LittleSis is Watching the One Percent
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, and what has changed, and what is still the same.
Molly Gott: My name is Molly Gott. I am a researcher with the Public Accountability initiative which is oftentimes called the LittleSis because that is the name of the power research database that we oversee.
Sarah Jaffe: You are one of the people developing the new Map the Power project. Tell us a little bit about what this project is and what you aim to do with it.
MG: It is called LittleSis because we are the opposite of Big Brother. So, instead of the state or governments looking down on you, we are activists, organizers, journalists looking up at the power structure. We specialize in doing what we call our power structure research. That is, really identifying and understanding the corporations, the super ultra-wealthy people, the elite class that wields a lot of power in our society and in our economy, and really digging in, understanding the relationships that they have and doing research that can help grow and support social movements.
Map the Power is a project that trains folks to do that research and to support activists, organizers, and people who are newly politicized and looking to engage in social movements. [We focus on] power research that supports local organizing across a variety of issues.
SJ: Tell us a little bit more about what you do in these trainings. Explain what power mapping is, for people who don’t know.
MG: The key part of power mapping is going up the food chain and really understanding who wields power in our society. Thinking beyond traditional organizing targets, like elected officials. So, looking above those folks to identify the corporations that are donating to them? Which corporations are massive employers in our society and therefore wield a lot of influence? How are they connected to one another?
We have a database called LittleSis.org that is like a Wikipedia-style database. Anyone can sign up for it, add information to it, and search for information on the one percent of America. Part of the idea of Map the Power grew out of that work we had done on training people to use that database, and its concepts. So much information is available on the Internet—anyone can do this kind of power structure research.
Trump ran on this quasi-populist agenda, criticizing Wall Street and hedge fund managers and all that. But after the election we saw that he was surrounding himself with the very people that he was criticizing. At times even the more supposedly “moderate” members of the corporate class, who hadn’t supported him during the election, were kind of lining up behind him. They were excited about things like tax reform and the massive rollbacks of regulations and all these things that were going to really intensify income inequality. So as we were realizing that, we thought one key part of the resistance work is going to be understanding who those people—who those corporate players—really are, and how we can understand their network and organize to diminish their power.
That was part of where the idea for it came from. At the same time, there were all these people who were looking to engage in organizing and in resistance in a deeper way. So, we also thought there needs to be lots of different kinds of structures to absorb those people and give them roles in our movement; which, for me, is one of the cooler parts of our project, like having archival librarians coming to our trainings, and people that are public health researchers or stay at home parents, who are like, “I can’t go to a march, but I can do research for two hours while my kid is napping in the afternoon.” So, we’re pairing people’s skillsets with power research which most groups don’t really have a lot of capacity to do.
SJ: That is a really good point, that [resistance] isn’t necessarily just in the streets. Can you tell us about a couple of examples of campaigns that have used LittleSis and this kind of power mapping, so people can get a better idea of what it is?
MG: I live in Philly. We have a crew of folks, the Map the Power Philly crew, that have been doing research about both the local power structure in Philly, and local ties to Trump.
The first project that we did was on Trump’s corporate collaborators in Philadelphia. We went through and searched—“Who are the key donors to Trump in Philly? Who are people that he had created business relationships for? Who are people that were leading business councils or members of business councils that he was appointing?”—so as to really put those folks on display.
Instead of the state or governments looking down on you, we are activists, organizers, journalists looking up at the power structure.
We released that set of information ahead of May Day, when there were some actions happening in Philly. We wanted to bring the focus not just Pat Toomey, who is our Republican Senator, but also these local corporate villains that don’t really want to be publicly associated with Trump. That was one thing.
Then, the other example of a particular person we have done a lot of work around, and worked with other groups around organizing— it is happening and is starting to happen at a bigger scale—is billionaire Stephen Schwartzman of Blackstone. We’ve been mapping out all the ways that Blackstone and Schwartzman touches down [‘interacts with’? ‘affects’?] in the economy, whether as a landlord or as an employer or as a financer of fossil fuel infrastructure. We want to show that it all leads back to this one guy.
Part of understanding who rules our economy and who is responsible for the inequality that we see right now is pointing that out and really thinking about how we organize to diminish that power.
SJ: You sent me the zine that you guys made to go along with this project. In there, you have a couple of examples of past movements and organizations that understood and valued the role of this kind of research. I wonder if you could talk about the role that research like this has played in different movements. I think a lot of people don’t really know that history.
MG: I think some of the history that we were really inspired by when putting together this project was the SNCC’s—The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the role that their research department played in their strategy, which I didn’t really know a lot about at the time.
Since then we started putting out some archival research about their department. There are some really interesting materials in there about the way that the SNCC field team and the SNCC research department worked together.
A good example is this document called ‘the Mississippi structure’ that the research department put out. It was this really in-depth look at the question of who has power in Mississippi, and it tied things back from local struggles that are happening there to the Queen of England and massive banks. It looked at particular political figures that were on many power boards, which is what we call them sometimes. They had a really clear understanding of what they were up against in Mississippi—beyond just everyday racist folks that they were encountering on the streets.
SJ: I think that is a really interesting point right now when we are looking at this resurgence of open white supremacy. You see these reactions—I forget who it was the other day who was like “I feel bad picking on these white supremacists because they are the poorest in society.” Research like this can actually show that that is not really true.
MG: Yes, I think particularly in the last week it has been interesting because Trump’s business council shut down, and some CEOs publically distanced themselves from him a little bit after Charlottesville. JPMorgan Chase just gave a million dollars to groups saying that they are donating to fight white supremacy,[*] but at the same time, the Business Roundtable which CEO Jamie Dimon chairs, just launched a massive advertising campaign for tax reform that is supported by the White House and by all the Republican leadership.
Who are the corporations that are massive employers in our society and therefore wield a lot of influence, and how are they all connected to one another?
I think [there] is also research showing that these [corporate] folks, [unlike the people] that were in the streets in Charlottesville, play both sides, and it is a little bit more obscured the way their white supremacy manifests. I think that is an important role of research right now.
SJ: That is a good point, too. When we think about what organizing is and what movements are, we don’t tend to think about people behind computer screens or in libraries. We think of people in the streets. It is really useful to think about other ways that you can contribute and ways for people to target different types of power.
MG: Yes. Some of my thinking around “What is the role of research in our movements?” came about because I was involved in building some of the jail support apparatus in Ferguson, and seeing the ways that actually attracted and gave roles in that movement to folks who maybe couldn’t do other things. It gave them a home to do political work. So, I was thinking about the way that research can do that, as well. We have been pushing folks, which has been really fun, to do more research into their community. In Philly, we have research pizza nights where we all just bring our computers and do a bunch of tasks really quickly. It is way more fun than just being by yourself behind a computer screen, for sure.
SJ: You mentioned the tax reform issue. We have got plenty of things coming up. There is never any shortage of things coming up here. But are there any particular items on Trump’s agenda that you are keeping an eye on and that people should be watching to see who is pulling the strings?
MG: The one project we are doing right now related to that is looking at the corporate beneficiaries and funders and backers of Islamophobia. We have been working with a set of volunteers and a couple other partner groups to look at [‘develop’?] a list of the most active Islamophobia-promoting groups right now. They are shooting through the roof in terms of activity now that Trump is in office. Really chasing back to “Who are their funders? Who are the key corporate people that really don’t want to be publicly associated with Islamophobia but are working behind the scenes to promote it?” I think that is one thing that is on our mind.
And, of course, the tax reform stuff. Like you said, just because it has so many far reaching and catastrophic effects in terms of income inequality and the material conditions of folks’ lives.
SJ: We know, from unfortunate experience, that just exposing people as being supporters of Trump or something like that wasn’t enough. There have to be other things that make them respond. Talk a little bit about the value of knowing who these people are and different ways that people have used that information to put pressure on these people?
MG: I think one thing is understanding points of pressure to really hit them where it hurts, and understanding what they really care about, and where they are making their money. So, thinking about all of the tax loopholes, like the carried-interest loophole that Wilbur Ross and other private equity billionaires that Trump has surrounded himself with care about, and putting more energy into those things. That is what some of the groups are working on.
Also, just thinking about the way that research like this can help inform direct action, and doing particularly more disruptive direct actions on these folks in a way that helps tell the story of how they are disrupting our lives.
We have to disrupt them in the same way. Then, also, going into more escalated spaces, like their social clubs like with some of the stuff that the Government Sachs folks were doing around Steve Mnuchin’s art gallery on the Upper East Side.[**] I think there is an element of power research that goes into that, of understanding where their social networks are, as well.
SJ: How can people take one of these trainings or get involved in doing this work?
MG: We have online trainings and we do in-person trainings for folks, too, and have a variety of ways that people who are doing this research across the country can connect with and support one another. If you go to LittleSis.org/toolkit that is the best place to go. We have an Intro toolkit, postings of past training events, and a sign up form so you can get more information.
SJ: How can people keep up with you?
MG: You can follow LittleSis on Twitter. We are @twittlesis. That is mostly where my work is.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
[*] JPMorgan Chase will give up to two million to “fight hate”—which is 0.7 percent of the $26.4 billion in revenue they earned for FY 2017—with $1 million to be split equally by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
[**] Steve Mnuchin owns a financial stake Fourcade LLC, whose address is 45 East 78th Street in Manhattan, home of the Mnuchin Gallery, which is run by his father Robert Mnuchin, a former partner at Goldman Sachs.