DARE’s Struggles in Rhode Island

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

Paul Buhle

LET’S START IN a scene from last summer that will be familiar, not exactly but approximately, to many older readers: the labor awards banquet.  The setting is a “casino”—in the 1880s sense of a banquet hall, used for wedding receptions and assorted fraternal functions for six generations—set in a venerable public park in a working-class neighborhood, long ago designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.

The state’s labor history society has been holding the event for almost twenty years, and most of the faces are familiar to each other, from the fellow at the lit table (that’s me) to the minglers, unionists of various types and ages (but mostly fifty and up), the ones who drink too quickly from the union bartender’s offerings and those who spend most of their time on the balcony outside, smoking.

Things sort themselves out as we head upstairs, to the hall proper.  Usually one award goes to someone in a very mainstream union, like the Laborers (the only union founded in Rhode Island since the short-lived red textile workers’ outfit in the early 1930s).  Several tables are bought for their junior officers and self-selected members.  They wear suits or at least sports coats, even in August, and their wives are fancily dressed up.

Then there are the tables of old-fashioned idealists, mostly retirees, men and women who (this being Rhode Island) never had real contact with radical politics of any variety but also (this also being Rhode Island) never made a red-baiting move—unless against “foreigners” who make Third World revolutions, not against fellow American unionists.

Health workers, public employees (the largest workforce of any kind in the state), teachers and others still ardently remember the “us versus them” days that lasted longer here than elsewhere, because it’s a blue collar state of ethnic cousins where, it used to be said, only “swamp Yankees” (before the late-blooming suburbs) would presume to cross a picket line.

Then there are what used to be called, fifteen years ago, the Leftovers, sixties and seventies radicals, some of them former members of various Maoist, Communist and Trotskyist groups who have regrouped around more general activities, career-bound or not.

Naturally, these folks are located mainly among the health workers, hotel and restaurant and so on, including health units struggling to emancipate themselves from a bullying AFT. More recently they are likely to be community activists whose connections with unions come by way of some wider solidarity, as in the sparkplug Jobs for Justice.

Rewarding DARE

All this year’s awardees are, as usual, worthy.  But this time, the labor History Society has chosen to give an award to Sara Mersha, representing organizations that have been transforming the definition of the labor movement: DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), and RI Jobs for Justice.

On this night, DARE Executive Director Mersha was greeted with raucous applause from the grizzled veterans of the state’s labor past. The crowd at the Casino see her and fellow activists as bearing the torch of real labor idealism.

It’s a doubly special night for me, having recently joined Solidarity (of which Sara is also a member) and sitting next to organizational veteran Ara Dostourian.  I had been fortunate to meet Mersha some years ago, as a student in my oral history class, and already a bit of a legend on campus.  (And not that I taught her anything she didn’t already know.)

Since DARE first started organizing home childcare providers for prompt payment and health insurance in the early nineties, it has been successful organizing those whom existing unions did not even consider, and developing their own skills to demand more from employers and other organizations.

DARE has also been a strong member of the RI Jobs With Justice since the coalition began in 1996.  With ups and downs along the way, JwJ has successfully brought together progressive community organizations, union, religious and student groups to build power in a grassroots labor movement.

Always diverse, DARE and JwJ have become more global in the background of members in recent years.  So it has been no surprise, if a happy observation, to see new faces, new leaders coming forward.  Even some of the state’s prime labor hacks, never progressive, now look to DARE and JwJ to pump up a sagging labor movement, its failures weighing upon their own eclipsing careers.

Role Models

Sara had already begun to meet with Theresa El-Amin, when I encouraged Mersha to make this interviewing her project of the semester.  What she learned, as she has related, clarified to her what a role model can be.

El-Amin, born in Georgia in 1948, daughter of a nurse and union shop steward, went to Tuskegee, got involved in SNCC, went through Freedom Summer and the inevitable assault by the FBI, then took a job at the local telephone company when the SNCC office closed.

There El-Amin became a shop steward herself, learned about the familiar struggle against racism (by the company and the union alike) and the emerging struggle over the changing workplace, notably the assorted dangers of long hours at the VDT. This led her to 9 to 5 and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), and a move to Cleveland, organizing clerical workers (including a big victory at the Cleveland Public Library).

By the time she reached Providence, El-Amin had also become a regular at Labor Notes meetings, an ardent supporter of the South African labor federation COSATU and of Black Workers for Justice back at home. She had organized for SEIU, 1199, and joined the Board of DARE as it began to gain prominence.

As I write this, I’m looking at a transcript of the interview, and see that Mersha breaks from the usual life-story format to ask El-Amin a roundabout, highly personal question:

One thing that I’m thinking about now is [pause], I’m thinking about myself—I’ve been involved with some organizing things on campus and am now thinking that I’d like to become an organizer myself, community organizing or something like that. And I wonder about the difference between being a leader and an organizer, and sort of how to maintain .  .  .

I’m sure that as an organizer there’s still lots of things that I’ll want to effect and lots of specific kinds of change that I would want to effect, but then thinking about the role of an organizer, I’m not sure how that should happen, and I wondered if you had some ideas on how you made the transition.

The question could not have been put better by anyone, and from Sara’s perspective, could not have been put better to anyone.

El-Amin’s response is worth also quoting at length:

Well, I’ve always described myself as a person who believed in rank and file control of organization.  So my goal is to always be working toward developing people to take my job, you know, because I’ve always been kind of thinking that organizers move on .  .  .

So I think the main thing that I focus on is keeping the consciousness that workers do figure out things for themselves, and that they’re capable of coming up with the most excellent tactics, and capable of coming up with clear strategy.  And sometimes, just working on some basic leadership development skill-building, in terms of showing people what they need to actually do .  .  .  which is to act in their own self-interest for empowerment.

And so I just use the skills that I have learned, in many cases learned from other workers and developed to transfer it on .  .  .  and I think that’s a very good way of kind of looking at it, and being very, very careful not to see yourself as .  .  .  (short laughter) the only one who understands what to do.

It’s a perfect exchange in some ways, because it sets the scene for what would follow.  Mersha had already learned about DARE, from a fellow-student doing work-study there, and met El-Amin.  In 1998 she came back to Providence, and to DARE as a staffer, filling in a sense that gap left when her mentor had left town for other opportunities.

Community Action

DARE had arisen originally, during the middle 1980s, as a community effort around utilities companies and shutoffs, and also to compel the city to clean up vacant lots or force owners themselves to have the cleanup done.

Frequently, DARE members engaged in some kind of direct action, like occupations of government offices.  In this way, it succeeded a series earlier of local poverty-oriented movements, starting with the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in the early 1960s that had one of its first strong centers in Providence, and Coalition for Consumer Justice (and an offshoot still going: the George Wiley Center, named for the late NWRO leader) that pulled together religious and other activists around various anti-poverty efforts.

But DARE was different first of all because of its focus on communities of color, and secondly because, by the early 1990s, it began to take a different shape with the rush of new Latino (especially Dominican) populations in the state.  It was, finally and perhaps most interesting, different as a membership organization.

By the late nineties, DARE meetings looked almost eerily like civil rights meetings from almost forty years ago. They took a long time because nearly everyone spoke.  They encouraged skills-teaching to a very large extent, even sometimes to the detriment of immediate action.  By the turn of the new century, they also included a canny combination of mobilization and strategies not yet seen here, in addition to DARE’s traditional direct-action tactics.

Peculiar Politics of Providence

To understand DARE better, it’s essential to see what happened in the state.  We need to go right down to the oddball politics that find a gay and self-described progressive mayor, a city council that voted 10-2 against war without a UN mandate, and a state that elected more state-wide Dominicans (three) than any place else in the country.

All this has occurred in an economy that had based itself squarely on defense spending since 1940 and the subsequent collapse of a long-declining textile industry, and in a culture where the Vietnam antiwar movement practically never surfaced, the New Left disappeared almost before it was launched, and the Communist Party had never, even in its prime, reached 40 members.

With the close of most of the remaining substantial factories, following a period of real struggle for solidarity led by the Community Labor Organizing Committee (CLOC)—whose aging veterans can be most easily found together at the same labor banquets—the state became more tourist-and-retirement destination than practically anything else.

Wealthy out-of-staters moving in posed a particular irony because after Florida, Rhode Island has the oldest average age in the nation.  The aging proletarian poor hunker down in retirement centers, probably the heaviest proportion of white ethnics remaining in the cities.

Like so many other places, the state’s demography has been drastically transformed by the new immigrants since 1965, in this case Cape Verdeans and their white cousins the Azoreans (Portuguese speakers from the Azores), Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Hmong and most notably, Dominicans.

Uneasy Social Quiet

Rhode Island had always pretty much lacked those ethnic groups most active in the Left, that is, (working class) Jews, Finns, Hungarians, Ukrainians and so on; its Italians, second only to the Irish, contained only a tiny fraction of Northerners, the traditional intellectuals of the free-thought societies, the IWW and so on.

Militant unionism had an idiosyncratic edge, like the influential French-Canadian syndicalists in Woonsocket, led for a while by a (secret) Communist, until the Cold War came. Labor peace arrived thanks in part to a (relatively) generous social package that included strikers’ benefits, comprehensive unionization of state employees, and the peculiar sort of smoothing that the mob exerted, often in quiet alliance with the unions and corrupt politicians against the Yankee elite.

The old rules, including a degree of police even-handedness toward strikers, had also been based on the paucity of dark faces.  Until the new immigration and some in-migration of African-Americans from the South, there had been relatively few nonwhites, surviving Indians, Black descendants from eighteenth century slave days, and Cape Verdeans (the ones who reserved the best jobs of nonwhites: longshore work).

New generations of cops acted very differently in the neighborhoods created by drastic urban renewal that destroyed a large section of the historically interracial district and effectively created a ghetto.  Violent defense of white neighborhoods seen elsewhere never happened here, but community relations nevertheless got ugly for all the usual reasons.

Renaissance and Political Transition

The best that could be said for these post-industrial decades was that the culture remained definitely funky.  An easy stop on the musicians’ circuit between New York and Boston, a bohemian center around the Rhode Island School of Design and a wintering spot for Provincetown’s good-weather gays, the city was known quietly for the blue collar and offbeat qualities of its artiness, for the amount of life music and strange personalities.

In the end, this funkiness, generally considered an embarrassment of elites, proved along with the physical survival of older architecture to be the city’s saving grace.  A “renaissance” owing nothing to sprawl-king politicians and bankers grew up downtown during the 1980s-’90s, making Providence a tourist attraction for the first time in generations.

Meanwhile, the streets of poor districts offered obstacle courses for cars seeking to avoid increasingly impressive potholes.  Public education suffered badly.  And if Republicans remained scarce, Democrats in office since the 1960s had acted more and more like Republicans, while continuing the old games of fixing police exams and plundering payrolls.

All this took a new and nationally recognized turn when longtime mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci (a populist who still liked to rail against the Yankees, and had me on the radio talk-show that he maintained between indictments, still railing against the villains of my labor history books) caught with his hands in the till or at least conspiracy to help others do the same.

Cianci went off to jail just as the White House headed for a choreographed standoff and, finally, war. His successor in office is, very Providence-like, not only the only openly gay mayor of the region, but also the son of a mob lawyer (the Italian side) and a Jewish liberal, making him altogether the perfect figure for the time.

Swept along to office in the same election were some impressive city counselors, including the first Green (from the campus district) and several progressive Dominicans, including close DARE allies.

Confronting Police Brutality

DARE had, a few years earlier, channeled the anger of the community through a 500-person direct action on the same mayor Cianci, shutting down city hall for the afternoon.  DARE had a number of important demands, from the removal of the officers responsible for the killing of Cornel Young, Jr., an off-duty policeman who was the son of the city’s highest-ranking Black officer, to an independent investigation, to a civilian review board.

The mayor gave no positive responses that day, and continued to assert to the press that race had nothing to do with Young’s death.  But the pressure created by DARE’s direct action made the city consider the longstanding racism within the police Department, and wake up to the need for institutional change.  It was a sea change.

By no coincidence, DARE had marshaled itself to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis.  In the early `90s, the organization’s membership had already identified police brutality as a serious community problem, and created a campaign around police accountability.

After the police department refused to turn over records of civilian complaints against officers, DARE won a five-year lawsuit with help from the ACLU, forcing the city to make these records public.  After members had attempted to work with the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, they recognized that system of “police policing the police” did not work and would not ever work.

In 1997, with leadership from former DARE lead organizer Rob Baril, DARE did research on civilian review boards across the country.  When members talked with the City Council members about their proposal, they realized it would not pass at the time. They did not abandon the campaign as a whole, but went about the business of continuing to develop leaders who had experienced police brutality and who could speak up against it.

On January 28, 2000, when Cornel Young, Jr., was shot and killed by (white) fellow policemen, it was these members who led the organization in creating the public pressure necessary to bring about change: mothers whose sons had been brutally beaten by Providence police and who were committed to seeking justice not only for their sons but for the entire community.

In addition, under the leadership of Shannah Kurland (then DARE Executive Director, earlier Lead Organizer during the daycare providers’ health insurance campaign), all the resources of DARE, staff and members, were temporarily focused on this one issue, building up to the mass direct action.

For this multi-issue organization that works on three to four campaigns at a time, this was a significant decision that created an incredible level of unity, purpose and power.

Following the direct action on city hall, DARE was able to use the momentum generated to push for and win real institutional change.  The organization worked with City Council members, then State Representative, criminal defense attorney and future mayor David Cicilline, and multiple community and religious organizations such as the Ministers Alliance of Rhode Island and the Center for Police and Community, to develop a proposal for civilian review of the Providence Police Department: the Providence External Review Authority (PERA).

After the first city council passage in the summer of 2002, then-mayor Cianci vetoed the ordinance establishing PERA. DARE reintroduced the ordinance in City Council when Cianci was no longer mayor, and the interim mayor signed PERA into law in November 2002.

Since that time, the Board Members have been appointed, with DARE’s Police Accountability Organizer, Mary Kay Harris, elected to the position of Chairperson of the Board.  PERA has secured funding and hopes to begin taking complaints this year.

Changing the Political Balance

The community campaigns of DARE and others had in fact helped indirectly to bring about the stunning surprise in the mayoral election, because David Cicilline had made a point of defending Black and Latino defendants, making a name for himself and his personal sincerity.

It is a small but fascinating paradox that the growing community of progressive artists, who were to produce fabulous antiwar silkscreened posters in Spring 2003, had earlier been encouraged by Cianci for his own reasons.  Now they helped bring about the underground Rhode Island renaissance with a political edge, in alliance with DARE and other progressive organizations.

Meanwhile, DARE broadened its strategic and tactical approach, in concern with JWJ campaigns.  An internal conflict in the summer of 2003, potentially debilitating, actually brought a resurgence of DARE’s membership base.

Nothing has been built that cannot be destroyed, of course.  But something remarkable has happened, in this small context, in the passage of politics from campus to community, and from one generation to another.

Rhode Island progressive politics is multiracial as never before, something as clear in ongoing poetry, hip hop and mural projects among Asian, African American, Latino and white teens as in community mobilization.

DARE has continued to struggle through all of this, taking on the issues and difficult but necessary political conversations that our movement needs in order to grow.

Paul Buhle’s students have created an artist-political exhibit, “Underground Rhode Island,” now on display, and next year will help create a national traveling exhibit, “The Wobbly Show,” for the centenary of the Industrial Workers of the World.

ATC 110, May-June 2004