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Social Movements And Electoral Politics


True, democracy depends on elections. But democratic elections should be free of corruption and intimidation, and this is an ever more distant goal when the corruption and intimidation are legal.  In the US corporations and their owners can legally spend without limits to intimidate voters with scary talk—talk of losing jobs if voters want labor unions and a living wage, talk of “death squads” that will kill your aging grandparents if voters go for universal medical insurance. (Check out John Stewart’s brilliant exposé of Fox News’s 50 lies in 6 seconds. (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/feb/26/fact-checks-behind-daily-shows-50-fox-news-lies/)

Years ago, Fran Piven articulated how social movements and electoral politics are not an either-or choice. Events over the last eight years confirm what she argued. President Obama won in 2008 thanks to a mass social movement that mobilized potential voters previously too discouraged to participate. But once victorious, he then said, in essence, “leave it to me” to make progress through conciliation. It didn’t work. In response, the corporate-funded Right escalated their national campaigns to intimidate state legislators and the Supreme Court into restricting voting rights.

To keep democratic politicians in office, social movements must counteract pressure from big money. For non-millionaires, social movements are often the only resource we have to counteract big money. But as the last peak of social movements in the US—the 1950s to 1970s—has ebbed, people can forget that lesson.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement reminds us of how social movements create pressure, not only on legislators but also on prosecutors and on public opinion. Since the beginning of 2015, five times as many police officers have been indicted for killings than previously. (Between 2005 and 20ll, an average of 6.5 such killings per year led to indictments; if 2015 indictments continue at the current rate, the annual rate will be 33.6 indictments—a five-fold increase.) Of course the numbers killed by police remain atrocious—113 in March, 101 in April, 87 in May, 78 in June, 118 in July. But because of deference to police, because police unions help cops make their stories consistent (see my previous Telesur piece on police unions at http://www.telesurtv.net/english/staff/lgordon), and because police lawyers can exclude people of color from juries, this increase in prosecutions portends well—if the movement keeps the pressure on.

Another bit of evidence: polls show that Americans’ confidence in the police is at a 22-year low—52 percent according to Gallup. And unsurprisingly only 30 percent of African Americans have such confidence. These figures should translate, not into disrespect, but into willingness to hold police responsible for unnecessary violence.

What’s more, Black Lives Matter is also strengthening the movement against mass incarceration and the privatization of American prisons. Private prisons are characterized by rampant violence, understaffing, torture by guards, and gang activity at rates worse than the already terrible rates in government prisons. What’s more, outfits like the Corrections Corporation of America—the biggest private prison contractor—are saturated with contract fraud.  Some private prisons hold contracts that guarantee them high capacity, and therefore guaranteed profits, and thus provide an incentive for state courts to supply them with prisoners. But now protests are challenging this privatization. In what may be a harbinger, Columbia University recently decided to get rid of its stock in private prisons.  Student ampaigns for this divestment have now spread to a dozen campuses.

The controversial disruptions of Bernie Sanders’ campaign events by Black Lives Matter illuminate well the relationship between social movements and electoral politics. True, Sanders’ own response was uncomprehending at first, and many of his supporters seemed equally baffled. Sanders is a quick study, however, and has now produced an excellent racial justice agenda (see https://berniesanders.com/issues/racial-justice/). Bernie Sanders’ original response stemmed from an assumption once common on the white American Left, that good economic policies would automatically end racism; that assumption stemmed from the failure to understand that racism has a life quite independent of the profit motive and job competition. The US has a long and complex history of white populism co-existing with racism. This history is today represented by the Tea Party—many of its members would support Sanders’s condemnation of plutocrats even as they condemn welfare, reproductive rights and police accountability.  Moreover, the exchange offered a needed criticism to progressives for “allowing racial justice issues to fade into the background,” as MSNBC’s Emma Margolin put it. Sanders needed to be pushed, not just to “reach out” to voters of color but to actually understand their experiences of racism.  (I hope that Sanders will be pushed to understand the same about sexism.)

The disruption was effective in multiple ways. It led not only to Sanders’s new race-equality agenda but also to Hillary Clinton’s acknowledgement that President Bill Clinton’s policies had increased racial inequality. Perhaps more enduringly, the disruption gave Black Lives Matter media coverage and showed its grassroots, decentralized nature. It is not an organization run from the top; it is a movement.  Its local groups don’t wait for someone from New York to approve actions. Consider the images that appeared from that confrontation: two young black women, Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, confronting a white Senator and a white Governor. In doing that, they were creating a new image of black struggle for black people—a struggle led by and personified by women.  They were not speaking only to white people: “I don’t give a fuck about the white gaze,” Johnson added. She knew that while her live audience was predominantly white, the social media audience would include thousands of people of color.

Nor are these naïve women who simply exploded spontaneously.  They are well-informed and thoughtful activists.  “I feel good,” Johnson said. “I helped launch a national conversation around race and electoral politics and respectability … The work that I do in particular is agitation work.” They knew perfectly well that Sanders was the better candidate, and would have disrupted Clinton’s speeches had she not be so protected by the Secret Service (contrary to some absurd accusations that they were paid by the Clinton campaign).

Some Sanders supporters, both white and black, criticized the disruption by Black Lives Matter, on the grounds that one shouldn’t discomfit or embarrass one’s allies. But making people uncomfortable has often been a way, sometimes the only way, to challenge dominant opinion.

Electorally, the bottom line is that Sanders responded, and responded well. Would he have done so without the disruption? We can’t know. But what he has produced is a truly progressive agenda—and one that would help the whole 99 percent, white, black, brown or any other color. Do, please, read it: https://berniesanders.com/issues/racial-justice/

(As always, a version of this article with citations can be had by emailing Linda.Gordon@nyu.edu)

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