Eight in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
In Hillbilly Nationalists, James Tracy and Amy Sonnie shows the hidden depths of working class resistance and organizing. The pathbreaking work of Chicago’s white workers in JOIN, The Young Patriots and Rising Up Angry, was soon followed by similar organizing projects in Philadelphia and New York.
October 4th Organization (O4O)
O4O looked to Philly’s revolutionary past for inspiration. On October 4, 1779, rioters broke into food and clothing warehouses to redistribute supplies hoarded by businessmen intent on driving up prices. O4O called for jobs or income and pressured the political machines to give working class communities their fair share of city resources.
The ‘70s were hard times for many American cities including Philadelphia. Too often, white workers retreat to the comforts of white supremacy and racial resentment as compensation for economic misery and stress. O4O provided an alternative to racism with a one-two punch: community and workplace organizing.
Their opponent was a rising star of the New Right: Mayor Frank Rizzo. Rizzo had climbed out of the ranks of the police department and marshaled the insecurities and resentments of Italians, Irish, Poles, and Greeks to scapegoat their conditions on the city’s growing black population.
O4O accepted the white ethnic identity of its community but tried to repurpose it with narratives of resistance, finding examples in European or immigrant history as well as in the rich labor history of interracial solidarity in Philly’s once-booming garment industry.
As with most white working class activism, class was the point of contact, but issues of racism were close behind. The cutting edge of the class/race mix was a unifying issue: police brutality. When a young white man was killed by police without indictment or consequences, organizing began in earnest. The campaign against police brutality stressed common ground with communities of color and mounting spirited demonstrations, some of which were suppressed with violent police attacks on peaceful protesters. The O4O launched the “People’s Bail Project,” an educational effort that reached out to the community with information about their rights with respect to police and the penal system. 1
While there is much to learn from each episode of organizing chronicled by Sonnie and Tracy, O4O is remarkable for its attempt to bridge the gap between community and workplace. O4O was based in Kensington, an old industrialized town known for its poverty and mean streets. O4O members organized in their own workplaces, supported strikes, demonstrated at the unemployed office, reaching directly to the rank and file. By working the border between workplace and community, O4O broadened the horizon of working class resistance. O4O also offered a class analysis of the economic crisis that unions too often failed to deliver. Workplace/community organizing was the best counterpunch to Rizzo’s thinly veiled racist campaign to enlist the support of white workers in his nasty crackdown on hippie-radicals, Black Panthers, and other threats to the social order.
White Lightning used the direct service model combined with anti-racist, anti-war, and radical politics characteristic of other white working class efforts inspired by the Black Panthers. Based in the Bronx, White Lightning matched community self-help for drug addicts with opposition to the so-called war on drugs, which they rightly understood as a war on the poor.
Like O4O, White Lightning faced the rise of the early new right. In Philly, it was conservative Democrat Rizzo. In New York, it was liberal Republican Nelson D. Rockefeller and his campaign to ramp up incarceration as the answer to drugs.
We now know that the Nixon administration secretly used the war on drugs for political purposes. They wanted a method, acceptable to the political center, that would target the black community and hippies as a flank attack on the civil rights movement and the new left.
White Lightning’s focus on beating drug addiction, providing legal assistance, and fighting for decent housing took them into otherwise conservative neighborhoods. Rather than repeating the New Left’s easy condemnation of white racism, they engaged it. By pushing the direct interest of whites and offering alternative white identities rooted in political resistance, White Lighting hoped to build a bridge to struggling communities of color. That bridge was already under construction. White Lightning worked in coalition with black and latino organizations around health care services for the Bronx including a long and successful struggle to remake Lincoln Hospital from “the butcher shop” into a modern medical facility. 2
While these efforts met with partial success at best, they point a possible way forward for organizers of the working class: multi-racial, multi-sectoral coalition building on one hand and long term organizing among white workers on the other. That is a daunting task, but who said this would be easy.
Trump’s election and the Democratic collapse shows that the liberal shame and blame, hollowed out identity politics, inverted privilege arguments, and general condescension toward working people is a miserable failure unless your aim is to preserve the existing order. Needless to say, White Lightning organizers were not Democratic Party liberals but revolutionaries that challenged power.
Attack Trump we must. But, to do that best, we should follow the lead of our ancestors: White Lighting, O4O, Standing Up Angry, Young Patriots and JOIN. Let’s create compelling and viable alternatives to white identity, austerity, and corporate power, or the right-wing will. Organizing is the only way.
Real revolutionaries always contest turf and never abandon their people.
- Hillbilly Nationalists, 142
- Hillbilly Nationalists, 153