Bernardo McLaughlin is a community organizer, worker and general trouble-maker in Hartford, CT. We hung out at his house and talked about the challenges of sustaining meaningful, radical community action at the local level.
Rob: So what kind of stuff have you been working on lately?
Bernardo: My main project is with Hart ‘n Sol (The Hartford Solidarity Network). It’s a lot of tenants rights stuff. Between here and Seattle Solidarity, and a lot of solidarity networks, that’s what they tend to work on because that’s what people come to them with. I know in Hartford it’s like an epidemic how much renters get abused and taken advantage of, and there’s no recourse. Like, yeah, there’s housing court. But for most people that’s like so not an option, and even if they do go that route, they’re not equipped for it. They say you don’t need a lawyer to do it, but you’re going to get steamrolled if you don’t have lawyers.
Rob: What kinds of support is Hart ‘n Sol able to provide?
Bernardo: Well, we’ve been working on some basic Know Your Rights type stuff and putting together a pamphlet, but mostly we’ve been taking on cases of individual abuse and doing direct action campaigns to, for example, get people’s security deposits back. This most recent case we’re working on, in East Hartford, is stemming from a retaliatory eviction during which time the tenant had an incredible amount of personal property destroyed or stolen by the court martials and his goons. This is in a neighborhood that we’ve found is generally really run down and just kind of a dumping ground for the Hartford area’s poor folks who are on some kind of public assistance for rent, since they’re pretty much the only folks who will rent to them.
Rob: Just coming off the highway and driving around Hartford a bit, it’s clear that this is the kind of town where if you go a few blocks you can be in a different world.
Bernardo: Yeah, it’s real schizophrenic.
Rebekah: So what’s the basis you all use to decide which cases to support?
Bernardo: The whole impetus for having a solidarity network is so that we can pick winnable fights, and, in the process of winning them, we can bring more people into the movement. We have half a dozen people so far, most of whom were already activists when we started, but in terms of the network, it keeps growing. A lot of us have been doing this for a while. I’ve been doing it for a decade, and we’ve got another member who’s been doing it for at least a couple of decades. So, our basis of support is considerable even though we’re a small group of volunteers.
Rob: Is there any money coming in or paid staff?
Bernardo: We put a little bit into it as we’re able to. We haven’t put any energy into soliciting funds. We don’t have much overhead. We don’t need an office – we just meet in public spaces. We’re pretty well wired into the information technology on an individual basis, so we don’t really need to buy equipment or anything like that. The most we’ve looked into spending is buying a terabyte drive so we can store some of our video footage better, so we can put that into a promotional video like Seattle Solidarity does. Any time we come across somebody interested in the group we give them our own promotional materials as well as the organizing manual that Sea Sol put together, which is a pretty considerable piece of literature.
Rob: How many people live here in Hartford?
Bernardo: In the metropolitan area, I believe it’s about half a million. Hartford proper is like 150,000, I believe. It’s an extraordinarily segregated area in terms of race and class of course. Poor folks are kept out of certain neighborhoods. Just by default, they’re bounced around and told – you can’t rent here or here or buy property here or anything like that, that’s malicious, and really obvious.
So one of the reasons we took on this sort of organizing is that the stuff we work on, there’s definitely race and nationality dimensions to it, but there’s stuff that cuts across that that we all have to deal with. Our first case was my case moving out of my old place, and through that I basically met my neighbors who were very much multinational. Everything that I’ve run into as an organizer over the last decade comes back to segregation, and I don’t just mean that in terms of neighborhoods, I mean that in terms of organizations, movements, causes – it affects everything. And ultimately destroys everything that we do.
Bekah: I can see how that would affect who people organize?
Bernardo: Absolutely. You know, I’ve finally found a good bit of sympathy for that outlook, but for a long time I’ve had to fight people to just talk about it. For me to sit there in a meeting and say, hey, I kind of have a problem with the fact that we’re only inviting our friends to this group, and maybe we should put a cap on how many white males we have in the group. Honestly, I felt like I was on Fox News where I had to defend against accusations of reverse racism. In a group of radicals! So basically I’m kind of done working with people on an ideological basis. Like ideas are great, but I want to see progress!
Rob: Have you found effective ways to talk about racism and get people to become self-aware without shutting down?
Bernardo: It depends who you’re talking to. There’s only so much energy I’m going to put into talking to somebody I don’t have a stake in working with or having a relationship with. But if it’s someone who is a potential ally, it’s different. We look at the labor movement a lot as a potential point of collaboration.
Rob: Have you collaborated much with the unions?
Bernardo: Not yet. But we definitely keep our lines of communication open. We go to their meetings. We invite them to ours. But, like, in terms of that, it’s basically arguing for solidarity and breaking down stereotypes. There’s so much – I don’t know about the rest of the country – but Connecticut is really bad with stereotypes. I’ve had so many coworkers talk about Hartford in like hushed voices of scandal and danger, and I had one person say to me one time, “Are you seriously saying that I could walk down Park Street without getting stabbed?” And I was like, “Seriously? I can’t even talk to you right now. Park Street isn’t what you need to be worrying about right now.”
Rob: How’d you get involved in activism?
Bernardo: Some of the very first stuff I did was around education at my high school and sweatshop labor. It was a fairly typical Connecticut suburban school, and labels were very important on clothing. And I did a little bit of that and was getting some momentum and then 911 happened, and so I switched gears into foreign policy and anti-imperialism and stuff like that.
Rob: How’d you get plugged into the anti-sweatshop stuff? Was it people you knew? Stuff you found online?
Bernardo: I knew some people who knew about it and worked with them, but I was also reading a lot of alternative news sites. Rage Against the Machine had a great news section on their website. From there I got more and more into the antiwar movement, such as it was.
Rob: Cool. So, you’re working at a movie theater now?
Bernardo: I am. My boss is stepping down at the end of the summer. I’m not going to apply for her job because I don’t want to deal with the office politics, but I like it a lot. I’m basically getting paid to do what I usually do: hang out, watch movies. It’s an art house cinema, so they frequently have cheese and crackers lying around, which is my favorite snack of all time.
Rob: Have you thought about doing paid activism or organizing work?
Bernardo: I’ve never seen a position that really appealed to me. I’m not going to be a union staffer. I don’t believe in making a living off of somebody’s dues money, especially given the state of the labor movement. Even with the unions that are about some level of shop-floor organizing and shop-floor initiative, it’s very managed. They understand correctly that a stronger union does mean having a stronger shop floor level organization, but they also understand that that’s a threat to their overall political steering of where the union goes. Unite-Here! is very much a good example of that – they’re very much about stage-managed militancy and stage-managed democracy. SEIU’s not a bad example of that either.
Rob: So, what are you hopeful about? What avenues of change do you think hold potential?
Bernardo: I don’t know about contemporary movements. They come and go. I’m thinking of the single issue stuff – it’s hard to gauge where that stuff is at, and where it’s going to go. It’s hard to know where stuff’s going to be with Bradley Manning a month from now. But I’m hopeful. Given how much energy people are putting into that, I feel like it’s gotten over the hump of general confusion on the issue. At least as far as progressive and radical folks go.
Bekah: Is staying in Hartford important to you?
Bernardo: Yeah. I’m not planning on going anywhere.
Rob: Is your family here?
Bernardo: A good chunk of it. I have family in Ontario as well. And I’d like to move up there, but moving to another country without much in the way of formal education or particular job training is kind of a hard proposition. But, yeah, I’ve put a lot into putting down roots here, and I’m not about to start from scratch any time soon.
Rob: To get back to what you were saying about not wanting to organize along ideological lines, how do you feel about anarchism?
Bernardo: Well, I’m still very much a platformist, you know, in the sense of believing in the need for specific revolutionary organization. I’ve given up on the idea that you, in this time in place that I live in, can just build that up on its own. I think that revolutionary organization needs to flow from the social movements that are in existence. Any group can orient to a movement, but as far as segregation, I think it has to be a lot more organic in terms of what movements it’s coming out of. Otherwise, you’re just kind of working backwards and trying to meet a quota of people who aren’t white straight males. I’ve put a lot of energy into building relationships with the local hip-hop movement. Some different immigrant worker communities. People from different unions. Stuff like that. I think that’s where you need to start from. Rather than starting with a group of people who have their ideas pretty firmly set.
Rebekah: And just want to get some folks of color in here to tell us we’re right?
Bernardo: Exactly. I’m still very much a part of Common Struggle, the Libertarian Communist Federation, but we don’t have a local here. I see that group as just kind of aiding my social movement work as well as it can, and I help folks in other cities as best as I can.
Rob: You talked a little bit about Seattle Solidarity – are there other places in the country that you’re in regular communication with?
Bernardo: Not regular. But there are solidarity networks here and there. There are a bunch on the West coast that are really active. There’s one starting in Boston, Bo Sol, the Boston Solidarity Network. The Providence IWW has been trying to take on that sort of work. Direct action, one off campaigns around individual cases of landlord and employer abuse. And actually there’s an international conference in Seattle this summer of international solidarity folks. It’s some time in July, and we may or may not send somebody.
Rebekah: Can you tell us more about your experience organizing against your old landlord?
Bernardo: It was a good campaign. I learned a lot. Kind of a crash course. But I’m satisfied with the results we got. I got most of my security deposit back. But I don’t know, just more generally, I kind of like where we’re at as an organization. We’re still pretty homogenous, but I feel like we’ve laid the groundwork for something a lot better than that. You know, we’ve built up a reasonably good name for ourselves, and people are getting a sense of what we do and how we do it, and that was always part of the strength of groups like the IWW. It was always a small union compared to others, but it’s influence goes far beyond its numbers. People took on its values and its organizing methods because they were effective. It’s always been my hope that the more effective direct action and real grassroots organizing is, the more people will emulate it and follow that example. Whether or not that happens, I don’t know. But, for example the labor movement is having a meeting on Monday night where they’re going to talk about the upcoming AFL-CIO conference, and they wanted feedback for the plenary sessions. They’re desperately looking for new organizing models – it’s obvious that the labor movement understands that they need to either sink or swim at this point.
Rob: Yeah. Trumka’s leading this whole “listing initiative,” but I don’t know. It seems to me that if you want to listen to American workers talk about unions, better bring a hankie to dry your tears.
Bernardo: For real.
Rob: I think organizers need to spend more time listening to folks talk about what else is going on in their lives. Especially the experiences people have had going to church. We live in such a religious country. I think faith-based organizing has so much to offer.
Bekah: Yeah, so much of the work that’s done to create spaces where folks can eat or stay for the night is faith-based.
Bernardo: Right. And that’s so much of the infrastructure that keeps people afloat.
Rob: One of the things that the explosion of Occupy really indicated is how many people want a place to go and talk to their neighbors and be in community and not be bossed around and made to feel like a number on a balance sheet. Not everybody wants to go to meetings.
Rebekah: I hate meetings, and I’m an organizer!
Rob: I think when you have organizing that consists primarily of meetings, you end up with people who like meetings. People who have big egos and like to argue. You end up with people who like to hear themselves talk, and not necessarily the people who get shit done.
Bernardo: That’s one of the reasons that I don’t advertise our meetings. I’ve pretty deliberately cherry-picked who I want to be involved. And I’ve pretty deliberately excluded people who are like fatalistic or, you know, really long-winded. People who have just shitty personalities. And that’s perhaps shrunk our audience a bit. But whatever. I’ve had enough of things like that. I’m getting older and shorter on patience.
Rebekah: Intentional exclusivity is totally necessary to actually do anything.
Bernardo: I’m afraid so.
Rebekah: And that intentional exclusivity has to be along the lines of personality, and not just along the lines of what people have to say and whether or not you like it, but the results that they actually bring to to the table.
Rob: Like, I think Occupy was really successful at getting people to challenge systems of power and authority, but the whole emphasis on doing everything by absolute consensus…
Rebekah: It’s stupid.
Bernardo: Unfortunately, it’s like, as cutting edge as Occupy was in a lot of ways, it was still bogged down by a lot of the same old stuff. In Hartford, that whole process was kind of imposed from the get-go, especially by the Catholic Worker folks and the Food Not Bombs folks, so you know, that right off left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I like the Catholic Worker movement, but the Hartford Catholic Workers I can’t fucking stand because they’re just like, so pious and exclusionary.
Rebekah: I’ve never met them, but I worked with the Catholic Workers in upstate New York and really like them. Same with Food Not Bombs, some of the folks trying to do it don’t know what they’re talking about, but the people in Boston actually serve a lot of hot meals.
Rob: There’s a thing with these viral movements, like Occupy and Food Not Bombs, where folks start mimicking something they’ve seen somewhere else, but they don’t really have the experience or leadership skills to build something that can actually challenge these structures you’re talking about like segregation and wage slavery.
Rebekah: True, but once you have people who are doing something, even if its pious and exclusive, you can talk to them about it and hopefully build common ground.
Rob: What kind of radical leadership do you see coming out of the black community in Hartford these days?
Bernardo: Um, the folks that I’m acquainted with are varyingly nationalist, and I say that realizing that it’s a broad brush, and in reality that’s how it is. I meet folks who are into the mysticism of Afrocentric ideas, and I meet others who are just kind of stone cold leftists who happen to be nationalists as well.
My experience is largely through the hip-hop scene. In Hartford, it’s been fostered by, I don’t know how many people. If I were to count them out it’s probably between ten and twenty people who are like long-term locals who put their blood, sweat and tears into holding it together year after year after year, mentoring and reproducing the culture through all of its forms: break-dancing, graffiti, cyphering, poetry, all of it, every aspect of it. And they really build people up as well-rounded artists who can sustain themselves with it. A lot of them are really open to radical politics, so just by nature of the fact that I’ll get up at an open mic and recite a poem that I wrote, they’ll love that it has political content to it. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to qualify as spoken word, just the fact that I do it, they’re happy.
So, in practice, it’s really cultural leadership at this point, and I’ve been doing my due diligence to make that jump from cultural to political leadership. There’s some overlap between the two, but it’s mostly cultural at this point. So as far as like political leadership in the Hartford area, to the extent that it exists in a real kind of organic way, it’s definitely on the neighborhood level, like on the block level, not even on the neighborhood level.
Rob: Are there neighborhood organizations?
Bernardo: There are, but I wouldn’t even dignify them with that label. A lot of them are what’s called Neighborhood Revitalization Zones that are chartered by the city, and I think that’s probably the closest thing we have to community organizations that are somewhat legit in terms of doing the classical community organizing we think of. Maybe not along the Alinsky model.
We definitely have an Alinsky organization in town, and I don’t really have much respect for them. They’re very establishment-oriented and very service-oriented. They’re almost like the worst kind of non-profit. They have no class analysis. They’re very oriented toward homeowners, property owners and landlords in general. They’re like – here’s how you should maybe treat your tenants if you feel like it – shit like that. They have a more radical background, but that quickly deteriorated over the years.
The real leadership is there, but it’s mostly bubbling below the surface. The way it works, like in probably every other city, is that they get integrated into the local political machinery, which is the Democratic Party in this town, specifically, in Hartford. For better or for worse, that’s where they end up. A lot of cynical people end up there, but a lot of decent people end up there too because they don’t have a lot of other options.
Rob: I’m interested in how organizational dynamics change over generations. It seems like younger people are a lot more critical of capitalism and talk a lot more about consent and consensus.
Bernardo: It’s cool to see. Year after year, there’s always somebody new who’s just getting out of high school or college and is interested in the history of imperialism or white supremacy and how it plays out today, all of those things that have fascinated me since high school. I don’t know. I think today it’s got more of it’s own style in terms of how people come across that knowledge. I used to get it through documentaries and articles, but I feel like now new media has a lot to do with how things land in their hands. And there’s the virality of Occupy to consider as well. It must have been nice for these kids to just go down the block to their general assembly. Like, I didn’t get to do that.
Rob: Yeah. I kind of feel like I missed the Global Justice movement. I was 13 when Seattle happened, so I wasn’t there. I was at my parents’ house.
Bernardo: Yeah. Me too. I feel like there’s a lot heavier participation now than when I was growing up and coming into it. Back then I felt that I had to participate in it because otherwise nobody would participate in it, but now it’s easier to get plugged in and find like-minded people. So, I think, hopefully that will lead to less isolation and just a more generalized block of leftists in this country for the first time in I don’t know how many decades.
Rob: I agree. I’m hopeful that there’ll be a meaningful resurgence of radicalism in this country. Like when I was growing up, the stock market was just a thing, but now it’s an evil thing. And even in 2008, when Obama first ran for president, I think it was possible to believe in that liberal dream that if we can only elect a black community organizer from the South-side of Chicago to run western imperialism, things might really change.
Rebekah: Maybe, but reading books and going to meetings doesn’t make you an organizer. Meeting your neighbors does.
Rob: Yeah, Alinsky said that the biggest thing that defines a radical is a fundamental love for people. If you don’t love people, and most people don’t particularly, you don’t really care if they get their deposit back or are getting slave wages at their jobs.
Bernardo: I’ve definitely found myself having to struggle against other people’s misanthropy. I think it’s honestly dead weight that’s holding a lot of movements and ideas back. It doesn’t do anybody any good. I realize that it’s kind of, like, cool, and it makes people feel smarter to just have a generalized antipathy to people, but that’s not going to get you anywhere.
Rob: Yeah, superiority isn’t going to get you anything.
Bernardo: Yeah. That’s all it is. Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.
Rob: What about your immediate family? Parents and siblings? Do you identify as white? What do they think about how you, as a grown man, want to position yourself in relation to the white middle class?
Bernardo: It’s definitely, like, a pretty standard white, formerly middle-class family. We’re a lot Prole-ier than we used to be. But, you know, mixed white, white as white can be. It’s got pretty much all the baggage you can expect of a liberal family of that persuasion. They instilled in me some deep respect for some of the movements of the past and some awareness for how things are today, like I grew up with the knowledge that me going to school in Glastonbury automatically afforded me more opportunities than somebody going to school in Hartford, a city where they risk losing their accreditation as a diploma-granting institution. To me that was a moment of cognitive dissonance, like – wow, really, still? So I grew up with that but also with a family that was just kind of okay with it. Well, maybe not okay with it, but not willing to do anything about it.
Rob: Yeah, there’s this feeling of powerlessness. And once you buy into that myth of powerlessness then, like, the only real option is to find a position within the system that’s palatable to you.
Bernardo: I’ve had to struggle with that for a long time. For the most part, pretty amicably. The main thing being what I’m doing with my life, and them being accepting that this is how it’s going to be. I’m not going to have a career in a normal sense of the word, and as long as I keep myself employed, they just shouldn’t really concern themselves too much. So, honestly, it’s pretty well on par with the rest of the men in my family. My brother. My dad. They’ve pretty much just treaded water and been the jack-of-all-trades to make that shit happen, so why shouldn’t I do that with a more political bent to it?
Rob: Do they ever worry about you?
Bernardo: Oh sure. But my risks aren’t anything like what they used to be. Like, I’m not getting arrested anymore. So I’m sure that puts it into perspective for them. But like, you know, it’s kind of a liberal Catholic family. It’s tight-knit, but I think it’s pretty great for what it is. We look out for each other, you know, they’re sympathetic, like one year I got them to give money to my union – SWU, the Starbucks Union – in lieu of a Christmas present. I don’t think they take racism too seriously as a family, but they’re aware of it, and they wouldn’t challenge the notion of structural white supremacy. They understand that it’s a thing, and I don’t have to belabor the point, but as far as confronting it? Forget it! That’s not in the cards at the moment.
Rob: Yeah, I used to be a lot more frustrated that my family wasn’t more politically active, but one thing that I’ve come to recognize is all the ways that my compassion for other people is rooted in the compassion that my family showed me growing up. If we actually move away from ideologically focused organizing toward something more real, it’s helpful to come from a family where people are nice to each other.
Bernardo: I agree with that.
Rob: Any final words before we hit the road?
Bernardo: Organize and smash the state!