Self-Organization, Horizontalism, and Leadership
by Joaquin Cienfuegos
(member of Cop Watch Los Angeles -- South Central)
"A strong people dont need strong leaders."
In organizing an important question that always comes up is the question over leadership: how should the leadership look like, who should lead, and why and if we need any. This question always gets some simplistic answers, when it is a complex thing. In society we have the traditional models of organizing, which is what we call vertical (top-down hierarchical structures) where a handful of people make the policies, and decisions and the rest of us (the majority of us) are kept out of the room and out of the process of decision making.
In the movement we want to build we will always need organizers and coordinators people who will take the responsibility to build a base in the community, and the foundation for the movement. Out of the social relationships and power dynamics that exist in society, where there is a hierarchy, those who reflect the power structure (white upper middle class straight males) are given the resources and the training to lead in society. This also spills over into any movement where you have many people with privilege, so those who have had the training will tend to lead and even position themselves to lead. This comes through the socialization of these people, where they are trained to seek power and do whatever it takes to get it (through the dog-eat-dog training, meaning having to do whatever it takes to beat others who they feel they are in competition with). Also because you have a situation where those who have privilege have a better position in society, they have less of an urgency to get free.
In popular movements led by the oppressed you have also had people who have stepped up and taken responsibility, and have been seen as coordinators, organizers and leaders. The government has systematically destroyed those movements by waging an all out war on oppressed people and their movements. They have gone as far as to murder people and put people in prison to squash and neutralize revolutionary movements of the oppressed (working class people of color in particular) because they posed a real threat to their white-supremacist-patriarchal-imperialist rule.
Even though it might seem, and those in power like to promote, that these movements were defeated and will always be defeated, they are not dead. Looking at organizations like the Young Lords Party, the EZLN, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and their victories and how we can adapt these models to our communities and our times (as well as learn from the mistakes). Where oppressed people are organizing to build autonomy, self-determination, the self-organization, and the self-defense of oppressed communities. Where our movements can come up with our own vision, strategy, and platform. Where organizers are building, creating, and training more organizers and coordinators because this is what should be the end goal: collective ownership and the distribution of power to our communities, our workplaces, the schools and wherever we are. We dont need a handful of people to make decision for us.
Also people might say that it is strategic to keep our own organizers and coordinators in the backseat and give the spotlight to the privilege leadership (i.e. white upper middle class people), to safeguard our organizers. This may come from people feeling defeated. I feel that the strategy should be to change the power dynamics and the social relationships as we build a foundation for revolutionary change. Those with privilege should be allies to the movements of the oppressed and our communities. They should organize in their own communities, around their own conditions and be in solidarity and build with other communities as well. They shouldnt get the spotlight or get credit for a movement build by the people. We can organize and lead ourselves!