CrossRoads September 1995



-- Nathan Newman is Co-director of UC-Berkeley's Center for Community Economic Research (web site:

In 1995 the Internet has moved from being a high-tech toy to a day-to-day tool for organizing--often at a pace leaving activists bewildered. Internet organizing is spreading across the country and its implications for changing the way progressives do their work is already being felt: from new ways of forming coalitions to cost-savings to challenges to what democracy will mean in large organizations under the impact of new communication forums.

The event that caught the national media's attention was the March 29th rallies when students on over 100 campuses across the country protested against the Contract on America based on Internet organizing and coalition-building. Remarkably, the Boston-based Center for Campus Organizing--the lead organization of the national rallies--had only a dozen or so campus contacts as they announced the day of action in February. What made the day of action a national event was the Internet. The March 29th action followed closely on the heels of protests against California's Prop 187 which had spread nationwide over electronic mail lists dedicated to the issue sponsored by the Center for Community Economic Research at UC-Berkeley. In the Spring of 1995, on-line organizing came of age.

Rich Cowan, who heads the Center for Campus Organizing, emphasizes that the Internet is no complete substitute for face-to-face meetings, but he believes the Internet is "a vehicle for the groups to exchange strategies and introduce new people to successful organizing strategies and the lessons they've learned." This is the power of the Net: to allow activists to almost instantly share what is happening in their area, redefine goals proposed by others and come to a consensus on dates or forms of joint action. From the fight against Proposition 187, to March 29th, to the national marches on May 6th, furious on-line organizing became a fixture on the Internet this Spring beyond anything seen on-line before.

"A War of Ink and the Internet"

Tthe Internet has become a key communication conduit for third-world activists--like the Zapatistas in Chiapas--to bypass the major media and get their message out. Partly because phones and other older forms of communication infrastructure are so poor, the Chiapas rebels and their allies have had to leapfrog technologies and have gone on what the Associated Press has called "the technological edge." They have developed one of the most sophisticated electronic communication operations on the Internet where activists in Mexico City regularly send key communication from the jungles of Chiapas to the Internet in order to keep allies around the world informed of the actions and public statements of the rebels

Early in the Spring, Alexander Cockburn's CounterPunch reported that weeks before the Mexican government moved troops into Chiapas, a Chase Manhattan analyst had published advice that in order to assure the financial markets, "the [Mexican] government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas." Mobilization spread around the Net to call and fax Chase Manhattan--even before any mass media picked up on the story, . Within days under pressure, Chase Manhattan disassociated themselves from the analyst who had written the report. The Mexican Foreign Minister, Josi Angel Gurrma, paid a back-handed tribute to the success of the Zapatistas' and their allies' technological sophistication when he tried to dismiss the rebellion as just "a war of ink and of the Internet."

Nonprofits take to the Net

Nonprofits in the United States are catching up rapidly with the international non-profits that have been using the Internet for a number of years. Some nonprofits are getting on-line for basic practical reasons. James Johnson, an organizer for Sacramento Communities Taking Action for Neighborhood Dignity (STAND), has begun using electronic mail extensively to share his work around police accountability with other organizations from Portland to Denver to Rhode Island to South Carolina. The move to electronic mail was a deliberate one by the Center for Third World Organizing's (CTWO), STAND's national network headquarters, who supplied computers to its affiliates and helped to do basic training for organizers. Johnson notes that before e-mail, "CTWO organizations used to spend $15,000 just on UPS/postage and it's dropped signficantly. When before you were looking at $10 per pop, now we just e-mail it."

While Johnson got on-line initially for these cost-saving reasons, he hopes that access to on-line information will expand what his organization is able to do. STAND traditionally has concentrated on local organizing, but Johnson hopes it can use the Internet and capitalize on its Sacramento location to "shift into some work and lobbying on statewide issues. There's a lot of information on the statehouse on the Internet that would allow STAND to get involved without hiring permanent lobbyists."

Empty the Shelters (ETS), another national low-income organization, has made an even deeper commitment to conducting internal communication on the Internet. With offices in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland and Atlanta, staff and activists decided that using the Internet would be the best way to coordinate their work in a practical way with a limited national budget. In Spring 1995, ETS invested to get each site a modem, a PeaceNet account, and set up an on-line conference for communciation. ETS then went a step further and began having all national meetings and communication happen on-line. It stopped faxing out information in order to force everyone to use the equipment that had been purchased.

The decision to move on-line was based on raw economics: "We had $7000 in the budget," notes Emilee Whitehurst who runs the Oakland office, "and we made the decision to invest in accounts and modems instead of putting the money into a national meeting. We had a direct debate and the choice was to bypass a meeting this last December." Whitehurst admits that her own technophobia slowed her down from using the technology as quickly as other offices, but she points out that lack of training by the organization was a problem as well. Whitehurst emphasizes that organizations must budget in the costs of training staff and activists if on-line communication is going to be successful. Whitehurst emphasizes that other face-to-face national meetings will be vital. "There are certain things you can do on-line," Whitehurst cautions, "and some things you should reserve until you meet in person. We waited too long to get on-line but we have to be wise in how we use it and for what decisions."

Internet Democracy and "Mass" Organizations

Some large national organizations are moving into on-line communication without central support, and their leaders are not necessarily enjoying the results of greater internal communication and discussion. One case in point is the Associated Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) where an electronic mail list called PUBLABOR has been heating up the Internet with debates about democracy in the organization. Local union leaders and activists who had never had a chance to talk face-to-face have shared sharp criticisms of the national union leadership for its failure to support their locals and for its undemocratic leadership. Others in AFSCME have staunchly defended the national leadership amidst the raucous debate and in-depth analsysis of the organization's successes and failures.

Katie Buller, a library support staff person at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and AFSCME member, created the list and views the debates over democracy in the union as a reflection of members' frustrations in a large organization. "PUBLABOR has provided an opportunity for activists to talk to each other; before we didn't even KNOW each other, nor did we know that we could share common problems and success stories, learning from each other in the process."

Buller has received some pressure from her local AFSCME leadership to use her position as moderator to tone down criticism of the top leadership on the list, but Buller shrugs off the pressure as "liveable." "What is AFSCME gonna do? Fire me? Throw me out for creating a forum for free speech?" She adds that International staff have generally been supportive of her work, although she notes that no national leaders have signed onto the list, despite the fact that she knows many of the posts have been delivered to their desks. "Perhaps they are intimidated by the intensity or just don't want to become personal targets; or maybe they just don't want to spend hours everyday on email!"

Buller also thinks that the problems of internal democracy and other faults are no worse in AFSCME than other unions; "AFSCME is often a target because it is the biggest of the public employee unions and not for any other reason." Buller also praises AFSCME for finally moving to become 'net literate.' AFSCME is planning to build an on-line infrastructure for connecting locals around the country, even to the point of asking for suggestions and input on PUBLABOR regarding how and what should be done to bring the union up-to-date. What AFSCME is facing will no doubt become chronic across larger organizations, ranging from unions, to the NAACP, to environmental organizations; chunks of the "mass" membership and local leaders will get on-line and gain the ability to initiate dialogue on the direction of their organizations outside the often tightly controlled annual or biannual conventions.

On the Cutting Edge

While many organizations are just getting on-line, the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) is pushing the technology to its limits for the future since 1988. A co-founder of the Fair Trade Campaign against NAFTA and GATT, IATP had historically collected information about trade issues to distribute by fax and phone to organizational allies. "In 1988 and 1989," explains Executive Director Mark Ritchie, "we saw how to use the computer information technology to summarize the information we were collecting and distribute it cheaply to establish a common information base in a wide area of organizations. We spawned a whole new genre of publications and information sharing." Weekly bulletins--following trade talks and then daily action bulletins following Congressional debates-- were sent over the Internet to cities and countries across the world. These updates were then refaxed locally by allies to those without Internet connections in those areas--cutting the communication cost drastically and expanding the reach to people who would not have otherwise heard of IATP. In addition to the weekly bulletins, an on-line archive/electronic library was established on PeaceNet to give organizations access to key documents at any time. IATP also created an electronic conference on PeaceNet to debate issues on trade policy organizing, thereby adding an interactive element to their information strategy as well.

IATP is not just organizationally savvy with the Internet; they are on the technological cutting edge. "We've experimented with having people electronically scan articles in other countries," Ritchie notes. "then send them up to us on the Internet, and then we run them through language translation software. It doesn't give perfect translations, but it allows us to monitor information that would be otherwise inaccessible to us." IATP has also been using the Internet to assist in conference calls. Internet discussions not only create a better baseline of information for people before a conference call, but the organization has experimented with doing the phone calls directly over the Internet--bypassing the phone companies--and IATP hopes to move to on-line video conferencing over the Internet.

IATP has had a weekly television and radio show for a number of years. Where once they had to send a copy of each show to allies by UPS, and later were able to buy satellite time and beam it around the country, they hope that with the evolution of the technology they'll soon be able to send those TV and radio shows over the Internet--creating a cheap and accessible way for progressives to share video and audio resources.

Ritchie attributes IATP's success with the new technology to a simple fact: "We've kept bringing in young people that have brought in an open mind to use the technology. Being small has been an advantage in moving forward quickly. We haven't had the hassle of upgrade 250 computers. Getting onto the Internet and using this computer technology gave us the confidence to use satellites and other technology, and those technologies are starting to come together."

California: Wired for Justice

Imagine 2500 on-line activists in every county in California, fighting for affirmative action while coordinating information and volunteers. This is the goal of Californians for Justice (CFJ), a grassroots coalition of organizations that is gearing up to defeat the right-wing's ballot initiative to repeal affirmative action.

Californians for Justice plans to collect one million signatures in support of affirmative action by the end of this fall--one year before the election. They planto convert that list of supporters into a statewide education and get-out-the-vote operation by Novermber 1996. CFJ intends to collect 50,000 of those signatures on-line--2500 of whom they hope will become volunteers in the campaign.

"The Internet has been used for information in campaigns before," notes Rebecca Gordon, treasurer and a spokesperson for CFJ, "but there are new more interactive aspects. We want to allow people to make commitments on-line and to be fed into immediate action where they are located. If we want to have a statewide day of actions, we would have a very clear idea of who was participating--not just hoping that people will participate, but have some idea of who would participate. We'll have weekly communciation on what's happening in offices around the state. We hope to also take out some of that nasty piece of data entry that is so tedious and get information entered directly into our database over the Net."

While Gordon expects to get many of the 50,000 on-line signatures from campuses across the state, she also expects a lot of participation from community members across the state. "This petitioning on-line is new, but everytime I speak publicly, at least one person asks if we are on-line and there is an obvious desire to communicate with the campaign on-line." The campaign intends to get their statewide offices set-up on-line, which Gordon expects will cut the cost of phone calls for a campaign. Gordon also wants to use the Internet nationally to involve people all over the country in California's campaign to defend affirmative action.

While organizing is taking off on the Internet, there are real danger that the government will try to censor and eliminate as much political discussion as possible. Gordon expects that Californians for Justice will likely attract some of the ire of the politicians and progressives need to be prepared to defend 'public space' on the Internet. "Since a lot of free access is through public universities, there will be an attempt to cut-off funding and access through the universities, and to pressure universities to police their access against political organizing. We need to establish a presence for progressives. We essentially need to get on and become a stakeholder, since it'll be harder to kick us off later."