When the bad congeals and the good scatters

Sam Smith

Never in the history of the United States have the powerful been so closely intertwined in so many ways and with such contempt for the rest of the country. Democratic and Republican politicians are beholden to the same large corporations and wealthy individuals who bribe them regularly in the guise of campaign contributions. The major news media are deeply embedded in the  values, perspectives and interests of the powerful they publicize rather than expose.  Corporate America has outsourced both its production and its profits thanks to trade agreements and offshore tax havens. Its largest domestic expansion has been in the number of lobbyists it has hired to get Washington pols to do its will, the money it spends on campaigns, and the pay it gives to its CEOs. Academia has surrendered its integrity in no small part to get big money from corporations and government. It has let its business and law schools write the language and standards it uses to analyze our economy, politics, and morality. And too much religion watches it all and barely says a mumblin’ word.

The participant media gives all this only a passing glance. But then, after all, it is the Washington Press Club that holds the annual dinner celebrating the incestuous relationships of politicians, Hollywood, Wall Street, the media and academia. And it is the media that offers us shows like House of Cards, The Good Wife and Madam Secretary that help accustom us to drugs, crime, murder and torture in high places and learn to live with it.

We have never had a more corrupt, criminal and narcissistic elite, one that functions with such integration and impunity thanks in no small part to the fact that those at the top share the same destructive rules.

The irony is that those who are abused, manipulated, ignored and deceived by this elite enjoy no such unity. They are atomized, pacified, scattered, niched, and often even critical of their fellow sufferers.

There are many reasons for this. For example, as America has become an increasingly urban nation, its  citizens’ lives have become further removed from the sort of community, cooperation and mutual support one finds in smaller places.

Those organizations that once would have led a counter-movement against the elite have become increasingly dependent on funding from foundations and other sources opposed to serious activism. Further, these organizations are seeking their money in competition with those who should be their allies in action.

The Internet, which some of us naively thought would be a great tool for progressive activism, has too often just provided one more screen to put between us and others.  And our cellphones help teach us that life is a vicarious experience.

As one who daily checks the sites of all sorts of progressive organizations, I am struck by how seldom this news supports or cites coalitions beyond the specific interests of the group involved. After all, as was recognized in earlier times  such as the New Deal or the Sixties, a budget cut can hurt both the environment and schools, NSA can illegally spy on both black and senior citizens’ phones, and a war takes money away from every decent cause.

There are notable exceptions, such as Moral Mondays, but in a larger sense there is no national counter culture, too few cross-cultural coalitions and little talk about the important service they could provide.

Meanwhile, liberalism has turned from being a movement to being a demographic that is often contemptuous of, or indifferent to, those such as lower class whites who were, in the New Deal and Great Society, part of their shared coalition.

And when in power, as the Obama administration sadly demonstrates, responsibility is now disproportionally given to those who favor data over decency, legal labyrinths over logical legislation, and picky process over populist progress. In the past four decades, Democrats in Washington haven’t come up with any legislation as clear and broad as that which brought us social security, a minimum wage, or a 40 hour work week or scores of similar actions of earlier times.

While there’s no doubt that a part of Obama’s problems are due to ethnic prejudice, that doesn’t explain the fact that his approval rating among white non-college graduates has fallen over 20 points since he first took office. While some of this may come from watching too much Fox News, it would be helpful if Democrats recognized that they have done hardly anything to improve the life of these voters.

And it would help to realize that talking about “white privilege” doesn’t go over too well in a white family on food stamps. According to Census data, there are over 7 million more whites in poverty than there are black and latinos combined.  While the percentages for blacks and latinos are higher, that doesn’t make any easier for a white without jobs or food.  Yet there is little in the liberal discourse that recognizes this.

And a different approach isn’t all that hard. Here’s one example, as reported recently by Al Jazeera America:

While there were notable exceptions, white craft unions in the U.S. were often at odds with the non-union black underclass in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1913, W.E.B. Du Bois – the philosopher, writer and activist – wrote that black workers being kept out of unions had convinced “the American Negro that his greatest enemy is not the employer who robs him, but his fellow white workingman.”

But in recent years some of the most fertile union organizing now has the explicit backing of racial justice organizations.

Case in point: This summer the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the fast-food workers’ movement. That movement [is] made up various groups in roughly 150 cities demanding the right to form a union and an industry-wide base wage of $15 per hour.

Members of the fast-food coalition voted to approve the strike during a conference call. Rev. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, joined the call to draw an explicit connection between the civil rights movement and the modern labor movement.

“I want you to know without a shadow of a doubt that the fight for labor wages and the fight for civil rights are two movements headed in the same direction,” he told workers on the call.

Many fast-food workers have returned the favor. In addition to leading the state NAACP, Barber is the architect of what he’s dubbed the Moral Mondays movement: a series of demonstrations and sit-ins against North Carolina’s government and its policies on issues such as Medicaid expansion, voting rights, education cuts and reproductive health. Several fast-food workers have joined in the Moral Mondays protests.

If low-wage labor campaigns and civil rights groups share a sense of purpose, it’s largely because they are often organizing the same constituency. Much of the labor movement’s most intensive organizing is now taking place in the low-wage service and retail sectors, where black and Hispanic workers make up a disproportionate share of the labor force.

“The same people being constantly victimized by police brutality are also being consistently victimized by deprivation of resources and not having access to living wage jobs,” said [Montague Simmons, head of the St. Louis-based group The Organization for Black Struggle]

One of my current dreams is that black, latino, and labor coalitions will explode and become the national movement we have been waiting for. Hell, they might even get the backing of some police officers’ unions since the average cop earns less than the national median wage. If that sounds impossible, consider that the Maine State Troopers Association backed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, a gay, card carrying member of the United Steel Workers.

Unless we do change our dreams and our habits, though, it’s not going to happen. At present we are too often prisoners of the propaganda and false premises of an elite that want the unhappy to fight with each other rather than with those at the top. Just like in the days of segregation when the Southern elite taught white sharecroppers that blacks were the cause of their troubles.

And when groups and individuals break the boundaries it’s rarely reported. For example, the Religious News Service is where I had to go to learn things like this:

Evangelicals  are teaming up with environmentalists to support the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Mitchell Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, submitted comments from more than 100,000 “pro-life Christians” who he said are concerned about children’s health problems that are linked to unclean air and water.

Or this from a story on how white evangelicals are getting involved in the protests against police brutality:

“I weep & pray for his family,” tweeted Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the day before he led a prayer for justice at his school in Wake Forest, N.C. “I beg our God to bring good out of this tragedy.”….

Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-chair of the National African-American Clergy Network, sees a growing interest among white Christians and others to speak up about the “pile on” of events capped with the Garner decision.

“It just so offends the human spirit of people of every race that it compels them to act,” she said. “We don’t have to ask young white students and young white adults anymore to act. They understand . . . if the system will so violate the rights of people of color today, they will violate everybody’s rights tomorrow.”

It was a confluence of causes and cultures that created the 1960s . It is still the reassembling of political, ethnic, cultural and economic differences in a common direction that leads to change.

Admittedly, this is hard to see in the wake of recent police killings. It’s easier to speak with anger about racism than to try to build communities of decency despite it all. Anger, however, is too often an unspoken admission of helplessness. And if one is helpless nothing changes. The odds improve when there is an alternative to what makes one mad. Your mind moves from frustration with the wrong to plans for the just and decent.

As you do so, you discover new friends and allies. They may be black., they may be white, they may be IT junkies, musicians, ecologists or even a white guy whose pension has been cut and is about to lose his house and blames it all on Obama because  Bill O’Reilly and Ted Cruz told him to – and no one, until you came along, has told him a different way.

It’s okay if people don’t agree with you on every issue. You’re not converting them to a religion; just be happy that they’re willing to help you on what you’re doing today. As I’ve put it before, if you find a gun toting, abortion hating nun who’s willing to help you save the forest, put her on the committee.

And it doesn’t help to scold those you are trying to encourage or convert, such as with post-Ferguson headlines like this one from a liberal news service: “Dear White People: Here Are 5 Reasons Why You Can’t Really Feel Black Pain.”

The first protest I ever got involved with was a 1966 boycott against a hike in DC bus fares. As this then 20-something white person wrote later:

At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of coffee?”


“I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.”

We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.

“We’ve got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed. “You ever worked with SNCC before?” “Nope,” I said.

‘Well, I’11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”

One cup of coffee, one exchange and carrying 71 people down their bus route began a lifetime of activism. And a few weeks later I became the media guy for the SNCC leader, a fellow named Marion Barry.

Sometimes when advocates of good causes say things, they don’t realize are putting others off, or drawing a fence around their own righteousness, or dissin’ someone they should be enlisting. That  SNCC guy had simply welcomed me into the club of possibility.

Over the years, other activists have taught me some good stuff. Things like:

  • Organize by issues not by ideology
  • Go after the big guys but find common ground with the ones they’ve been fooling. That’s why economic issues are so much better than moral ones.
  • Build a community and a counterculture and not just a cause
  • Value songs and symbols. That’s why we still use the peace sign and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
  • Be the person you want us to be; not just someone reacting to what makes you mad.
  • Encourage the idea of reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my freedom unless you have yours. Your friends get to keep their guns, mine get to have abortions. And if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry a gay, but don’t stop others who want to.”
  • Enlist others in your cause by helping them in theirs.
  • And, as someone put it once, don’t try to be a saint, just be a sinner trying harder.

Never in our history have so many at the top of our society been so disloyal to our constitution, its principles and to the people they are meant to lead, so rapacious in their greed, so indifferent to the pain created by their misdeeds and so cruel in their paranoia.

And never in our history have so many been so frustrated by such excesses without knowing which way to turn.

Yet as the black activist Florynce Kennedy said, “Don’t agonize, organize.” All around you are those who share your concerns. They may look, talk, or think differently, but in this very variety lies our secret power.

It is when the angry, oppressed, concerned and annoyed come together to share their dreams and discover their collective strength and values that change occurs. For far too long we have tried to do it in too many separate and disconnected pieces. Put those pieces together and you have a movement of great power and direction, one we can embrace because we embraced each other.

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