On MLK Day, These Thoughts...
I met Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Atlanta airport in 1964. He was standing by himself, my dad recognized him, asked if I knew who he was, and led me over to meet him. My dad spoke with him for a few minutes and I got his autograph. It might be a better story if, at 11 eleven years old, I really knew who King was, or if he had said something memorable to me, or if I was able to say with certainty something like "and that's the day my life changed," but frankly I was more interested in how the Baltimore Orioles were doing than how the Civil Rights struggle was proceeding, and the Orioles hadn't yet added Frank Robinson to their line-up.
I was aware my dad received racist, threatening phone calls for his work in the black community, registering voters and helping to increase their awareness of various assistance programs and education opportunities—my dad was a professor of education. I was on an extension and heard one of the calls when I was 11 or 12, and a police detective came to the house when I was 13 or so to investigate threats.
In 1966 I worked in my first political campaign, Miami Mayor Robert King High's campaign against the racist Florida Governor, Haydon Burns, a former mayor of Jacksonville. High, an integrationist, won the primary but lost to the Republican Claude Kirk by 160,000 votes, statewide. My memories center around handing out leaflets for High in front of J.M. Fields department store in Gainesville, and being called various ugly names by Burns supporters, then by Kirk supporters. Things were very ugly in the south during those years, and being a Jew who supported Civil Rights had its ramifications.
I have a vague memory of the tragedy of the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, mostly because my parents' reaction was one of horror and distress. And I remember watching the nightly news and seeing the marchers attacked by police with firehoses, dogs and clubs. The first demonstration I saw was a picket in front of a segregated restaurant; years later one of the picketers became the first black elected to the County Commission (Tom Coward), another became the first black elected to the School Board (Charles Chesnutt), and his wife became the first black woman elected to the City Commission and later to the state legislature (Cynthia Chesnutt).
During my municipal political activity, running for and serving on the City Commission, I had the Chesnutt's support, but Coward was on the other side as primary issues in the 80s had more to do with developers vs. environmentalists, controlled and uncontrolled growth, taxes and utility rates.
In 1970 I went door-to-door in Atlanta for Andrew Young—he didn't win. A few years later I did a little work for AIM; it should not be forgotten that the Wounded Knee confrontation grew out of an effort on the part of the native Americans who had no power to secure political power on the reservation.
After some years of municipal politics and some years of relative inactivity I'm now in the Peace & Freedom Party, a ballot access leftist party in California.
And we are in the midst of gathering signatures for candidates' filing petitions, gearing up for the 2010 elections in what is a very longterm, difficult effort to gain political power.
As part of this effort I went to a meeting of one of the area anti-war groups where I once again encountered what I think is the most frustrating obstacle to the goal of achieving political power: the failure to identify the acquisition of political power as a goal.
Let me say that again: the most frustrating obstacle to the goal of achieving political power is the failure to identify the acquisition of political power as a goal.
This failure is in part based on a series of errors of understanding, compounded daily, such that actions and lessons that were once clear are now clouded, confused, conflated and otherwise clusterf***ked.
I related my brief history of southern politics for a reason. During the Civil Rights movement Whites were not scared of black people singing and marching and shouting and having "wild" music: as far as racist whites were concerned, that's what black people did. They were scared of them voting. They were scared of them having political power. They were scared of them getting educations that would lead to personal empowerment that would lead to political empowerment. It was all about the vote and for racist whites it was all about holding on to power.
Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were not killed because they were planning a march, they were killed because they were registering voters. The Mississippi Freedom Party was not a threat because they were going to have a march or a rally, the MFP was a threat because they were going to achieve political power at the expense of those who had it, relished it, and did not want to lose it.
Martin Luther King Jr. did not give speeches for the sake of giving speeches, or lead marches for the sake of leading marches, he did it to raise awareness and call people to action and that action was the action of acquiring political power through the vote and the candidacies of those who would bring about the needed changes. It was about acquiring political power.
Somehow the part about acquiring political power has been dropped from the equation. If marching is X and registering voters is Y and voting is Z and A is the achievement of political power, the equation should look like this: X + Y + Z = A. But wethe anti-war movement, the peace movement, the anti-imperialists—however you want to thumbnail it—we don't have that. Instead, we have X + X + X + X = ?, and that's only if someone bothers to try to use an equal sign to indicate where any of this might lead.
At the meeting of this anti-war organization that I attended last week, discussion at one point devolved into random thoughts about why the peace movement has failed (or if it has failed!) and whether or not demonstrations are effective and the split between the ANSWER group and the UFPJ group, all without any consideration of what actually occurs at demonstrations (the ones I've attended have always focused on "anti-imperialist" speakers at the expense of or to the detriment of efforts to identify and support political candidacies and ballot access parties), and what it all means to those in power. Demonstrations, marches, protests, in the last decade have rarely been about emphasizing the acquisition of political power. More often than not, in the words of my comrade Cindy, it is about "shouting at buildings", not building a viable third party. Speakers condemn Halliburton, Bush, Israel; speakers celebrate unions and condemn union-busting corporations, speakers call on the G8 or WTO or (fill in the blank) to be accountable; speakers condemn this and celebrate that, but they don't urge, even as a secondary or tertiary interest, voter registration, party affiliation, and party activism, and they don't urge people to run for office or give meaningful support to those who do. They feature "celebrities" like Ron Kovic over candidates and tired, mind-numbing rhetoric over efforts to meaningfully organize. (At the ANSWER group's anti-war demo last spring I had all of 3 minutes to pitch the Peace & Freedom Party and was the only speaker urging attendees to register, sign candidate petitions, run for office and/or get active in an anti-war third party.)
(I have nothing against Kovic; he admirable and has been an important activist, but unless his testimony at rallies urges people to work to acquire political power, then he is mostly testifying to the congregation, maintaining the status quo, and therefore becomes part of the problem instead of part of the solution. And what is the problem? Failing to identify the acquisition of political power as the priority.)
(Cindy Sheehan's failure to choose to become a candidate against Nancy Pelosi offers a similar example of choosing "shouting at buildings" instead of building a political opposition to the Wall Street teams. Putting efforts into an International Declaration of whatever promoted in part on Facebook is not the same as directly challenging Pelosinot even in the same universe. So what if everyone signs an international declaration of whatever? What's that get you? It's like when Werner Erhard wanted to end world hunger so he asked everyone to sign a pledge to "take responsibility" for ending world hunger. As my friend Joe would say, "How's that workin' for ya?" Sheehan is not the most astute political activist, but she is bright and, importantly, has gained name recognition: an activist with name recognition should run for office. Otherwise, X + X + X + X = 4X.)
(The failure of people like Sheehan to run also leads to the 4 Cs—clouded thinking, confusion, conflation and clusterf**k—in that people like Ron Paul actually end up looking appealing to progressives and leftists who should know better but forget that Paul and those of similar ilk have no interest in society and only oppose foreign intervention as part of a philosophy that says "leave me alone"—but that's another essay.)
(The failure of Hayden and Kucinich and others to join and help build a third party is also part of the 4 Cs, but that, too, is another essay.)
As I've noted before, the anti-war movement would be hard-pressed to identify any incumbents during the last ten years who felt threatened by any of the demonstrations, marches or protests. Why? Because they know X + X + X + X doesn't equal anything other than 4X, and 4X does not equal A.
One person at this anti-war meeting in L.A. said he thought the group should work to defeat (Henry) Waxman, at which point he was told the group couldn't do that, it was prohibited from doing that because of its 501C(3) status. And therein lies another obstacle to effective political organizing, to the acquisition of political power. Massive energy by well-intentioned people—activists and others—is poured into non-profit corporations that are prohibited from using the necessary equation. If X is an information pamphlet that urges no political action because it must only be educational, then you have, on the part of the non-profits, X + X + X ad infinitum.
Put another way, you have "War is bad, war is wrong war is bad, war is wrong" and when someone says "What can we do?" they're told "contribute to our non-profit so we can produce more literature to continue to educate people that war is bad, war is wrong."
Okay, there are some good, worthy, productive non-profits; some of them working hard to provide the very information needed to be part of the organizing and registration and campaign efforts conducted by political parties. But even when that relationship is understood, the equation is still often misapplied in a backwards fashion: non-profits ask for the support of political parties ("endorse this, endorse that") but do not contribute to building the party, and the party, fearful of losing some sort of status, complies and devolves into a group that spends an inordinate amount of time discussing and passing resolutions and endorsements ad nauseum.
It is backwards in that energy should feed from non-profits and other activism in political organizing into the political party, and not vice versa. The goal should not be to take the organization focused on the acquisition of political power and have it divert itself into supporting the efforts of those who are prohibited from working on gaining political power, it should be the other way around. The 501C(3) status does prohibit or inhibit quite a bit, but many individuals choose to support the non-profits instead of the political party, or rank support for the non-profit above support for the political party. So the bulk of well-intentioned people, many of whom consider themselves activists, are fixated on non-profits and on demonstrations: lots of Xs, no Ys, no Zs, no A.
Put another way, having energy run from the political party to the non-profit is like paying the state for the permit to protest against the state. On what planet would this lead to the acquisition of the political power necessary to achieve economic and social justice?
All the while time and money and energy are squandered because of the failure to identify the acquisition of political power as the primary goal.
At the end of the meeting, while seeking to register some of these anti-war people (including the one who wanted to defeat Waxman), I ran into what a lot of us in the Peace & Freedom Party have run into, and I suspect the Greens run into it, too: the preference of a person to remain "independent", or as California puts it, "D/S" aka Decline to State.
If there is anything that puts less fear into a sitting politician other than the apathy of the non-voter, it is the voter who identifies himself or herself as "independent". The question must be asked, as I asked it of these folks that night, "Independent of what?" So-called independent voters as individuals stand for nothing because even if they stand for something there is no way to know what it is, other than that they reject all organized efforts at political change as expressed by the primary measure in our society, the voting booth. And so-called independent voters as a group stand for nothing as the only thing that unites them is their unwillingness to commit to a party—any party. Incumbents know most so-called independents have already washed themselves out of the equation; they'll vote for one of the mainstream parties, some of them will vote third party, but with no way for it to be tracked, monitored, accounted for, the vote is simply a one-time hash mark, impossible to analyze and therefore meaningless. A so-called independent may make the difference in an election, but neither winner nor loser can really know. It is extremely self-indulgent and a waste.
Now, back to the four Cs (clouded, confused, conflated and otherwise clusterf***ked), there is always someone who will read this kind of analysis and argue marches are good; Martin Luther King led marches, or "what about the march on the Pentagon?" or they'll cite some singular experience where they insist the demonstration or rally made a difference, and I'm not prepared to argue with that. I think the anti-WTO marches, rallies and actions in Seattle made a difference. It's quite possible that the huge immigration rally a few years ago in L.A. had an impact on political organizing and legislation, and it's possible that Sheehan's spontaneous protest in Crawford inspired some people to become active. Those were singular, exceptional, and no one—no one—can reasonably argue they are the norm.
But was the inspired activity productive? Did it become part of the X + Y + Z = A equation? Was the X designed to lead to the Y and Z so that it would lead to the A? Was the march geared to political organization, registration, candidate support, voting or was it just a march?
Do not confuse the Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations, marches and protests that occurred in the 60s with the ones organized in the last decade. Many of those earlier demonstrations and protests had power because they carried with them the threat that people would either become ungovernable in a very organized way (draft resistance, civil disobedience, etc.) or that they would take power politically at the polls. Most demonstrations, marches and protests in this past decade had no such power, carried no such threat. Sound, without even much fury, signifying...
Confusing the demonstrations of the last ten years with the demonstrations of the 60s is like confusing the union movement now with the union movement of the 20s and 30s. You wouldn't do that with what's become of most unions, so don't do it with what's become of demonstrations.
Do not conflate stories ("Hey man, we fucking shut it down, man!") with the acquisition of political power. And do not subscribe to the clouded thinking that police violence reveals to America the nature of the system. We condemn US foreign policy for placing a few soldiers someplace where they're going to get shot, then sending more troops when the first troops get shot, then sending even more troops when the reinforcements get shot, and so on. Well, a protest where you know the cops are going to slug and gas protesters is the same damn thing. You put them there knowing they'll get beat, they get beat, everyone videos and blogs about it and rails that the mainstream media doesn't cover it. Well, that's the script. No surprises there. And it doesn't contribute to changing the script to re-enact the same script, and it doesn't contribute directly to building an opposition political party because it becomes about discussing and "exposing" the mainstream media (as if their behavior is not already transparent) and not about what needs to be done to acquire power.
It is one thing if one wants to take the more militant path (violent resistance, destructive civil disobedience, "smashing the state") but even that is not achieved by paying the police for a permit to march on a street in order to chant "Whose streets? Our streets!" And that is not the subject of this essay, on this anniversary, it is not what I'm advocating.
And do not accept the clouded thinking of the so-called independent. It is a call to diffused, irrelevant, meaningless, wasteful identification. The additional tragedy of the so-called independent voter, especially the progressive or leftist one, is that they're glad there is a leftist third party to vote for in the general election, but in grasping tightly to their "independent" status, they do nothing to help anyone get on the ballot or to keep the party functioning so there can be an alternative to the war parties in the general election.
Unless and until the acquisition of political power is the number one goal, the number one focus, the number one focal point for the use of activism energy in the anti-war, peace, economic and social justice movement, then accomplishing the end of the wars, the implementation of single-payer health care or the numerous other items on the agenda for economic and social justice will never be realized.
Y + Z = A. Work must be done to get "independents" to commit to a party, voter registration, getting candidates on the ballot, getting the vote out—identifying the acquisition of political power as the primary goal, must be our work.
It is hard enough to achieve even when the goal is properly identified and ranked; let's not make it harder by failing to realize that we know what must be done and we know how to do it, and now it's just a matter of doing it.