Challenges of the New Terrain

By Francis Calpotura Dec 15, 2001

Millicent Bowden immigrated from Belize with her seven-year-old daughter in 1981 to the Bronx. She joined Mothers on the Move (MOM), a community organization based in her neighborhood, during a campaign to get slumlords to fix their buildings. It has been years since she thought of going back to Belize. After the events of September 11, Millie is seriously considering that option.

Political Adjustments

This period of profound self-evaluation also applies to social justice organizations like MOM. The tragedy of September 11 is forcing recalibrations of organizing strategies to adapt to the new conditions. Like other organizations across the country, MOM is trying to find answers to the questions of the day: What’s the impact of 9/11 on our current campaigns? How do we engage our members in new forms of political education and actions? How do you organize in times of war and heightened racism?

This is where ColorLines wants to contribute to thinking and acting our way through this challenging period. We would like to ground our analysis in the actions and decisions of social justice organizations as they find creative ways to conduct community-based campaigns that seek to erode the popular consensus in support of war and violent racism.

The central challenge for social change organizing in the coming period is to fight on a political terrain where policy priorities and public discourse have shifted dramatically in support of a conservative agenda centered around the "War on Terrorism." Our response to two key challenges will largely determine our effectiveness: shifts in local policies to support a fortified security apparatus, and shifts in racial discourse to "acceptable" forms of racial profiling.

A Different Calculus

Public resources, already depleted by the current economic recession, will be allocated more to law enforcement and other security measures than ever before. With the passage of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, signed by Bush on October 26, we can expect only a proliferation of these measures, and an amplified xenophobic rhetoric to go with them. What falls victim in this War on Terrorism are lifeline services and civil rights protections to those who have borne the brunt of this country’s continuing and undeclared war on the poor and people of color.

One of the more notable political terrain shifts as a result of 9/11 is the public discourse on racial profiling. Up until recently, racial profiling was an indictment of institutional racism practiced by law enforcement agencies. In fact, the term had so much cache that racial justice activists tended to use "racial profiling" instead of "racism" on a whole host of issues like education, welfare, and access to public services.

The 9/11 tragedy changed all that, turning the majority of U.S. residents, including 60% of people of color, into supporters of some form of "selective" profiling. The security apparatus built around the War on Terrorism demands an overwhelming public acquiescence to abhorrent institutional acts in the guise of "national security." This new war is poised to deliver a strategic setback for advocates of racial justice at a time when modest victories were being won to end racial profiling.

Piece by piece, a new social change calculus is being developed by forward-thinking organizing groups across the country. ColorLines is committed to profiling their work in our pages and website: their strategies, actions, questions, and innovations. In these times of uncertainty, compounded by a discernable level of movement demoralization, it is our hope that this series of articles provides a little solace and maybe even a dose of inspiration–efforts of regular people who continue to struggle as they make sense of what’s going on around them.

If there are other innovative efforts you would like us to know about, feel free to write us at

Francis Calpotura is a longtime organizer and frequent ColorLines contributor.