K-12, etc.) or geographic region should be raised during the breakout groups. The breakout groups will not be voting on proposals: The individual/organization making any proposal should pass around a sign-in sheet during the breakout group for people who want to work on this proposal. In the breakout groups and throughout the conference we encourage folks to network/self-organize as much as possible!”
That there was significant confusion around the nature of the breakout groups was evident; this was due to folks not reading the program, a lack of a clear explanation of the agenda during the morning session by the facilitators, and lack of clear facilitation of these breakout groups (the breakout group facilitators were self-nominated in each breakout session). But all of this hardly amounts to an anti-democratic maneuver to silence democracy, as has been claimed.
d) The “Compromise Proposal”
The most serious argument from the critics is that the conference organizers pushed through the “compromise proposal” – for a Strike and Day of Action – against the will of the majority of attendees at the conference. Seeing as it is true that the voting process was messy and (as all the organizers agree) could have been done better, it is necessary to enter into a bit of detail to refute this charge.
First of all, why did the conference organizers make the “compromise proposal” and how was this presented to the conference?
The facilitators were mandated by the large Oct. 24 organizing committee to handle how to proceed with the voting. They and various other organizers met during lunchtime to compile the list of proposals to be voted on in the afternoon session. The facilitators unanimously decided to first present a “compromise proposal” to the conference because it appeared that there was a very high likelihood that without a process to simplify the voting, the conference could have dragged on for hours and hours without a democratic decision being reached before most people had to leave.
The conference organizers were scared of repeating the debacle of the September 24 UC Berkeley General Assembly, which started with more than 500 people but exploded and turned off the bulk of its participants when poor facilitating and ultraleft provocations resulted in a 5-hour-long mess.
In other words, the 10/24 conference organizers were hoping to facilitate coming to a decision on the action plan before most of the 800 participants simply left, due to family obligations, fatigue, travel plans, or disgust with an endless and unproductive discussion. (Most of us have been to such draining meetings, in which most non-hardcore activists are gone by the time the voting takes place.)
The concrete organizational problem facing the facilitators at the 10/24 conference was the combination of (a) a serious lack of time: the bulk of the attendees were likely going to leave by 4 pm or 5 pm (the scheduled ending time of the event) and the conference was already running late, with the afternoon session now beginning at 3 pm; and (b) a lack of an effective voting mechanism to deal with the extremely long and complex list of proposals that were made in the morning session and breakout groups.
Concerning the lack of time: Not only did the conference have to vote on a statewide action, but it also had to vote on the date; open a space for people to raise demands; allow for a time for announcements; and allow for time for networkingŠ all by 5 pm! Indeed, practice proved that these fears about going late were valid: the section of the conference to list demands and make announcements was unfortunately too short because many people were already leaving (this session took place at about 4:30 pm); and the time for regional networking was simply cancelled because most people had already left.
Concerning the voting process: The original voting plan was to vote on the top 3 action proposals (such as strike, lobbying, march to Sacramento, occupations, etc.). But the actual list of proposals raised by the participants in the conference was much too complicated to be voted on in this manner because there were various contending proposals under each of these action categories and various proposals that didn’t fit just under the box of a specific action.
A short look at the list of some of the specific proposals testifies to this dilemma. There was, just to list a few, a proposal for combined actions on specific dates (a March 4 strike and March 11 March on Sacramento); a proposal for a general strike in the public sector with demands (“No Cuts/No War”), even though the conference was not voting on demands; a proposal for occupations as part of a general strike; a proposal for an indefinite (continued until victory) general strike in the public sector; a proposal for a one-day strike in education; a proposal for a March to Sacramento; a proposal for a March in Sacramento and L.A.; a proposal to let everybody choose their tactics on a given date; and over 20 other proposals, many of which were clearly not mutually exclusive (e.g., is organizing a rally on a campus or beyond contradictory with organizing a strike on the same day?).
In this context, what would have been resolved by asking people to vote “Strike” vs. “March” vs. “Occupation”?
It seemed to the facilitators at their lunchtime meeting that given these complex problems and time constraints, the original voting process (for 3 specific actions) would be extremely contentious and time-consuming, and would likely result in a demoralizing drag-out session lasting until 9 pm or later.
Thus it was decided unanimously by the facilitators’ meeting to let the conference participants decide if they preferred a compromise proposal – that is, a united strike and day of action, with a date to be determined – or if they preferred to vote for actions separately. Far from being a bureaucratic maneuver, the idea of first putting the “compromise proposal” up to vote was to be more democratic, by first allowing the body as whole to collectively decide how to proceed.
It is true, however, that the manner in which the facilitators presented the “compromise proposal” was problematic.
First of all, the facilitators did not explain why the original agenda was being modified and why the compromise proposal was being raised, which left people confused. The facilitators simply could have said, “Look folks, given the long and complex list of proposals, we think it would take hours and hours to decide collectively on just one action. Because it is important that everybody participate in making the decision on the statewide action plan, we would like to propose that the conference first vote on whether or not to vote on actions separately, or whether it prefers to support a diversity of tactics as part of a strike and day of action.” Without a doubt, that would have been clearer and prevented much confusion.
Second, the terms raised for the vote — “compromise proposal”/ “freedom for schools to decide” vs. “counterposed actions” — were perceived as biased, and it is true that the facilitation came off as heavy-handed. That said, it should not have come as a surprise that the facilitators were in favor of the proposal they were making. It is common practice for facilitators of meetings and conference to suggest specific ways to resolve organizational and political problems (in this case, time constraints mixed with the lack of an efficient voting mechanism)– indeed that’s the purpose of facilitators. If anything, the facilitators should have been more open about why they were making and supporting the “compromise proposal.”
But in any case, it was left up to the conference itself to democratically decide how it wanted to proceed. Various speakers for and against the proposals spoke. Both the exact wording of the “compromise proposal” and the list of other proposals were listed on screen for everybody to read. Multiple explanations of the content of the vote left no doubt in the minds of the participants about what they were voting on. Indeed, the whole process of deciding on how to proceed took over 45 minutes, because the actual voting took place various times to ensure that people knew exactly what they were voting for.
In all the votes, a large majority of the participants in the conference voted in favor of the “compromise proposal.” Indeed, regardless of one’s political opinions about the “compromise proposal,” it is an undeniable fact that the majority of the participants in the conference voted in favor of the “compromise” and against voting on each action separately.
In response, the critics respond that the facilitators were biased in favor of the “compromise” and therefore, according to the Aufheben Collective, “the democratic will of the conference was sidestepped by the conference organizers.”
Such an argument only makes sense if you consider that the participants of the conference were essentially politically naïve sheep capable of being herded into supporting a decision they actually disagreed with based on the biases and formulations of the facilitators. In reality, the participants at the conference were overwhelmingly dedicated activists capable of thinking for themselves — not exactly prime material for being brainwashed by devious facilitators.
Are we really supposed to believe that people were tricked into voting for something they were actually against because of the weighted formulations of the facilitators (“compromise” vs. “counterpose”, etc.)? This viewpoint expresses, at best, an extremely condescending attitude toward the bulk of participants at the conference. A more realistic viewpoint is that people voted for the proposal that made most sense to them.
It is hardly the fault of the supporters of “the compromise proposal” that the speakers against it made such a weak case for their side, preferring curse words and denunciations to political arguments. The Aufheben Collective admits this: “What would have happened if, in the brief moments that were forced open for discussion before the final vote, this analysis had been presented? The course of the final hour of the conference might have been very different. Instead the few two-minute slots were filled by little more than expressions of justifiable anger at the course of events. When we needed a clear refutation of the arguments and tactics of ‘compromise’, all we had was outrage.”
But why should anybody be “outraged” that the facilitators proposed that the conference decide collectively whether it wanted to vote on actions separately or allow for a diversity of tactics as part of a Strike and Day of Action?
To sum up: Could the process of voting have been better? Yes. Are there lessons to learn from this experience that should be implemented for the upcoming Statewide Conference? Definitely.
But was democracy and the will of the majority respected? Yes, without a doubt. The “compromise proposal” won the vote because most people agreed with it. To claim otherwise is, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, a conscious attempt to denigrate the conference participants and discredit the collective decisions of the conference.
To all the folks who have raised these criticisms, we encourage you to get involved in the coordinating committee to help decide collectively and democratically how to organize for the Southern California conference in 2010. Based on both the important successes and the lessons learned from the weaknesses on 10/24, we are confident we can collectively fight back — and win.
We have an historic opportunity to beat back the cuts, layoffs, fee hikes and educational segregation in California. Though we will often disagree about tactics and strategy, it is crucial that we try consistently to find ways to unite in action against the powers-that-be — before, during, and after March 4.