This post follows two others and forms a kind of series taking up the difficulties and possibilities we face here in the Mid-Willamette as we try to build radical and socialist movements. Perhaps the easiest way to approach these questions now is to pick up at the point where the previous posts left off and trace the path ofsome recent events.
We are seeing some interesting developments among liberal and left groups locally: MoveOn is growing on its own, the Democrats who most strongly supported Sanders are pushing for change within the local Democratic party but don’t have a program, the NAACP is growing, a Salem Solidarity Network has been founded and Salem 350.org is doing real movement-building by diversifying their tactics and finding ways for everyone to join in and do something. Many protersts have been planned for Salem in the coming weeks.
The CAUSA-led immigrant rights demonstration on January 14 might have marked a real turn in activism and involvement. What was missing were strong white support and mobilization, particularly from labor, and the spontaneous push from the community to move the demonstration forward. CAUSA did great work with its allies and gave us a gift with the demonstration. The DREAMers and the immigrant and Muslim speakers were particularly effective and the good publicity that the march won was well-deserved. We could have done without the employers’ speeches, but that is a minor matter compared to what else was said from the podium. The weather and panic in the community over Trump’s immigration policies no doubt worked to keep attendance down. But still, we ask, where were the unions, the left and the white allies? Solidarity is not a one-way street.
I left the CAUSA rally feeling energized, and hoped that others did as well. We can make up lost ground, I thought. But the next day we had only 6 people at a healthcare and Social Security rally while Portland had thousands of people. We are Oregon’s second-largest city, and it’s fair to note that the culture and history and politics of the MId-Willamette Valley diverges from Portland’s, but people have been agitating here over healthcare for at least15 years, and individuals associated with groups like MoveOn are key to that work. It seems to me that we need levels of continuity and organizing which we have not yet found.
Salem’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events followed the CAUSA rally and the attempted healthcare mobilization. These Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events have been growing over the past three years, and will likely to continue to grow. Again we can ask where labor is in all of this and why we see so few people joining all of the demonstrations and forming self-activating and self-conscious cadres of activists. It is not a problem when “the usual suspects” keep showing up; the problem is that the suspects don’t consolidate and organize.
But there are other problems here as well. Zaid Jilani, Osagyefo Sekou and others have all said that the effort to turn the day of remembrance for King into a day of feel-good liberalism and community service dishonors King’s legacy. Locally we are also stuck for the time being with having a day dominated by a conservative Christian message which excludes LGBTQIA+ people, Muslims and people supportive of Black Lives Matter. Indeed, this year it was expected that participants thank the cops and Salem’s chief of police addressed the gathering at the State Capitol. These are weaknesses, not strengths. The participation by the youth this year was fantastic and promising, but a deeper vision and a higher level of activism and engagement are needed in order to help keep the young people moving forward.
There have been opportunities to work out the theory and practice of these efforts. The Salem Progressive Film Series unfortunately gave space for the showing of “We The People 2.0” on January 17, which derails conversation about politics and power, but will be doing their next event on healthcare. Erious Johnson, Jr. gave an interesting presentation on slavery, capitalism and citizenship on January 22, but the presentation itself did not emphasize Black humanism or militancy, did not take up the matter of Black self-determination and seemed to land in a place which was pro-capitalist. Here, again, the allies needed to create a real conversation were missing, and so were the young people, Black and white, who would benefit most from the discussion.
We suffer in Salem from a lack of education and theory. The Racial Justice Organizing Committee works very hard to remedy this in taking up anti-racism, and recently filled the room with folks motivated to hear Jo Ann Hardesty, but this educational and theoretical work is incomplete because Salem lacks the interest and opportunity required. In fact, the Hardesty talk did not draw in either the leadership or the rank-and-file of the people-of-color communities. A talk by R. Gregory Nokes, a white man, on some aspects of local Black history on January 23 showed us that there is a hunger for addressing racism in a historic context. What about other issues? What if we adopted the models of our friends at LUS and Mano a Mano and started showing popular films and hosting discussions? What if we brought back the pena (popular encounter)?
I am struck by comments made recently by Sam Webb, a former leader of the Communist Party, to the effect that the left has failed to make a necessary self-criticism in light of the results of the election. I think that Webb goes too far in demanding that the left should have supported Clinton without criticism, or without much criticism, but he has a point in arguing that the people with the most credibility now are the folks who engaged prior to the election, who helped craft and build the progressive planks of the Democrat’s program. In applying this locally, however, we have the problems that the core forces for change here do not always include the leadership of the Black community, the labor movement often builds a wall around itself and is inconsistent, that the Sanders supporters have no real program for changing their party, that part of our base is made up of people who cannot vote, and that the leadership of the Democratic establishment comes late to the table and divides interest groups. Certainly the left could have done much better, and functioned more responsibly, by deepening our engagement in the pre-election period, but I am left wondering if that would have made much difference.
If we are going to be saved at all at this point, it will be by the energy of the womens’ march and how that develops, by actions organized by Salem 350.org, the One Billion Rising demo on February 14 and the lobby days and protests which come while the legislature is in session, by the efforts to build support locally for Black Lives Matter and the necessary organizing which comes with all of this.
The January 21 march broke all expectations for turnout and left us feeling motivated and enthusiastic. Anyone reading this blog knows that my line has been to insist on unity in the wake of the march and to see in this activism some real potential which needs to be translated into support for immigrants, labor struggles, people of color, climate justice, LGBTQIA+ people and a fully radical agenda. That can happen with organizing. It cannot happen by criticism, distance, by adopting a dismissive stance or inaction. What mobilizes oppressed people is good, what demobilizes is negative.
I was happy to hear Professor Crier and the young people at the January 21 demonstration. They said much of what needed to be said. Cara Kaser also made the needed unifying points. But Kate Brown has been late to the table on immigrant rights and is not consistently pro-labor and has a bad record on the environment. We needed to hear less from her and more from, say, Teresa Alonso Leon or young people like the strong women who lead LUS and Mano a Mano, the DREAMers, and the climate justice activists. We want to avoid situations like another vote in which whites vote for pot and against drivers’ licenses for immigrants. We need to address the oppression of people of color and LGBTQIA+ people. We need to hear and act on what is needed from us for the immigrant and Muslim communities. We need the January 21 organizing group to hurry and set up a townhall of meeting for follow up.
With this in mind, it has been hard to see Kevin Cameron, the Commissioner of Misogyny, getting away with his most recent offensive comments, and to go to the Bridging the Gap community meeting on January 26 and hear the minister of Pauline AME Church saying “All lives matter” and to be repeatedly addressed by Cameron and armed police at that meeting. I hoped that the City Council people and the leadership of the NAACP would denounce these remarks, but they instead gave them credibility in their words and in their presence. For that matter, the City and many liberals seem stuck on supporting and using Broadway Commons, which I believe is not LGBTQIA+ friendly. There was not time at the event on the 23rd for audience q. & a., but there was time for Sam Skillern, leader of the reactionary Salem Leadership Foundation, to praise those on the platform and give Gregg Peterson, a conservative running for the Ward 6 Council seat, an extended advertisement. The Foundation is a major impediment to social change.
Our challenge as radicals is to find ways to engage without being opportunistic, to find ways around the leaderships which block activism, to develop the means to protest and organize effectively and to bring people together and develop radical programs which unite immigrants, people of color, white working-class people, women, Muslims, LGBTQIA+ people and climate justice activists. Engagement requires a level of organization and a continuity of practice which we have not yet found.