“Numbers and force are the only things that have changed history. Nothing else is effective in fighting gentrification.” – Serve the People – Los Angeles
The following is a summation of last year’s – 2017 – organizing as the Boyle Heights-based political community organization Serve the People – Los Angeles (STPLA). We aim to do regular summations to make sure the community can see where we have succeeded and where we have failed and need to improve. We aim to do regular summations also for our comrades and supporters around the country who also have Serve The People (STP) programs so we can help them, so they can learn from us, critique us and offer us any advice.
Although we are based in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, we see ourselves as part of a larger struggle. We are for the uniting of the working class and its supporters across the country and building independence from our capitalist system, defending our people, our community and creating a massive and militant movement. Because of that, we stand in unity with all other STPs (Austin, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Charlotte, and San Marcos) in the country who work closely with the Red Guards and other Maoist collectives. We do not shy away from this.
A revolution is coming. And we are on the side of the people, the working class and these daring and inspirational collectives.
The following summation is broken up into seven sections: 1.) our structure, 2.) individualism, 3.) a strange face, 4.) mass members vs. core members, 5.) the danger of becoming a charity, 6.) building the people’s committees, 7.) lessons for our comrades and friends, 8.) and a conclusion.
One of our organization’s points of unity is criticism/self-criticism. That means we understand we cannot get better without reflecting on our errors and developing plans on how to be better. Everything we do we should be self-critical about. Each section of this summation will have a self-criticism.
If after reading the following you want to send over your thoughts, please email us at servethepeopleLA@gmail.com.
- Our structure: three levels, three presentations, three goals
People not in Boyle Heights sometimes ask us: so, like, what exactly do ya’ll do?
The question means we’re not doing a good job in showing the people outside of Los Angeles what we’re doing. For that, we have to be better. STPLA is part of a national movement. We are bigger than Los Angeles.
Every Sunday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. we set up at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. We typically get there 10-30 minutes before and set up approximately 5-to-6 tables, two fold-out benches, two canopies, a literature table, two clothes racks and a bunch of banners and informational signs.
All core and mass members assist and get there at different times with different supplies. Volunteers, who are not core or mass members, always help out. Everyone helps out. We are like a small guerrilla unit. When we are not fighting (destroying), we are building (creating).
STPLA has three categories inside the organization:
1.) core members
2.) mass members
But the constant goal is to merge the first two categories and bring up the third into the second and then into the first. This is one small way we measure how effective we are being.
We’ve struggled in finding a strong and efficient structure where all members and volunteers are efficiently helping out, where no one is wasting time. We think our new structure is a step in the right direction.
Before making food-bags, we announce that there will be a three-part structure for the day, briefly introduce ourselves, make announcements, gather ideas, pick apart those ideas, breakdown how to make bags, and let folks know that we will have a meeting before giving out bags.
This is our first presentation, which usually goes briefly over a concept or two or an announcement related to a struggle in Boyle Heights like the rent strike at 1815 E. 2nd Street. The goal here is to lay out the structure for an efficient distribution.
Then afterward we usually have one person explain what to put in the bags and explain to folks that they cannot take the bags until everything is done. This is necessary because folks have often left bags half empty after they have made a bag they consider to be theirs and because folks have oftentimes tried taking food without permission, a case of individualism. We remind folks of our guidelines and explain that having one person take food will unnecessarily create problems to where more and more folks simply grab food and go and, in essence, we become a charity.
After we’ve completed the bags we have a large meeting with the community that lasts around twenty minutes. This is our second presentation. This is typically by 4:30-4:45 p.m. Still, no one is allowed to take any bag of food, or individual piece of food before or during this. No one is also allowed to take any piece of clothing until all clothes are on hangers and on the clothes racks, regardless of how long it takes. After our second presentation, then, everyone is free to take a bag and we ask that folks stay for our final third debrief meeting where core members speak on different organizational points too. Each week we sometimes engage with a different organizational point of unity and narrow it down to something specific in the community. We try to keep the community engaged by asking tons of questions and try to see what they think. Sometimes it’s easy questions like: “Who wants to pay $400 more in rent?” Other times it’s more difficult questions like: “Why is rent going up?” We make sure to focus on something local and in-your-face while connecting it to a bigger and more general concept like anti-capitalism or solidarity. We don’t talk at them. We engage with them, getting their ideas, connecting them with capitalism and figure out ways with their direct participation to change their lives through confrontation and struggle under our committed leadership. This is mass-line organizing. All STPs across the country are doing this.
This is our second goal: connect something local and in-your-face in the masses daily lives with a bigger and more general concept from STPs points of unity or politics.
At the end we invite people to our debrief meeting at the end. This is the third and final meeting. We introduce ourselves again, give pronouns, make a criticism or self-criticism of the distribution and highlight something positive. It is in this space that we plan or announce what we have been doing with the organization the past week or in the upcoming week. This is where we have the most trouble retaining community members. Most leave but a handful have stayed.
This is also where, in our final analysis, the organization’s most important problem is seen: political development. This is the goal for the third presentation. We have struggled on how to better ourselves in politically developing mass members and the few volunteers that stay. Another problem connected to this main problem is our inconsistent follow-up in calling members.
Recently, we have decided to focus heavily on the general concept and tactic of direct action and militancy as part of a larger strategy to resist displacement and gentrification in Boyle Heights. Our slogan has become: “Numbers and force are the only things that have changed history – Nothing else is effective in fighting gentrification.”
It’s true. The only thing to stop, or at least interrupt, gentrification is uniting the working class, the most affected, and encouraging their anger and fury and directing it at the enemies of the people. We’re hoping by doing this we will be able to bring people from our distributions into actions and campaigns – away from Sunday’s distribution at Mariachi Plaza – and into the streets.
In rethinking STPLA’s distribution as a three-part structure we are fighting against the danger of falling into charity work, which we describe as only handing out food and talking. Instead what we do is focus more on political development and mobilization for our newest campaigns, such as our tenants outreach and organizing.
- Individualism: Among members, volunteers and throughout the community
Individual needs become a serious obstacle when building community dual power. It is a danger that must be combatted wherever we find it. No individual is free of this. Individualism is a result of capitalist culture. This culture promotes selfishness, and selfishness is the opposite of what Serve the People – Los Angeles is attempting to build: community dual power.
Throughout this past year we have witnessed this even within ourselves, not just in the community. Every member must work to destroy this. For that, we use the method of criticism and self-criticism. This method, if you do it regularly, helps people become better and stop in making the same old mistakes.
We must act selflessly, putting aside our own individual needs. Newer members often show individualism in their inconsistent and employee-like work. They sometimes treat STPLA like a job or worst, community service!
Volunteers are victims of this. By this we mean work that is mainly seen as a routine. For example, only contributing to the regular Sunday distributions without connecting with the masses, not sticking around for the debrief, not working in the week-long preparation before Sundays. This attitude of routine is individualism because they are putting themselves before the needs of the community, the masses, whether they see it or not. There is much work to be done. Part of that work is being enthusiastic in serving the people. A person is enthusiastic only if they really, truly, understand why they are serving the people, why the need is so great – from putting a bag of food together, to knocking on doors and hearing our neighbors out, to challenging everyone – masses, volunteers and members alike – to be more daring and courageous.
Community members who are new to our organization sometimes reflect the culture of individualism. Our free food program is community-led, the masses make the bags themselves, and then put the bags on a table. Occurrences happen where community members construct a bag filled with food only to guard that bag for it is the one they want to take. This goes against our idea of building a community, it is yet another case of individualism. This is the culture we are currently daring to struggle and daring to win against.
When problems arise they must be handled properly through practice, and this is what we have done. Among members we are continuously strengthening our study and reflecting on what it exactly it means to, “Serve the People.” We investigate and find new issues within the community and promptly put our best effort into solving them. This can be seen from our support of anti-gentrification work, the development of a rapid response network for those in danger of ICE, and the building of People’s Committees. Volunteers are being reminded of the necessity of thinking of the community before themselves. They have practiced this in cases where they see a community member attempting to take or guard a bag for themselves. To the community we explain the importance of combating individualism. An unwritten rule of, “making a bag as if it was your own” has been adopted to our distributions. Regular community members who are accustomed to this will naturally enforce this idea into practice if they see someone breaking it.
We see growth through contradiction, and this growth will advance with our work in the end. We fully understand that this is not a temporary process but rather a long struggle. We also completely comprehend that we have the whole interests of the community at heart.
- A strange face: moving away from strangers to comrades
Questions may arise if you ask who we are: Are we temporary or permanent? Stagnant or progressive? We declare that we are permanent and progressive, struggling against backward ways. It is wrong to think of us as a temporary face. The community is tired of foreign temporary faces, here one day and gone the next. Tourist activists. We belong to the humiliated and exploited, from our origins we serve their interests. Abusive landlords, food scarcity, poverty, fearing police, fearing la migra, these and many more are common grounds which we share. So long as struggle is present, our construction of community will also be present.
Through this common background we have developed very personal connections with community members. The process of trust is initiated and it is a contagious process, spreading from each body that carries struggle within its veins. Thus, consistent community members are created and then soon reflect the ideas of a community. One of the initial steps of building trust is the recognition of faces and remembering of names. The community which we serve must know the names of the faces that serve it. Therefore throughout the year we began projecting our names to community members. At our weekly distributions during the setup we spark conversations with community members, introducing ourselves and following with a question concerning their life. Along with this we sometimes play a name-game. Before or after our discussion we ask community members if they’ve remembered our names, and if so what are they. Weeks went by where a couple of people did but it wasn’t the majority. Then we saw progress, more and more hands were raised when asked, and on one specific Sunday it took no hesitation for them to answer with our names. Thus, the collective line was once seen again, a community being built through its many names. Not strangers, not just friends, but comrades in it to win it.
STPLA is no strange face to Boyle Heights. For our faces are those of a community in struggle.
- Mass members and core members
One of the main problems we have faced in the organization, as we’ve said, has been even political development with mass members and core members. Core members are the more committed and politically developed activists, typically younger college or university students exposed to revolutionary ideas but new to our specific type of organizing, mass-line organizing. They are dedicated and regular members who put the collective in front of their own interests. Mass members are people directly from the community who are committed but are not initially as politically developed. They are typically older, typically women, from immigrant and working-class backgrounds, who are dedicated.
As we mentioned in our last summation, we have prioritized focusing on, and of course recruiting from, the masses of Boyle Heights instead of the activists from other parts of Los Angeles – even if they are more eager. We did this because we know 1.) our current struggle is mainly in Boyle Heights and so the organization must reflect the very community it is defending, and more importantly 2.) the masses of Boyle Heights are the main force capable of real change and real victory – specifically against slumlords, fake-ass leaders (nonprofit poverty pimps), community snitches, gentrifiers and ICE; that means we must always focus mainly on the masses and the working class, not only activists.
We also prioritized volunteers and potential members who speak Spanish or are learning to speak Spanish. Activists standing around unable to communicate with the masses is not effective organizing, obviously. How can you be in solidarity with someone if you can’t even communicate basic ideas with them? It actually is more similar to charity, like a church group dropping off food in Skid Row (but at least church groups typically speak the same language!).
We have only allowed certain non-Spanish speaking individuals to become members with them understanding they 1.) will actively learn Spanish, 2.) while their input is valued, they are not priority – the masses of Boyle Heights are, and 3.) we all must work together to focus on, help politically develop and recruit from the masses as top priority of the organization.
Since our last summation, even though it is still relatively low, we have seen more participation from the masses, and therefore a modest increase in regular volunteering and membership. It is a long process and has had many ups and downs. As mentioned earlier, there has been recurring cases of individualism and lack of discipline – mass members and mass volunteers hoarding bags of food or suspicion that they are selling the clothes from the distribution, not helping in putting bags of food together, and sorting through all the clothes first to pick out the best before putting them on clothes hangers and on the clothes racks.
Additionally, the organization has suffered the lost of some key members and leaders. One of the main problems continues to be mobilizing our mass members outside of the center of our work in Mariachi Plaza. We see all this as a key issue of lack of political development. We, therefore, are more up front with all who mess up and fall back on individualism. We are compassionate but we are disciplined, and we expect our members and regular volunteers to be the same. We directly approach people we see attempting to make their food bag more full and tell them we practice stern equality here – everyone makes their bag as if it were their own. We stamp out individualism, even the smaller examples of it. We create lessons around this. We ask why people do this. We examine it, break it down, hear from the people, hear their criticism, take the good, throw away the bad. And we see the masses are engaging, hungry not just for food but for revolutionary political and philosophical discussion.
Anyone can feed someone. Anyone can teach someone where to go to get the food directly. But we’re not a food-and-clothes giving group. We are a revolutionary-tools-giving group. We are arming the masses with the tools to break down the old capitalist world and create a new better world in its place based on human needs and not profit. Individualism belongs in the old capitalist world.
Our new approach is a little scary. We may lose most or all of our members and supporters. Or we may develop into a better, more disciplined organization. We’re not sure what’s going to happen. But we remain committed to carrying out this new course. If we fail horribly, so be it. At least we can say we dared to try.
- The danger of burnout and becoming a charity
Since we started Serve the People – Los Angeles in April 2015, almost three years ago, we have enjoyed small victories and failures. We have had regular moments where we fall back on the routine of gathering the donations, loading our cars, bagging the food, hanging the clothes, setting up tables, saying some political words, breaking everything down and going home.
We have had moments where we treat the organization and the work as a part-time job or worse-still community service with a political slogan in the background. This is only charity work. When STP programs fall back on this type of routine, they stop being actual Serve the People programs. They’re meant for revolution, not to make you feel good. This danger is always present, and must be rigorously fought against.
One of the reasons for this mentality is a wrong political understanding of STP, and a wrong general analysis of the community and the country, which directly leads to so-called “activist burnout.”
If you are expecting the masses to react a certain way, to say the right things and act the right way after you deliver your political serman, and when they don’t and you get frustrated, you don’t have the right political understanding of STP and how people generally are.
The masses have experienced the selfishness and violence of capitalism for generations. They are exploited every day. They have visited loved ones behind bars or six-feet under. Their kids go to bed traumatized from ICE raids, police violence, and gang violence. So if one day they see a free bag of food and are eager to take it without wanting to sit down for a meeting, it is not their fault. Generally, it is your fault for not convincing them of their need to change their lives, to transform, for revolution.
We fight against the charity danger by focusing more time and attention, not on the material we give out, but on the discussions we facilitate like in our three-part structure. Instead of telling the people the problems of gentrification or capitalism, we ask who has experienced rent increases, or who has experienced landlord harassment, or who has experienced selfishness. We ask people to talk about their experiences. We open up discussion. Often, we connect it back to one of the organization’s points of unity. But we don’t save the people, we serve them. We serve the people toward revolution.
- Building the People’s Committees
STPLA’s newest campaign has been the tenants outreach and organizing. We know we have to mobilize the masses, not simply give them food or clothes. We need to focus on the class struggle of the masses of Boyle Heights, which also takes place inside their apartment buildings.
We began doing bi-weekly door-knocking around the area of Mariachi Plaza. We talk with tenants, inviting them to our distribution, popularizing our work and our rapid response network phone number, but also offering our services in any housing issues – repair, rent increase, eviction, etc.
Tenants have invited us into their homes, shown us the lack of proper upkeep and maintenance by the lying and cheating property manager or landlord, or both. We are aiming to unite tenants within a building into a People’s Committee that can serve as a local force against the bureaucratic and capitalist property managers/landlords. We’re not just fixing apartments; we are exposing the greediness of landlords and the laziness of property managers; we’re taking that anger and, little by little, are building to unleash it onto the property managers and landlords.
In this way, in building up People’s Committees as independent working-class tenants organizations, we aim not only to push apartment managers and landlords to do their job but to build the committees to act as a bargaining unit in stopping rent hikes, evictions and tenant harassment.
This is a new area we are marching in and only time will tell if we fail or if we win. But again, we don’t really think we’ll fail. Not because we are arrogant, although maybe we are a little, but because failure doesn’t really exist if you are armed with a correct way of studying and analyzing things.
If you see where you’ve failed and take away lessons from it and, most importantly, try again, then you have not actually failed. You are simply, slowly, winning.
- Lessons for our comrades and friends across the country
As the second STP organization to develop in the U.S., the first being Serve the People – Austin which we took direct inspiration from, we feel we can speak with a bit of boldness and well-earned authority and experience. STP organizations, or programs, must always be aligned with the interests of the masses of those respective cities they operate in. They cannot be an activists weekend radical homework. This is obvious, and we would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees. However, these organizations cannot be limited to only food or clothing distributions. They cannot be thought of as not being charities simply because activists talk about politics. STPs, if they are true to what the name historically and politically means, must be daring. And they must not give up at the soonest signs of fatigue or obstacles, the main one being the danger of turning into a charity. STP programs must not be afraid to fail, to retreat, try and fail again. STPs must win, side by side, with the people and close the gap between those we are serving and those who are serving them – while prioritizing political development. Like all things, we must look within, focus on what is internal. If we are failing, we shouldn’t think, “Oh, it’s because we have lazy members” or worst “the community is just too dumb or ‘too problematic,’” or “there are too many obstacles in this city.” Do y’all really think you’ve found that one community where capitalism has stopped screwing people over?
There is a reason why STPLA is arguably the leading mass-line organization in the country. We don’t give up. If we are failing, we retreat and try to come up with something better and more meaningful. For in the end it is not the masses or our will that fails, it is our politics and how we practice it that fails.
Comrades and friends, we have to be daring. We have to be willing to put our politics and bodies on the line if we claim to be revolutionaries, to be disciplined servants of the people.
This does not mean we should beat a dead horse. If an organization or program is failing, and by failing we mean there are no victories and the masses don’t care about you or what you say (this would probably look like three people at a table giving out sandwiches or fixing tail lights for months like a church group, not even talking with the people because they’re shy or maybe don’t speak Spanish), then, yeah, you probably should stop and retreat.
But more than anything the reason people and groups do that and fail, like the Democratic Socialists of America, is because their politics are wrong. They are materially pro-capitalist even if they say they’re not. That is why their actions are guaranteed to fail. They are recreating capitalism. They are literally fixing the tiny points in capitalism, and they are creating dependency like parents with their kids. They are not creating independence and creating new socialist values and transforming people into future revolutionaries by leading them into battle against enemies of the people, like greedy landlords and poverty pimps.
We have to be harsh on these charity groups who trick the masses into thinking they are anything but a charity because, in the end, they will lead the masses off a cliff.
The political purpose for STPs is for mobilizing the masses to change society through their direct participation (we call that revolution). Even though STPs have to adapt to specific conditions to those specific cities, there are a few things that must always remain consistent:
- Direct participation and recruitment from the masses – with the working class being the group we mainly focus on
- The organization must be in regular contact with the masses – ideally weekly but biweekly can work too. Monthly is not encouraged, but in place of irregular contact, monthly can temporarily due.
- Regular political development must also be top priority, accessible but also dynamic to all mass members or volunteers.
- Challenge the masses – sometimes it is good to push the limits and test a person’s capability – in this way we are both building leadership and going against a common kid-like thinking of the masses as being dumb or not wanting to get all political.
As we have stressed throughout this summation, we do not shy away from criticism or self-criticism. In fact, we seek it. We need to be better, not just for us, but for the masses more importantly. We also do not shy away from confrontation and militancy. Arguably, this is the most important part of our present and future focus of organizing.
The past year has brought many lessons for us and we are proud to say in many areas we are advancing. In other ways we are suffering. With solidarity, we wish our work to not only be useful for us, but also for those like us, daring to win for today and tomorrow.
We hope our friends, comrades and enemies alike can read this document and take away some key lessons from it.
We hope our friends and comrades become stronger and more effective.
We hope our enemies change their minds and their bad politics and follow us, but even if they don’t we will still be here, getting bigger, stronger, growing like a small guerrilla as part of a bigger army, an army of the people. A concept the masses at our distributions have been calling for on their own. It’s our job to fulfill this grand task.
We end our 2017 summation optimistically and critically with a great undying love and lifelong commitment to the beautiful struggling people of Boyle Heights!
Long live the working class of Boyle Heights!
Long live the Serve the People programs!
Death to gentrification and displacement!