Rebel City: Tamar Carroll's Mobilizing New York

Reviewed by Nick Juravich

Mobilizing New York:  AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism  By Tamar Carroll University of North Carolina Press, April 2015 304 pp., bibl., index

Mobilizing New York:
AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism

By Tamar Carroll
University of North Carolina Press, April 2015
304 pp., bibl., index

Tamar Carroll opens her remarkable new book with a deliciously subversive story. In 1991, New Yorkers from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) dressed themselves in “Republican drag” and set off for the Statue of Liberty. With their gear hidden in birthday-party wrappings, they strolled past security cameras, climbed the statue, and affixed a black mesh gag to her face, while co-conspirators unfurled a massive banner from her pedestal that read “Abortion is Healthcare. Healthcare is a Right.” The spectacle, a response to the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the “gag rule” on abortion counseling at federally-funded clinics, brought the National Park Police running, but as the cops shook down black-clad Italian tourists, WHAM and ACT UP members sailed home in buttoned-down bliss. Carroll’s meaning is clear: when we — historians as well as park rangers — recognize activists only through preconceived images, we have much to miss.

Mobilizing New York follows “activists in unexpected places, disguised as ordinary New Yorkers” (21) as they “enacted citizenship” (190) amidst the social, political, and economic upheavals of the past five decades. This is not the tale of a single campaign or moment. Rather, as the gerund in the title indicates, Carroll analyzes the ways that Gothamites have sustained grassroots community activism for social change from the high hopes of midcentury through the malign neglect of the urban crisis and into today’s privatized, gentrified metropolis. By tracing this continuity, Carroll does more than uncover lost tales of activist New York; she demonstrates that this activism has shaped, and continues to shape, the modern city in ways that traditional periodizations of the late twentieth century often render invisible.

How did New Yorkers maintain their activism? Mobilizing New York offers a trio of case studies linked by three explanatory factors. The first is spatiality. Carroll’s activists used the city’s human density, iconic public spaces, and concentration of media to their advantage by performing in this “natural theater for demonstrations” (189). From marches on the Lower East Side in the 1960s to die-ins at Grand Central Terminal in the 1990s, mobilized New Yorkers made their presence felt and their voices heard, and the city ensured they had an audience.

The second is participatory democracy, which fueled organizing at multiple levels. Grassroots democratic practices brought “previously excluded groups from the margins to the center of political decision making” (20). These practices helped activists build enduring coalitions across lines of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and they prepared “ordinary” citizens to move forcefully through the channels of formal political participation.

Carroll’s final analytic move is also her most pointed critique of prior studies: attention to identity. She flips the “identity politics” story on its head, arguing that it was precisely because these activists took multiple identities and social positions seriously that they were able to build lasting coalitions. Carroll rewrites the story of big-tent liberalism undone by infighting identitarians, replacing the declinist trajectory of midcentury social movements — from participatory democracy to identity politics — with a narrative of participatory democracy sustained by an “holistic and relationship conception of identity” (190) that inspired collective action. She builds this revision with the voices of activists themselves, drawing on several oral history collections and over fifty original interviews conducted for the project.

Mobilizing New York ties together its three case studies — each of which, on its own, would have made for a fascinating book — with the aforementioned oral histories and broad archival research in collections new and old. Carroll begins with Mobilization for Youth (MFY), the best known of the organizations she studies, as it grew from a social-scientific experiment to a model for the War on Poverty and a leader in organizing poor and working-class New Yorkers. While previous studies have focused on the well-known leaders and scholars at the helm of MFY, Carroll’s first two chapters bring the organization firmly into the bourgeoning historiography of the “War on Poverty from the grass roots up,” as framed by Annelise Orleck (who blesses the book with an enthusiastic blurb) and others.[1] Like Orleck and her fellow travelers, Carroll deploys the seminal work of Nancy Naples on “activist mothering” as she focuses in on local mothers who “reshaped MFY’s program to reflect the needs of low-income Puerto Rican and African American women in the Lower East Side.”[2] She follows these mothers into struggles over schools and housing in the 1960s, breathing new life into well-known New York stories by illuminating the ways that poor and working-class women drove this activism.

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In its focus on local women’s leadership and its attention to the participatory, multi-racial processes by which these women built and sustained their struggles, Mobilizing New York reinforces and expands on the insights of Roberta Gold’s When Tenants Claimed the City (which this eager reader recently reviewed for Urban Omnibus) and Sonia Song-Ha Lee’s Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement, both of which arrived one year ahead of Carroll’s book.[3] Together, all three point the way toward a new history of New York City in the sixties and seventies that discards the old “tribal” framework for the city’s ethnic politics and re-examines the intersections of race, class, gender, and power.

Carroll closes her first section with a recounting of the many activist careers launched by MFY, even as the organization itself was red-baited and de-funded out of existence. She then follows radical social worker Jan Peterson over the Williamsburg Bridge to North Brooklyn, where Peterson mobilized Italian, Polish, African American, and Puerto Rican women into a series of organizations that eventually became the National Coalition of Neighborhood Women (NCNW). As Gold does in When Tenants Claimed the City, Carroll demonstrates that feminist activism in New York was far broader and deeper than popular accounts of a white, middle-class women’s movement have previously understood. In the words of an important collection to which she contributed, Carroll reveals “feminist coalitions” in the making in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, as local women fought for family and community needs including day-care and senior centers, improved housing, and underfunded city services.[4] A takeover of a local firehouse decommissioned amid the city’s “planned shrinkage,” brought the community together across lines of race and ethnicity to make a public declaration of neighborhood solidarity, reclaiming and preserving an abandoned “official” space in the process (the FDNY eventually returned).

In these chapters, Carroll demonstrates that white-ethnic organizing could and did promote progressive politics as well as conservative “backlash” causes in the 1970s. This specific point reinforces her broader argument, that “recognizing and analyzing the differences among members” allowed NCNW participants “to build successful cross-race and cross-class partnerships” (129). Neighborhood-based campaigns also created social spaces for women, which in turn led to woman-focused campaigns for jobs and job training, women’s shelters, and leadership of neighborhood organizations. The rich and detailed sources Carroll musters to make these arguments will send the next generation of graduate students scurrying up to Smith College, which holds both the NCNW records and many of Carroll’s own oral histories.

The North Brooklyn campaigns took place against a rapidly changing backdrop of local, state, and federal support for community organizing. MFY enjoyed grants from the city, state, and federal Office of Economic Opportunity (as well as the Ford Foundation), while the NCNW built clinics and college programs with funds from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) disbursed through state and local agencies. With the election of Ronald Reagan, these monies disappeared, leaving increasingly specific grants from the private sector to fill the gap (and then only partially). The neoliberal policies of the 1980s directed state funding away from participatory democracy and toward private wealth and power. Where once the state funded Lower East Side housing rights activists, it now gave tax breaks to gentrifying developers building luxury condos; where federal money had once empowered Brooklyn women to care for themselves, it now underwrote Catholic hospitals that refused contraception and abortion to women and treated AIDS patients as deviant pariahs. Though these seismic shifts in the political economy undid the NCNW, activists did not disappear, but adapted, seizing public spaces to challenge the new logic of public money.

The third section of Mobilizing New York traces the work of women and men active in ACT-UP and WHAM! in the 1980s and 1990s, drawing on queer histories and Marxist geographies. ACT-UP has rightly received extensive attention for its highly visible public protests and its crucial role in bringing the voices of AIDS patients into the medical and pharmacological processes of treatment and drug development.[5] WHAM! is a lesser-known but no less significant organization in Carroll’s story (she wrote with access to their unprocessed records, now available at NYU’s Tamiment Library), an organization that fought for women’s rights on many fronts. Struggles for health care brought ACT-UP and WHAM! together, and they supported one another in many spectacular protests, from the Statue of Liberty action to disruptions at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grand Central Terminal. Studying the two organizations in tandem, Carroll reveals their sophisticated critique of the neoliberal city, built on their immediate experiences with the privatization of public health. This critique extended to the privatization of public spaces and the destruction of affordable housing through gentrification-inducing policies. To respond, ACT-UP and WHAM! organized a protest at Donald Trump’s tax-break-winning Fifth Avenue tower, with its garish public-private atrium, and ACT-UP housing activists created Housing Works to provide housing for those in need.

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Like their predecessors in MFY and the NCNW, ACT-UP and WHAM! founded their solidarity on participatory democracy that celebrated a wide range of different identities. Carroll cites the creation of “queer” politics as part of a this process, one that simultaneously “broaden[ed]” the gay and lesbian movements (173), celebrated all kinds of sexual relationships, and made space for nonconformity to gender, class, and racial norms. The organizing power of queer politics continues to resonate today, as evidenced by their role in Occupy Wall Street, whose joint action with ACT-UP in 2012 provides the coda for Mobilizing New York.

Mobilizing New York is a remarkable book for all the traditional reasons. It uses rich, new materials to weave several historiographies together into a compelling analysis of mobilization for social and political equality in New York City. However, in her emphasis on continuity, and in her provocative coupling of participatory democracy and identity-based politics, Carroll offers something more. In a post on the US Intellectual History Blog last year titled “Who Owns the Eighties?” Andy Seal wondered whether the historiographical battles over the 1960s (captured by Rick Perlstein in his 1996 Lingua Franca piece, “Who Owns the Sixties?”) might ever extend to the 1980s. His guess was that they probably would not, in large part because the 1980s are not mythologized in the same way as the 1960s by participant-historians, and thus require less radical revision. Seal followed this thought with a prescient paragraph:

What instead may turn out to be the case is that my generation of scholars will
inevitably push back against the general repulsion with which so many
left-leaning scholars who lived through the decade regard the Eighties. That is not to say
that the entities of the Eighties which originally produced that repulsion will be
re-evaluated — Oliver North somehow rehabilitated by an archly contrarian leftist — but that
the contours of the decade will be shaken up to raise new formations to prominence,
formations which might hold some attraction, or at least sympathetic interest for my generation.

Carroll’s work in Mobilizing New York feels like a step in Seal’s direction. Current historical narratives of the 1970s and 1980s are dominated by the destruction of liberalism and the rise of neoliberalism. The drivers of these accounts range from structural (Judith Stein) to cultural (Jefferson Cowie) to intellectual (Daniel Rodgers); they capture the fall of the labor movement, the fragmentation of freedom struggles and feminism(s), and the ascendancy of the “New Right.”[6] In their language — of fracture, last days, and unwinding — they sound much like the first-generation histories of the 1960s that Rick Perlstein dissected in 1996.[7]

All of this is essential work, and none of it is negated by Mobilizing New York or the new generation of scholarship in which Carroll’s book is rooted. However, much like the work of young-gun sixties scholars two decades ago, Carroll’s is a book that privileges continuity over rupture, even as she incorporates the violence of neoliberal restructuring into her analysis. Her “shake-up” of the contours of the “rise of neoliberalism” story demonstrates that grassroots progressive activism persisted even as the political economy of the city and the nation became actively hostile to such efforts.

This is a move with important historiographic and political ramifications. For historians, narratives of a fragmented left and a rising, revanchist right — while crucial for understanding the changing political economy of the past half-century — can make it difficult to see even the possibility for grassroots mobilization in the 1970s and 1980s, much less this mobilization itself. Carroll’s work reminds us that despite the decline of midcentury liberal institutions — the municipal welfare state of New York City, the powerful labor movement of George Meany — there have continuously been activists at the margins, working their way in from the outside, making movements from their own experiences — dare we say identities — and building coalitions through participatory democracy. These practices received a tremendous boost in the 1960s when state funding offered new resources for activism, but they endure even in the leanest of times. Led by poor women of color left out of the midcentury liberal compact, by working-class feminists abandoned by a shrinking state, and queer activists fighting for their lives in a privatizing, moralizing landscape, these movements are the precursors of today’s radicalism.

And so, Carroll’s argument for continuity is important politically when we are confronted with such nonsensical questions as whether #BlackLivesMatter is a movement. Too often, popular historical reflection still mimics the park rangers searching Italian sightseers on Liberty Island: wondering whether we can return to the 1960s or the 1930s, vainly seeking something that looks like those activisms past. The first generation of scholarship on the 1970s and 1980s made clear the forces that progressive activists must work against, but the new historians of this era, including Carroll, are showing us what it looks like to fight these battles on hostile terrain, as today’s activists must do. To learn from Carroll, and from the voices she has so meticulously and effectively gathered in Mobilizing New York, is to learn to recognize the activism of the present, an activism with its own robust, inspiring history.

This is why Carroll concludes her book with a policy recommendation: social policies, she writes, should not merely provide for marginalized groups, but encourage and support their political mobilization, as they did (sometimes unintentionally) many years ago. It is not enough, in other words, to build affordable housing or provide better social services. True democratic politics and policies should empower those who fight for social justice, here and now.

* Nick Juravich is a Doctoral Candidate in History at Columbia University.


[1] Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds. The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011); Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005). On MFY, see Noel Cazenave, Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008).

[2] Nancy A. Naples, Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work, and the War on Poverty, Perspectives on Gender (New York: Routledge, 1998). Naples's work draws heavily on an earlier generation of Black feminist thought, including the work of bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker, as synthesized in Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Routledge, 1990). For other work in the "activist mothering" frame, see Orleck and Hazirjian, The War on Poverty, particularly Part II: "Poor Mothers and the War on Poverty"; Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, eds. Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America (New York: NYU Press, 2005); Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard, eds. Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: NYU Press, 2009); and Rhonda Williams, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Robert Gold, When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014). Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement : Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014).

[4] Stephanie Gilmore, ed., Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the United States, Women in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

[5] Chronicled most recently in the award-winning 2012 film “How to Survive A Plague.”

[6] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010); Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How America Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[7] In addition to those works cited above, see, among many others, George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), Daniel Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), and Rick Perlstein’s own Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008). A noted exception is Michael Stewart Foley’s Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s (New York, Hill and Wang, 2013). An account that sits somewhere between these poles, and which Carroll cites for its sophisticated examination of identity and politics is Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012).