Moving towards a movement

Sam Smith, 2012 – Seen as a single tactical event the Black Friday protests didn’t amount to much. Seen, however, as the potential beginning of a new movement they may have been extremely important. For a couple of decades, the pieces of the left have kept to their own causes like people walking down the street plugged to their own Ipods. The confluence of similar interests has been marked by proximity without interaction. Blacks didn’t work with latinos, the Green Party and the labor unions lived in separate worlds, and increasingly upscale liberals tended to their own interests, indifferent to the economic issues that had once defined the term they used to describe themselves.

And nobody seemed to notice. Gay marriage and abortion floated to the top of the agenda, while poverty, foreclosures, and the increasing abuse of workers got forgotten about.

Four years ago, an item in Reddit caught my eye:

“Vote up if you would rather bail out NPR for 30 lousy million than failing auto companies for 15 billion.”

You had to travel a third of the way down the 500 comments before any responders even mentioned the auto industry, and when they did many didn’t like it or its workers. An exception came when one of the workers wrote:

“I like Reddit a lot. But sometimes it really gets me down. People here so often come across as children in the way they speak, or how biased they are. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people may lose their income if the auto industry goes under, and you joke about it.”

There’s nothing wrong with NPR, gay marriage or abortions. It’s just that to make them more important than, say, the foreclosure disaster or the job collapse, is to have one’s priorities a bit askew. For example, there are about one million abortions each year but forty million people on food stamps and among adults using this program, nearly two thirds were women. You’d never know from what you hear.

Last weekend may have started to change that. Non-unionized workers, union activists, Green Party members, Occupiers, and localists came together and, even if they failed to accomplish their goals, at least made it a goal heard around the nation.

Part of the secret was a specific issue rather than a general cause. The pay scale and working conditions of Wal-Mart employees rather than “labor” or “feminism” or “civil liberties.”

I learned this secret many years ago when I first became involved in activism. The issue then was an unwanted fare increase by DC Transit. The organizer was the heavily black and young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but the participants came from all over including 100,000 riders who stayed off the buses. Then we went on to stop a Los Angeles like freeway system planned for the capital with an alliance that included old leftists, preservationists, SNCC, and black and white middle class homeowners threatened with removal.

Over and over, the best causes – from ending the Vietnam War to the young environmental movement – found their strength in issues that could attract people who might not agree on everything but did on those issues. Just like Saul Alinksky, the god father of issue based activism, told us. It was a time, for example, when this Seventh Day Agnostic had at least half dozen close acquaintances who were either ministers or priests.And it just seemed right.

But as the great issue struggles of the 1960s calmed down, progress brought out its downside: a growing indifference to some of the values that had helped it succeed. Activist groups became more insulated and disconnected. Action moved from the streets to organizations increasingly concerned with how to get funding from foundations that might otherwise go to some group that was meant to be their allies. And these foundations wanted some action, but not too much. Individual American life became atomized. And the Internet convinced us we could do it all with a few clicks.

But just like progress has its downside, collapse can lead us to new solutions. For example, part of the secret of the Democrats’ survival in this election was the rediscovery of the importance of human contact in politics. Sure, the data was technologically driven, but it drove the campaign not just to emails but to knocks on the door. To faces meeting each other.To putting people back into politics.

And then, a few weeks later came Black Friday with some of the most varied participation we’ve seen in a major protest in years.

What now if blacks and latinos discover that the true power of mutual alliance? If groups build support by supporting others’ issues rather than just waiting for the others to support them? If liberals use their knowledge not to preach and scold, but to start a workers’ version of the Freedom Schools that helped to build black power by introducing ordinary citizens to their own heritage. What if the principles of local food was applied to our politics as well?

What if Black Friday was the darkness in which a real movement began?

Four years ago, I wrote a premature article on this topic . My timing was off, but maybe my punchline weren’t

Sam Smith, 2008 – I may be jumping the gun a bit or perhaps I’ve let some childish optimism sneak out from under my usually cynical brow, but I think there may be a movement underway.

A movement is not like a campaign. No one gets to start a movement and no one gets to own it. You don’t have to file any contribution reports. The archaic media pretends you don’t even exist for as long as it can. And it doesn’t even have to have a name.

That’s why I just call it the movement. It’s sort of like the Gulf Stream, hard to see yet undeniable as it moves you faster in a certain direction.

And if a movement hasn’t started, it may not be long before it does. I have never seen so much cause for so many Americans to be so mad at so many of those who have been running the place – establishment politicians, academics, media, economists and corporations. They’ve lied, denied, connived and contrived, often with an unprecedented blend of stupidity and greed for which we all now paying.

It’s not just the people in power who are the problem; it’s the ones they’ve taught. Taught to believe in lies and now think they’re clever by being snarky about anyone who wasn’t smart enough to believe those lies, the sort of education that leads you to think that saving NPR is more important than saving the auto industry. The sort of education that makes you think you have to choose between them.

When I saw it, I remembered that it was like that under segregation, too. You had the bad guys at the top and then you had all those who went along, either to get along and get ahead or because they had come to truly believe the stupid stuff the bad guys at the top had taught them. And even educated people talked about blacks back then like educated people talk about auto workers today.

But now the market for myths and lies has dried up and there’s nothing on the shelves any more but reality. The folks who deceived us can’t come up with the answer so it has to come from somewhere else.

… The answer, if there is one, lies in a movement that that gathers the wisdom of the disaster’s victims, the critics of what created it, and the imagination of those able to see past both cause and effect to a truly better time.

It is hard for some to conceive of such a phenomenon because of the current obsession with Barack Obama and the still widespread belief that he will, through some personal magic or gift of God, come up with answers that not only have eluded all the rest of Washington, but eluded his own campaign and transition as well. Those of us who question such a fantasy are called mean spirited and instructed to be silent until the wise one works his way.

But then America often works like that. There’s always some myth to distract us from what’s really going on. We’re like a schizophrenic trying to play soccer. One minute our eye is on the ball, the next moment we’re deep into some national delusion.

Truly bad times don’t have much tolerance for that sort of thing. And so ordinary, rational people have to come up with their own answers, often small solutions in many different places. Such as the group in Milwaukee creating a local currency. Or the sit-in at the factory.

We can expect more of this as matters continue to deteriorate. It will include new ideas as well as ones brought back to life and ones that have already been pursued for years with too little money and respect. It will include union workers, environmentalists, teachers tired of test totalitarianism, 401Kers discovering the difference between stock funds and a pension, unemployed professionals, women losing their jobs only a few decades after gaining a right to them, minorities learning that white guys can also get screwed, white guys learning what it feels like be dissed like a minority, the ill without proper care and people who want their constitutional rights back again

Add it all together and you start to see a movement. It doesn’t need a name; it doesn’t need an address; it doesn’t need an icon on the alter.

At times the movement may find itself allied with Barack Obama; at other times he may be its major opponent. In either event, Obama will define change no better than John Kennedy defined the civil rights movement or LBJ the anti-Vietnam war movement. Change doesn’t originate in the White House; what happens there merely reflects the power of the change around it. Which is one good reason not to go soft just because Obama’s in the White House. If he won’t be an ally, then he must be made irrelevant.

Back in 2001, in my book “Why Bother?,” I tried to describe what was happening to America and what could be done about it:

The system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis — “like being dead and not knowing it.”

The unwitting dead — universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils, foundations, churches, political parties — reach out from the past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most ecologically destructive century of human existence. . .

Yet even as we complain about and denounce the entropic culture in which we find ourselves, we are unable bury it. We speak of a new age but make endless accommodations with the old. We are overpowered and afraid.

We find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means we would then have to — at unknown risk — truly challenge them.

To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.

Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.

It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel — the courage to emigrate from one’s own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.

How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.

We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions.

People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.

Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.

What I was talking about was a movement of the sort that may now or soon be underway. Providing mediation for anger, structure for hope, and pragmatic plans for tomorrow, a movement can seem anarchistic, disjointed or directionless, yet what we see may be no more the little waves on the surface that conceal the force of the current underneath.

Further, it is sometimes hard to perceive because while the cause is national, the action is often local. We have become trained in recent decades by both liberals and conservatives to define action by simply being on a national mailing list and making a contribution. Which is why Move On and Emily’s List are so powerful but nobody knows what a liberal is any more.

Movements work differently. They don’t use popes; they rely on independent congregations. They are driven not be saviors but by substance. They assume a commitment beyond the voting booth, they think politicians should respond to them rather than the other way around, and they believe in “Here’s how” as well as “Yes, we can.”

If you are presently doing anything to try to repair the damage that has been done by our cynical, greedy and incompetent leadership you are part of the movement. Student, union worker, teacher, retiree, infirm, ecologist, defense attorney, community organizer, informed or reformed – you are part of the movement.

So welcome to the movement. If you don’t believe there is one, trying using the word anyway. The very term is a weapon in our arsenal. If the politicians and the press start hearing the phrase in places they thought had little in common, they will start to pay attention. We can leave it to the historians to define it. In its very ambiguity lies its strength. We may contradict ourselves, but as Walt Whitman once noted, that’s okay; it merely proves that we contain multitudes.

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