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Democracy Is Coming To Pacifica


Pacifica’s struggle is in a new phase, about to take a big leap forward. Countless activists have pursued diverse strategies and have resisted recriminations and have now finally overcome reactionary obstacles. A majority progressive interim board is in place. What can one say – hooray!

The interim board chair, holding office for fifteen months until there will be new elections in accord with new bylaws, is Leslie Cagan. Cagan’s coalition and organizing skills have put hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in many of the country’s largest mobilizations and contributed to building diverse movements: from the Viet Nam war to racism at home, from nuclear disarmament to lesbian/gay liberation, from fighting sexism to working against U.S. intervention.

In recent years, Cagan was the Field Director for the ’89 Mayoral Campaign of David Dinkins, coordinated the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East (during the ’90-91 Gulf War), directed the Cuba Information Project for seven years, coordinated logistics for the Stonewall 25 demonstration in NYC, and has taught organizing skills at the Z Media Institute.

She recently coordinated the CUNY is Our Future Coalition (defending public higher education at the City University of New York) and served on the steering committee of the Same Boat Coalition City (organizing around city and state issues in NY).

Cagan is a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence, and is on the board of the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation and has recently worked with the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process in their efforts to re-energize the progressive voice in the lesbian/gay/sexual/transgender movement. Cagan is also part of the ZNet Sustainer program.

So does having a majority progressive board with Cagan as chairperson mean that all is well—that this struggle is finally in the win column?

No. It means that all may become well, even that all may become very fine–but getting from barely breathing, which is Pacifica’s current status, to being very fine, which is what we all desire, will depend on two very important things: First, agreeing on what “very fine” is. And second, building informed widespread support for the changes.

At the moment, Pacifica’s activist saviors in the new board, in the studios, and on the streets, are no doubt focused on today. How do we get Democracy Now back on the air? How do we solidify the interim board? What do we do about hold-over managers who would harshly oppose sensible changes? How do we clean up the budget mess? These and related matters demand immediate attention, to be sure.

And of course focusing on today’s tasks, not least to not be sunk by them, is mandatory. But if no one simultaneously develops support for shared future goals, then even with all the good will and high hopes in the world, Pacifica could return precisely to where it was a few years ago…poised to repeat essentially the same conflict anew.

Pacifica’s dissidents are rightly celebrating. With everyone who benefits from a great Pacifica, I am celebrating too. So how can I say such a blasphemous thing at such a joyous time —that Pacifica could soon recapitulate its ugly recent history?

I can say it because I hope and expect that the new board’s majority is going to look at Pacifica’s resources and feel that Pacifica’s potential is under-utilized and that there is huge room for Pacifica improvement, and that to not improve Pacifica would be horribly irresponsible—which was precisely the view of the old board.

Of course, the old board pursued its preferred improvements in a top-down, draconian style. And of course the old board’s preferred improvements put dollar signs and liberalism in command, not organizing and radicalism. So on these two central counts the old board was horribly contrary to Pacifica’s heritage: its draconian methods and its commercial goals. But there is no denying that the old board was right that Pacifica had many suboptimal attributes, and that change should come.

So the new board will soon confront the old problem. The new board too is going to want change. The new board too is going to seek major alterations in Pacifica’s structure and programming. And the new board too is going to encounter doubts, concerns, and perhaps even strong resistance from some workers at Pacifica and some listeners who like specific aspects of the status quo, or even the status quo ante.

What then? Will the new board recapitulate the past, becoming polarized toward authoritarian commercialism and reaction, or will it embark on a truly new path? The issue certainly starts with new people, but isn’t primarily about new personalities. It is about policies, participation, and especially participatory structures.

I think the new board and the whole progressive community of the U.S. face a huge opportunity. It isn’t just that new people can reach a much improved awareness of what kinds of radio programs done in what styles and by what folks will provide a wonderful agenda of radical audio offerings. An improved audio awareness should be achieved, yes, and new radio content should be generated in accord with emerging insights, by all means.

But to my eyes, from the start the Pacifica battle was primarily about the institutional structure of progressive institutions, not just about replacing some bad policies or some misplaced people with better policies or more suitable people.

Social justice advocates have long realized that our movements should welcome and empower people normally excluded and disempowered by racism and sexism. We don’t always perfectly accomplish that aim, but most of our institutions try, and progress is made. There is no such thing as a progressive institution which knowingly and aggressively advocates incorporating a sexist or racist division of labor. That is progress. And even beyond that accomplishment, our movements attend to more subtle race and gender dynamics, as well.

The Pacifica battle raises a related issue. Should our movements embody our values for economic power and circumstance, just as for race and gender? Should they welcome and empower people normally excluded and disempowered by classism, just as they should welcome and empower those normally excluded and disempowered by racism and sexism?

Distressingly and in contrast to the progress around race and gender, the great bulk of progressive institutions do still knowingly and aggressively advocate classist divisions of labor. For most of our institutions, classist structures and policies are not only not rejected, they are not even in question, not even admitted, not recognized, not mentioned. They are business as usual, without dissent, in many instances so entrenched as to be taken for granted, the water we swim in.

The Pacifica dissidents did dissent from all that. Their actions afford the opportunity for the new board to right internal wrongs in Pacifica’s economic dimensions. That would be big news.

In short, should our institutions be top down or truly democratic? Should our institutions foster participation or impose atomization? Should our institutions have corporate divisions of labor, reward, and power, or should they propel equity, diversity, solidarity, and self management—consciously rejecting all class hierarchies, and thereby offering something new under the sun?

Addressing economic inequity and class hierarchy inside our projects is paramount for the entire progressive community, for the whole left, and indeed for everyone—just as addressing racism and sexism inside our operations is.

I hope people rejuvenating Pacifica will see their task in this broader context.

I hope they will enlist appropriate aid and involvement from wide constituencies in creating a new radio institution which not only fills the airwaves with truly uplifting, inspiring, informative, and galvanizing information, analysis, and vision, but which also provides a model for internal organization and decision making that workers and consumers of other alternative media and of other movement organizing projects of all kinds can point to and say, see, it can be done—real democracy, real self-management is coming to Pacifica, and let’s bring it on, for us too.

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