This is chapter six of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. It is available via Amazon, if you would like your own copy. In its sixth chapter Andrej Goldman, Senator Malcolm King, and Cynthia Parks recall the first RPS convention and its immediate aftermath.
So, Andrej, we come to the founding convention. Did it matter? How did it emerge? What conflicts occurred?
I think having the founding convention was fundamentally important, although at the time we had doubts. Would enough people attend? Would attendees split over minor differences? Would we ignore others’ views and fail to compromise? Would we implode and do more harm than good?
One aspect of having the convention was its mechanics. We didn’t want fifty people, or a hundred, but thousands. We already had two or three dozen local groups who hoped to become part of a national organization. It was a good start, but none of our groups had an agreed structure or membership criteria. We lacked sufficient coherence to have delegated representatives.
A bunch of us took initiative. Luckily, we had considerable credibility because of our participation in past collective efforts, and we proved able to mediate and organize. Most of the work was familiar. We had to get a space, put out a call, arrange housing, and develop an agenda.
What was the initial plan?
We sought to create an organizational bridge to a workable future but we were nervous that if our effort failed, it would delay arriving at a multi-issue, multi-tactic, vision-oriented organization. I lost sleep worrying about that.
Was your worry warranted?
Certainly. A storm might have curtailed attendance. People might have come ill-prepared and wasted the available time. People might have feuded. Arrangements might have collapsed. We knew attendees needed to arrive having understood diverse proposals for program and structure including bringing their own views, so we disseminated proposals months before the convention and urged people to bring their concerns, amendments, and extensions.
We knew bitterly settling on perfect demands would be significantly worse than collaboratively celebrating a “less perfect” agreement. We agreed decisions would be provisional until the fledgling organization could attract more members into local chapters, meet again, and solidify. We didn’t seek immediate perfection. We sought good results able to inspire later better results. To that end, we consulted many activists about initial program and internal structure. We proposed that RPS should centrally address economics/class, politics, culture/race, kinship/gender, ecology, and international relations without privileging any above the rest. We proposed it should reject capitalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism, and explore and advocate long term vision to inspire effective current activity.
We left plenty of leeway for insights that might emerge at the convention, and for what we would learn later. That mindset was arguably the organizers’ key contribution. Instead of establishing an identity to defend, we adopted shared agreements for adapting to new circumstances and refining our views as needed. Each new day, we sought to prepare ourselves for the next day, not to prove we had been right the prior day.
Malcolm, though you weren’t an organizer you attended the convention. Were you confident it would succeed?
When I got the pre-convention package, I liked the contents, but I feared too few people would attend. I also worried that those who did attend would agree on nothing. I feared we would squander potential. I remember arriving and being impressed with the crowd, but once the convention got going, I was still more impressed that people hadn’t come just to have their own way. Everyone sought real solidarity. Everyone sought positive results.
You know how sometimes people discuss possible wording of a document and each person fights for their own words paying no attention to what others want. We avoided that.
People had paid attention to proposals before arriving at the conference. They had added refinements beforehand, which were also circulated. As a result, often there was no dissent and an item would pass immediately. Other times, someone would propose an amendment or replacement and we would hear a case for it, but rather than asking for an immediate rebuttal, the chair would ask for a straw vote. If there was only minimal support for the amendment, she would ask to have a second advocate speak, and then ask if anyone wanted to speak against. She would next ask if the proposer had any questions. Generally not. Did anyone want to add an additional case for the proposal. Sometimes someone would, but mostly not. A vote would occur, and the item would typically fail as it simply didn’t have support. No rancor and no time wasted.
On the other hand, if a straw vote showed a considerable majority or overwhelming support for a change, the chair would ask if anyone supporting the unchanged version wanted to reply. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If no, the change would quickly win. If yes, the person would present, and there would be some discussion. Mainly, no one wanted to win just for the sake of winning. We weren’t parading our egos. We all wanted decisions that would be worthy and universally respected. For decisions that had close straw ballots after a few arguments were offered, debate continued or the decision was delayed so people could think on it overnight. As a result, at least two-thirds preferred every ratified decision, and often far more than that.
I don’t think we avoided contending egos because we were better people than past groups, or more mature, or anything like that. Rather, I think our advance preparation, the methods we employed, and especially that we believed what we were doing was going to really matter helped with the ego problem.
We all thought, we have a responsibility. Forget about seeking phony perfection. Instead of each person acting as a kind of prima-donna competing to have more of his or her own words adopted, each person sought lasting unity and a flexible readiness to innovate regardless of the source of each idea or phrase. I repeat this point because activists often minimize these type issues and instead emphasize arcane details of economy or subtle interpolations of identity. We focused on what mattered using plain language and transparent motives.
Do you remember the initial activist program?
We didn’t want a laundry list, though it was hard to prevent. Remember we were just getting started. Nearly 3,000 people wanted plans that met the convention’s programmatic guidelines and which we could immediately strongly support. It was a bit of a miracle that we limited our first campaigns to seeking:
30 hours of work for 40 hours pay
Sharply progressive property, asset, and income taxes, with no loopholes
A dramatically-increased minimum wage of $20 an hour
A comprehensive full employment policy
Curriculum reform, improved teaching methods, enriched teacher-student relations, and reduced average class size to a maximum of 20 students per teacher in all schools.
Guaranteed free education for anyone who wanted it – plus debt forgiveness.
Amnesty for immigrants and regulated but ultimately open borders for refugees.
Community control of police, an end to mass incarceration, and reassessment of current prison terms and policy.
Protecting the rights of women to control their own bodies and to enjoy equal benefits and responsibilities throughout all parts of society, including abortion rights, public day care, and equal payment requirements.
Improved preventive medicine, increased public education about health-care risks and prevention, a massive campaign around diet, and penalties for corporate activity that subverts health in employees or consumers.
Universal health care for all, including a single-payer system with the government providing comprehensive and equal coverage for all.
Civilian review of drug company policies including price controls and severe penalties for profit seeking at the expense of public health up to nationalization of offending companies under the auspices of Congress and an expanded Center for Disease Control.
A truly massive national and international campaign to turn the tide against global warming, water depletion, and other life threatening environmental trends.
Nuclear disarmament, massive military cutbacks, cessation of arms shipments abroad and elimination or conversion of overseas military bases to peaceful purposes such as natural crisis assistance.
Do you have any special personal memories of the convention?
A speaker recounted her trajectory from student organizing, to community organizing, to becoming a revolutionary. She spoke eloquently of being sick of hearing activists complain about how bad things are while blaming everyone but themselves for their lack of success. She told how she had recently been moved by a report that instead pinpointed failings radicals themselves had with the intent of correcting their own faults. Her talk pursued that same theme and was immediately memorable. That we later became partners made it all the more so.
Another thing I remember, was the downtime when people would congregate, meet, and share experiences. We would convene groups by job, locale, or whatever, and those sessions may have been the birthplace of RPS, even more than the general assemblies where decisions were made, because the informal meetings led to local chapters and to work groups in fields like health care, law, and sports.
Cynthia Parks, born in 1992, you watched your family lose their modest home in 1998 due to unemployment. Years later you advocated inexpensive quality public housing and championed rights for the city. A militant activist, a tireless organizer, you were secretary of housing in the second RPS shadow government. Do you remember first becoming radical?
When I was six, as you researched, my family lost its home. I remember my mom explaining that the economy was in trouble so we didn’t have money to pay bills. The banks took our home and I asked how that helped the economy. My mother told me it helped the bankers. It helped the rich.
I watched my father sink into alcohol-enhanced depression. I watched my mother protecting the family from poverty and from my father’s illness as well. I remember ice claiming the insides of our windows. By age seven, my life was mapped out, though years passed before I knew what I had become.
Can you tell us your most personally inspiring RPS events or campaigns?
Two things are when I first used People’s Social Media and when I attended the first talk by Edward Snowden after he was pardoned and welcomed back to the U.S. Using our new social media moved me because I was doing something natural by way of an institution conceived and built by RPS people that I knew was going to last all the way into a new society. I think it was the first time I felt that level of confidence in our future. And the Snowden talk wasn’t memorable so much for his talk – though it was good – as because his return felt like a milestone of progress and potential. It made me feel that our destructive divisions were going to be bridged by understanding that moved everyone forward. Those two events bolstered my hope, something I needed at the time and without which I may have fallen by the wayside.
Once the first convention was over what do you think kept things going?
In any social project, the hardest part is nearly always when one has no evidence one’s actions will succeed and when mistakes can devastate prospects. First starting out, RPS lacked certainty. Nights of sleepless doubt followed days of wandering focus. Once we were well underway, we knew our bad choices would be less destructive. We knew the more we embraced diversity, the more we would have flexible insurance against sudden collapse. When one path didn’t work, we would have others we could pursue. But when we first came out of the convention fear of failure thrived and caused many people to think each choice was paramount. We vested each choice with too much weight. We defended positions too inflexibly.
Imagine meeting with ten or fifteen folks to form a chapter. You discuss how often to have meetings, or how to conduct them, or who to invite to the next one. It feels like survival depends on every choice. It feels like you have to get everything perfect, or fail. In that situation, we often fought tooth and nail over modest differences we wrongly saw as monumental.
Three thousand people attended the convention and then returned to their jobs and homes. We estimated that 500 attendees immediately became committed full time revolutionaries. For those, and I was one, our criterion for decisions was first to contribute to creating the organization and movement and second to live our lives with family and do our day jobs. Another 500 attendees became revolutionaries, eager to help, but with less time to allot. And the remaining 2,000 became supporters with varying commitments. They often called themselves revolutionary, but few had changed to a point where winning a new world had become the center of their way of thinking and acting.
Okay, but why did RPS persist?
Persisting meant creating many chapters which could work on campaigns, attract new support, further define the organization, and help other organizations and movements. But a Catch 22 blocked our way. The 500 most committed participants were central. We would call meetings in our locales for friends, neighbors, or workmates who hadn’t yet connected with RPS. We would do the needed work, but where we were absent, nothing happened. If that had been everywhere, the whole undertaking would have fizzled.
What was the Catch 22?
It was that we who were most intent on success, and most essential to keep things moving, were for those reasons also most susceptible to being afraid of failing, and thus most prone to fighting over details.
So at the beginning we really had two obstacles to surmount. First, we had to depend on relatively few people to carry too much of the initial workload and responsibility. This might entrench them with too much relative power and contacts or it might induce exhaustion and burn out. Second, RPS depending so much on only about 500 people caused the 500 of us to be so averse to failing, that we often wouldn’t listen and hear others.
We made it past those difficulties, but we certainly could have failed. The enormous project that is RPS two decades later, now well on the road to complete success and with nary a chance of unraveling, could have died at many points. Dissident outcomes are never preordained. Revolution is never inevitable. If you want to sing the praises of anyone for RPS succeeding, I would nominate the subset of 500 who brought to the early efforts not just great energy, but, also, despite the pressures, enough sensitivity and flexibility to cool down themselves and the hot tempers of others. To me, that may have been the most basic RPS achievement on which everything else depended, and the achievement that was absent in earlier attempts.
Was it personally difficult for people?
Absolutely. The convention was over. Now let’s say you are one of the 500. Evened out, that was only ten per state which meant you maybe knew one or two other people near you who were as energetically committed as yourself. So now you are working yourself toward exhaustion. You believe in RPS and its potentials and you fear that the relative lack of effort by others will torpedo it. You believe errors could be fatal. You believe your commitment and growing experience make your views better informed than the views of others. Do you see how you could become inflexible and even sectarian? Do you see how you could become hostile toward less active members?
How did RPS ward off those possibilities?
We pushed ourselves to understand that progress and success depended easily as much on how patiently we interacted with folks and on how willing we were to abide what we thought were poor or even wrong choices, as it depended on getting some arcane decisions made precisely as we desired while having steadily fewer people committed to those decisions. For most of us, and this was true for me, finding one or two people who would keep our priorities in order was critical. I think some of us prioritized avoiding these ills as our own special contribution. I remember myself pledging that.
I would like to ask a tangentially related question. In those times there was tension over how to weigh family as compared to movement responsibilities. Post convention, you had a young child. How did you think about the choice between family and movement?
It isn’t tangential. Rather it is pivotal to success, but rarely explicitly addressed. I first focused on the family/activism question at the time Trump was elected, and then after I had my first child. Honestly, I felt strange even having a child with Trump’s malevolence lurking over society and I started to think about what it means to serve loved ones. I didn’t think the best one could do for one’s kids was to earn as much as possible, or to maximally shield them from worrying about the direction of society. That struck me as a kind of magical thinking. Instead, for one’s kids, as well as for society, I thought we had to seek change.
I later read a decades old interview with David Dellinger, the foremost American civil disobedience revolutionary of his time. He was asked whether he ever had misgivings about having spent considerable time in jail, away from his kids, and about his having not accumulated nearly the wealth he could have earned for them during their childhood and to pass on to them after he died. His reply was that he had no such misgivings, though he did feel endless sorrow about it. He felt it was his duty to provide an image of socially responsible behavior and he felt he had done what he considered right, and from there on it would be up to his kids what road they took. He was sorrowful, however, that the world was so perverse that being responsible for his kids and others required him to devote less time to engaging directly with them than he would have otherwise preferred. I was moved by that, and encountering his response pretty much completed my thinking about the topic.
As to others’ views, I think there have been over the past quarter century many pressures on parents, siblings, daughters, and sons, vis a vis life choices. Should I shield my kids, keep my home a sanctuary of fun, and not address society and the responsibilities it raises? Should I pay peripheral attention to social turmoil, but overwhelmingly address my family’s immediate well being? Should I give more time and focus to concerns about society, and bring concerns about society home, share them, and hope the whole family will address them?
Different strokes for different folks. And many regrets along the way, no doubt. But over time, if the trajectory hadn’t been toward the more participatory perspective, there would now be no RPS, and I think there would be no worthy future, either, for the families in question, and our whole species.
As you went down your trajectory toward greater involvement, were you hostile toward those who didn’t?
Sometimes, yes, but mostly no. I thought that to prioritize self and family and to deny the need to change our choices as Trump took office would be objectively harmful to future prospects. I thought if that behavior was dominant, it would totally swamp future prospects. So I tried to change such views.
Well, how would you react if someone replied to your suggestion that they might demonstrate, or study up, or join a chapter, or whatever, by saying – “why should I? I don’t think you stand a chance. Injustice will prevail. More, what can I contribute? What can I do that would matter? I know I can work with considerable chance of success to make my family more healthy and fulfilled, but the whole country? The whole world? I can’t affect that. To deny my kids, my spouse, my family, my friends, to pursue that dream. Not me.”
It wasn’t easy to answer even knowing that for everyone or even just for most people to adopt that stance would be a self fulfilling recipe for civilizational disaster. But for one person to think that way – whose fault was that? Was it really that person? Or was it we who for whatever reasons better understood social potentials, needs, and possibilities, but had not, as yet, made activist insights compelling and believable? And for that matter, was the lone person making that assessment even wrong? If so, in what way? It took a leap of faith to commit to the needed tasks. We had to facilitate people leaping.