Friday, February 21, 2014

"Moral March" Poses Big Questions for Progressives

"Moral March" Poses Big Questions for Progressives

Nearly 100,000 people took to the streets in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 8 in a Moral March to say "NO" to the state's sharp right-wing political turn and "YES" to a new, truly progressive America.

They weren't just marching for one issue or another. They were marching for every issue progressives care about: economic justice; a living wage for every worker; support for organized labor; justice in banking and lending; high quality, well-funded, diverse public schools; affordable health care and health insurance for all, especially women; environmental justice and green jobs; affordable housing for every person; abolishing the death penalty and mandatory sentencing; expanded services for released prisoners; comprehensive immigration reform to provide immigrants with health care, education, and workers rights; insuring everyone the right to vote; enhancing LGBT rights; keeping America's young men and women out of wars on foreign soil; and more.

"They weren't just marching for one issue or another. They were marching for every issue progressives care about..."

All this in Raleigh, a metro area of barely more than a million people. It's as if a million and half turned out in New York or DC, or a million in San Francisco. When was the last time we saw such huge crowds in the streets demanding a total transformation in our way of life? This could be the start of something big.

And it was all led by . . . God?

Many of the marchers would say so. Many others would doubt it. The march organizers invited "secular and religious progressives alike," people of every faith and no faith at all. And that's what they got. "The march brought together a diverse group from Baptists to Muslims and gay marriage supporters," as USA Today reported.

But no one doubts that it was all started by a man of faith, the Rev. William Barber.
“We will become the ‘trumpet of conscience’ that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called upon us to be, echoing the God of our mothers and fathers in the faith,” the Disciples of Christ minister told the huge crowd, exhorting them to "plant America on higher ground." Then he prayed: "Lord, Lord plant our minds on higher ground. Plant our hearts on higher ground. Plant our souls on higher ground. Lord, lift us up, lift us up, lift us up and let us stand. Plant our feet on higher ground."

The night before the march he led what a local TV station called "a spiritual pep rally" the Abundant Life Christian Center, designed (the organizers said) to prepare the marchers "by spiritually invoking ... love, peace, and a source of power beyond what can be seen with our eyes or calculated with our minds."

Those organizers, many of them clergy and religious leaders, are well aware that "some secular progressives object to the use of this kind of language because of its religious overtones. ... Sure, Barber prays in public, uses church language and premises many of his beliefs and arguments on his understanding of the teachings of his faith -- he’s a preacher for Pete’s sake! But his policy messages, his organization and his objectives are thoroughly secular and open to all, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof when it comes to religion."
It's not surprising that his politics would be thoroughly secular. He's got a BA in political science and a PH.D. in public policy as well as pastoral care. He's proving himself to be a shrewd, hard-headed organizer and political tactician. 100,000 progressives don't just appear out of nowhere.

In fact, the Moral March was initiated by the “Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People’s Assembly Coalition,” started by Barber and other religious leaders back in 2007. It took plenty of hope and faith to believe that within just seven years a small group could swell to such a huge crowd.

But building this mass movement also took political smarts. And HKonJ has shown plenty of smarts, especially at the North Carolina state house. They played an important role in passage of a Racial Justice Act, obtaining Same Day Voting; winning workers the right to unionize; getting a former Democratic governor to veto Voter I.D. Laws, an unfair budget, and repeal of a Racial Justice Act.

In 2013, as a Republican governor and legislature moved their state ever further rightward, Barber and his allies stepped up the action. They began weekly sit-ins at the state capitol on "Moral Mondays," which eventually saw just short of a thousand people arrested.
"Clergy were especially prominent" in those actions, the Washington Post reported. Local Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist leaders issued a joint statement supporting the action: “It is a matter of faith with respect to our understanding of the biblical teachings and imperatives to protect the poor, respect the stranger, care for widows and children and love our neighbors.”

Now Rev. Barber sees this potent mix of faith and progressive politics as a model for resistance across the country: “We must reduce fear through public education, through the streets, through the courts and through the electoral campaigns."

"If you are going to change America you have to think states," he says. “We believe North Carolina is the crucible. If you’re going to change the country, you’ve got to change the South. If you’re going to change the South, you’ve got to focus on these state capitols.” Spin-offs of the Moral Monday movement are already starting up in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

And you've got to change state politics at the county level, Barber advises. So he and his group are launching "North Carolina Moral Freedom Summer," a statewide registration and mobilization effort for voters in all 100 counties of North Carolina.

But that's just part of a larger program that also includes voter education, a social media strategy, and a legal strategy. "Many of these things, not just the voting rules, are going to be challenged in the courts using our state and federal constitutions," Barber promises. That's a lot of smart strategic thinking.

As far as he is concerned, though, there's no way to separate smart politics from devout faith. He takes his inspiration equally from the Constitution, where he finds deep values to promote "the common good," and from the Bible, which he sees teaching that love and justice should be at the center of public policy: "Isaiah 10 says, 'Woe unto those who make unjust laws that rob the right of the poor.'"

“Clergypersons are choosing to move in a prophetic tradition to challenge injustice and wrongs in government and systemic transgressions against our values," Barber explains. "It’s our Jewish friends, Christian, Universalist, Muslim friends and others who are willing to put their voices and bodies on the line. That is significant when pulpits get on fire for justice.”
And wherever he goes, his "thundery oratory" will be filled "with biblical references to Pharaoh, Goliath, good and evil," as ReligionNews reports.

"Good and evil." That's the key to the power of this new movement. It has gone beyond single-issue politics by find the common thread tying all progressive issue together, the thread spotlighted in the name of  their action: The "Moral" March.

In North Carolina they understand what George Lakoff has been telling us for years. The left is losing the political argument by sticking to specific issues and factual evidence. Conservatives are winning because they "speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters' values." So progressives "have to go up a level, to the moral level" and start dealing publicly "very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality." Otherwise "they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America." 

In North Carolina they are talking very seriously about morality, saying out loud that the same moral foundations undergird all progressive policies.

And they've discovered the power of that word "moral" to unite religious progressives with secular progressives, who elsewhere are so often scared off by any talk of God and Jesus and the Bible.

The HKonJ organizers understand this very well. As their website says, they intentionally highlight the word “moral," even though
some secular progressives object to the use of this kind of language because of its religious overtones. It sounds too much like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. But of course by that logic, progressives couldn’t use words like “liberty” or “freedom” either. After all, both of those words have also been monopolized by the far right in recent years. Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that progressives have too often shied away from the use of such overarching language -- thus ceding it without a fight to the right. Put simply, there is nothing inherently religious in the word “moral”; it is a powerful and important word that’s plenty big enough to be of great use and profound meaning to secular and religious progressives alike.
Those nearly 100,00 Moral Marchers in Raleigh pose crucial questions to progressives across America: Are we ready to move beyond our own issues to join a unified, strategically savvy progressive movement encompassing every issue? And are we willing to do what it takes for that movement to succeed: to drop our suspicion of religion, to lift up the word "moral" as a bridge across the religious-secular divide, to judge religious progressives by the content of their policies and not the color of their vocabulary?

If enough progressives answer "yes," this could indeed be the start of something big.

Continuing Injustice of "Stand Your Ground"

By Brendan Fischer
PR Watch | Report

Once again, Florida's Stand Your Ground law has helped a man escape conviction for killing an African-American teenager.

After thirty hours of deliberations, on February 15 a Florida jury declared it could not reach a decision about whether Michael Dunn, 47, could be convicted of first degree murder for shooting and killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

In November 2012, Davis and his three teenage friends were parked in an SUV when Dunn pulled up and confronted them about the volume of their music. After an argument, Dunn fired ten shots into the vehicle; three of the bullets hid Davis, a student at Wolfson High School, killing him. Dunn then picked up his fiancé and drove off, never mentioning the shooting to her or claiming that he saw a gun, as he would later tell police. Instead, Dunn ordered a pizza, walked his dog, and went to bed.

The jury convicted Dunn of three counts of attempted second degree murder, and one count of firing into a vehicle. He could face as many as 75 years in prison, but the twelve jurors could not reach a verdict on whether Dunn acted in self-defense after being instructed by the judge about Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. Prosecutors say they plan to ask for a retrial on the murder charge.

"He was a good kid," Ron Davis said of his son after the verdict. "There's a lot of good kids out there . . . And they should have a voice. They shouldn't live in fear to walk around the streets worrying about if someone has a problem with somebody else, that if they get shot, it's collateral damage."

"I hate that thug music"

On November 23, 2012, Dunn and his fiancé left his son's wedding, and stopped at a gas station for wine and chips. Dunn parked next to the vehicle containing Jordan Davis and his three friends. The teenagers were listening to rap music, loudly.

"I hate that thug music," Dunn told his fiancé, according to her testimony.

Dunn confronted the teenagers over the music after his fiancé went into the gas station. They turned down the music, then turned it back up. Following an argument, Dunn took a handgun out of his glovebox, loaded it, then fired six shots into the vehicle. He fired four more as the teenagers drove away in fear. Three of the bullets hit Davis, killing him.

When Dunn's girlfriend returned to the car, he didn't say anything about the altercation; they went to a hotel room, ordered pizza, and he took his dog for a walk. The next morning, Dunn made the two-and-a-half hour drive home. It wasn't until the following day that Davis called police.

The fact that Dunn did not call police, state attorney Erin Wolfson argued, suggested “he thought he got away with murder.”

Dunn later claimed under oath that he saw a four-inch shotgun barrel poking out of the SUV's rear window, but no gun was ever found. His fiance testified that Dunn never told her anything about a gun, and the other three teenagers testified that there was no gun in the vehicle.

Prosecutors argued that Dunn fabricated the claim of the gun to bolster his self-defense claim.
However, under Florida's Stand Your Ground law, Dunn need only reasonably believe that he saw a shotgun, which can be informed by his own biases. During testimony, Dunn referred to the African-American high schoolers listening to music as "gangsters." His letters from jail as he awaited trial contained shockingly racist sentiments.

“This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs," he wrote. "If more people would arm themselves and kill these fucking idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

"Stand Your Ground" Apparently Led to Mistrial
The Jordan Davis killing has clear echoes of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Both cases involved an armed man killing an apparently unarmed black teenager in Florida. In both, the confrontation was initiated by the man with the gun, and in both cases, the killers claimed they were justified in using deadly force as a response to the perceived threat posed by a black teenager.

Because of Florida's Stand Your Ground law -- which requires a jury be instructed that it is justifiable homicide to use "deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm" -- killers in both cases were not convicted of murder.
However, the killers' perception that their victim posed a threat -- or, a juror finding that such a perception would be reasonable -- appears to have been based on the stereotype that young black men are threatening.

As was the case during George Zimmerman's trial for killing Trayvon Martin, jurors in the Dunn trial were told by the judge that they must consider Florida's Stand Your Ground law when making their decision. Those instructions are entirely different than what the jury would have been told ten years ago, before Stand Your Ground became law in Florida.

The Tampa Bay Times found that under Stand Your Ground, a killer walked free 73 percent of the time when a victim is black, but only 59 percent of the time when the victim was white. Other studies have shown that Stand Your Ground is more likely to be applied in cases of white-on-black crime than when the races are reversed.

"We don't accept a law that will allow collateral damage to our family members"

More than two dozen states now have similar Stand Your Ground laws on the books, thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or "ALEC."

As the Center for Media and Democracy (publishers of ALECexposed.orgfirst documented, ALEC adopted Stand Your Ground as a "model" for other states in early 2005, just months after the National Rifle Association pushed the bill through Florida's legislature.

The NRA boasted at the time that its lobbyist's presentation at a 2005 ALEC meeting "was well-received," and the corporations and state legislators on the Criminal Justice Task Force voted unanimously to approve the bill as an ALEC model, under the name the "Castle Doctrine Act." At the time, Wal-Mart, the nation's largest seller of rifles, was the corporate co-chair of the Task Force. ALEC called the legislation one of its "successes."

In April 2012, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and amidst growing outrage over "Stand Your Ground" laws, ALEC disbanded the task force that had promoted that legislation and disavowed its gun bills. But the damage has already been done: laws echoing by ALEC's "model" Stand Your Ground law remain on the books in twenty six states, and ALEC has done nothing to promote their repeal.

Instead, the burden of repealing Stand Your Ground and cleaning up ALEC's mess has fallen to groups like Color of Change and the Dream Defenders. Rinku Sen, Executive Director of the Applied Research Center, has said that "fighting Stand Your Ground laws is the anti-lynching movement of our time."

"We don't accept a law that will allow collateral damage to our family members," said Davis' father, Ron Davis, following the verdict.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Thoughts on a Bernie Sanders run

Bill Fletcher, Jr.
February 15, 2014
The Progressive
... if the candidate has a real mass base, is building a broad progressive front around a clear, transformational program, and sees the candidacy as one step in a multitiered process, then it might be worth going for it.
To the Point

I first met Bernie Sanders in the late 1980s. He was contemplating a run for Congress and had chosen to take time to study and teach at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. We went out to lunch one afternoon.

Sanders was already a legend. An avowed socialist who had served as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he struck me as someone who was quite thoughtful and prepared to listen to views other than his own. We chatted about a matter that has preoccupied me for much of the last thirty years: How to build a national electoral project that is truly progressive and also focused on the fight for power.

Sanders went on to win election to Congress and, ultimately, the U.S. Senate. He has been outspoken on virtually every issue that matters to working people and is unapologetic in his critique of capitalism. At the same time, he works to build unity among progressives rather than simply staking out his claim and expecting people to rally to his flag.

I don’t live in Vermont, but without question, Bernie Sanders is my Senator.

For the last few months, the word on the street has been that Sanders is contemplating a run for the Presidency. Sanders has hinted at the possibility but has not confirmed or denied that he may take the plunge.

Excitement around a possible Sanders run is palpable. After more than one term of the complicated, neoliberal Presidency of Barack Obama—combined with the relentless assaults by the political right on all that for more than sixty years appeared sacred—there is a deep and clear desire among many for a different direction.

Yet a Sanders run brings its own complications.

One issue is whether Sanders should run as a Democrat or as an independent.

There are many progressives and leftists who will automatically suggest, out of disgust with the Democrats, that Sanders should make a “pure” run as an independent. Yet this raises an even more fundamental question: Why should Sanders run at all?

It only makes sense to run for the Presidency of the United States—as a progressive or leftist—if the person is both running to win and running as part of a broader electoral project. A run just to “show the colors” or make a statement is a waste of time. Running for President is both too expensive and time-consuming for that.

On the other hand, if the candidate has a real mass base, is building a broad progressive front around a clear, transformational program, and sees the candidacy as one step in a multitiered process, then it might be worth going for it.

But in suggesting this, I do so with qualifiers. Too many candidates who suggested that they were interested in building a grassroots movement that would transcend their campaigns only to see such candidates close up shop afterwards. A Sanders run as part of a longer-term effort at movement-building and energizing a progressive front only makes sense if there is a demonstrable commitment by the candidate to do the right thing after the election.

Let’s take an example of what not to do. After Obama’s successful 2008 run, there were many people who assumed he was going to keep his campaign organization together as a sort of independent force. But Obama moved it into the Democratic Party instead.

Then there was the choice that Jesse Jackson made in March 1989 when, following the 1988 elections, he completely reorganized the National Rainbow Coalition into an organization that he totally controlled rather than the mass democratic organization that many of its members had thought that they were building.

If a run makes sense, and I think Sanders might be the candidate who would turn his campaign into something lasting, the question is how to do it. I believe that Sanders needs to make a strategic decision to run within the Democratic primary system for the nomination. Despite the discontent with the electoral system among so many people in the United States of America, it is not likely that an independent candidacy at this moment can win. Should the Republican Party fracture, which is a real possibility over the next few years, all bets would be off. But as long as the Republicans stand firm as a hard, rightwing party, it is unlikely that at the national level an independent candidacy can win.

Quite explicitly, I am suggesting that winning must be a major objective of the campaign. The campaign needs to be organized in such a way that it aims to build an electoral coalition that is interested in gaining power, is committed to winning, and has a plan for governing.

Contrary to the contention of some of my friends on the left, there is no contradiction between running as a socialist and running as a Democrat—with the real intention of taking office. Former Massachusetts state representative and two-time mayoral candidate Mel King was an independent socialist, yet ran for state office as a Democrat. Former Congressman Ron Dellums of California was also a socialist and a Democrat. Sanders could run as a Democrat yet be very clear and open about his socialist politics. Such a candidacy would send a bolt of lightning throughout the Democratic Party and change the discourse within it. An independent candidacy would not have anywhere near that impact.

A Sanders candidacy would need to also take on race. We live in a moment that is reminiscent of the period of the Southern coups in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when white supremacists usurped the franchise from African Americans and poor whites, and when Chicanos (in the Southwest) were treated to de facto segregation and voter exclusion. The political right, fearing the future, is moving to exclude millions of voters and ensure the ongoing supremacy of a quite xenophobic Tea Party-esque Republican Party. This is being orchestrated through the brilliant usage of racial symbols, all at a time when people of color have been suffering from the worst effects of the transformation of U.S. capitalism.

For Sanders to run and to make a real difference, he will need to tap into the African American, Latino, and Asian electorate and inspire them with a vision. This has to be far more than a “rising tide lifts all boats,” but must acknowledge race and class as integrally connected.
Sanders would need to speak out on the anti-immigrant hysteria of our times, as well as address the manner in which so many workers, particularly workers of color, are being rendered redundant in today’s economy.

He would also need to be a candidate who denounces the misogyny that has pervaded U.S. politics. This is more than the question of abortion. It really goes to women’s control over their own bodies, expectations of women in today’s economy, who is to blame—and not to blame—for the declining living standard of male workers, and basic issues of equality.

I have no worry that Sanders will speak out on behalf of workers. Yet doing so will be insufficient for a campaign to gain traction. Sanders would need to be a spokesperson for a different path, one that addresses not only the issues mentioned above, but also a non-imperial foreign policy and an environmental policy that brings us back from the cliff of climate change. His voice would need to be the voice of the future—the voice of the progressive bloc that seems to be assembling to prevent a dystopian future.

A primary challenge is worth it, even if he just pushes the victor to the left.

The last thing we need is another symbolic candidacy that, while touching our hearts and minds, brings us no closer to clobbering the political right and winning power for the dispossessed and the disengaged.

It can be done.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a columnist for The Progressive. He is also a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “ ‘They’re Bankrupting Us’—And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.” Follow him on Facebook and at

State of the Union: Obama Pulled His Best Punches

By Harry Targ and Carl Davidson January 31, 2014
Progressive America Rising

 In the lead-up to President Obama’s speech Chris Hayes, MSNBC host, presented a segment on the national mobilization of low wage workers in 2013. He described courageous work stoppages by fast food workers, campaigns by public employees, particularly health care and home care workers, and how seemingly isolated pockets of protest spread like wild fire across the nation.

This, Hayes suggested, stimulated progressive groups, selected Congresspersons, and visible pundits such as Robert Reich and Paul Krugman to reemphasize the economic crisis the American working class is facing, particularly youth, people of color, women, and older workers. Hayes suggested that we are on the verge of a new mass movement and that Obama would capture the spirit of this movement in his State of the Union address.

President Obama took the podium a little after 9 pm Eastern Standard Time and presented a State of the Union address that referred to income inequality, the need for immigration reform, creating jobs by renovating the transportation infrastructure, and reducing greenhouse case emissions to forestall climate change.

Specific resolutions and demands were articulated. He did announce that he would use his executive authority to require that the minimum wage of companies with government contracts be raised to $10.10 an hour. He urged Congress, states, and municipalities to follow and raise their minimum wages as well.

He recommended the creation of a new program that would allow workers who do not have pensions to invest in a government created pension fund, similar to 401Ks.

He praised growing government business partnerships and collaboration with colleges and universities to extend job training, make college more affordable, and create a 21st century work force that he claimed could fill the jobs that are not being filled now.

Finally, while vowing to continue national security policies (including in not so many words a ‘war on terrorism’), he announced he was committed to bringing almost all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He promised to support certain sectors of the Syrian opposition and remain ready for military action but was committed to negotiations now with Iran, Syrian factions and Israelis and Palestinians to end their bitter conflicts. He declared, however, that he would veto any Congressional bill that came across his desk that called for increased sanctions against Iran, now during the difficult negotiation process with that country. He pointed out in perhaps his most significant statement, that the Obama administration would lead the United States away from “a permanent war footing.” (Read entire statement)