Saturday, March 11, 2017

Remembering to breathe--And asking: Who does Salem's movement move?

Photo from Sean Nikas of today's People Power event in Salem.

A comrade recently suggested that I take time to breathe and be more trusting. By this she meant that she sees me being overwhelmed and in need of a reflective break. Her mom, another comrade, sent this quote along from Michael Moore:

This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration's litany of bad executive orders (more expected on LGBTQ next week) is a way of giving us "protest fatigue" - we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let's remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song. With special love to all the musicians and music teachers in my life.

None of this is bad advice. In fact, it’s needed. The subtle and correct criticism was that I need to trust people to step in and out of our political work and carry on, and this is hard criticism to hear. We knew going into this period that a certain number of people would give up easily, that others would not apply their energy wisely and well and burn out, that without a sound theory of revolution and practice others will fall away. There are people active for the first time who don’t yet know the language of radicalism. The means to teach and to mentor don’t exist here. Spontaneous protest can easily wear itself out. People come to the point of protest from a society which values narcissism and constructs a false ego, and we don’t let this go when we join a movement. Our opposition, and the system itself, is hard and repressive and won’t give up without a decisive fight. This forces experienced activists to fight harder and put in longer days, and we often miss the mark.

Our week began with a large meeting of the Willamette Valley Resistance Collective, a new group centered in strong and capable Latino/a activists who are forming a rapid response effort and solidarity efforts against ICE and deportations. From that meeting we hope to develop support among allies. After that came the attack on the worker at Al-Aqsa restaurant (detailed in another blog post), meetings with comrades, May Day planning, a good Racial Justice Organizing Committee (RJOC) meeting led by a wonderful community activist on International Working Women’s Day, a relatively small but important Standing Rock demonstration, and the ACLU-sponsored People Power meeting at the Unitarian Church today. This was only my week, mind you. There was also a large NAACP meeting and other important events which others attended.

The People Power event illustrates something of where we’re at right now. The event was organized by local people who got their start in the Sanders campaign or who are relatively new to “social change politics.” The Sanders campaign taught people some lessons in a short period of time which might otherwise have taken years to learn. Today’s event drew more than 150 people, many more than were expected, and many of them even newer to politics. These folks are open to new ideas and they are growing into new political identities quickly. They want a movement which is accepting and has a place for them. The recent women's march moved many of these people and gave them a good taste of what mobilization means. The Salem People Power event organizers know how to tap into people in motion. Those are all positives.

On the negative side, the ACLU has appropriated from the left the red clenched fist as a symbol as well as “resistance” and “people power”---words and symbols they have no right to. (Folks who want to work with radical legal workers should contact the National Lawyers Guild.)  It’s hard to believe that an organization which fights for free speech for fascists, once expelled communists and supports Citizens United is wholly on the side of the people. Adding the national anthem to the event today was a negative. At this moment we need leadership and involvement from people of color, women, immigrants and LGBTQIA+ people grounded in the working class when we talk about peoples’ power and rights, but at today’s event there were few people of color and no leadership from local immigrant and people of color organizations present. The possibility exists that local “people power” work will trip over work already being done in the community or take attention from those efforts. One experienced local activist said to me, "I need to hear about next steps. Where are they?" after the event today, and a comrade who also attended said, "This was good like a month ago." A woman sitting next to me who told me that she had never done anything political thought that the event was a good one. People have learned much about mobilizing, but have not learned the basics of organizing and intersectionality. How do we approach this?

Behind all of this activity are many interesting questions.

The Ward 6 race seems to be a part of a larger division of opinion and strategies among local activists. I have friends and opponents on both sides. I have not been a Gregg Peterson supporter, but it’s hard to argue with the endorsement for Peterson from the PCUN political action committee and to ignore the notes circulating from the OEA endorsement process and to discount Peterson’s recent support for LGBTQIA+ people while other candidates have been less prepared to speak to a broad range of community issues. Still, the Ward 6 race has the potential to take local progressive politics off the rails and separate allies from one another if it isn’t handled better.

The May Day planning committee struggled this week over the question of appropriate flags and signage at the rally, and, by extension, over the questions of who the rally’s message is really aimed at, the role of allies in mobilizing, and assimilation. At the RJOC meeting a few of us ran openly for leadership positions on the basis of socialist ideas, a first. This was important for me because I think that we need to be honest about our politics and differentiate ourselves from others while building unity. The Standing Rock rally showed again that we are in a new period; the Native American majority at the rally has reached a new level of consciousness and action and the rest of us have to follow their lead.

The Tuesday attack at Salem's Al-Aqsa restuarant and the on-going ICE repression tell me that we have to be more strategic in our activism and focus on building long-term political power, and that makes me concerned about the event scheduled for March 25 in Salem (9:00 AM, State Capitol): we need an event focused on turning negatives into positives and building the capacity to fight back and build peoples’ power. We do not need a confrontation with Trump supporters which we can’t win and we do not need to give a platform for folks who don’t represent the best progressive trends in the community. The quantity and quality of the forces in our movement must be transformed so that a stronger and more radical movement can be built. The Oregon League of Conservation Voters lobby day (March 23), the Causa lobby day (March 31), the science march (April 22), the climate rally (April 29) and May Day are good steps; one should lead to the other.

We’re asking a great deal of people. We asked that March 8 be “a day without women,” echoing the recent strike for immigrant rights, and we’re asking people to turn out in large numbers on May Day. These are big asks and big risks. One of our weaknesses is that we don’t have an infrastructure in place to support mass action by the people. The immigrant rights and women’s strikes would have gone better if we had funds and support available for workers who needed them. We have not followed up with protests against employers who sanctioned people for participating. We have not properly thanked the businesses who supported the strikes. Action won’t develop unless we’re hard at work organizing in the communities to support and build capacity to take action. To rely upon spontaneity is to rely upon thin air. We should be organizing for March 8, 2018 now, and the same for other events. If we're going to ask so much of others, we need to ask much more from ourselves. And we need a shared theoretical framework for all of this, a living Marxism that is not applied dogmatically and which keeps us rooted in the working class.
We got rid of a terrible City Council person and got an inclusivity resolution passed, but at least two City Council people are reactionaries who will work against the recently-passed resolution and will oppose us in the future. The resolution will not prevent ICE raids and repression. Ex-councilor Benjamin is still out there, his racism unhinged and validated by people like Gator Gaynor and Denise Nanke. We have enemies who send dog-whistle messages which cause unstable folks to act dangerously. The opposition is armed and dangerous and confused; Trump isn’t working out. They won’t give up and roll over. Loving them is not the answer, as we hear so many liberals saying.

My experience in Salem’s movement is much different than, say, someone in MoveOn or in the Democratic party or in the Native American movement or in the Black community or state workers who are in contract negotiations. Each effort grapples with its own questions, and does so in ways different than someone like me on the “hard left.” I feel positive and hopeful about our movement, and I have only felt this way a few times over the past 45 years: in the early ‘70s when we took direct action against the draft and the war, during the Pittston and Massey and Hormel strikes, during the Palestinian intifadas, in the Kurdish movement, and now. Something great happened in each decade. Taking time to breathe, as our comrade says, is important if it means using the time to study and consider so that our actions can be ever more inclusive and radical and based on sound radical theory. Trusting others to do and share the work would be so much easier if we had a political organization which united most of us and the opportunity to educate and mentor the folks entering the movement.

1 comment:

  1. The Trump Administration and Republican majorities (at both the federal and state level) are, predictably, producing so many atrocities that I think some become numb. One might liken it to sensory overload. People just shut down or seek an insular escape. Those who seemingly have less to lose than others, I would think, are most susceptible.

    And atrocities wrought by the plutocratic US Empire are nothing new. Plenty came out of both the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Administrations. Not to mention, of course, the Bushes, Reagan, etc. Trump and Republicans in Congress have gone off the rails to such an extent that we can hope the masses revolt, but that's far from guaranteed.

    I suspect quite a few people simply feel helpless or question the efficacy of potential actions. As a result, few (if any) actions are taken. I personally question the efficacy of rallies and marches. I still attend some, but I'm often left wondering what was accomplished. Solidarity or unity is great but then what? Hopefully those demonstrations of solidarity ultimately lead to changes in public policy, but it's not always easy to make the connection. It's neither linear nor immediate.

    And others may just assume we're doomed, that we're going to lose the "race against catastrophe," as you put it in a blog post last month.

    It must also be recognized that everyone has a different amount of free time, and an individual's amount of free time can vary from one week to the next (in accordance with workload, health, family obligations, etc.). That should go without saying, but I said it anyway. Everyone has a different amount of energy, as well. My depression and a chronic health issue feeds my lack of exercise and poor dietary choices, which feeds my lack of energy. Compassion and empathy aren't always enough to get one moving. It's easy to take on too much, only to then have to scale back. Deciding what is and what isn't a good use of one's limited free time is not always easy and can itself be overwhelming.

    In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander wrote, "It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society." Well, I think it may be impossible to overstate the role bigotry (particularly racism) plays in enabling Trump and Republicans to govern as they do. Without racism, there's no viable Republican Party--bigotry is the tie that binds. In which case a left wing party could fill the void and challenge the Democratic Party. But absent major structural reform (i.e., amendments to the US Constitution), the US will remain a 2-party system. Moving the Democratic Party leftward may seem like pie in the sky, but it's a walk in the park compared to amending the constitution (requiring 2/3rds support in both the House and Senate, followed by support from 38 or more of the 50 states--good luck with that). My primary criticism of Bernie Sanders is that he's openly dismissive of racism's significance. I worry that radical change cannot occur without a critical mass recognizing that racism is key to maintaining the status quo.

    Just my 2 cents.