Marching Off a Cliff on October 2?

The “One Nation” march that has been called for October 2 is (a) the continuation of a stale tactic (b) an incomplete and insufficient agenda that provides cover for the Democratic Party, (c) led by “grasstop” activists and institutional leadership as a substitute for a real movement and (d) a waste of much-needed resources that could otherwise go towards local organizing needs. We need to be creative and more daring in our tactics, and existing leadership needs to get out of the way of their own membership.

Continuation of a Stale Tactic

Malcolm never put lipstick on a pig. Malcolm thought outside the box. If he were alive NOW, he would be telling us that we should no longer be marching. We should no longer be protesting. We should no longer be dreaming. We should no longer be encouraging democratic illusions.
– Grace Lee Boggs, “If Not Now, When?”

Calls for marches on Washington have become a reflexive impulse for social justice leaders, painfully palliative and little more. They are called without any real analysis of power – just the thinking that having people present is going to somehow push Democrats to regain their senses. This is faulty logic, because showing up once for a weekend rally is not a substitute to the pervasive corporate money that drives electoral campaigns, voting records and other influences on power. It seems that leaders of many organizations involved in One Nation either came of age in the 60s and learned little else, or are stuck in the mystique of that time. It is important to question if the tactic of the march helps us reach our desired outcome.

There are many things that marches, within the context of a campaign or appropriate political climate, can help accomplish. Marches have the potential to energize people, particularly if part of an exciting vision. Marches can help create solidarity, especially in moments of tension. Marches can also be used to show the mobilizing ability of organizations, when the participation of the protesters can be equated with a commitment to other actions. How, in the absence of clear, concrete stated goals, as well as dialogues and political education with those participating, do the leaders envision they will get people to do anything except perhaps remember to vote in November? Do the leaders believe that with such a lack of vision, and a short time frame to mobilize, they will be able to amass a number of people impressive enough to help win back “the change we voted for”?

The march seems to have been made solely to accommodate the groups, rather than affect sources of power: the March on Washington in 1963 (which One Nation is modeled on) was on a Wednesday, a time when the capital was actually functioning. The planned October 2nd march is now planned, as most capital rallies, to conveniently to take place on a Saturday, when Congress will largely be absent. Rally attendees will quietly enter D.C. Friday night/Saturday morning, have their rally in a few hours on Saturday afternoon, and be well out of the way by Saturday night so that Congress can continue business as usual the following Monday. Having rallies that interrupt nothing and take place as any other quaint weekend event is not a real challenge to power or “business as usual” (this critique could equally apply to other recent marches in Washington D.C.). If the point of the march is to impress upon those in political power the capacity of the organized left to mobilize its constituents, planning an action when Congress is absent seems to be somewhat self-defeating. Of course the members of Congress will be able to watch parts of the rally on T.V. But even if the rally would be covered on television (which will likely be sparse) the real impact of such a march is much greater when Congress members are surrounded by thousands in the crowd.

There is no reason to believe that a march is the most effective, or even effective at all, use of our time and resources. What we have is a half baked idea of the change we want to effect, targeting Democrats (who will

likely be out of town on Saturday, campaigning in their home states for mid-term elections) for change in the form of more jobs, less discrimination, and other abstract goals.

We must be clear on what we are willing to do, and on what we need to do. Such alternatives must be reflected upon in light of a thorough analysis of power (and conducted through intentional and militant non-violence). But it seems that this power analysis is lacking, and we’re simply called to make the same motions, over and over. As a contemporary hip-hop artist has proclaimed, “There’s a misconception / That a movement in any direction is progression”.

Modern marches have lost their dynamic element, for they do not capture the popular zeitgeist or the collective imagination of the people who compose them. They are no more expressions of a people – not tools for leverage in this transformation – but have simply become decorative events. Marches on Washington are as seasonal and routine as the Democratic Party turning its back on its base once in office.

One Nation’s agenda is insufficient because it is meant to buoy the Democratic Party

The agenda of One Nation has always been secondary to the desire to reinforce support for President Obama and urge him and others to move their agenda. The underlying belief of the largest organizations mobilizing for October 2nd is that Obama is just like Roosevelt, and that people need to “make him do it”. This is a poor, myopic reading of history, and demonstrates the poverty of leadership of these huge organizations. Multiple platforms for the One Nation (referred to as “policy principles”) have circulated with many revisions, possibly owing to changes and amendments made as new groups are brought in. But the end result is muddled at best, and intentionally non-confrontational at worst. There is nothing in the current policy principles for One Nation that challenges any aspect of the Obama administration, with the exception of the call for the government to stop its record-setting deportations of undocumented folks.

The mission statement is written like a Democratic talking point; it is classic Obama, language which seeks to evoke a noble sentiment, to name a universal truth, to outline a grand narrative but that plainly feels institutional rather than counter-hegemonic; seemingly more preoccupied with looking like a broad coalition than using language to actually build one.

The emphasis has been on the date, rather than the agenda. The hurried timing of the One Nation march has explicitly been to mobilize membership to “Get out the Vote” (GOTV) for the Democrats. This is an extremely dangerous sign for the integrity of the event. It is no secret who the attendees of this rally will be voting for, and combined with the refusal to challenge the current administration (including the absence of any reference to the ongoing wars), it is clear that this will largely be a stunt to get the same Democrats re-elected who, ironically, have repeatedly voted against the best interests of their constituents.

The worst concession to the Democratic agenda, and most unforgivable, is the intentional exclusion of the mention of war from any part of One Nation’s policy principles. To their embarrassment, large peace organizations, including United for Peace and Justice, resolved to join in mobilizing for October 2nd even though their repeated request for inclusion of the issue of war was shot down. They have even gone so far as to create a separate, distinct website (“The Peace Table”) that looks almost identical to the primary One Nation website, although there is no acknowledgement of this website or the peace contingent in either the One Nation website or policy principles. Even as organizers in the peace contingent rally membership to get to D.C., there have been expressions of frustration and anger that an anti-war message has been rejected by the decision-makers of the march, on the basis that such a message would conflict with the President’s position on Afghanistan.

Even the one relatively clear demand for the Democratic Party to commit to job creation has been defanged. At the beginning of September the organizers stated as a goal of the march was “redirecting money from wars to jobs”. Now all language about war, peace, and its impact on the economy is completely missing. It is

representative of the collective insanity our nation is suffering that during an era in which our military spending has reached an all time high, concerns regarding our national debt have dominated the economic discourse, and unemployment and underemployment are at levels not seen since the great depression. How can we attempt to push for job creation but not address the military Keynesianism that has contributed to the dismal state of our economy?

That no part was included of the agenda of various organizations in the peace movement is not necessarily a bad sign: the peace movement has been at a critical lull lately, and it is unclear exactly what constituency it will bring. However, the issue of the wars and occupations and its continuing, devastating effect on every part of the U.S. budget and every household cannot be ignored in any meaningful discussion regarding the budget, health or future of the country. That the decision-making members of the march (Ben Jealous, George Gresham, and others) excluded the very issue that will dominate more than 58% of all U.S. discretionary spending in the coming year demonstrates both their fawning towards the Obama administration and their lack of a real analysis of what plagues the very constituencies they intend to rally.

The denial and exclusion of the message of the anti-war/peace contingent – while at the same time asking the peace movement to bring out its membership – demonstrate not just the lack of integrity of the organizers, but re-emphasizes the complicity with the current administration and Democrat Party. This extends beyond the anti-war/peace issue – earlier versions of the One Nation policy principles included a call for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), one of the compelling reasons labor got behind the Obama campaign for president. We need not think hard to guess why that key request has been withdrawn.

Finally, this has been billed as the “first step” towards combining the labor, civil rights, and peace movements into something more cohesive and continuing, after October 2nd. But there is no sign, no language, nothing that indicates any commitment to doing anything after the march. The focus of “pushing Obama” demonstrates a serious failure of understanding this administration. The implicit focus of supporting the Democratic Party, rather than addressing the ills of the membership of labor, civil rights groups, and peace groups, compromises the moral integrity of those who have pieced together its policy principles. That the Democratic Party rarely acts upon, or even articulates, the concerns of most or any of the constituencies headed to Washington demonstrates that the leadership of the One Nation organizations are holding onto a past conception that no longer, and perhaps never, was true: that the Democratic Party is one for the working people of the country.

Leadership lacks imagination and political courage

Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

We need big ideas and concrete victories. Our vision for change cannot amount to a re-enactment of the Clinton years, brought about by the tactics of the Johnson era. Such a vision is not going to energize nor inspire others to join our ranks. There are a plethora of inspiring ideas which have been put forth by left intellectuals, what is missing is a dedication on the part of organizers and some of the larger progressive institutions to own, adapt, and realize/actualize those ideas.

Leadership should be pushing us to challenge power, not concede to it. The principles and agenda which govern this coalition should not look like the scraps left over after the political class has feasted on working and middle class Americans, it should not read as if the values for which we stand have already been compromised before the plans have been introduced to the legislature. It should be a robust plan which forces the Democratic Party to make concessions, to offer serious counterproposals, and make some of its members take a definitive stance of either supporting us or big business.

We need to directly challenge the assumptions of neoliberalism (even if we do not use that terminology) in a way that introduces, if not reproduces, the seeds of the alternative structure and power relations we would like to see. For instance, we should not be entertaining discussions concerning the immediate implementation of a jobs plan for a million people. This would be a temporary amelioration, and only put off until later problems we need to face. Instead, we should be fighting for nothing less than a full employment economy. Strategically, asking for everything and possibly settling for a little less is the first rule of negotiation – rather than the One Nation strategy of undercutting our own demands before getting to the bargaining table. But ultimately and most importantly, we should make such strong demands because that is what we need.

Because our idea of society and the state is fundamentally different from that of the regressive folks who challenge us, we place people over profits, and we must articulate that clearly and loudly no matter whose feathers this ruffles. Robert Pollin and many other intellectuals have already created the basic models, and done much of the intellectual grunt work and justification and explanation of the economic benefits of such a plan. It is now on to organizers to push these ideas forward.

We should not be fighting for a more affordable higher education system that will only be accessible to upper/middle class Americans. We need to pronounce education a right and call for Free Higher Education. It is important that our proposals consciously call for a reworking of our national priorities, and what clearer way than redirecting just a tiny bit of our monies from war and being able to fund education for all. This means more than just a talking point or a slogan at a rally. We need to reframe the discourse in America and that entails not only talking about our different conception of rights and the role of the state, but actually working towards that.

Furthermore, the tools at our disposal to create this change have changed dramatically in the last forty years. We are not properly using social media and other tools to help our organizing. In many cases we are ignoring it, or imbuing the technology (like Facebook) with magical qualities. This is due to an age gap and failure to comprehend or communicate our intentions clearly. E-activism cannot replace the role of face-to-face relationship building and organizer interactions with membership, but it can aid our work and dramatically change how we apply pressure. Technology has given us the “flash mob” and multiple forms of electronic civil disobedience, and many other innovations to aid our efforts.

We need to stop playing games. If any of our actions (including our marches) are going to really effect change, they need to stop feeling like a dress rehearsal or a pageant. Changing our society means confronting power, both the arguments used and the individuals who employ them. The leadership of this coalition must honestly assess its own taste for struggle and not only wonder if people are ready for it.

A famous depiction of Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) teaching “teacher-organizers“ illustrated this dilemma:

“The organizer’s concern for his personal security deters the conflict that brings about change. In other words, if you are worried about your economic well-being, or your social well-being, or your political well-being, you will probably not stimulate conflict and there will probably not be any change.

Talk about tactics, communication, etc. is worthless, if you’re hung up on the security issues. Alinsky maintains that people cannot learn tactics and strategies they will never use. They know they will never use conflicts tactics if they’re worried about their jobs or their social position or political position.

Organizers – teacher organizers – tend to blame teachers for being too worried about their own security. Alinsky alleges that this security question that organizers ask of teachers, the organizers should ask themselves. Too often, according to Alinsky, we blame the teachers when the first security problem is our own. That security problem is not only a job security problem,

but all of those insecurities, such as professionalism, that many of us have. In the same way, Alinsky says that the staff must define their own self interest.

Organizers are not clear on their own mission, if they are hung up on their own security problems. Consequently, the needs of the organization will not be served.”

– J. Michael Arisman, Alinsky for Teacher Organizers

We need new leadership, and certainly some younger leadership. We need new tactics, new strategies, new ways to reach a broader audience. We need to bring in folks with a sharper analysis and more consistent politics and principles. We need to move folks from the bottom of the ranks upwards, folks who are not “hung up on their own security problems” and certainly not dominated by a political party. In short, we need new blood that is willing to take risks.

Real leadership would funnel the anger and desire for positive change by membership towards more meaningful tactics and material change. It would recognize its responsibility and service to its members and not the Democratic Party. It would invest its resources in local organizing and take risks as it attempts to challenge power, and it would put forth a national vision that would actually challenge some of the basic assumptions of our society. It would include regional or national coordination in our own communities, and wouldn’t rely on this tired tactic of running to Washington D.C. to solve our problems.

A Waste of our Resources

It’s fair to say that much of the late summer and fall has been spent on hastily mobilizing folks across the country, in many different groups and organizations, to get them to Washington D.C. While this has served as a jobs stimulus for organizers, it has put much on hold and delayed doing the work we should be doing instead.

Furthermore, the cost (meaning, for example, the $25 contributions of working class constituents to non-profits and the dues of union members) will be in the millions. If you consider all the money spent on buses, organizer salaries, fundraisers, and more – for a single day, one cannot avoid shaking one’s head at the waste of these dearly-needed dollars in such an economically depressed time.

We should be using this money to hire folks locally; to organize locally; to locally plan and plot how we’re going to rebuild our communities – person by person, brick by brick – in a way that is sustainable and holds true the dignity of our brothers and sisters. The economic crisis has decimated the infrastructure of the very progressive movements that are so desperately needed at this moment. Instead of another field trip to D.C., we should be investing in the change agents within our own communities. And we should listen to Grace Lee Boggs:

Instead in every community and city we should be discussing how to make the “Radical Revolution of Values” not only against Racism but against Materialism and Militarism that Dr. King called for in his 1967 anti-Vietnam war speech.

King’s call for this “Radical Revolution” came only four years after his 1963 “I have a Dream” speech. But in those few years, youth in Watts, California and other cities had risen in Rebellion. In Chicago King and anti-racist marchers had experienced the raw ugliness of Northern racism. The genocidal war in Vietnam had exposed our country as the world’s worst purveyor of violence and on the wrong side of the world revolution. . That is why in 1967 King decided that the time had come to warn the American people that unless we make a Radical Revolution in Values, we face spiritual death.

In 2010, 42 years later, we are experiencing massive physical and spiritual death.

Why are we STILL marching and dreaming?

Why are we not making a “radical revolution in values”?

– Grace Lee Boggs, “If Not Now, When?”