Danny Lyon – Message To The Future

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I met Danny Lyon in 1963 in Ruleville, Mississippi. I was on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) visiting the Delta town in Sunflower County (home of Sen. James O. Eastland, one of the most notorious racists of the period) with Bob Moses, SNCC’s Mississippi Project Director and Martha Prescod, a young African-American University of Michigan student volunteer who was there for the summer. Danny took a picture of us talking with a local woman sitting on her porch. The picture became well-known because it was used on the cover of a widely distributed SNCC flyer. The story it told was that we were trying to convince the woman to register to vote. But Martha recently reminded me that we were asking directions!

Danny Lyon, "Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta," 1963. Gelatin silver print, Image: 24 x 16 cm (9 7/16 x 6 1/4 in.); sheet: 25.4 x 20.3 cm (12 11/16 x 8 in.). Collection of the artist, L64 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, “Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta,” 1963. Gelatin silver print, Image: 24 x 16 cm (9 7/16 x 6 1/4 in.); sheet: 25.4 x 20.3 cm (12 11/16 x 8 in.). Collection of the artist, L64 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

From those beginning photographer days, Lyon went on to become one of the major photographers of the civil rights movement, and then on to 50 years of using photography to tell the stories of the marginalized, discriminated against and left-out, as well as other important subjects. Along the way, he branched out to make 16mm documentaries and videos. All these are now on display at San Francisco’s De Young Museum, having come here from the new Whitney in New York’s West Village. (Unfortunately, these are its only two stops.)

Danny Lyon, "Clifford Vaughs, another SNCC photographer, is arrested by the National Guard, Cambridge, Maryland," 1964. Gelatin silver print. 20.32 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.). Collection of the Corcoran/National Gallery of Art, CGA1994.3.3 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, “Clifford Vaughs, another SNCC photographer, is arrested by the National Guard, Cambridge, Maryland,” 1964. Gelatin silver print. 20.32 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.). Collection of the Corcoran/National Gallery of Art, CGA1994.3.3 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Of his civil rights movement photos, Julian Bond said, “They put faces on the movement, put courage in the fearful, shone light on darkness, and helped to make the movement move.” Lyons was one of a number of photographers assembled by SNCC Executive Director Jim Forman to be chroniclers of The Movement (we always capitalized the letters “T” and “M”); he and Matt Heron are the best known of them.

Among his subjects after the civil rights movement: biker subculture, Texas Department of Corrections prisoners, the destruction of Lower Manhattan to make way for the World Trade Center, his friend noted sculptor Mark di Suvero, New York City subway riders, Uptown Chicago Appalachians, the tattoo artistry of Bill Sanders, undocumented workers in the southwest, “Occupy” in Oakland and Los Angeles, workers in a Chinese coal producing area, Bolivian campesinos, street boys in urban Colombia and revolution in Haiti.

One of my favorites is of the yet-unknown sculptor Mark Di Suvero’s Fulton Fish Market loft. I was there with Mark’s younger brother Henry, a co-conspirator in the early days of the UC Berkeley student movement (1956/58). At the time, Mark was poor as a church mouse. It showed. The huge loft (a whole floor of what had once been a warehouse), where Mark both lived and worked, was barren except for his working tools and sculpting materials. At its center a bed was atop four hefty beams. Under the bed was a pot-belly stove, the only heating in the place. “Dear Mark” is one of the films. Less than five minutes, you can see it on YouTube.

Most of the photos are black-and-white. Many capture individual faces in moods ranging from joy and pleasure to trials and tribulations. The continuously screened six films range from five minutes to more than an hour. My favorite was tattooist Bill Sanders at work in his artistry, and philosophizing with his clients and with Lyon. He’s an alcoholic, and he’s consuming during the filming. Sometimes he can barely speak. When he does, he has surprising things to say: he’s against the war in Vietnam; he’s not a bigot.

Danny Lyon, "Bill Sanders, Tattoo Artist, Houston, Texas," 1968. Gelatin silver print, Image: 20.7 x 20.7 cm (8 3/16 x 8 3/16 in.); sheet: 35.6 x 27.9 cm (14 x 11 in.). Collection of the artist, L170 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, “Bill Sanders, Tattoo Artist, Houston, Texas,” 1968. Gelatin silver print, Image: 20.7 x 20.7 cm (8 3/16 x 8 3/16 in.); sheet: 35.6 x 27.9 cm (14 x 11 in.). Collection of the artist, L170 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Many of the pictures are of people in distressed situations. But these are not photos of despair. The vitality and durability of the human spirit shines through them, as does Lyons’ compassion and empathy.

Danny Lyon, "Young Man About to Be Released from Ramsey Unit, Texas," 1968/1975. Gelatin silver print (decorated). Image: 18 x 17.8 cm (7 1/16 x 7 in.); sheet: 20.3 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.). Collection of the artist © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, “Young Man About to Be Released from Ramsey Unit, Texas,” 1968/1975. Gelatin silver print (decorated). Image: 18 x 17.8 cm (7 1/16 x 7 in.); sheet: 20.3 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.). Collection of the artist © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

One wish. The photos from Lower Manhattan show the skeletons of buildings. While you can infer from their destruction that a community was destroyed, I would like to have seen the faces of the displaced in at least some of the shots.

Danny Lyon, "Stephanie, Sandoval County, New Mexico," 1969/1975. Gelatin silver print (decorated), Image: 16.7 x 25 cm (6 9/16 x 9 3/4 in.); sheet: 27.9 x 35.6 cm (11 x 14 in.). Collection of the artist, L108 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, “Stephanie, Sandoval County, New Mexico,” 1969/1975. Gelatin silver print (decorated), Image: 16.7 x 25 cm (6 9/16 x 9 3/4 in.); sheet: 27.9 x 35.6 cm (11 x 14 in.). Collection of the artist, L108 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Lyon does more than take photos. He makes friends with his subjects, in some cases lifetime friends. He writes, “You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, but emotionally close, all of it.” He succeeds. Stupendously! See this show if you can, and leave yourself enough time not only to wander through the galleries but to watch the couple of hours of films and videos.

•••

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future is at the San Francisco De Young Museum, November 5, 2016 – April 30, 2017. Adults $22, seniors 65+ $17, students with current ID $13, youth 6-17, $7, members and children 5 and under free.

About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org View all posts by Mike Miller →

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Why did Trump win? And what’s next for labor in the US

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Rand Wilson and Peter Olney have penned another in a series of commentaries on American politics and labor. This article first appeared in Sinistra Sindicale, an internal newsletter of the Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori (CGIL), the largest trade union federation in Italy. This article deals with the US election result.

•••

European elites were shocked at the surprising victory of “Brexit” last June. American elites — and especially the pollsters and major media outlets — were similarly shocked by the results of the U.S. elections on November 8.(1)

While Brexit was a straight up “Yes” or “No” vote, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost because of the Electoral College system of electing our national presidents. The Electoral College is an arcane constitutional provision intended to protect smaller states from the population power of larger states and the rule of the “mob” over the perceived wisdom of elite electors.

This is the fifth time in U.S. history that a presidential candidate has won the popular vote, but lost the election because of the anti-democratic Electoral College. The last time was in 2000 when George W. Bush became President after a Supreme Court ruled that he had won the vote in the state of Florida. That state’s electoral college vote gave Bush the election, even though a plurality of the American people voted for the Democratic nominee, Al Gore.

Trump heralded his election as “Brexit on steroids” and appeared at a rally in Mississippi with Nigel Farage from the British Independence Party. Both Brexit and Trump’s triumph tapped into a distraught white working class buffeted by globalization and new demographic realities. In many cases Trump’s appeal was pure and simple racism, attracting alt-right and overt racist elements. Yet while all racists, misogynists and xenophobes most likely voted for Trump, not all of his 60 million votes were racists, misogynists and xenophobes.

The Electoral College system made winning the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin key to either candidate winning the White House. Why did Secretary Clinton lose in these three states that her predecessor Barrack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012? Workers in all three states have suffered huge job losses in basic industry and in the case of Pennsylvania, the closure of coalmines. The sons and daughters of “New Deal” Democrats many of whom supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 were looking to make a statement against the ruling elites and voted for change.

Exit polls in Ohio tell the story. In 2012 when Obama carried Ohio, he won union households by a 23% margin. In 2016, Trump, the New York billionaire, carried union households by a 12% margin. Similar voting patterns took place in the crucial battleground states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In short, many white working class voters simply deserted the Democratic Party.

After the election, a railroad worker from Ohio who is a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) and who voted for Trump said, “I didn’t vote for my retirement. I didn’t vote for my healthcare. I didn’t vote for my union membership. I voted for my son. Because I just didn’t see a future for him if we elected Hillary. I actually voted for Obama in the last two elections. Now, I stand here and tell you that if we lose our retirement, I will not bitch. If I lose my healthcare, I will not bitch. If my tax rate goes through the roof, I will not bitch. I cast my vote and I will stand behind it.”

An SEIU member in Massachusetts felt betrayed, “I’m a registered Democrat, but they have let me down,” said Peter Blaikie, a custodian and shop steward in the Somerville Public Schools. “I expect Republicans to screw me, but the Democrats take our money and do worse, so I voted for the lessor of two evils. Clinton just looked like Obama’s third term. She just seemed entitled. And it was also a matter of how I feel about right and wrong. Hundreds of her emails were mishandled. She should have been charged with treason. If you do something wrong with classified information you should be held accountable. Others have been severely punished for lessor crimes. I obey the law, so should she.”

In the run-up to Election Day, pollsters and pundits talked of re-configuring the electoral map because of the anticipated strength of the Latino vote. In the end, Trump polled as strongly among Latinos as the Republican candidate in both 2008 and 2012. The Black vote — without Obama at the top of the ticket — polled below the last two election cycles in cities like Detroit that are crucial to winning industrial states like Michigan.

After the election, Sen. Bernie Sanders summed up Clinton’s defeat: “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.”

Many people believe (including these authors) that Sanders would have won against Trump. The Sanders’ campaign (and many down-ballot victories on 8 November) showed that an explicitly anti-capitalist campaign can succeed.

Now the Neo-Liberal wing of the Democratic Party (the Clintons and their Progressive Policy Institute think tank friends) is completely discredited. The Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren populist wing of the party is challenging its national leadership. Even New York’s Chuck Schumer, the ranking minority leader in the Senate, acknowledged the need for a new approach. He is supporting Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim African American from Minnesota, and a supporter of Senator Sanders, for Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Perhaps more importantly, grassroots activists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign are challenging the leadership of the party at the state and local levels across the country. Sanders is backing a new group, Our Revolution, formed to build on the movement that he started. “Our Revolution” backed over 100 new progressive leaders in the November election and hopes to transform American politics to be more responsive to the needs of working families.

Trump’s victory, although made possible by an angry white working class, has also elevated working class issues to a degree not seen since the 1930s. Ironically, it also led to the defeat of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration with Pacific Rim nations.

“The movement we built has brought down, at least for now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Larry Cohen, the past president of the Communications Workers and now Board Chair of “Our Revolution”. “This was because of the work of union members and environmentalists, farmers and immigrants. This was the work of the political revolution. Our defeat for now of the TPP is a bright spot in a bleak week for our country. Let’s celebrate our victory, and get ready for the fights to come.”

Going forward, workers and the unions that protect them, will likely be under a heavy attack by Trump and the Republican Party majorities in both the House and Senate. The labor movement will have an opportunity to organize more workers while also attracting more militant leaders if it can offer a “port in the storm” to those who are most vulnerable in the Trump era.

The unions that backed Sanders — and hopefully many others — will help lead the fight against Trump and by doing so, build the strength of a more militant, class conscious wing of the labor movement.

•••


Footnotes:
1) For a more thorough discussion of the election’s similarities with Brexit, see, “Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit,” by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, Nov. 9, 2016.

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

Rand Wilson

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy. View all posts by Rand Wilson →

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Continuing the Discussion: Comments on Stansbury Forum Election Articles

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The articles by Mike Miller, Garrett Brown and Bill Fletcher Jr.(found below) on the elections form part of what needs to be a wide-ranging look at the implications of Trump’s victory. What follows are comments that I hope form a contribution to continuing the discussion.

Mike Miller speaks to an important truth — working class support for Trump grew out of anger at deteriorating economic conditions and lack of a political voice in our country. In consequence: many were willing to overlook his racism and misogyny. So too, Hillary Clinton lost because she failed to address basic concerns of working people and embodied the corruption and self-serving nature of the political system. Yet I would add that millions of workers voted for Clinton, notwithstanding a total lack of enthusiasm for her, because they feared the implications of a Trump victory and because they saw value in the possibility of expanding democratic rights by building upon the legacy of the Obama’s Administration. These two truths need to be held in mind or else we fall into a zero sum game of posing social rights and economic rights against each other. Furthermore, while it is certainly true that many who voted for Trump are not racist (and that Clinton’s characterization Trump supporters as “deplorables” was of a piece with her decades earlier characterization of black youth as “super-predators”), it is also true that they were willing to overlook his racism and sexism and thus acted in disregard for those whose plight is worse than their own. People may have immigrant neighbors and friends whom they like and respect and for whom they wish no harm. But harm will come their way. This isn’t to wag a finger at people from a standpoint of moral superiority, but simply to state the obvious that solidarity isn’t a choice — it is a necessity not only to movement building but even more critically to the task of organizing in the tradition of the models Miller suggests. Absent that, right-wing demagogues will reap the benefits of discontent by pointing the blame away from the real culprits.

Miller’s conclusions are reinforced by Garrett Brown’s information — his breakdown of election results paints a picture of people responding in anger to a world spinning out of control. The assault on “government” (in reality, an assault on democratic rights and public control over public resources) led by the right has so devalued politicians in the public mind, that people could see themselves voting for someone “unqualified,” for what difference does it make if one is disenfranchised anyway. That said, it is important to note that people who are genuinely in danger of being disenfranchised, those whose economic and living conditions are most dire, rejected the demagogue. It is not irrelevant to note that Clinton won more votes than Trump; that her vote total would have gone up had their been no voter suppression, that Bernie would have in all likely have done even better. There is a crisis in the system, and as Brown notes, there is an opportunity in Democratic Party politics, in progressive politics more generally, to break out of this impasse and address our society’s structural crisis. Yet we must recognize that the other side has more power and is willing to use it. The threat to civil liberties, civil rights and union rights are palpable and have to be soberly considered as we search for common ground upon which to move forward.

Bill Fletcher’s analysis was, frankly, inspiring — he addresses these nuances and provides a framework to conceptualize resistance. And he is correct that Trump’s appeal is based on a false nostalgia for a mythical past in which every one “knew their place,” and in which the “American Dream” was possible. I will add that we need to be careful about slipping into a liberal version of this (as many unionists do) when we look back on the 1950s as a golden time for the American working class — because that feeds into a subtext that social struggles (i.e. civil rights/black freedom, women’s liberation, anti-war movements and the counterculture) were in some ill-defined way responsible for decline; rather than seeing those movements themselves as active agents creating new rights (and indeed, new opportunities) that benefited all working people. We can and should mourn the loss of industrial jobs that have devastated communities from Michigan to West Virginia and fight to rebuild manufacturing, without for a minute forgetting or ignoring the oppressive conditions, low pay, health risks, discrimination, ever-present on those jobs. We do not contest myths of the right by substituting myths of our own.

At the same time, I would add to Fletcher’s analysis the important point that we have too readily allowed the right to wrap itself in the American flag. US history is complicated, its birth inseparable from slavery and the destruction of Native lives. Yet that is not the whole story; for people have fought to build and create a more equal and just society and thereby created a heritage that we can and should build upon. The universal rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution’s “We the People,” the words of the Gettysburg Address and on the Statue of Liberty — all form a part of our heritage that we should claim as our own. Struggles throughout US history have largely been defined by those prevented from enjoying such rights demanding that they be made real to them. Again, this doesn’t mean forgetting the structures set up to preserve a “white republic,” it does mean that we can hold that two clashing truths are valid at the same time: the racism and oppression at our founding and the promise of inalienable rights that are also part of our founding. . Anti-Trump protestors holding up signs that proclaim that Trump doesn’t speak for “my America” does that — for it defines the tradition we seek to realize in the future.

And a last point: we need to put opposition to war abroad and militarism back into the center of progressive, labor, left organizing. Trump’s election — in a complicated way — speaks to the coarsening effect of perpetual war, of the undermining of democratic rights it has entailed. The acceptance of violence as inevitable is an inevitable outcome of perpetual war. On the other hand, it has engendered a war weariness that has been misplaced. This is important because Trump’s election raises the danger of war in a new way, contained in the promise of a narrow assertion of US power abroad — a danger which coexists even with his “peace-making” noises. Those noises (similar to those Hitler made, notwithstanding his bellicosity) contributed to Clinton’s loss of the vote of many veterans, many soldiers, who are tired of “nation-building.” Too little recalled is that Obama’s initial victory over Clinton was because he was seen as an anti-war candidate (at least compared to her); Trump too played that card. The left needs to make non-intervention and peace part of every aspect of our resistance.

On all the above we need further thoughts and proposals — Stansbury Forum is providing a valuable service by giving space to this discussion.

About the author

Kurt Stand

Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project. View all posts by Kurt Stand →

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Quick Thoughts on the Trump Victory

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A note from the editors: To say many of us were taken aback by the election results would be an understatement. We believe understanding and progress comes with exposure to a number of ideas, thoughts and arguments and with that in mind The Stansbury Forum is breaking with it’s once weekly postings schedule (at least our efforts to do so) and posting the following by Bill Fletcher, Garrett Brown and Mike Miller in quick secession. We encourage readers to read all three and to post their thoughts.

•••

When you ponder Trump’s victory, consider this e-mail from a union member to one of his union’s leaders:

“You and me have went back and forth on this election. I want you to know this:
I didn’t vote for my retirement. I didn’t vote for my Healthcare. I didn’t vote for my union membership. I voted for my son. Because I just didn’t see a future for him if we elected Hillary.
I actually voted for Obama in the last two elections. Now, I stand here and tell you that if we lose our retirement, I will not bitch. If I lose my Healthcare, I will not bitch. If my tax rate goes through the roof, I will not bitch. I cast my vote and I will stand behind it. No matter what.
What I say to you and every elected Union Leader is this: “The majority of your membership just voted against what you all thought was in our best interests. Our Union Leadership has lost it’s base. But now we need you more than ever. Fight like your the third monkey up the ramp to Noah’s Ark and its just starting to rain. Protect what’s important to us. Do you want the membership back? Then do what you say you will. Fight for us.”

The essential point is that Trump was a vessel in which people could place their anger at what has happened to them over the past ten, twenty…fifty years.

“Both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for 30 years…since the 1980s the elites in rich countries have overplayed their hand, taking all the gains for themselves and just covering their ears when anyone else talks, and now they are watching in horror as voters revolt.” Vincent Bevins, Los Angeles Times.

Some Details On Why He Won
On a more technical level, these are factors that I think led to his victory:

his turnout was big because he had enthusiasm on his side;

her turnout was small because she had little-to-none in much of the constituency she targeted for her votes; indeed she had the opposite; turnout numbers tell the tale;

people didn’t tell pollsters they were going to vote for him because that was the “wrong answer”;

Republicans who said they wouldn’t vote for him “came home” to their party–they couldn’t abide Hillary;

Bernie couldn’t deliver for Hillary because American voters don’t transfer their vote on the word of their loser, no matter how much they supported her or him;

third party candidacies–Libertarian for some Millennials, and Green for others and for some on the left–eroded Hillary’s vote in key places;

black clergy couldn’t deliver their vote at the levels it came out for Obama–for understandable reasons;

most of what The Establishment did to support Hillary strengthened the resolve of Trump’s constituency and activists; it confirmed his anti-Establishment stance and demonstrated to them that his claim of an elite conspiracy against him were correct. Hillary’s support sometimes had precisely the contempt (“deplorables”!) for Trump’s voters that they feel from mainstream Democratic and Republican Party politicians.

Racism
I think it’s an oversimplification to view the Trump election as an expression of racism in the country. No doubt among his constituents there are racists, and no doubt some of the things he said were racist.

There’s nothing on the face of it that makes the Trump voter whose letter I’ve reproduced above a racist. On the Terry Gross NPR radio show, on the day after the election, she interviewed Atlantic writer James Fallows. He’s spent the last three years visiting small town, middle America. His account was different. In some places, there are significant numbers of relocated immigrants from the Middle East — he cited Erie County, PA as one of them. In his conversations with them, they described a welcoming atmosphere there. Erie voted Trump. In another small town, a near-majority of Latinos exists where there was a shrinking older Anglo population in what was a dying town. The old-timers attribute the town’s re-birth to the new immigrants; they like the new Mexican restaurants and taco trucks. They vote for school bonds even though none of their kids are now in public schools.

Fallows had more to say along these lines. Having spent several years in and out of rural Nebraska at the height of the farm crisis, his stories of these towns rings true to me.

Trump demagoguery will give legitimacy to public expression of views that were held privately, or only shared among friends. At the same time, he spoke in some black churches in the last week-or-so of the campaign—hardly something any true-blue racist would have done. He made a point of asking for Ben Carson when he addressed his supporters on election night. It’s far too simple to conclude he is going to pursue a racist agenda as president. He might, but let’s see.

As one journalist put it:
“Low-income rural white voters in PA voted for Obama in 2008 and then Trump in 2016, and your explanation is white supremacy? Interesting.”

Which isn’t to deny that racism is a major issue in the country, nor that he did a lot to give it legitimacy.

Strategically, minority community and immigrant rights organizations should ask themselves how they can develop relationships with this constituency. A serious discussion of that question is a pre-condition to building left-populist coalitions that can win legislative and electoral victories that address economic and racial injustice.

Most of what I’ve said above applies to the other “isms” – sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.

Positives In The Negative?
Organizers always look for the positive in the negative, and vice versa. I think there may be some:

There is now an opening in the Democratic Party for the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren forces that want a return to New Deal economics, and recognition of the legitimacy of populist claims. Can they mobilize the popularity their views have against the discredited neo-liberalism of the Old Guard? To do so will take patient work. The “Bill Clinton” Democrats are deeply entrenched in the Party. On the other hand, nothing so discredits politicians as losing.

The likelihood of a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court is now a certainty. Too often, minorities have relied on a court strategy to win rights. The likelihood that the Supreme Court will no longer be a likely place to defend and advance rights should push advocates to acting more politically, and less legally. In this case, by politically I mean making allies so that new majorities can be created around human rights and economic justice. Indeed the alliances made around the latter are key to winning the former.

Most importantly for the long run, will small “d” democratic organizers seek to develop real relationships with, and build organizations among, the white working class people who voted for Trump when it becomes clear that he has no program to meet their concerns? That opportunity hasn’t existed for some time. It soon will.

Note that I distinguish between mobilizing and organizing. That’s deliberate. The two are too often conflated — a serious mistake. We need a mobilizing organization that can build upon the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Hillary Clinton defeat. Mobilizing is what Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference did in the south (he did it through the strongest organization in the community — the black church).

We also need vital union locals and community organizations that can express the values and interests of this group in a continuing way, and create a sense of community among them that is not based on fear of, and contempt for, “The Other”. Organizing is what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did in the south, and what Saul Alinsky, Fred Ross and others did in the north.

About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org View all posts by Mike Miller →

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Why Trump Won the Electoral College Vote

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A note from the editors: To say many of us were taken aback by the election results would be an understatement. We believe understanding and progress comes with exposure to a number of ideas, thoughts and arguments and with that in mind The Stansbury Forum is breaking with it’s once weekly postings schedule (at least our efforts to do so) and posting the following by Bill Fletcher, Garrett Brown and Mike Miller in quick secession. We encourage readers to read all three and to post their thoughts.

◊◊◊

There has been and will be a flood of analysis as to how Donald Trump won the electoral vote and what that means about the American electorate. The lessons that left and labor organizations and activists draw from this experience will be key to whether an effective response to the impending Republican onslaught is developed and successfully launched.

I think it is important to avoid jumping to conclusions – as some already have, suggesting American working people are hopelessly bigoted and sexist. A deliberate assessment of the polling numbers is in order before drawing conclusions that will impact how we proceed in defending truth, justice and the other values we hold dear.

The articles listed below – hardly an exhaustive list – include some interesting facts that run counter to the “it’s all racism and sexism” analysis:

Donald Trump actually LOST the election – Clinton received more votes and, in any other country but the US, would be president-elect. That is not the case because of a 18th century mechanism developed by white male property owners (including human slaves) to maintain their control and prevent popular power.
The media is reporting that Trump received the votes of 53% of white woman who voted;
The media is reporting the 33% of Latino men and 25% of Latino women voted for Trump;
The media is reporting that the people who decided the election in Trump’s favor were voters who had voted for Obama in previous elections, some of these voting for Obama twice;
The media is reporting that 21% of people who voted for Trump did so while at the same time agreeing that he is “unfit to do the job.”

Clearly a significant section of Trump voters are racists and sexists. But not all of them. The rush by some to blame voters rather than the political system that produce a deeply flawed Democratic Party candidate who epitomized for millions everything they hate about the 1% and their rule is a mistake, in my view.

It appears that many Trump voters were so intent on shouting “FUCK YOU” to the political/economic elites that they were willing to vote for Trump despite believing he is “unfit” and a racist bigot, a misogynist, a serial liar, and a vicious bully.

One can only imagine what the results might have been if the Democratic Party candidate was Bernie Sanders – a genuine opponent of the billionaire class for decades. That did not happen, of course, because the Democratic Party is owned lock, stock & barrel by the same 1% that has caused so much misery and anguish to millions of Americans.

Obviously the fact that significant sections of key groups – blue-collar workers, women, Latinos, previous Obama voters – are willing to overlook all the racism, misogyny, bullying that was wrapped around Trump’s “core anti-establishment message” is sobering, and needs to be carefully analyzed.

I think one reason why many Trump voters of all colors and genders were able to ignore the unforgiveable is that their real-life experience has taught them that no matter what, they are always screwed, always abandoned, whether it is by Democratic elite liberalism or Republican social conservatism. Millions of Americans over the last decade – middle class as well as working class – have seen their lives, and the lives of their children, turn very dark with no light on the horizon. If the political and economic systems are rigged against them – as they are – then they can at least have the satisfaction of giving the elites the middle finger. They will, of course, get screwed once again by Trump, or whoever actually runs his administration.

But in a weird sort of way, the fact that so many working class people now want to say “fuck you” to a system that has survived so long not by force of arms but by force of illusion, is a positive thing. This is a point of departure for all of us to have a discussion. They are not all “beyond redemption,” assuming we learn how to see the world from their perspective, and that they learn from their mistakes and we learn from our own mistakes.

A selection of useful articles:
“Politics is the solution,” Jacobin magazine, November 9, 2016

“Democrats, Trump, and the ongoing dangerous refusal to learn the lesson of Brexit,” Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, November 9, 2016

“It was the rise of the Davos class that sealed America’s fate” Naomi Klein, The Guardian, November 9, 2016

“Revenge of the forgotten class” Alex MacGillis, Pro Publica, November 10, 2016

“What I learned after 100,000 miles on the road talking to Trump supporters” Chris Arnade, The Guardian, November 3, 2016

“How Democrats killed their Populist soul” Matt Stoller, The Atlantic, Oct 24, 2016

“You can dress him up, but Trump will always be Trump” Kathleen Parker, The Washington Post, October 21, 2016

“Why the media blitz on Trump isn’t working” Charles Lane, The Washington Post, September 21, 2016

Quick Reflections on the November 2016 Elections

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A note from the editors: To say many of us were taken aback by the election results would be an understatement. We believe understanding and progress comes with exposure to a number of ideas, thoughts and arguments and with that in mind The Stansbury Forum is breaking with it’s once weekly postings schedule (at least our efforts to do so) and posting the following by Bill Fletcher, Garrett Brown and Mike Miller in quick secession. We encourage readers to read all three and to post their thoughts.

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Had it not been for the Electoral College, at this moment we would be discussing the plans for the incoming Hillary Clinton administration. That’s right. She actually won the popular vote. Thus, once again, that institution created by the founding slave owners has risen from the grave and prevented our exit from the cemetery.

I begin there to put the election into context and to suggest that commentary needs to be quite nuanced. No, I am not trying to make lemonade out of lemons. But I do think that it is important to recognize that the Trump victory was far from a slam-dunk; the election was very close. One might not get that impression, however, when one looks at news headlines as well as Electoral College maps.

What are some of the conclusions we can arrive at from this election?

The election was a referendum on globalization and demographics; it was not a referendum on neo-liberalism: It is critical to appreciate that Trump’s appeal to whites was around their fear of the multiple implications of globalization. This included trade agreements AND migration. Trump focused on the symptoms inherent in neo-liberal globalization, such as job loss, but his was not a critique of neo-liberalism. He continues to advance deregulation, tax cuts, anti-unionism, etc. He was making no systemic critique at all, but the examples that he pointed to from wreckage resulting from economic and social dislocation, resonated for many whites who felt, for various reasons, that their world was collapsing.

It was the connection between globalization and migration that struck a chord, just as it did in Britain with the Brexit vote. In both cases, there was tremendous fear of the changing complexion of both societies brought on by migration and economic dislocation (or the threat of economic dislocation). Protectionism plus firm borders were presented as answers in a world that has altered dramatically with the reconfiguration of global capitalism.

The election represented the consolidation of a misogynistic white united front: There are a few issues that need to be ‘unpacked’ here. For all of the talk about the problems with Hillary Clinton-the-candidate and the failure to address matters of economics, too few commentators are addressing the fact that the alliance that Trump built was one that not only permitted but encouraged racism and misogyny. In point of fact, Trump voters were prepared to buy into various unsupported allegations against Clinton that would never have stuck had she not been a woman. Additionally, Trump’s own baggage, e.g., married and divorced multiple times; allegations of sexual assault, would never have been tolerated had the candidate been a woman (or, for that matter, of color). Trump was given a pass that would only be given to a white man in US society. All one has to do is to think about the various allegations, charges and history surrounding Donald Trump and then ask the question: had the candidate been a woman or of color, what would have happened? The answer is obvious. (Additional reading: “Yep, Race Really Did Trump Economics: A Data Dive on His Supporters Reveals Deep Racial Animosity”)

Also in connection with this matter is that for all of the talk about economic fear, there is this recurring fact that many people seem to wish to avoid. Just as with the Tea Party, the mean income of the Trump base is higher than the national mean (and was higher than the mean for Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters). Thus, we were not dealing with the poorest of the poor. Instead, this was a movement driven by those who are actually doing fairly well but are despairing because the American Dream that they embraced no longer seems to work for white people.

This is critical for us to get because had the Trump phenomenon been mainly about a rejection of economic injustice, then this base would have been nearly interchangeable with that of Senator Sanders. Yet that was not the case. What we can argue, instead, is that this segment of the white population was looking in terror at the erosion of the American Dream, but they were looking at it through the prism of race.

Hillary Clinton, as candidate, was flawed but we should be careful in our analysis: Though Clinton had expected a coronation, the Sanders campaign pushed her to be more than she expected. The platform of the Democratic Party was shifted to the left in many important respects. Yet Clinton could not be champion of an anti-corporate populist movement. Yes, she correctly argued to tax the 1%. Yes, she articulated many progressive demands. But in the eyes of too many people, including many of her supporters, she was compromised by her relationship with Wall Street.

That said, what also needs to be considered is that Trump had so many negatives against him. Yes, he was an outsider, so to speak, and used that very skillfully to argue that he would bring another pair of eyes to the situation. Yet, this is the same person who is in the upper echelons of the economy; refused to share his tax returns; has numerous allegations against him for bad business with partners and workers; and engages in the same off-shoring of production as many of the companies he criticized! Yet, none of that haunted him in the way that various criticisms haunted Clinton. Fundamentally this was a matter of sexism, though it is certainly true that Clinton’s being perceived as an insider did not help.

We don’t know whether Bernie Sanders would have done any better but we do know that his message is the one that needs to be articulated: It is impossible to accurately predict whether Sanders would have done better in the final election. He certainly would have been subjected to an immense amount of red-baiting and suggestions of foreign policy softness. Yet his message did resonate among millions, especially younger voters. And it was younger voters who did not turn out in force to back Clinton.

In entering the Trump era it is the movement that Sanders was part of coalescing that becomes key in building a resistance that has a positive vision. One of the weaknesses of the Sanders message was its failure to unify matters of class with race and gender. This is not an academic exercise. This is about telling the right story about what has been happening in the USA. It is also a matter of taping into significant social movements, e.g., Occupy; immigrant rights; LGBT; environmental justice; movement for Black Lives. These are movements that are focused on the future and a future that is progressive. This, in fact, is where the hope lies.

In the case of the USA, right-wing populism seeks a return to the era of the ‘white republic,’ and it is this that the Trump campaign was so successful in articulating.”

I have argued for some time that right-wing populism—with the Trump campaign exemplifying an aspect of this—is a revolt against the future. It is a movement that is always focused on a mythical past to which a particular country must return. In the case of the USA, right-wing populism seeks a return to the era of the ‘white republic,’ and it is this that the Trump campaign was so successful in articulating. It did so through disparaging Mexicans, suggesting them as a source of crime, completely ignoring criminal syndicates that have historically arrived in the USA from Europe. It did so through demonizing Arabs and Muslims, suggesting them as sources of terror, completely ignoring that the greatest sources of political terror in the USA have been white supremacist formations.

Right-wing populism has grown as a result of both the ravages brought on by neo-liberal globalization as well as the demographic and political changes within the USA. It is the latter—demographic and political changes—that have unfolded over the decades as previously disenfranchised groups have asserted themselves and articulated, to paraphrase the poet Langston Hughes, we, too, sing America.

Yes, let us lick our wounds and reflect on the future. This election result was one that more of us should have anticipated as a real possibility. In either case, that the results were so close and that we did not have the ideal candidate to represent the new majority emerging in the USA remains for me a source of immense hope.
The struggle certainly continues.

About the author

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

"Host of The Global African on Telesur-English", Bill Fletcher Jr has been an activist since his teen years. Upon graduating from college he went to work as a welder in a shipyard, thereby entering the labor movement. Over the years he has been active in workplace and community struggles as well as electoral campaigns. He has worked for several labor unions in addition to serving as a senior staffperson in the national AFL-CIO. Fletcher is the former president of TransAfrica Forum; a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies; an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com. Fletcher is the co-author (with Peter Agard) of “The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941″; the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of “Solidarity Divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice“; and the author of “‘They’re Bankrupting Us’ – And Twenty other myths about unions.” Fletcher is a syndicated columnist and a regular media commentator on television, radio and the Web. He regularly posts to Facebook and Twitter pages. View all posts by Bill Fletcher, Jr. →

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Once Again on the November Election and Beyond

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From the point of view of the left in the rust belt—I am based in Cleveland—the November 2016 election is between two unacceptable candidates.

One is of the Washington establishment that has pretty systematically failed to understand the impact of its policies, such as NAFTA, on the rust belt cities like Lorain and Youngstown and Flint. She is the candidate of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

But also, let us not forget, a candidate of reason and (a brand of) feminism.

Unfortunately, much of the progressive community (environmentalists; feminists; civil rights organizations) has taken an uncritical posture toward her. (This happens every four years with clock-like regularity).

Her opponent is an arrogant demagogue of the populist right, a man who plays to racist or at least xenophobic fears of his base (Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers; ban all Muslims), a candidate of unreason (“I’ll make up whatever facts I want”). A staunch advocate for the Second Amendment, sure, but the First Amendment? Not so much.(1) Peaceful succession from one regime to the next—a cornerstone of democratic society—is beyond him, as he indicated in the third debate. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said when asked about acceptance of the result.

Mr. Trump gets mileage with his base when he speaks of rigged elections in America, a breathtaking expression of how disaffected that base—a good twenty percent of the American population—is.

It also now appears that Trump is a boastful advocate and most likely a seasoned practitioner of sexual assault against women. Talk about setting a good example for the next generation.

Should Trump be elected, global capital will likely take flight to quality investments, crashing stock markets and throwing us into at least a momentary recession (this a prediction of international financial analysts and students of global risk, not me).(2)

How this man would handle the responsibility of the mantle of foreign policy leadership is beyond speculation (“we’ve got nukes, we should use them”).(3)

“It’s the economy, stupid”

True, Trump has been picking out tunes from Sanders’ economic populist songbook but he has been playing them in ugly, discordant keys. So, even here, where he often sounds good, his populist message is transposed into a selfish appeal to the worst elements of American society.

The vital issue for America—indeed, for the developed world—is the economic dislocation of working people caused by accelerated globalization and technological change.(4)

As a friend in Lorain, Ohio, a city hit hard by deindustrialization, said to me recently, “The Clintons have had their chance. Things didn’t get better around here in the 1990s. They got worse.” This is one of the reasons that Secretary Clinton is so unpopular with working class people.

But let’s be honest. Another part of why Secretary Clinton is unpopular with working- and middle-class men is that she’s a strong woman. This is worth considering carefully. She is a woman candidate—admittedly a Washington insider representing big capital—opposing an arrogant, sexist businessman who stokes racism.

Yes, Trump sounds an economic populist note. If Trump were a decent, reasonable economic populist; if Trump spoke in terms of uniting working class people instead of dividing them—if, if—well, then he wouldn’t be Trump. He would be Bernie Sanders. But Sanders is not on the ballot.

Taking a longer view

The economic problems that have brought us to this pass in 2016, with a good 40-50 percent of the electorate ready to throw over the mainstream of both major parties and back someone or something new—further left OR right—will only deepen in the coming decade. We will likely see more structural unemployment, more dislocation of workers.(5)

The hopelessness of the inner cities will therefore spread to working- and middle-class suburbs. Young people saddled with student loan debt will find it increasingly difficult to retire as decent-paying jobs for 20- and 30-somethings become ever rarer. Older workers will become discouraged in greater numbers, leading them out of the workforce.

All of the social problems attendant on large scale structural unemployment are likely to grow worse—demoralization; alcoholism; broken families; domestic violence, and so forth. I wish this were not the case and I look for countertrends but I’m afraid this is what is in store in the 2020s and 2030s.

It is not unreasonable to ask: Are we going to be running through a version of the interwar period of the twentieth century? The differences are clear—for instance, we have not been through anything as traumatic as the Great War (1914-1918). But economic dislocation characterizes both periods, as does the nativist response.

Elections don’t change the world, argue abstentionists. True, social movements and underlying economic metamorphoses are far more important in transforming fundamental economic, political or social conditions.

But elections do have an impact on the political mood of the country. A Trump victory would be a victory for the racists, the jingoists, the sexists, the “Second Amendment crowd.”

A Clinton victory should not be seen as an endorsement of Obama’s years in office which, let’s face it, have produced disappointingly precious little, legislatively. True, the Clinton center—including the middle-class feminists who are her strongest supporters—will tout this as the first election of a woman to the American presidency. True, that’s a milestone, just as Obama’s election was.

But from the point of view of the progressive left, there are stronger arguments for an anti-Trump vote than there are for a pro-Clinton one. Millions of voters will be turning out November 8 to vote against someone, not for someone at all. This should be a sobering wake-up call for the leadership of both parties. Instead, given their incapacity to plan much beyond the next legislative session, leading Democrats and Republicans will likely go back to the business of governing. They’ll be hiding their heads under the covers, hoping that’ll keep the scary ghosts from the heartland at bay.

But it won’t work. The ghosts, the potential for the return of a militant, class-based movement throughout America, have been stirred. The question for organizers on the left is: Will this opportunity be taken advantage of?

For the left to organize is a vital responsibility in the rust belt. The leadership of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus—an organization that issued from a strong pro-Sanders grassroots campaign in Northern Ohio—argues that wherever they were able to put organizers into communities, they delivered votes for Sen. Sanders against Sec. Clinton. These were the same communities where candidate Trump ran so strongly on the Republican side.

In other words, working class people seek answers. Economic populism can be argued from the left and people can be won to a coherent progressive or social-democratic outlook.

But those same communities are breeding grounds for economic populism wedded to hate.

Vote for Stein?

The left abstentionist conclusion for November 8 is a protest vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. If this were connected with a sober effort to build a party-like organization of the left, it would make good sense. But I’m afraid the Green Party, at least in Ohio, has been studied in its unwillingness (incapacity?) to build solid grassroots organization. Greens should be part of the wider process of reassembling a social democratic left in America. But organizational chops matter. And one vital element of organizational capacity is the recognition that no matter how disaffected American workers are with the Washington establishment, they still are far from ready to break with the two-party system. The progressive left needs to be working in the arena of Democratic Party elections precisely because that is where its potential mass base is today. We need to create a pole of attraction around progressive political principles, in both electoral and issue-oriented campaigns.

Voting and organizing

I’m advocating a critical vote for Clinton (essentially a vote against Trump’s racism and sexism). But this vote must be connected with efforts, however tentative and preliminary, at forming a steady, solid, grassroots organization of progressives that will do far more than attempt to elect progressive candidates to office. We need an organization that mobilizes people of conscience for issue-oriented battles, from the “Fight for Fifteen” to the fight for clean energy, to the fight against violence in the black community. We need an organization that links these struggles together, that builds alliances, and that advances a worldview—a broadly social-democratic worldview—that makes sense of these disparate phenomena.

Young people in particular are calling for a kind of systematic political education that the left has not seriously offered in more than a generation.

Reasonable progressives disagree on what to do on election day. That’s fine, as long as we have a civil discussion of the issues, something that candidate Trump has proven most uninterested in.

The questions facing working people in the United States are not going to be answered on election day. The answers to the fundamental questions are to be found in the self-organization of working people and people of conscience.

That’s why the most important thing is what the left does after election day.

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Footnotes:
1) Adam Liptak, “Donald Trump could threaten U.S. rule of law, scholars say,” New York Times, June 3, 2016, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).

2) Economist Intelligence Unit, “Global risk: Donald Trump wins the US presidential election,” October 19, 2016, (acc. October 21, 2016). The fact that the well-respected EIU puts a Trump presidency up there with a prolonged Chinese recession and the break-up of the European Union as threats to the global economy should give anyone with any concern about economic activity—and the lives of ordinary people who always suffer most in recessions—pause. Furthermore, “electing Trump could also start a trade war, hurt trade with Mexico and be a godsend to terrorist recruiters in the Middle East,” wrote Daniel Lippman, “The Economist rates Trump presidency among its top 10 global risks,” Politico, March 16, 2016, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).

3) Matthew Belvedere, “Trump asks why US can’t use nukes: MSNBC,” CNBC, August 3, 2016, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).

4) “It’s the economy, stupid,” was the stay-on-message mantra of James Carville, strategist for the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992.

5) For a more detailed treatment of the problem of technologically-based structural unemployment, see Glenn Perusek, “Cleveland: City of Tomorrow?” Belt Magazine, March 2015, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).

About the author

Glenn Perusek

Glenn Perusek, born in Akron, Ohio, has worked for many years conducting and teaching strategic research and campaign planning for international labor unions, community groups and political campaigns. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago and was a member of the International Typographical Union (today part of the Communication Workers of America). He can be reached at gperusek@gmail.com View all posts by Glenn Perusek →

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Movimento 5 Stelle – The Rubber Hits the Road!

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A wave of anti-establishment protest has swept the western democracies. These political protest movements have taken both a left and right wing form, shaking up the old traditional parliamentary party systems in many countries and rocking the two party system in the United States. In Italy, Movimento 5 Stelle or the 5 Star Movement, created by comedian Beppe Grilllo is the manifestation of the discontent with the traditional parties. But can such movements govern once they take power? What is their long term future? Nicola Benvenuti writes from Italy on M5S.

Beppe Grillo addresses a crowd.  Photo: The Moveimento 5 Stelle Facebook page

Beppe Grillo addresses a crowd. Photo: The Moveimento 5 Stelle Facebook page

The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S) which celebrated its 7th birthday on October 4, is one of the most important developments in the chaotic Italian political landscape. It is a political formation that in a few years has matched in electoral strength the leading Italian party, the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico PD), and succeded in burying the bipolar scheme (Center Right Popolo della Liberta” of Berlusconi and Center left Partitio Democratico of Walter Veltroni) that dominated Italian politics in the 1990’s. M5S was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the owner of the brand and of the Beppe Grillo blog, which functions as the true voice of the movement. He is known for the biting satire of his one-man show against the Italian economic and political elite. His co-founder is Gianroberto Casaleggio, owner of a digital strategies consulting company (a mix that some say could hide a conflict of interest) and “guru” of the web. Casaleggio designed the M5S as an example of collective intelligence or crowd politics.

M5S was created with a “flat” structure”, devoid of hierarchies (each person is seen as an equal), in which Casaleggio and especially Beppe Grillo play the role of “noble leaders”, guarantors of the principles and the spirit of the movement, but not directly involved in politics.

In fact, in addition to challenging Italian and European politics, the M5S has targeted an Italian democracy based on parties which are considered an expression of the establishment and the bearers of bureaucracy and corruption, whereas M5S is counter-posed as democracy of the network based on egalitarianism and direct democracy.

The various analytical threads that underpin the culture of M5S, hold the negative view that “interprets politics and society as a tangle of special interests unmentionable and largely illegal, fueling the idea of a country prey to Mafia malignancies and endemic corruption ” (Michele Serra, staff writer of the newspaper “La Repubblica”), a vision that functions to hold together often conflicting aspirations, objectives and general values.

This approach is rooted in the economic and moral decline of Italy with a resulting crisis of political parties and national politics because of the growing role of supranational bodies and the blackmailing power of multinational organizations. Additionally, the weakness of European Union policy and its inability to revive development and take on complex issues like immigration, unemployment, the crisis of the countries of the southern Mediterranean, etc. This situation has stalled the Italian left which is on the defensive on the concept of Europe. The Berlusconi right also appears divided and disjointed in the absence of the “old leader”. This has solidified the crisis of old models of government and favors non-traditional political formations. Among these the Northern League (“Lega Nord”) of Salvini follows the French LePen model without much success, while at the moment M5S has experienced large growth rates.

M5S’s uncompromising criticism of the distortions of Italian politics and its support for the most irrational impulses of the right and left, has worked very well to forge consensus. In the latest municipal elections M5S won the mayoralty of major cities such as Turin and Rome thanks to a runoff ballot between PD and M5S, the two biggest vote getters. Thus the left and much of the right voted together in the runoff against the incumbent administration of the PD.

But now, everyone is waiting for the proof in the pudding for M5S as a governing party. In particular, can M5S accomplish the restoration of Rome, the city where the center-right administration of Alemanno (Here and Here) has fostered crime and malfeasance in the process polluting all the parties.

In fact, although the M5S had a considerable presence in the national parliament, and here and there the mayoralty of medium-sized cities, the movement’s growth has not been accompanied by the construction of a reliable and knowledgeable management team. The organizational structure is dominated by informal “meetups” and decisions made by the network, all on the electronic platform of Casaleggio Associates which Casaleggio manages with proprietary logic (starting with data on subscribers). This process has clearly not favored an effective selection of executives, while the in-determined politics, contrary to traditional political divisions and fueled by anti-political attitudes has hindered the growth of skills and expertise. No wonder then that the concrete policy of some mayors, although positive and effective, is often up against the intransigence of 5 Stars and Bepe Grillo.

Pizzarotti, the Mayor of Parma, recently collided with Grillo and was suspended by the M5S. The reasons are perhaps attributable to local choices, eg. Pizzarotti having supported the construction of an incinerator (which was strongly opposed by M5S) but the excuse was that the Mayor had not been transparent about an investigation of his appointments to the Royal Theater, an investigation that resulted in his acquittal.

Further nobody understands under what regulations someone can be suspended since the movement does not have the structure of a hated party. Nor does it have a structure for establishing legitimate internal decision paths and there are no strict limits, and no penalties, for violators. The suspension could be sanctioned by a vote of members in the network, but since Casaleggio Associates holds absolute control of the software and platform management, nobody knows what the actual results were, and how many participated. On October 4, Mayor Pizzarotti announced that he was abandoning the movement, accusing his former colleagues of unpreparedness, superficiality and even cowardice.

But the most explosive situation has been in Rome, where the M5S Mayor elect, Virginia Raggi, has not been able to form a government while city debt is exploding. The city M5S directorate (this is a national directorate delegated by M5S to help Major Raggi) composed of parliamentarians Di Maio, Di Battista, Fico, and Ruocco selected by Grillo at the end of 2014 (and confirmed by a network vote with the usual obscure procedures) was divided on everything, but without any “transparency” (another watchword of M5S) in their political motives. Citing incompatibility with the closest people to the Mayor, the most reliable and expert personalities designated by Raggi and even top City administrators, resigned. Raggi has been unable to hold together the different components of her majority, and has insisted on defending questionable collaborators, such as the deputy Paola Muraro (hit by an investigation for complicity with the speculators who made money on waste/recycling policy). Further she has been incapable of meeting the essential financial deadlines of the municipality (for which the Treasurer, Stefano Fermante resigned).

Everything is managed in complete opacity and a lack of loyalty and respect for voters. The only postive position taken, one useful in calming the movement, was the refusal to support the candidacy of Rome for the 2020 Olympics, fearing the corruption that would arise in promoting such a spectacle. The fractures and mutual misteps were such that the movement has distanced itself from Mayor Raggi. The role of the M5S directorate has been greatly reduced, and at the recent meeting of Palermo M5S (October 2), Grillo said he was “head” of the whole movement.

It is too early to determine whether this is the beginning of the decline of this political formation that has always claimed not to want to have anything to do with any other party or political group. From what we have seen it seems clear that the M5S is not the solution. However all the concerns about the influence that M5S could still have remain (October polls on the electoral strength of the Italian political protagonists show an unchanged success for the M5S). While the Renzi PD fails to consolidate a government, too many parties, right and left, look at the deteriorating political and economic situation as an opportunity for their own political relaunch from the crisis of the PD. And so the referendum on the constitutional reform of 4th December proposed by Renzi will play a decisive role in the Italian politics.

The Secret Struggle Against Apartheid

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First published in Jacobin, September 29, 2016

In the 1960s, a group of leftists risked everything to revive the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa was perhaps the greatest transnational social movement of the post-World War II era. Figures like Nelson Mandela are rightly associated with this history, but the Left is less often remembered.

1970: Tom Bell, taken by his brother Ron, while they were in Cape Town, SA during their mission.

1970: Tom Bell, taken by his brother Ron, while they were in Cape Town, SA during their mission.

The book and forthcoming documentary London Recruits offers a corrective to this. Both serve as a reminder of the tremendous importance of leftists in the global struggle against apartheid. People like Tom Bell and his South African “trainer” Ronnie Kasrils, who organized the London Recruits, a group of international activists who embraced a working-class radicalism that was internationalist, cosmopolitan, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist — and most important, steadfastly opposed to legalized racial oppression in South Africa.

This aspect of the struggle remains largely unknown, in no small part because the missions were secret and many of the participants did not know each other’s identities until decades later. However, these men and women, nearly all of whom were leftists, helped keep the fight to overthrow apartheid going during a “quiet decade” in which ferocious repression temporarily had shut down domestic opposition.

The Mission

Though supportive of the Soviet Union and its allies, Bell belonged to a new generation of Communists emerging in the 1960s, both in the West and inside the Communist bloc, who rejected Stalinism. Bell and others like him in the British Young Communist League (YCL) wanted to combine Marxism with the vibrant pro-peace, anti-imperialist ideals of the youth generation rising in the 1960s across the planet.

Enter the handler. Ronnie Kasrils’s half-century of activism on behalf of racial equality and socialism is well known in his native South Africa, if far less so outside of it. Born to Jewish parents, Kasrils became radicalized in 1960 by the Sharpeville Massacre, in which at least sixty-nine unarmed black people were gunned down (mostly in the back) by the South African police. Their crime? Peacefully protesting the hated “pass laws,” one of apartheid’s primary enforcement tools.

After the massacre, Kasrils joined the South African Communist Party and helped found Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK), the underground, armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) headed up by Nelson Mandela. Kasrils participated in MK’s first actions in 1961 and helped lead its efforts in Natal province.

Already banned from all political activity and witnessing the massive repression carried out against all anti-apartheid activists and organizations, the ANC itself went into exile under the leadership of Oliver Tambo, who along with Mandela and some other black activists, had reinvigorated the ANC in the late 1940s and 1950s. Tambo dispatched Kasrils to expand operations from London.

As Kasrils told me, despite being ten thousand kilometers from South Africa, London was “so dynamically connected with Johannesburg and South Africa” that it seemed much “closer” than ANC offices in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Lusaka, Zambia. London became “home” to South African exiles (black, Indian, and white), was the headquarters of British finance and mining corporations that invested in South Africa, and served as South Africa’s major transportation link to the world, via ship and plane.

To raise global awareness about the horrors of apartheid and increase pressure on the white minority regime, in the late 1960s Kasrils recruited and trained English and other young white radicals (from Europe and four, including Danny Schechter, from the United States). Usually in teams of two, they flew to South Africa, pretended to be tourists sympathetic to apartheid, and undertook missions to remind black South Africans that despite their suffering and the nearly complete destruction of opposition inside South Africa, they did not stand alone. The missions included everything from bold public actions proclaiming support for the ANC to transporting weapons for freedom fighters to helping those fighters sneak into the country.

The London Recruits’ mission was not insignificant. Kasrils provides the context inside South Africa: “Post [19]63–64 or so, the Rivonia Trial [that condemned Mandela and seven other activists to life in prison], the arrest of leaders (Mandela and company), the roundup of thousands, people in the prisons and in exile, the underground apparatus in the country absolutely smashed.” The ferocity of the repression resulted in what historians now refer to as the “quiet decade,” when many thought all opposition had been smashed.

This was a period when the movement regrouped; those not killed, imprisoned, or banned went underground, while others like Tambo into exile. As Kasrils recalled, “we needed to get a message across to our people that the ANC, the liberation movement, was alive, that people should not give up hope.” Leftist foreigners could help deliver that message.

Where did Kasrils find young white radicals like Bell? Some were trade unionists, others students at the London School of Economics, but most came from the Young Communist League. When Kasrils arrived in London in 1965, he reached out to the British Communist Party. They, in turn, introduced Kasrils to the YCL leadership, who identified recruits including Tom’s older brother, Ron.

Communists were familiar with “clandestine activities” and already internationalists. They were prepared for the kind of activism Kasrils believed was needed in the regroupment period.

Like Tom, Ron Bell was introduced to left politics by their Communist parents. In 1970, Ron asked his younger brother to pair up on a mission into the belly of the apartheid beast. Before going to South Africa, though, Tom had already participated in antiracist politics.

In the 1960s, like today, some white people hated the growing diversity of England — specifically black people from Britain’s former colonies in the Caribbean. Tory MP Enoch Powell delivered a notorious diatribe in 1968, now known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Powell lambasted England’s immigrant black people, fearing they would take over the country.

Only eighteen, Bell took to a soapbox at his local shopping center in southeast London to attack Powell’s racism. He believed that hatred between racial groups meant that those groups could never unite to fight for socialism, Bell’s ultimate goal.

Still in his teens, as an activist in the YCL, Bell traveled to Communist countries including Bulgaria, the Soviet Union, even North Korea. Once recruited by Kasrils, he needed a new passport because apartheid South Africa would never knowingly allow him into their country with such an array of stamps.

Tom remembers his first meetings with Kasrils, who possessed great charisma and that particular South African accent of English. Using his own MK training and experience in constructing, planting, and detonating explosives as well as carrying out propaganda incidents, Kasrils taught the Bell brothers how to build a bomb in a five-gallon bucket, designed not to injure anyone but to spread ANC leaflets in public places in South Africa, as well as how to rig a cassette player to spread messages via loudspeaker.

Their mission was extremely dangerous. Kasrils reminded the brothers, “If you’re caught, you’re on your own and it won’t be good.” (Indeed, though the Bell brothers’ mission went without a hitch, in 1972 several recruits were captured and suffered in a South African prison for much of the decade.)

In 1970, the two flew to Cape Town by way of Johannesburg. They spent a week establishing their credentials as tourists while getting the lay of the land and acquiring some equipment to supplement what they had smuggled into the country. They identified locations to stage their actions: a railway station and busy plaza, places where thousands of black people passed by in their daily routines.

Even during their short stay, the brothers witnessed the “madness” that was apartheid. They could not visit a “township,” where blacks and other nonwhites were forced to live, but they saw one. “Even at a distance one could sense the squalor, and the anger that accompanied it, rising from it like a fetid mist.”

Though its primary victims were those whom the apartheid regime called “non-Europeans,” the Bells also saw how apartheid hurt white people. While on a local bus, a white person suffered a heart attack, but the driver refused to deposit him at the closest hospital, reserved for blacks only.

Despite a major police presence, common during apartheid in order to survey black people’s movements, the Bells surreptitiously positioned their buckets and cassette players linked to loudspeakers. Then, during an afternoon rush hour, they detonated the bombs and enabled the audio devices, launching thousands of leaflets with anti-apartheid messages that quickly were collected by passers-by while listening to pre-recorded speeches of solidarity with the liberation struggle. Tom recently recalled to me seeing traffic getting snarled, while police sirens blared and people picked up the ANC materials, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt such euphoria.”

Before leaving the country, they learned that their comrades, other teams of London Recruits — who they knew existed but knew neither their identities nor plans — had launched similar actions in Durban, Johannesburg, and elsewhere.

The Bell brothers returned to London where they continued their work in the British anti-apartheid movement. Peter Hain, a South African exile, became the public face of the movement, leading a successful effort to get the South African cricket and rugby teams banned from Britain. Kasrils and others in the ANC operated more clandestinely, as one of the major nerve centers for global organizing against apartheid that grew in the 1970s and exploded in the 1980s, with multiracial democracy finally emerging in 1994.

The Goal

The anti-apartheid movement might be the most impressive global social movement in the post-WWII world. In recent years, historians and other scholars finally are devoting attention to this inspirational and transnational history. Among historians outside of South Africa, much more work has been done on religious groups, Pan-Africanist black people in the United States and elsewhere, students, and (to a lesser and insufficient extent) unions.

But the Left must be acknowledged in its own right for its crucial role in the resistance. It was no coincidence that Kasrils found Tom and Ron Bell ready, willing, and able to risk their very lives to fight apartheid. For people like the Bell brothers, Kasrils, and most in the liberation struggle, overthrowing apartheid was only the first phase of the revolution. The second would be the fight for socialism.

The socialist orientation of the movement dates back to its inception, nowhere more clearly than the 1955 Freedom Charter. The charter insisted not only on democracy and equal rights for all, but that “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!” which included “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.” And, “The Land Shall Be Shared Among Those Who Work It!” meaning “All shall have the right to occupy land wherever they choose.”

In anti-racist struggles around the world, the Left has played a vital part, from the American civil rights movement — historian William P. Jones highlights that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was “organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists, most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists” — to the anti-apartheid movement inside South Africa and beyond, which was led and populated by leftists including members of the Communist Party. (This explains why Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher called Mandela a “communist” and opted to back the apartheid regime).

The London Recruits also were committed to this goal. The filmmakers at Barefoot Rascals, a Welsh company, are currently at work on a documentary on the subject, having interviewed most of the surviving London Recruits and undertaken several trips to South Africa to interview activists and witnesses to the recruits’ efforts. Their story deserves a wide audience.

About the author

Peter Cole

Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of "Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia" and currently is writing "Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area". He tweets from @ProfPeterCole View all posts by Peter Cole →

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Migrant Labor-4: What It Feels Like In El Norte

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In writing about migrants coming into Europe, the British critic John Berger once wrote (in The Seventh Man): “To see the experience of another, one must do more than dismantle and reassemble the world with him at its center. One must interrogate his situation to learn about that part of his experience which derives from the historical moment. What is being done to him, even with his own complicity, under the cover of normalcy?”

I try hard, but you know this is only conjecture, only an attempt at empathy.

depot1

You are Juan now. The terrible anxiety of the border crossing is behind you. Still there is plenty of anxiety to come. You rented a short-time call card from your coyote and made that one-minute call home to tell them to pay his henchman. You’ve made it to L.A. finally and by great good fortune you’ve found a hidey-hole. The famous Home Depot is almost an hour walk away, but you have your own small place now to be who you are. Seventy-five dollars a week in a garage partitioned into six spaces.

A closed area, a bed, a dangling string to hang shirts, two crates to store belongings—all these acquire a new meaning up here. Almost luxury. Mostly a refuge and safety from eyes, judging, disapproving, perhaps threatening eyes. Eyes of thousands of people you’ve never met, walking past you, on buses, driving in cars, always in a hurry. You have a place to retreat now and when you bend a partition closed and hook it shut like a door, you feel at least temporarily safe. There’s no foreign language to worry about. No angry shouts. No migra agents. Just lie back and think of your wife and children.

Nearby in the garage is an industrial washbasin you share and an open toilet that swirls away your shit all by itself. You also share two electric cooking rings on a small table. An old sheet of iron makes a comal to heat tortillas on the rings, and frijoles can be heated in the tin they come in. There is a tiny Mexican mini-market nearby where the Koreans speak bad Spanish and sell familiar food.

Your garage mates change often. Some speak the strange Spanish of Guatemala or an Indio language that is just noises to you. Still, most of you squat together by the cooking table in the evening and share experiences, share stories of your families, funny tales from home. You begin to collect useful items you see discarded in alleys or gutters, clothes hangers, felt for hot-pads, a bit of rope, anything really. You never know.

You also learn to beware. The city is not like your village. The village is based on always seeing people again. You learn the city is based on NEVER seeing people again. People try to trick you. One man, he seemed to speak like a campesino, sold you the address of a tile factory that needs regular workers, for twenty dollars. When you get to the address, helped by a kindly moreno bus driver who spoke halting Spanish, it’s only a tienda in a shopping area that sells women’s absurdly high-heel shoes.

As long as you’re “downtown,” you calm down and decide to look around, feeling a bit like a frantic chicken trapped inside a house. Your exploration is mostly looking into this new world through glass—fancy dresses, a barber shop, donuts, a whole tienda selling little glass animals and ceramic people – ¡Dios mio! – and at the corner, a small supermercado. Still, this place looks so big and impersonal you feel unthreatened going inside. The amount of things even in this small market is staggering, more than all the things on all the shelves in your village. People walk along the aisles with carts taking things with no expression at all, as if they’re stealing and trying not to be noticed.

Soon you realize people are paying for their collections at the cash register without saying a word. It’s so easy! You want to go crazy buying things, but it will take $1.75 on the bus to get near enough to walk home. You have two $20 bills to use. You have to consider the packages mostly by the pictures on them. You do know the word “chicken” and wonder how on earth they got a whole pollo into a small can beside the tuna cans. You put it in your cart just to find out. Beans in a bag. Red spaghetti with meat – the picture looks great. A plastic bag of large funny looking white tortillas. In a crate against the wall you find ordinary mangos and grab three.

You watch others paying and see how easy it is. You’re confident now. You make sure to watch the numbers increase on the cash register as the woman waves your packages over a magic window and you make sure to offer more dollars than that number.

The woman smiles and says “¿Quere usted comprar una bolsa?” “Do you buy a bag?” in very bad Spanish. “Yes, doña.” You nod and she puts all your purchases in a paper bag that will be handy to keep. There’s a clatter and she points to coins that have rolled into a kind of metal pig-ear.

There is so much to learn. You imitate gestures. You start memorizing the syllables of English words. You begin translating the signs you see, word by word. One strange thing you notice is that everything here is dead straight, or utterly smooth, or perfectly round. This world does not tolerate irregularity. Some of what you see shocks you, some impresses you.

One workday you lay rocks into a wall with cement, the next you paint a house or scrape a wood floor. Some days you are unfamiliar with the tools you are expected to know. A tile-cutter, a skill saw, or how to change the bit in a power-drill. Every day at the mosca (labor market), you are the subject of three calculations: a contractor’s, yours, and one neither of you knows about, how much capitalism needs its “labor reserve” today or this month or this year.

The men who hire you, or sometimes work with you, are mostly guëros – literally it means blondes, but to you it’s whites. (Clint Eastwood in “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” was as dark-haired as you can get but was called Blondie.) Most seem to resent you for some reason. You feel like you‘ve been kidnapped by the coyotes and dropped off in a hostile world. You are in an animal pen with hatred on all sides and no exit.

One day on the bus you hear, in very good Spanish: “Todos ellos llevan cuchillos. Ninguna mujer está a salvo.” (They all carry knives. No woman is safe.) You also find that the English words you learn change meaning without warning. You say “girl” very carefully, and they think you want a prostitute.

The jornalero pay from Home Depot keeps you going but it’s not enough to send much home. You need a real job and it’s time to make the jump to East L.A. and the factories, if only you can find a friend to help you.

About the author

John Shannon

John Shannon is the author of a series of mystery novels based on L.A. and California social history, The Jack Liffey novels. This blog is from a series based on the labor and social history contained in these novels. The blog only goes out by e-mail and if you’re interested please write jxshannon2@aol.com. He has also written a three-generation saga novel of the American Left—Socialist, Communist, New Left—called The Taking of the Waters. This was published in a small edition here and in France but got him more-or-less “blacklisted” in New York from his major publishers. It will soon be reviewed at length in the L.A. Review of Books and republished as a Kindle e-book. View all posts by John Shannon →

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