I am fortunate to live in the Newark, N.J. area. Because of it I’m a member of the People’s Organization for Progress, a predominantly African American but multi-cultural organization led by its chair, Larry Hamm.
Three days after the November 2 election POP held a fund-raising dinner. When Larry spoke as part of the program of speakers and poetry, the first thing he did was to lead the packed church basement in a chant of “power to the people,” as he often does. He spoke of the disappointment that we were all feeling by the Presidential election results, but he also said that even if Bush had lost we’d still have a major problem: dealing with a pro-war, pro-corporate Kerry administration.
We should not forget this as we open up needed discussion about strategy under a second Bush-Cheney administration.
For example, one absolutely essential, strategic necessity is the coming together of a 21st century version of the 1980′s Rainbow Coalition movement. This would have been necessary whoever won on November 2. Because the Bushites won, it’s even more essential that we find the ways to bring together a visible, activist, grassroots-based, multi-cultural, issue-oriented, democratic movement and alliance to fight against the war, efforts to privatize Social Security, regressive tax reform plans, willful disregard of the global warming crisis, attacks on working people and the poor, the nomination of anti-abortion and right-wing federal judges, etc. This alliance must include progressive Democrats, members of the Green, Labor and other third parties and the many independent progressive activists who are not active with any political party.
Unless ways are found, and found soon (not some theoretical time off in the future), to bring such an alliance into being, our peoples, people around the world and our threatened eco-system are in for a far worse four more years than has to be the case.
Fortunately, there are concrete indicators that large numbers of progressive leaders see this. We are coming off a period of intensive and extensive anti-Bush mobilization. It is critical that our disappointment over the Bushite victory not keep us from moving in the next few months to set in motion a political/organizational process that builds upon this popular mobilization work to create a people’s alliance that will be in it for the next four years, as well as the long haul.
But this necessary process will not move forward unless at the center of it is an understanding of the centrality of race to the process of positive social change, as well as the concrete reality of active leadership by mass-based organizers of color.
It is an historical fact that, throughout U.S. history, African American and other communities of color have been a major force in pushing the entire country in a more progressive direction. This has been the case because of the black community’s role and place within the economy, its reality as an overwhelmingly working-class community, its traditions of resistance and its less individualistic and more community-oriented culture.
One major example is the black resistance to slavery which inspired northern abolitionists and led to the Civil War and, for a time, progressive reconstruction governments in the South which benefited both poor blacks and poor whites. These governments were a precursor to the mass, multi-racial, populist movement of the late 1800′s.
Other examples include the black nationalist Marcus Garvey movement of the 1920′s which preceeded the multi-racial CIO movement of the 1930s and ’40s; the civil rights movements of the ’50s and ’60s which spawned a whole range of movements that continue to impact U.S. society today; and the Rainbow Coalition movement itself in the ’80s which helped generate the political energy for the development of the Green Party, Labor Party and New Party of the ’90s, as well as the election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.
Unfortunately, the demise of the ’80s Rainbow movement contributed to Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council’s ability to turn the Democratic Party into a “me too” party in relationship to the Republican Party. The dominant political forces within the African American progressive community chose to work within the Democratic Party rather than utilizing active struggle against the DLC’ers that would have involved both “inside and outside” activity.
Today, for a variety of reasons, a growing number of African American and other progressive leaders of color are speaking and acting in much more independent ways. This is one key aspect of what is needed if we are to forge a strong people’s alliance with people of color leadership at its center.
The other key aspect is white organizers being serious about dealing with their individual and the society’s racism, not assuming that because they’re “progressive” that they’ve got it all together on this and other negative isms. There are some indications of progress here too. The successful development and work of 2004 Racism Watch (www.racismwatch.org) over the course of the year is one prime example. But there is still a long way to go. The struggle against racism, internal and external work to confront it and break it down, must be taken up by a growing number of white activists and be fully integrated into all aspects of the alliance.
It is strategically key that we prioritize the development of strong, local bases for independent progressive politics in cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas. It is on these local levels, through work around popular issues and through the running of candidates with a coherent, understandable, progressive platform, that we can plant new progressive seeds and strengthen the roots of already existing efforts. In communities where the fundamentalist, right-wing Christian movement has strength, this work can begin to chip away at their hold over the hearts and minds of people who, over time, we can win towards our progressive views.
It seems to me that it would be very timely for state conferences to be organized around the country that would bring together a multi-cultural, multi-issue mix of groups and movements. The conferences would be organized to share skills and resources to help already-existing local organizations and encourage local coalition-building, begin development of a common agenda on issues, and, at a minimum, take steps to create an on-going alliance of some kind with horizontal and democratic communications.
Finally, to be successful, we need to consciously develop a way of functioning which openly opposes sectarian attacks by certain leftists on anyone who is working in the Democratic Party but which also opposes a “do-your-own-thing” attitude which avoids healthy and needed discussion over the “party question.”
Isssue-oriented progressives are in a real bind in the USA. Our winner-take-all political system and two-party corporate culture makes it very difficult for third parties to win electoral victories in partisan elections. This is why some progressives who are very critical of the Democratic Party have decided to run as Democrats. Other progressives have taken a longer-range view and are building “third party” structures while also working for electoral reform, particularly instant runoff voting and public financing.
It seems to me that the meeting ground for both of these tendencies is common work around issues like war, racism, social security, etc. and specific electoral reform issues. For example, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., a Democrat, has introduced instant runoff voting legislation in Congress. This is legislation that third partyites will undoubtedly support. It must also be supported in an active way by progressive Democrats. Unless this happens, those of us who believe that building a new party is essential, strategic work will have a hard time sticking with any alliance that claims to be across-the-board progressive.
And across-the-board progressive we must be. This doesn’t mean we should be rhetorical or shrill in our positions. It doesn’t mean we don’t need a way of work which puts a premium on listening to the views of the people in this alliance and those we are reaching out to, engaging in respectful dialogue as necessary. It doesn’t mean we won’t have honest differences over certain specific positions.
However, we need to stand firm on currently unpopular issues like marriage equality. We need to support reparations, discussing it as necessary if there are honest questions or concerns from some of our white sisters and brothers. We need to organize for a living wage, not a higher minimum wage that people still can’t live on. We need to demand an end to corporate control of our health care system and single-payer, universal health care. We need to raise our voices for a clean energy revolution to prevent worldwide ecological catastrophe.
Power to the people must be our goal, nothing less. We are the defenders of democracy, not the Republicans with their “voter integrity” squads, their Diebold electronic machines with no paper trail and their voter purges, and not the Democrats with their hollow words of defending people’s right to vote and then immediately conceding despite widespread evidence of voter intimidation, disenfranchisement and major discrepancies between exit polls and election results. We say: make election day a federal holiday; enact same-day voter registration; get Democrats and Republicans out of the election-administration business; get corporate money out and proportional representation in. Right now, recount the votes in Ohio and elsewhere, open up people’s and government investigations of what really went on in this election.
The people have the power; let’s use it. Let’s get ourselves unified and organized to make democracy real.
Ted Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network (www.ippn.org), although these ideas are solely his own. He can be reached at [email protected] or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.