On Wednesday, August 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, commemorative speeches spilled out over the DC mall. From President Obama and other carefully selected political ‘notables’, speakers sought to identify themselves with King and the historic event of 1963.
In a series of carefully scripted speeches—in some cases closely edited, according to reports, to avoid any indication of calls for grass roots action or a new civil rights movement—speakers talked mostly of the great achievements in civil and democratic rights in America set in motion by the historic 1963 event.
While politicians strained to identify themselves with, and wrap themselves in, the achievements in democratic rights set in motion by King and the 1963 march, none had much to say about what practical steps should be taken to address the growing assault on democratic, civil and labor rights rapidly gaining momentum today across the land.
While some speakers lamented in general terms the growing attacks on voting and other democratic rights now spreading from state to state, most had little to say about what should be done. Instead, they mostly patted themselves on the back, saying in effect, ‘we’ve come so far, haven’t we’? ‘Yes, there’s still more to do, but we have achieved so much’.
But as they applauded and offered little, the greatest attack on democracy in America in at least a half century has continued to gain momentum.
Washington’s ‘Wishful Wednesday’
While speakers and politicians mostly congratulated themselves in Washington, in state after state laws continue to be passed and implemented imposing new limits and restrictions on democratic rights—not just for minorities but for students, the poor and the millions still effectively disenfranchised. State governments also now increasingly run roughshod over local and city-level democratically determined decisions. And at the federal level, as President Obama hailed King’s contribution to democratic rights on Wednesday, his own administration continued its daily assault on the US Constitution—in particular the 1st and 4th amendments of the Bill of Rights ensuring freedom of speech and prohibition against unnecessary search and seizure.
Attacking Voting Rights
At the forefront of the attack on democracy in the US today is the proliferation of voter rights suppression legislation at the state level. From Texas to North Carolina and beyond, attacks on the fundamental right even to vote have been spreading the past two years. But the attackers have been given a further ‘green light’ to suppress voting rights by the US Supreme Court this past June 26, 2013, in its Shelby v. Holder decision.
In that decision, the court decided the Federal government must withdraw its oversight of States’ voting procedures, as was previously required under the 1965 voting rights law. The decision has since opened a political ‘pandora’s box’, encouraging more states to introduce legislation to suppress voters’ rights and states with such laws to make them even more draconian in the future.
The Supreme Court’s June decision was more than a little ironic. In one sense, the court’s action marks the end to what might be called ‘voting rights reconstruction’ in the US, contained in the form of the 1965 voting rights act. As speakers on the mall on Wednesday, Augusts 28, 2013 were hailing the achievements of the 1963 march that led to the voting rights act, the Supreme Court just weeks before was gutting the same act just across the street from the mall.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision is historically ironic in yet a further sense. Its ending of ‘voting rights reconstruction’ embodied in the 1965 voting rights act is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s decisions in the 1870s that bought to an end the effort to politically ‘reconstruct’ the southern confederate states following the Civil War to provide democratic rights for all. The 1870s ‘end of reconstruction’ meant a general retreat from enforcing the 13th and 14th amendments to the US constitution. Similarly, in 2013, the US Supreme Court in effect abandoned the effort to ensure voting rights for all. The attack on voters rights of course predates the Supreme Court decision. But that decision nonetheless has now provided significant encouragement to States to expand and deepen the limits on voters rights.
Key elements of voting rights suppression introduced state by state in recent years (now soon to expand no doubt) include new forms of voter ID requirements. Elimination of the right to pre-register to vote. Abolishing of Party line voting, thus ensuring conservatives and business interests get to effectively negate any third party, progressive or even liberal candidates getting nomination from their party. And new forms of ‘poll taxes’. (For example, denying families claims for dependent tax deduction for a student if the student votes at the college location instead of the parents’). For a litany of the possible tactics and measures involved in voter suppression, readers should take a look at North Carolina’s recent 50 page voter rights suppression legislation.
Many of these voting rights suppression measures are in fact ghost-written by billionaire-funded right wing organizations like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Holding regional level conferences throughout the US during the year, ALEC essentially writes the voting rights suppression legislation, pays for state legislators and their staffers and families to come to the conferences, instructs them how to write the bills, and even provides them with the legislative boilerplate to take back and pass. If anyone thinks the power of lobbyists in state houses and Washington is a major problem, forget it. Who needs lobbyists to influence the drafting of legislation in State houses and Congress when you can write the bills for them beforehand? That’s ALEC.
But no direct or immediate challenges to the Supreme Court, to ALEC, or to the growing state level implementation of voter suppression were called for in the speeches on the Washington mall on Wednesday. Just generalities and faint references in passing to the growing problem amid grand statements as to ‘how far we’ve come since 1963’. No specific calls to direct resistance or civil disobedience—i.e. the heart of Dr. Martin Luther King’s message in 1963. Trust the politicians in Washington, we’re told. They’ll later address the problem of disappearing democratic rights in America. They’ll protect us… But don’t bet on it. The defense of democracy will only come from the source and location from which it originates in the first place—from the grass roots. From relying on our own independent political action—not on politicians who today are more in the employ of the wealthy and their institutions than ever before in recent memory.
Attacking Rights Beyond Voting
The growing attacks on democratic and civil rights now in the US involve not only the roll back of voting rights. Local forms of democracy are also under direct attack in the US. Cities and local jurisdictions in growing numbers are being deprived of their own basic democratic rights by governors and state legislatures from Michigan to California to North Carolina. Decisions by local citizens or their locally elected representatives are being reversed by dictate by state politicians, who more often than not are bought by wealthy and business campaign contributors or lured by the prospect of some future ‘revolving door’ job with corporate America.
Nor is the problem of democracy under increasing attack in America limited to state and local government. At the federal government level, the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights itself is increasingly the target.
Professional journalists’ first amendment rights and freedom of the press are under assault on multiple fronts by the federal government today as never before in recent memory. Obama’s own Justice Department is at the forefront of this effort, subpoenaing and forcing journalists to testify in criminal court to reveal sources—especially those associated with government employees’ whistleblowing. Once protected by law, but no longer, whistleblowers and their press contacts are subject today to a ‘full court press’ by the Obama administration. Not merely coincidental, this offensive against 1st amendment freedom of press is being orchestrated in Washington DC and the 4th district Appeals Court in the Virginia-Maryland area where the CIA, NSA, and other government security agencies reside.
The government offensive against freedom of the press has already had a chilling effect on investigative journalists, the press, and whistleblowers attempting to reveal the abuses of government. That in turn is contributing to the further ‘timidification’ of the journalist caste in the US. Is it any wonder then, given the retreat of the press from investigating the government, that citizens like Bradley Manning, Snowden, and others have chosen to act directly as whistleblowers? In times past, their whistleblowing might have been picked up by the press and communicated to the public. But no longer. At great personal risk and harm to themselves, with the public press no longer a partner, the Snowdens and Mannings have had to ‘go it alone’, fulfilling the role the public press once played in America—but does no longer.
Fourth amendment rights are also under intensifying assault at the federal level. Protections against unreasonable ‘search and seizure’, clearly protected under the 4th amendment, are being abused en masse as the federal government illegally seizes emails, phone calls, and who knows what else—for purposes yet to be fully revealed. Moreover, the National Security Agency, the NSA, and other government agencies leading this assault are busy concocting even more grandiose plans—like the yet to be fully reported ‘Gorgonstare’ program that would enable the government to video real time every person on the street in Washington DC at the same time.
As the federal government and the courts continue the attack on 1st and 4th amendment Bill of Rights guarantees, President Obama gives hypocritical speeches in Washington about the need to honor the voting rights contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King. As the Obama Justice Department initiates a token legal challenge to the attack on voter rights only in Texas, the Supreme Court’s decision goes unchallenged and more states attack local democracy and voters rights elsewhere along an expanding front.
If you want to watch democracy being rolled back, go to Washington DC. If you want to hear generalities without specifics and what won’t be done, listen to speeches on the Capitol mall. But if you want to know how people at the grass roots are actually fighting back to defend their democratic, civil, and voting rights, then go to North Carolina.
North Carolina’s ‘Moral Mondays’ Movement
As Washington politicos were applauding themselves on August 28, 2013, and wrapping themselves in the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King and the 1963 March, the real fight for democracy and voters rights was taking place in protests and marches on the same day, August 28, 2013, across 13 cities in North Carolina.
Protestors and demonstrators there have formed their own independent political movement, loosely referred to as the ‘Moral Mondays’ movement. Growing out of the demonstrations in the state capitol eight years ago, grass roots popular resistance has been taking form and growing there for several years.
The recent takeover the state by a right wing governor and legislature, and the passage of a new voter rights suppression law, has energized the grass roots and the movement in North Carolina as never before in recent memory. The Moral Mondays movement now leads the fight for democracy in North Carolina and serves as a model for other similar movements now forming, or about to form, in other states that are also in the ‘cross-hairs’ of the attacks on Democracy in general and voter rights in particular.
The Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina is interesting in that while it is very localized, those local efforts have formed a federated organization. Little known and hardly reported elsewhere in the US, the protestors have engaged in a clever ‘flexible’ occupation of the state capitol that ‘occupy movement advocates’ elsewhere would do well to look into. The loosely federated groups comprising the movement consist of religious organizations, labor organizations, and other community groups, each acting independently but also uniting in common demonstrations and direct actions. They are protesting, sitting in, getting arrested and otherwise engaging in peaceful civil disobedience, proving by action and word they are the true inheritors of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the true spirit of 1963—not the politicians and speakers in Washington at the commemoration on August 28. The ‘Moral Monday’s folks are the real deal. They are currently in the process of electing ‘local city-by-city assemblies’ and reaching out to others elsewhere, and have publicly announced a 14 Point Program.
In short, they have organization, they have strategy and tactics, they have a program that unites them in principle and objectives, and they are politically independent.
Based on this writer’s conversations with some of them, the North Carolina protestors know that the current attack on Democracy and voter rights in their state is about preventing resistance to the economic crisis and austerity measures being imposed on the poor, minorities, workers in that state—and the further austerity measures yet to come. Stop democracy today and you can stop resistance to the measures tomorrow, seems to be the strategy of the right wing governor and legislature in North Carolina.
The attack on Democratic rights there is both political in form and economic in objective, in other words. While draconian suppression of voting rights is taking place in North Carolina, so too is education under attack, with proposals to reduce their pay and jobs. On the employment front, more than 70,000 workers have thus far been denied unemployment insurance in the state and another 100,000 are due the same come January 2014. Meanwhile, politicians raise regressive taxes and end tax credits for lower income families while cutting taxes for corporations and businesses. Education budgets are cut by millions of dollars while vouchers are given to attend private schools. North Carolina is also a state where the governor and legislature refuse to embrace the expansion of Medicaid provided by the 2010 health care act, thus denying countless thousands of necessary health care services.
Readers interested in the 14 Point Program of the North Carolina ‘Moral Mondays’ movement, should go to the movement’s website at HKonJ.com, and see for themselves what the real fight for democracy today looks like—and then compare that to the phony Washington DC politicians and their false promises of maybe doing something some day once they are re-elected again.
Readers are also welcomed to listen to the archived interview by this writer with several leaders of the Moral Mondays movement, which also took place on Wednesday, August 28. That hour long interview is available on the Progressive Radio Network where this writer’s weekly radio show, Alternative Visions, is archived and available for download. Go to alternativevisions.podbean.com for the August 28 interview, or to the archive of the Progressive Radio Network itself.
Dr. Jack Rasmus is the author of the 2012 book, ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’, Pluto Press. He blogs at jackrasmus.com and his website is: www.kyklosproductions.com. He is the host of the Alternative Visions radio show on Wednesdays on the progressive radio network. Follow him on twitter at @drjackrasmus.