Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky: Reflections on the #Not1More Deportation Campaign
I never thought my favorite Talking Heads song could describe campaign strategy.
Nevertheless, in addition to compelling me to sing badly, real loud, out loud, there’s this part in ‘This Must be the Place’ that reminds me of the #Not1More Deportation campaign: Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky…
The #Not1More deportation campaign grows out of several years of day laborer and community organizing to resist the devolution of federal immigration enforcement to local law enforcement agencies. During that time the campaign demands have evolved with the growth of the deportation machine and the efforts to resist it. We know them by now: the ‘Secure Communities’ program, 287(g) agreements, Operation Streamline, state laws like Georgia’s HB87, Arizona’s SB1070 and unfortunately, many other policies. All throughout, the compass of our organizing has been the idea that we are fighting for legalization by resisting criminalization.
This year, parallel to the large scale and heavy lift of a campaign that is for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) in Congress, we launched the #Not1More deportation campaign. Parallel because we believed that making deportations an issue within the debate would advance reform efforts, not undermine them. People who have been ensnared in the deportation dragnet are some of the best spokespeople who can explain why change is needed. We also viewed the campaign as necessary because it could hold ‘champions’ accountable while helping to prevent the right-ward shift we’ve seen happen to countless other bills of this size in Congress (i.e. healthcare, budget). Finally, it was needed because the passage of CIR was not a guarantee, and our community desperately needs relief. In the absence of changing laws, we knew that the remaining option that could benefit the largest amount of people was through changing policy in the executive branch, within the Obama Administration.
And in the way the song goes, whimsical and hopeful, sometimes nostalgic we have traveled a windy road, with many dips, sometimes getting on each others nerves (!) and at many points uncertain. Its like other things in life when, without having the safety of a known outcome, you choose to lean in anyway, because the possibility of it being right outweighs the doubt. It has been a campaign where sometimes we’ve had to ‘make it up as we go along.’ And as we close out 2013, I feel compelled to share some personal reflections on how we got here and where we’re going.
Ask for what seems Impossible
In addition to the above named reasons for the campaign, there is another. It is the most important. That is that deportation and the threat of it is the source of real distress and trauma. It is a burning issue in the community. And when there is a burning issue, people will move into action to put out the fire. Feet on the ground.
We demanded not one more deportation. Head in the sky. For many, it was a bit too pie in the sky. All along however, there was a concrete way to win it. It could come through a suspension of deportations or through the expansion of deferred action. By ending the Secure Communities program the deportation machine could be severely weakened. There is no magic wand, as critics have correctly stated, however, there are options that at a minimum could dramatically reduce deportations.
Conventional wisdom, or if you’re playing blackjack its called ‘The Book’, says to go for the sure bet. In advocacy circles, its called, ‘the lowest hanging fruit.’ In this case, we opted for another option. We wanted to shake the whole damn tree. The thing is, its ok to ask for what seems impossible – as long as it matters to people and as long as there’s a way to go get it. Speaking for myself, when I’m asked to do something, I get real practical. Why do I want to waste my time? But even if something is practical, to really throw down, it has to inspire me. I imagine we all want to feel like our efforts contribute to something that’s worthwhile. And in this case, the combination of having our feet on the ground to understand what really mattered to people, and the willingness to buck ‘The Book’ and come with ‘head in the sky’ demands propelled this campaign beyond the limited resources and capacity we had to run it.
Face down Fear + Shared Risk = Transformational Power
With an identified problem and an actionable solution we still the challenge of – what are we gonna do?! First and foremost, the building blocks of the campaign have been supporting organizations and families fighting individual deportation. We called this el uno por uno, one by one. This has been and will continue to be important work that hopefully other organizations will take on. It had innumerable impacts, in addition to stopping deportations and keeping families together. It clearly explained the problem. It created opportunities for leadership development and grew the base. It demonstrated the power of the community to defend itself and it allowed us to engage Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locally and at the federal level. And also, it contributed to the growing number of people coming out and telling their story.
Civil disobedience and direct action have emerged as key vehicles for undocumented people to ‘come out’ and pose a dilemma for decision makers. And even within the action itself, we sought to create space for people who perhaps did not have the ‘easiest’ case, because their story could in turn expand and challenge the parameters being set by the Administration and Congress as to who was deserving and who was not. This required a commitment and it required shared risk. The first step in that is recognizing that there are different consequences for different people. There are different kinds of risks because fear and oppression comes in many different colors, sizes and shapes. Paramount in the planning process was being able to balance offering support and information to participants and knowing to back off to allow for people to exercise self-determination and make decisions for what kind of risk they wanted to take. Why? Because its not just about direct action. It’s about what’s underneath it – risk and courage. Civil disobedience that doesn’t involve risk, that doesn’t empower those taking the risk and that does not pose a real dilemma to the target is simply political theater.
The actions built momentum and visibility for the campaign, but even more they were often times transformational experiences for the participants. When a person decides to ‘come out’ and face down fear and shame, they’re simply not the same on the other side. You can’t take that away from someone. We can fight and win more rights. But if that win isn’t accompanied with community and individual transformation, the victory will not hold. Because mess happens everywhere. By mess, I mean oppression, exploitation and all that stuff. Today it could be because a person doesn’t have ‘papers.’ Tomorrow it could be your employer refusing to pay your wages. It could be your partner raising their hand at you. So when someone decides, ‘hasta aqui’ its something they will always have. And that’s when as people and as communities we will have the ability to exercise the rights we may win. Those rights will be defended, they will be protected because we have the tools to defend them, because we know what it cost and because we’ve tasted what it means to be a little more free.
Open Source Campaign
#Not1More is both a frame and a campaign. In full bloom, it’s about way more than immigration. The demand to stop deportations isn’t limited to administrative action at the federal level. Groups could take the frame and adapt it to their local work, to individual deportation cases and/or apply it to their specific base or constituency.
So much time and money is spent on creating tables and coalitions. Coordination and collaboration is a good thing. But sometimes, more time is wasted on trying to get to unanimity, or even a division of labor when in the end there is not enough trust at the table and groups are gonna do what they’re gonna do. Perhaps it is a strength and a weakness of the campaign up till this point, but we did not build a formal coordinating body. We collaborated with groups, and through the work relationships and trust was built. In real time it looked like this: organizations made their own decision on their particular focus and how they implemented (i.e. fighting individual cases, local legislation), we would huddle at key moments to either mutually support each other or to identify and plan moments of convergence and national level tactics.
Now, that explanation..one might say, well duh, that’s what coalitions and tables do. But that’s my point. We didn’t have to build a coalition to do it. We spent our time on the task at hand rather than structuring the structure and processing the process. As the campaign went on, we found more and more groups who aligned politically, and the work, overlapping political analysis and relationships held it together. We collaborated because we needed each other. Not because a coalition or table existed.
This idea of an open source campaign is something I’ve been thinking about, and its not fully cooked but it’s about both campaign structure and how groups work together. In this campaign we pushed out the frame, the demand and let folks take it. Do I know all the different groups that have used the frame? Nope. And though it seems counter-intuitive and perhaps an organizing sin to not know, it had to be OK. It took recognizing that there are varying levels of collaboration and a mutual respect for autonomy. It was sometimes maddening, sometimes liberatory. To work, balance was needed between it being a malleable frame and still being a campaign with a demand, a target and different options for strategy. Key within all this is creating moments of convergence and nurturing the building of relationships throughout. Its super critical. Open source campaigns, yes, to be continued..
Hey 2014, Hey!
Well, who really knows? What I can offer are intentions and hopes.
What will continue is the commitment to creating space and supporting those who want to come out, tell their story and through their example lead the way towards inclusion and away from exclusion. This will happen on day laborer corners, community meetings, while shutting down ICE in a city near you and in another round of the Undocubus. I hope we can create more ways for groups and individuals to authentically feel a part of the campaign. Also what’s needed is more space for directly affected folks to lead beyond specific actions or tactics at the local level and coordinate across geography with other leaders.
And as the chorus of people calling for action grows louder, it will be even more important to go beyond the problem of deportations. It will be an opportunity to connect the dots between how communities are marginalized and criminalized. Its not just about detention and deportation, we need to start talking about incarceration and disenfranchisement.
It will be a year, I imagine, where we will all have to face fear and take some more risks. Or at least, we’ll have a chance to. This is not simply as individuals, but also as organizations. We’ve taken our share of risks this year, and it has cost us at times. Whether its come from trusted allies or reporters, the questions and critiques have come up. Isn’t this counter-productive? Have you gone to far? And my answer: I really don’t know. I know the reasons for the campaign and the way we’ve approached it. To me the question is less whether or not its going too far, the question is: are we heading in the right direction?
If Congress continues down its path of inaction, or if the options on the table simply aren’t good enough I imagine more and more groups will decide it is the right direction. This will be welcomed. My hope is that as perhaps larger, more resourced organizations shift to this strategy the wisdom and work of smaller, less resourced and mostly local organizations will be recognized and resourced. I hope this is a moment where we can embrace the idea that not only can change come from the bottom up, but that strategy worthy of Washington DC can come from the bottom up too. In other words, friends, don’t be that person that comes to the party with a six-pack and when you leave, you take your one remaining beer with you. Don’t be that person. Let’s find a way to resource the diversity of strategies in this movement and the innovation happening at the local level.
In the beginning of all of this, we were trying to sound the alarm on something that was happening at such an alarming pace and scale, but largely hidden from sight and the debate. And as more people sounded the alarm, it grew to a point where the question was posed, ‘Well, can the President actually do something?’ I think we’ve reached the point where we all know, he can. That debate has been settled. We’re now heading into the point where the question will be – should he? Is it worth the potential backlash? Will it tank the legislative effort?
I expect that we’ll be ready to have that debate. More and more people are ready. Because more and more people are ready to take the risk of actually demanding to be seen and heard. It’s taking that chance, of having the audacity, to call many places home, to want to feel at home in our bodies and in our communities. This must be the place, and the most beautiful thing is, this could be the time.
One last note. If you’ve made it this far, first, thank you for taking the time to read it. Second, this is a piece I wrote as a personal reflection from the perspective my role at NDLON of coordinating this campaign, it has not gone through any organizational editing. So please read it with that in mind. :)