Community Activism in the “Post-Mass Movement" City

AHA Session 56
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia Hall 1 (Washington Hilton)
Eric Avila, University of California, Los Angeles
Lorrin Thomas, Rutgers University–Camden

Session Abstract

While historians have examined American social movements during the 1960s, they have done little to extend the narrative of civil rights activism into the 1970s and 1980s. This panel considers urban activism in an era when mass movement energies had shifted toward disagreement, discussion, and debate over local issues. It documents how specific urban challenges surrounding the role of neighborhood institutions, housing, and policing were met with creativity, often in ways that crossed racial, ethnic, and class boundaries.

Alyssa Ribeiro explains how a community center reconciled its place in a Philadelphia neighborhood undergoing a demographic transition from white to Puerto Rican and African American. Devin Hunter focuses on the Chicago Indian Village, an American Indian protest encampment dedicated to housing rights for those displaced by urban renewal and gentrification. Max Felker-Kantor examines organizing among communities of color in Los Angeles as a response to harsh police tactics. Lorrin Thomas, author of Puerto Rican Citizen, will comment; Eric Avila will chair.

Through exploring local movements of the 1970s and 1980s, this panel uncovers three distinct but overlapping aspects of the postindustrial city—each ripe for extensive historical work.  First, these historians reveal styles of community organizing that characterize the late period of the long civil rights era that stretched from the 1940s through the 1970s. Ribeiro shows how activists adjusted their approaches to win concessions from a nonprofit community center, rather than public officials. Hunter considers an “Indianized” sit-in combined with revolutionary militant rhetoric. Felker-Kantor focuses on the ways that organizers shifted civil rights language from broad racial grounds onto more immediate concerns related to the local police state.  

Second, each paper shows the contested nature of urban spaces. Ribeiro’s work considers struggles over control of a community center's facilities while in Hunter’s paper activists use spatial occupation as both a tactic and an end goal. In Felker-Kantor’s study, conflict revolves around the ways that abstract state violence is enacted on concrete bodies and geography. 

Finally, this panel—perhaps most importantly—reveals the ways that post-1960s activism departed from earlier phases of the civil rights movement. These scholars argue that activists creatively dealt with the obstacles and opportunities of postindustrial cities. Ribeiro’s Philadelphia subjects worked in a triangulated racial context shot through with class divisions, Hunter’s Chicago radicals expressed their unique racialized relationship with the state and popular culture even as they cultivated multiracial sympathy and funding, and Felker-Kantor’s Angelenos of color shared common grievances with excessive police presence in their communities.

These multiracial struggles in what we call the "post-mass movement city" show that activism did not simply devolve into short-sighted “identity politics” in the 1970s, but instead evolved into campaigns for immediate and local goals like improvements in community services, housing, and police relations.

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