How the Richmond Progressive Alliance Organized for Victory

Mike Parker

Activists rally during a past RPA campaign

In California the Richmond Progressive Alliance won another stunning victory in this month’s local elections.

Richmond is a working class city of 110,000, 80 percent people of color, north of Oakland on the San Francisco Bay. It is home to a major Chevron refinery that has been the focus of political battles about Chevron’s pollution, Chevron’s special tax considerations, and Chevron’s political involvement. The RPA’s 2014 election victory over Chevron’s $3 million campaign for city council is well known. Since that defeat Chevron has stayed largely behind the scenes and depended on other forces to maintain corporate influence in local politics.

The three RPA candidates for city council this fall, Claudia Jimenez, Melvin Willis, and Gayle McLaughlin, won clear majorities in their districts against a well-financed and powerful opposition. The mayor of Richmond, a corporate neoliberal, kept up a drumbeat of attacks in his newsletter, one of the few sources of news of the city. The regional newspaper denounced the RPA candidates. Corporate liberals dominated NextDoor, the community social media.

Police, fire, and building trades unions, local polluters Sims Metals and Levin Terminal (coal), real estate interests, developers, the Apartment Association, and other landlords all teamed up to fund opponents’ campaigns to the maximum allowed and established an Independent Expenditure Committee to spend much more. The total was over $300,000 in three city council districts totaling fewer than 30,000 voters.

RPA raised small contributions totaling around $120,000, and our mail campaigns matched the opposition’s because our media persons and graphic designers were volunteers and better than theirs. As usual we relied heavily on person-to-person contact by volunteers knocking on doors or phoning.

In addition to city council, RPA campaigned heavily for and won a local Measure U that changed a flat rate business license tax to a steeply progressive one. We campaigned for Jovanka Beckles, who won her race in a transit district of which Richmond is a small part. Her campaign was effectively run by members of the East Bay DSA on the issues of free public transit and transit workers’ rights.

RPA also actively supported candidates in the local school board race and helped defeat an astro-turf pro-charter organization, GO Public Schools, which spent around $200,000 promoting its candidates. For the first time in years we will not have a pro-charter school board. Finally, we campaigned heavily for state Proposition 15, to remove the property tax loophole that was a boon to corporations, and against the Uber/Lyft Proposition 22 to allow them to continue treating gig workers as “independent contractor” slaves. Unfortunately, statewide anti-corporate forces lost on Prop 15 and lost badly on Prop 22.

THE OPPOSITION

Several issues drove RPA’s opponents. They bitterly opposed rent control. Large apartment owners manipulated small landlords, who mobilized homeowners who might want to rent out their homes. Progressives and unions had promoted the progressive business tax, Measure U, and, as usual, the big corporations and right-wingers camouflaged the issue by complaining that it would hurt small business. Levin Terminal wanted to reverse a city decision to phase out coal shipments from Richmond’s port. And many whites felt their safety threatened by calls to reimagine the police force.

But RPA’s opponents rarely spoke directly about any of these issues. They tried to make RPA itself the issue: the RPA candidates would not be “independent thinkers” but would be controlled by the RPA steering committee, which they described as a secret cabal taking us to socialism. RPA and the candidates, they said, were too close to Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021, which represents the city workers they named as responsible for the budget deficit. (Opponents ignored the fact that 70 percent of the city budget goes to much higher-paid firefighters and police whose unions supported the anti-RPA candidates.)

For the most part the RPA ignored these attacks and focused on our message: that being free of corporate control was the first step to dealing with pollution, providing services, and making city government serve its residents. We did respond strategically to some of our opponents’ better-financed attacks, like a mass mailer claiming that one of our candidates fraudulently claimed residence.

The RPA candidates may consider themselves socialists, but the campaign was not a socialist campaign. It was a campaign firmly rooted in social justice and class issues. Probably the main theme was that we cannot move forward with government unless we challenge corporate domination of society and corporate money in the election process.

The primary purpose of the campaign was not just to use the election to raise certain issues and ideas but to gain political power. RPA campaigns are part of a longer-term project to empower people struggling for social justice and prepare them for the bigger battles, by building an independent political organization with its own identity rooted in the working people of Richmond.

A LOCAL POLITICAL PARTY?

Local elections in California are nonpartisan, but RPA has evolved into something like a local political party, with a clearly pro-labor orientation and solutions. Most RPA activists are registered Democrats who understand that at least at the local level, and to a lesser degree at the state level, the Democratic Party is not on our side but a defender of corporate liberalism. That recognition comes not from ideological debate but from the experience of seeing which side Democratic Party leaders and county committees come down on in key battles. The leading Democratic Party politicians, past and current Congressional representatives, State Senate and Assembly representative, all with the reputation of being “good liberals,” endorsed the RPA’s opponents. The County Democratic Party refused to endorse Measure U, the only local progressive tax measure on the ballot.

The power of the corporations, including the fossil fuel industries, big real estate, and developers, is not just in their candidate contributions during elections. It is their control over the economy, their expertise, and their financial power between elections that allow them to control the state Democratic Party and most local governments.

BETWEEN ELECTIONS

For the RPA the political work continues after the votes are counted. We organize support for elected officials. We do research on issues to counter the paid lobbyists and building community support for the social justice and union issues spearheaded by other organizations. We have greatly expanded the range and depth of our email newsletter and we publish and mail to all residents an occasional newspaper, the Richmond Sun. We mobilize support on issues at hearings and with demonstrations to keep the pressure up. These activities in turn develop and train the candidates and campaign workers for the next election.

While a few public employee and healthcare unions give considerable and important support to RPA, and the RPA structure provides for representation on the steering committee for social justice organizations and local unions, it is not a “labor party” in the sense that it represents the labor movement in politics. Too much of the labor movement, such as the building trades, is enmeshed in alliances with corporations, and the bulk of the remainder still relies primarily on the Democratic Party. RPA could be best described as representing independent political organization for local social justice struggles.

IN OFFICE

RPA now moves from two members on City Council to four (we also had a majority in 2017-2018). Winning a majority again is exciting and we look forward to the challenges of our candidates’ having some ability to govern. Yet conditions make it a daunting task.

The failure of Prop 15, which would have closed corporations’ property tax loopholes, dashes our hope for a significant increase in funds for the city. The combination of years of strangulation of the cities, rip-offs by corporations, COVID, state laws that limit cities’ ability to tax progressively, and an unsustainable police and fire pension program has left Richmond and all but the richest of cities with budget problems. Without additional funds Richmond may have to make cuts of some kind, rather than addressing the crying needs of affordable housing, health, and homelessness. It would be easy to come up with programs to deal with homelessness, for example: a massive program to build affordable housing, which would provide jobs, housing, and training. But that would require the kind of money unavailable to local governments.

17 YEARS IN

Despite its 17-year history of growth and victories, the RPA itself is still a fragile organization. Its strength is that it relies primarily on volunteers, but this is also a weakness. The biggest pool of volunteers are older white middle-class professionals who could afford to retire while they were still healthy enough to be active. Young people who need to work two jobs to survive or older people who must keep working are unable to commit the time necessary to keep an organization like RPA going.

Nonetheless RPA is making the transition to a younger and people of color leadership. Primarily because RPA pursued and won a version of rent control in the city through a ballot initiative in 2016 our electoral base has shifted considerably in the last 10 years from white professional homeowners to lower-income working class people of color. Other battles contributed to this shift. We fought for and won a $15 minimum wage against forces that claimed we would be driving small businesses out of Richmond. When we challenged traditional police practices, white middle-class residents were more likely to see this as a threat.

The RPA will remain fragile until there is a network of similar independent organizations, a labor party, or some other formation with a solid base in a progressive labor movement to provide institutional stability, political grounding, and mass support.

Is the effort to maintain and build RPA worth it? Cities everywhere are faced with budget crises and limited ability to deal with social problems because of the power of capital at the state and federal levels. For example, in California apartment owners’ and realtors’ power at the state level greatly limits cities’ ability to control rents. What is widely known as the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights is state legislation that limits local community control over the police force. And for the most part, city taxing power is limited to regressive taxes. Cities cannot fundamentally change the social structure. Cities cannot establish Medicare for All, significantly tax the rich, build massive affordable housing, or provide good-paying jobs, let alone fundamentally challenge capitalism.

But cities can significantly improve the lives of residents by changing police practices, providing libraries and youth services, limiting gentrification, and enabling community organization to improve their neighborhoods. With this organizing comes the sense that people power can beat big corporations. The knowledge that we can build our own political organizations not dependent on the corporate-controlled Democratic Party is an essential part of building a national movement. More local successes like the RPA’s are necessary but not sufficient. We still need a labor movement exercising social justice politics and working class power at the national level and challenges to power at every level. But those can’t be successful without also having power over local institutions.

Can the RPA model be transferred to other cities? The jury is out. There have been some attempts elsewhere in California, and Oakland activists frequently look to it as a possible model. Many special circumstances contributed to how the RPA developed. The existence of one giant corporation, Chevron, which both spewed pollution and showed contempt for the city provided a clear target for initial organizing. A critical mass of activist cadres with organizing skills developed. Shifting demographics, like an influx of Latinx residents, helped break up entrenched political relations.

But the basic idea of the RPA — ongoing independent political organization based on social justice movements with union allies — should be possible everywhere if activists understand that that is what they need to create.

Many of the leaders, organizers, and candidates of the RPA have joined East Bay DSA. East Bay DSA endorsed the RPA candidates and RPA coordinated and worked with the Beckles campaign, which had substantial DSA-organized involvement. But DSA as such had very little presence in the RPA campaigns. EBDSA mobilizations this fall for five local campaigns did not include Richmond. In part this has to do with geography. Richmond is at the end of the train line and is barely in the consciousness of DSA activists in Oakland.

But the reason for the lack of DSA involvement is mainly political. DSA members in general have little sense or understanding of working in broader organizations, with the possible exception of unions. When DSAers think about electoral action, they think in terms of DSA campaigns — running DSA candidates or supporting a candidate with a separate DSA-organized effort. A significant part of DSA, if not the majority, believe that DSA should determine support for a candidate based on whether the candidate is a socialist rather than whether the campaign brings working-class people into independently organized struggle. It is a fundamental difference in political approach that deserves more discussion.


Articles and books about the RPA experience as well as bylaws and an archive of RPA newsletters can be found on the RPA website. Press the “about” tab and scroll to the bottom.

Disruptions, or, Something to (Urgently!) Learn

Alexander Billet

Black Lives Matter Protests New York June 14, 2019

On Wednesday January 6 a gaggle of armed fascists and white supremacists managed to break through four fences and a line of armed police to swarm into the Capitol Building. There was little likelihood of them achieving their goal, of changing the results of the election and preventing Joe Biden being confirmed as the next president. And if this episode does lead to key parts of the American political establishment throwing Donald Trump under the bus, then that will be a positive. But neither of these are the main takeaway.

These events highlight the urgency and challenges of what the left has been saying for months but needs to be said even louder: that the state won’t be protecting anyone from Trumpism just because that state now has Democrats at its helm. If future-President Biden is right, that “the words of a president matter,” then Trump’s two-faced, half-assed response shows what weak sauce most Democrats’ words are. Virtually none of those who cheered with enthusiasm as MAGA chuds and Nazis stormed the Capitol were going to be swayed by what Biden or his allies have to say. Chaos reigned, and it will continue to reign, unless those creating the chaos are met with an opposite force both willing and able to demobilize them.

Those pointing out the hypocrisy of the police’s actions are absolutely correct. The cops literally opened the fucking gates for these people. If the crowd was BLM or DSA or antifa, there’s no question the cops would have opened fire rather than let us get through even the first fence, let alone smash our way into the Capitol Building. It points to just how much of more of a challenge it is for our side to actually build power in a colonial settler society like the United States. And why that task cannot be done by primarily focusing on the ballot box.

A piece published by Mike Davis at Sidecar is worth reading because it points to just how much we’ve flubbed it by having our horizons shaped primarily by the elections over the course of the pandemic. He is a bit glib about how easy it might have been given the fear and confusion during the pandemic’s early days, but his overall point – that the right was able to step into a void that should have been filled by us – stands. For as much as our horizons might have been opened up by a Sanders victory, the near single-minded focus on electoralism ended up narrowing them in the long-run.

To be clear, it is a good thing that the Squad exists, that someone like Bernie Sanders is in the Senate. I enthusiastically supported Sanders and, if I lived in a district represented by an AOC, an Ilhan, a Cori Bush, would likely find myself campaigning for them. But if there is any weakness on the left that has emerged over the past five years, it is how much elections shape our vision of the movement when in fact it should be the other way around.

This is not to wag fingers. Given how thoroughly the US smashed the left (and the left abroad in many cases), given the deleterious impact this has had on our imagination and conceptions of power, we were always going to have this hurdle to overcome. But the events of the past year have illustrated just how urgent it is we overcome it, and fast.

There is a pressing need for “infrastructures of dissent” in the United States. This term is taken from Marxist sociologist Alan Sears, who elaborates on it in his book The Next New Left. It is written in a Canadian context – many of the details will not be relevant to the US – but the full scope of what he describes should be eye-opening for most American leftists. A truly powerful left almost certainly has representation in bourgeois elected bodies. But what matters far more is that it has representation in almost every other facet of everyday life for working and oppressed people: workplaces, neighborhoods, campuses, community groups, unions both establishment and unorthodox, the list goes on. The key here is that it is through these relationships, these connections, these institutions formal and informal, the trust that is built through them, that we gain the capability to disrupt, and in turn, through this, wield power.

We saw a glimpse of this with the BLM uprising this past summer. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets, said no to an order in which poor and oppressed people were deemed disposable, blocked traffic, showed the world that police and other agents of the state are not invincible. In a flurry of cases, we gained support from labor, as in when bus drivers refused to transport arrested protesters. And in a tiny handful of incidents, for vanishingly short periods of time, we saw sections of cities decisively under our control, the door opened wide for us to reimagine a life without repression.

Think back to that moment. Remember how it felt? Remember not waiting for an election result to know that you could walk the street and have others recognize you as a full human being? Remember looking people in the eye as crowds gathered knowing that, if you fell, they would pick you up, and acknowledging to yourself that you would do the same? Remember reading the news and realizing that others were following through on that same impulse for solidarity? That realization that if enough people were able to regard each other in this way, we no longer needed to ask permission of anyone?

Now remember the disorientation that set in when the protests slowly shrank. When tens of thousands became a few hundred. Can we conceive of the links it would have taken to spread these uprisings into, say, Amazon warehouses, whose workforces are disproportionately Black and brown, and are infamously over-exposed to Covid? Or nurses and teachers, among which there is a similar representation and even more dire set of pandemic risks? How would this have changed the dynamics of the following months? Or the confidence or effectiveness of armed right-wingers showing up to do battle on the streets? Could it, perhaps, have allowed the current debates around defunding police, rent cancellation, or Medicare for All to happen on a stage far larger than Twitter?

The right has figured this out. At least better than we have. They are still, as Richard Seymour argues, inchoate and in an experimental phase, and as of now without the full backing of the state or capitalist class, but they are further into that experiment than we are in ours. Wednesday’s events are only the most recent showing of just how much further. Their goals are, obviously, diametrically opposed to ours, to liberation. The coherence we find through common interest, trust and solidarity they find through what might be described as a militarization of mind and relationship. It’s a potent structure when you are looking to protect your suburban own rather than your actual fundamental rights, to preserve property rather than destroy it.

Through this, they have been able to construct a stronger infrastructure through which they are able to wield different sorts of power. It’s how their narratives – including some of the most batshit virulent conspiracy theories – are able to proliferate. On the inside of Congress today, there were a hundred members of Congress that were ready to aggressively question the results of the election. The proto-fascists outside were encouraged by it. Meanwhile Ted Cruz and others inside knew they had a measure of popular support. The infrastructure, the channels through which a broad common goal can manifest in both the halls of official politics and in the language of insurgent power, serves its function. And moving forward, even after the election is confirmed, both manifestations will be able to rally around the story that they have been bilked. One of fascism’s strategies of insurgency, the centrality of the myth of a great national spirit undermined, stays intact, growing in and among supporters’ minds in inverse relation to the ability of conventional politics to keep a lid on things. Weimar beckons.

We do not have this kind of capacity right now. There is no point in being equivocal about it. This, to be blunt, is what those agitating to “Force the Vote” didn’t grasp. That the ability of our new, still-small, still-isolated social-democratic contingent in Congress had no room of maneuverability to speak of in the terms of American establishment politics. Despite overwhelming support in polls for programs like Medicare for All, the presence of those willing to go out and make that support a concrete fact was non-existent. There is no power for them to appeal to other than that vague descriptor of “public opinion,” which has always been easily dismissed in American democracy. Those who defended the Squad and company, in DSA and beyond, were correct, but their arguments about mobilizing support often drifted into vague territory. Too often, their vision of a mobilized support hinted at simply getting more DSA-endorsed representatives elected. A worthwhile goal, but narrow on its own terms.

Acknowledging this doesn’t mean we throw the work and victories of the past few years (small as those victories are) out the window. It means we seriously interrogate the limits of an electoral strategy that brackets every other strategy. It means we get a little more clear-headed about the nature of the state under capitalism. Maybe we also get a little more autonomist on one end and a little bit more Eurocommunist on the other. Provided we can keep square such a boggling contradiction in our own heads.

We have to ask what will allow bottom-up institutions rooted in communities and workplaces to flourish in the face of both direct repression and soft co-optation. It does not mean we drop calls for Medicare for All, Green New Deal, universal housing or other ambitious projects of collective wellbeing, but that we face up to the fierceness with which the American state will stand in the way of such reforms. Perhaps we need to read a bit more Andre Gorz, wrap our heads a little more tightly around the idea of “non-reformist reforms,” those that test the limits of the state and widen the horizons of working and oppressed people. Doing so may give us a better sense of the dialectic between how power is “officially” exacted and how it is wielded on our own terms.

Italy, that country that whose struggles in the 1960s and 70s helped reinvigorate the vision of a world where working people might control (and abolish!) work, has two words for power. One is “potere,” power as potential, something whose forces have enough weight to make it happen should all the moving parts fall into place. The other, “riuscire,” is power when the parts are in place, when the potential is realized. Power as a hard, immovable fact.

You can see where I’m going with this. And indeed, I’m not the first left-wing writer – in Italian or English – to use this lovely linguistic peccadillo to illustrate an impasse such as this. It takes more than sheer numbers to exact power. It also takes more than the willingness to fuck shit up. It takes the willingness of large numbers to disrupt, and in a coordinated way. What’s more, it requires a way forward, a fully-fleshed out, democratically grasped vision not just of a world in our own hands, but of what needs to happen to get there. It takes revolutionary strategy that is as flexible and adaptable as it is vibrant and widespread. In other words, to paraphrase and build on Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand, but a demand without disruption is utterly powerless.

How we are able to achieve this will to a great degree be down to trial and error. It is a painful irony that right when we feel our least patient and most urgent, we must come to grips with the full scope of what “no shortcuts” means. But here we are. We either face the challenge or drown in our own bromides.

Post-Election 2020: What’s Next for the Left?

Barry Eidlin

As Joe Biden prepares to take the oath of office on January 20, how does this shape prospects for the U.S. Left in the years ahead?

Cosecha Movement Michigan

Today’s Left is in an interesting place: strong enough for other forces to care about what it thinks and does, but too weak to shape political outcomes. Biden’s steady stream of conservative cabinet picks are but the latest reminder of this.

To be sure, there have been impressive campaigns and mobilizations in recent years, most notably the 2018-19 teachers’ strikes, the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter, and Bernie Sanders’ presidential runs. But the teacher mobilizations have yet to spark broader labor resurgence as many had hoped. The energy of #BlackLivesMatter dissipated into a focus on diversity and representation, while police have continued to get away with murder and local governments have walked back promises to defund their police departments. And of course, the Democratic Party establishment put an end to the Sanders campaign.

At the same time, it is important not to diminish the very real accomplishments of these movements. The teachers’ strikes have brought mass strikes back into the public eye in a way not seen in decades, while also shattering the mainstream consensus around charter schools and privatization of public education—particularly the idea that charters are a solution for racial justice. The #BlackLivesMatter protests brought more substantial racial justice demands like “defund the police” from the margins to the center of mainstream political discourse. Even though the demand generated significant push-back, it could not be ignored. And while Sanders’ presidential campaign foundered, it created a platform for mainstreaming key universal policy demands like Medicare for All, College for All/student debt forgiveness, the $15/hour minimum wage, and the Green New Deal, among others.

Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

More broadly, the Sanders campaign created space in the U.S. political landscape for the idea of socialism on a scale not seen in at least fifty years. We can see this in polling data showing that roughly 40 percent of Americans have a favorable view of “socialism,” however defined, and nearly half of those under 50.

Organizationally, we can see this in the spectacular growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose membership has skyrocketed from 5,000 to 85,000 between 2015 and today. This makes DSA the largest U.S. Left organization since at least Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, or maybe the Communist Party of the 1940s, depending on how one defines membership. While there are plenty of criticisms of DSA from both inside and out, the sheer growth and size of the organization is a central fact that any discussion of Left strategy in the U.S. today must take into account.

It is crucial to keep these twin realities in mind as we gear up for organizing under a Biden administration. On the one hand, the Left remains weak. On the other hand, it is stronger and operating on more favorable terrain than it has in decades—in no small part due to the crisis of political representation discussed earlier.

In this context, the U.S. Left faces a challenge it hasn’t faced in decades: how to engage in socialist politics on a mass scale. The crux of the problem consists of avoiding the twin dangers of co-optation and marginalization: either making alliances and programmatic concessions in an effort to expand one’s base of support in a way that undermines one’s ability to advance socialist politics; or retaining organizational independence and programmatic cohesion in an effort to advance socialist politics in a way the undermines one’s ability to expand one’s base of support.

It’s a tricky balancing act. There is no set formula for determining the right mix of organizational alliances and programmatic cohesion, and the right mix varies depending on the political and historical context. What’s more, there are few models to point to. The current Left landscape is full of organizations primarily focused on quixotic quests to pressure the Democrats from the left, as well as those with more radical programs but consigned to the political margins. We have also seen waves of mass mobilizations on an unprecedented scale in recent years, particularly with #Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter. They have transformed political discourse around issues of inequality and racial justice, but have struggled to consolidate movement gains after the mobilizations fade. But even historically, we have seen some mass organizations like Students for a Democratic Society implode into marginality. Meanwhile, the Popular Front politics of the U.S. Communist Party in the 1940s effectively led it to function as a satellite of the Democratic Party in its quest to present Communism as the “Americanism of the twentieth century,” weakening it well before McCarthyism nearly eradicated it.

Today, the question of how to engage in socialist mass politics hinges on figuring out how to engage with people outside our self-selected group of committed activists and organizers in ways that create new layers of activists and organizers. And since the central strategic goal of anything attempting to be a mass socialist movement needs to be creating a collective working-class actor capable of fighting for socialism, those layers need to be rooted in the broad, multiracial, organized working class.

Up to now, DSA’s, and by extension the U.S. Left’s, primary means of engaging in mass politics has been through electoral politics. This includes issue-based campaigns like Medicare for All or taxing the rich, as well as candidate-focused efforts, most notably the Sanders presidential campaigns, but also Congressional and state-level campaigns.

Most of these have involved supporting candidates running on the Democratic Party ballot line. This is old hat for DSA, which traditionally served as the “left wing of the possible,” i.e. the left wing of the Democratic Party. What’s different is that today’s DSA leaders and organizers view their electoral work as part of an effort to redefine what is possible.

Rather than resigning themselves to working within the Democratic Party in perpetuity, they argue for using the Democratic Party ballot line as a necessary tactic to reach a mass audience. This, they argue, presents the opportunity to run “class struggle candidates” who can sharpen class divisions, raise working class demands—and potentially win. Bernie, AOC, and the expanding “Squad” are the most prominent examples of this type of candidate. The goal is a so-called “dirty break” from the Democrats and the eventual establishment of a labor or socialist party, something the U.S. has famously lacked.

This approach has been heavily criticized as being a capitulation to lesser-evil politics, essentially a more radical-sounding way to repackage the politics of the old DSA for a new generation.

Critics saw the outcome of the 2020 campaign as a vindication of their viewpoint. The Sanders campaign succumbed to the weight of the Democratic Party establishment, leading Bernie to endorse and campaign for corporate Democrat Biden. Even worse, leading DSA members openly called for a vote to “defeat Trump,” effectively advocating a vote for Biden. In so doing, they repeated the same argument heard every election cycle that “this time is different” and that the Republican’s loss would be objectively better for the Left than his election, justifying a vote for the lesser evil. Clearly this exposed DSA’s electoral strategy as yet another effort to keep the Left firmly in the Democratic Party fold.

It is certainly possible to read the campaign results this way, particularly if one is predisposed towards skepticism of any form of engagement with the Democratic Party. Still, there are some peculiarities suggesting that something other than warmed-over lesser evilism is at work.

Most notably, DSA’s membership has continued its steady upward trajectory. Between the time that Sanders suspended his presidential campaign in April 2020 and the November 3rd election, DSA added 25,000 members, growing from 60,000 to 85,000. Organizers expect another post-election spike around Inauguration Day.

These new members are likely not trained Marxist cadre with a deep understanding of the urgent need for a break with the Democrats in order to form a workers’ party. Still, there are easier ways to resign oneself to the bankrupt status quo than to join a socialist organization. Whatever one’s position on electoral politics, leftists should ask ourselves whether it’s better or worse for the Left as a whole to have tens of thousands of new people who self-identify enough as socialists to find and join an organization.

Likewise, a core tenet of the critique of lesser evilism is that the focus on elections distracts from building the mass movements that can be schools of class struggle, while retaining false hope in the idea that meaningful change can come from electing the “right” people. This can certainly happen, and does point to real limitations of elections as tools for socialist organizing.

But is it reasonable to suggest that this has been the overall effect of Left engagement with electoral politics via the Democratic Party over the past five years? Has campaigning for and electing more self-described socialist legislators running as Democrats led to increased faith in the Democratic Party as an agent for social change? Has the energy devoted to these campaigns been at the expense of building movements and otherwise organizing for socialism outside the electoral arena? If so, were there plausible alternative projects towards which to direct this energy, and which could have done more to build broad social movements or socialist organization? At a fundamental level, is it plausible to imagine the explosive growth of the U.S. Left over the past five years—not just DSA, but the entire ecosystem of Left organizations, publications, blogs, podcasts, etc.—absent this electoral work?

These are empirical questions. I am quite open to evidence suggesting that the answer to these questions is “yes,” though I suspect that such evidence would be hard to find. But regardless, these are the kinds of concrete questions that would have to be answered in order to evaluate the merits of DSA’s electoral strategy, rather than simply developing a critique based on strict adherence to first principles such as “it is wrong under all circumstances, at all times, and in all manners to engage with the Democratic Party.”

This is not to dismiss the pitfalls of electoral work. The relatively short time frame of election cycles encourages short-term thinking, and takes the existing political landscape for granted instead of trying to change the political landscape. The candidate-centered model of U.S. political campaigns can and does foster illusions that change comes from electing charismatic, powerful leaders instead of the patient, day-to-day work of organizing and movement building. The primary forms of campaign activity, such as canvassing, phone/text banking, rallies, and online communications, prioritize fairly shallow, brief, one-off interactions with relative strangers: make a pitch, elicit information, and make a specific ask, usually to vote. There may be some follow-up conversations, but usually not. These are not the kinds of long-term, relationship-building activities necessary to make movements.

Still, the past five years have shown that electoral work has its upsides. Candidate and issue campaigns create a relatively organic venue for engaging in political discussions with large numbers of people. While conversations with the broader voting public may be short and constrained, campaign organizations can bring people together in a more sustained fashion, creating opportunities for forging deeper organizing relationships. Their relatively formal structure also creates opportunities for people to plug in at different levels of commitment. Additionally, campaigns allow participants to develop concrete skills that are transferable to other types of organizing, like having organizing conversations, running meetings, public speaking, persuasive writing, event planning and publicity, strategizing, research, and more.

These upsides have played a key role in DSA’s growth, especially when tied to candidates like Sanders and AOC, who can articulate socialist ideas and class politics in a way that appeals to millions of people. They also at least partially explain DSA’s membership composition, which has been the subject of much internal and external criticism. Much of the problem of DSA’s composition is an artifact of the historical separation between the Left and the organized working class in the aftermath of World War II. But some is also a function of the kind of work that DSA does. Simply put, DSA tends to attract the types of people more likely to get involved in electoral campaigns. These people tend to be whiter, more educated, more professionalized, etc. As impressive as DSA’s recent membership growth has been, it will be difficult to make the transition to a broader mass politics without breaking out beyond this layer.

This is what makes socialists’ work in the labor movement an essential complement to electoral work as part of a strategy for engaging in socialist mass politics. Indeed, there cannot be a new socialist mass politics without a militant, revitalized labor movement. And there cannot be a revitalized labor movement without a workplace-based layer of Left leadership. Rebuilding this layer will begin to address DSA’s composition problem, as it will help re-establish the lost link between the Left and the organized working class. Facilitating members’ efforts to find jobs in key industries as part of a broader rank and file strategy can help with that process. But ultimately, as I have written elsewhere, “the goal must be to expand the ranks of workplace-based militants and socialists, not simply to reallocate the existing set.”

Bridging the labor-Left divide has been an ongoing problem for decades, but will take on renewed importance with a Democrat back in the White House. For though Biden will not lift a finger for actual pro-labor policies, he will likely make a show of consulting with top labor leaders. The temptation will be a return to bargaining with political elites for meliorative half-measures, when winning necessary demands like adequate COVID relief payments, access to PPE for essential workers, rent cancellation, just vaccine distribution, and more will require mass pressure from outside. It is too late to have forces in place for this immediate fight, but the COVID example suggests how workplace organizing and electoral politics could combine to advance key political demands.

Keeping these limitations in mind, what is clear is that the Left will have to organize and fight as hard or harder under Biden as it has under Trump. Those on the Left who advocated a vote for Biden in the November election did so under no illusions that he would do anything remotely progressive or pro-worker. Rather, their argument was simply that organizing against a Biden administration would be better than organizing against a re-elected Trump administration. This may be true, but the question remains as to how to take advantage of the more favorable organizing terrain. That too is an empirical question, one that will be tested over the course of the weeks and months ahead.

Post-Election 2020: A Crisis of Representation

Barry Eidlin

Failed beer hall putsch re-enactments aside, Donald Trump will be leaving the White House on January 20 if not sooner—at least for the next four years. The focus now shifts to the post-Trump world: what can we expect from the incoming Biden administration?

Photo: Kenny Holston for The New York Times

The short answer is “not much.” While lacking Trump’s predilection for outright nepotism and sycophancy, Biden clearly values personal loyalty, and has made his staffing choices accordingly. His transition team and cabinet picks are chock-full of people who have followed him for years. Many are ascending a few rungs on the career ladder they began climbing during the Obama administration. Others, like proposed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, are literally taking back the same job they had under Obama.

Personal leadership style aside, the clear message is that the Democratic Party establishment is back in charge. Despite Biden winning election just months after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police sparked the largest protest movement in U.S. history, despite the fact that Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy showed that there was a vibrant constituency on the party’s left flank, and despite the fact that unions and other progressive groups gave him the margin of victory in key swing states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, Biden and his team have shown nothing but contempt towards the Left. Instead, they have doubled down on bland centrism. With the possible exception of Green New Deal-supporting Deb Haaland at Interior, every cabinet pick has been a safe establishment choice.

Granted, having competent administrators in charge may be a step up from the assemblage of yes-men and wreckers we saw under Trump. But that should not obscure the fact that Biden’s “back to normal” means a return to corporate-connected technocratic austerity at home paired with efforts to reassert U.S. global domination (AKA “leadership”) abroad. Many problems that pre-dated Trump, like growing inequality, a broken healthcare system, a broken immigration system, racist policing, weakened unions, etc. will persist under Biden. There may be more headway on COVID and climate change, but well short of what’s required. Polling may show strong support for broad progressive policies like paid family leave, student debt forgiveness, Medicare for All, and more, but even with Democrats in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress after the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia, such policies are unlikely to see the light of day.

Photo by by Movimiento Cosecha

The one concession to recent movements for social justice is Biden’s greater commitment to racial and gender diversity in his cabinet. It is likely that he will honor his commitment to assemble “the most diverse Cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced.” But this is a commitment grounded in a narrow politics of representation, aimed primarily at putting more female, Black, and Brown faces in charge of advancing the same tired, centrist Democratic policies that will do little to improve the lives of actual women, Black, and Brown people. Biden’s diverse cabinet is packed with Wall Street bankers, corporate board members, lobbyists, consultants, even torture apologists.

Over on the Republican side, Trump’s refusal to concede defeat has created even more chaos within the party. While nobody in party leadership actually believes that Trump won, least of all Trump himself, he is using the “stolen election” fiction as a loyalty test for elected officials, who must show their support for the outgoing president by denying reality.

While some in the party justified their delegitimization of the November 3 election results as a harmless way of humoring the president, the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol shows how mistaken this was. Defending Trump’s unhinged claims of election fraud and malfeasance gave oxygen to an alternate, fact-free universe where QAnon conspiracy theorists, 4Chan trolls, neo-Confederates, paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys, and outright neo-Nazis could come together to form the ghastly white supremacist mob that stormed the Capitol.

Meanwhile, Trump’s election fraud narrative is serving as a massive grift to siphon more money from his base—$207.5 million since Election Day. Although some within the party may want to leave Trump behind, there is nobody obviously positioned to seize the reins.

The result is a party frozen in place, unable to move beyond Trump but unsure of what it would do even if it could. Trump did enact some cruel and grotesque policies by executive order, and Senate leader Mitch McConnell has been effective in helping Trump pack the courts with right-wing ideologues. But their sole legislative achievement has been the 2017 tax cuts. This is symptomatic of a party that has lost the vision and élan it showed from the 1980s through the 2000s. The once hegemonic conservative narrative of small government, personal responsibility, and prosperity rings hollow in the aftermath of two financial crises, massive job losses, wage stagnation, and the accompanying trauma of instability, illness, and addiction that have literally led to declining life expectancy for large swaths of the U.S. population. In its place, Republicans can only offer naked cash grabs for their wealthy donors, combined with nationalism, racism, and xenophobia for their base, and voter suppression for their opponents.

Taken together, the situation amounts to a crisis of political representation. On the left, Democratic Party elites can ignore or toss aside movement demands in a way that their forebears in the 1960s and 70s could not. On the right, corporate elites may enjoy tax cut windfalls, but at the expense of trade, immigration, and foreign policy that work against many of their interests. And while Trump’s rhetoric about “bringing jobs back” mixed with healthy doses of white nationalism, xenophobia, and conspiracy theories may provide a salve for his base, neither he nor his party are capable of delivering policies that might actually address their material grievances.

More broadly, neither party is capable of articulating a positive political vision that could form the basis of a new hegemonic coalition, along the lines of postwar Keynesianism or the conservative neoliberalism of more recent decades. Partially this is because traditional organizational vehicles for articulating such a vision are absent. Even as corporate economic consolidation proceeds apace, capital remains politically fragmented, incapable of positioning itself as acting in anything approximating a “general interest.”

On the left, the election showed that unions are still capable of shaping politics, particularly with UNITE HERE’s efforts in driving up Democratic votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania. But with current union density barely above 10 percent, they are considerably weakened from their postwar heyday, and their broader social influence diminished. Meanwhile, much of the left ecosystem consists either of staff-driven NGOs with no genuine membership to speak of, or periodic outbursts of “leaderless” protest that either dissipate or themselves become absorbed into staff-driven NGOs.

When writing about such periods of political paralysis, it is common among Left writers to reference Gramsci’s quote about how “[t]he crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” While the quote is certainly relevant to today, the temptation is to view the interregnum as a passing phase, an unstable situation that must somehow resolve itself. But what often gets lost is that unstable interregnums can last a long time. The status quo can keep muddling through. Nothing guarantees a particular resolution to the crisis.

To the extent a resolution is possible, it will not be due to vague concepts like the current “balance of class forces” or “requirements of capital.” Rather, it will be the outcome of concrete political struggles that shape the balance of class forces and articulate the needs of the parties involved.

Chicago's Trial of the Century and Its Many Heroes, Cinematic and Real

Harvey Wasserman

Mayor Richard J. Daley stands at the microphone during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, while shouts resound from the crowd. (photo: Jack Thornell/AP)

This we know for sure about Chicago ’68:

Mayor Richard J. “Boss/Big Dick” Daley was 100% responsible for the “police riots” at the pivotal Democratic Convention that helped elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war in Vietnam for an inexcusable 7 more years.

Daley did this by denying our Constitutional rights — some 15,000 of us, who came to “peaceably assemble” demanding a “redress of grievances” from the war’s prime perpetrators.

Had Daley acted with any sense or grace, he’d have granted our legal right to a daily march/rally permit, plus the ability to camp in Grant and Lincoln Parks (where else were we supposed to go?).

Certainly some among us might’ve broken a few windows and caused some havoc anyway. Certainly some among us were agents paid to do just that.

But mostly we were in Chicago to peacefully march, make our points against that horrible war in Vietnam, tell the Democratic party to CEASE AND DESIST. We figured also to smoke some dope, hear some music, and then go back home to work for peace, justice, and a totally transformed American way.

Instead, the Chicago police were put in the impossible position of “preserving disorder.” Some officers acted with dignity and grace. Many senselessly assaulted us with sadistic violence. Major commissions that studied the violent disaster of that fateful August week correctly termed it a “police riot.”

But in the bigger picture, it was not the cops’ fault. We were a short-fused powder keg of stoned, hormonal draft-agers. The police were ordered to make us disappear. That was not going to happen.

Comment to this article by Bill Resnick a member of this Webzine’s Editorial Committee.

The political core of Aaron Sorkin’s film The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the struggle between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden as to the strategy that should guide the 60’s left to transform this country. Sorkin described it as Hoffman’s cultural revolution vs Hayden’s pragmatic, assess the forces arrayed, and get what you can. Sorkin was sympathetic to both and at the end the film portrayed them reconciling. 

In fact there was another strategy fr the revolutionary left then being practiced — organizing working people, in the army, community, workplace, and unions. Sorkin’s neat dualism erased that other path, particularly doing injustice to Hayden who had spent the previous three years community organizing in Newark alongside the Black Panthers. And it’s also a disservice to our many comrades who in that period were industrializing and whose continued work through the later 60s – 80s had considerable success, institutionaliz  ed in union radical caucuses like Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the monthly journal Labor Notes, and now being emulated by another generation of lefties at Amazon, Starbucks, groceries, other retail, and construction among others. 

Ever since, a bloviating army has somehow blamed US (the demonstrators) for the subsequent defeat of the Democrats’ presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey.

In the Democrats’ forever corporate tradition of blaming the activist left for their own inability to win critical elections (see Congressional down-ballot races, circa 2020) we were expected to say to ourselves:

Well, golly gee, the Democrats are running the Vietnam slaughter and trashing our Constitutional rights, but if we don’t let Daley beat the hell out of us we might jeopardize Hubert’s election, so let’s just pack up and slink home.”

There was even worse. Despite Daley’s debacle, by November Humphrey was on the brink of victory. In the campaign’s final days, Lyndon Johnson (the war’s prime perpetrator) readied a truce between North and South Vietnam that would’ve solidified a bombing halt and a likely electoral blue wave.

Despite the Democrats’ Vietnam horror show, Richard Nixon was such a loathsome, twisted monster that Humphrey was still a preferred public choice.

A truce and cease-fire almost certainly would have given Humphrey the presidency … and his own chance to end the war.

But candidate Nixon COMMITTED TREASON to prevent that from happening.

This used to be the stuff of “conspiracy theory.” But thanks to tangible FBI and CIA phone taps (released a mere fifty years after the fact) Nixon methodically sabotaged those peace talks. Simply enough, he instructed his liaison to the South Vietnam regime (a despicable cabal of mob drug dealers) that if they nixed LBJ’s peace offering, he (Nixon) would “give them a better deal.”

The South Vietnamese took him at his word. The cease-fire died. The slaughter proceeded. Tricky Dick won.

And for a rare moment in his despicable career, Nixon kept his word … but not to the American people. In alliance with the Saigon thugs, he prolonged the war another seven years, killing countless Vietnamese and at least 20,000 more Americans.

A private citizen using a secret liaison to a foreign government to undermine an official US foreign policy initiative is the definition of sedition. When peace talks collapsed, Johnson was fully informed. On the phone he screamed to his Republican buddy, Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) “THIS IS TREASON!!!”

When Nixon heard what Johnson had said, he called LBJ to deny any wrongdoing. A lengthy conversation ensued, with a taped transcript now publicly available. Nixon was lying, and Johnson knew it.

But LBJ never uttered a public word about this grotesque betrayal to the American people, who deserved to know and who might have voted otherwise. Thus, Johnson shared responsibility for every bit of that epic backstab.

And yet, even today, we demonstrators are blamed for getting our heads bashed in and somehow costing Hubert Humphrey the 1968 election.

• • •

Which brings us to the next thing the two Dicks — Daley and Nixon — decided to do. And here we get to the film at hand.

It wasn’t enough that various government agencies had conspired to trash our peaceful marches.

When Nixon did take power, he demanded payback from those who’d dared to ask for those permits to march.

Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) is the latest of a slew of dramatizations come out over the years. This one shows us a quirky Attorney General John Mitchell summoning a young prosecutor to take the case. The Nixonian Mitchell — an authoritarian thug — blames the attack on an apparent insult from LBJ’s outgoing attorney general, Ramsey Clark, a legendary liberal.

Mitchell’s anointed lead prosecutor, Dick Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is shown to be a thoughtful, conscientious young man with moral and political qualms about the case.

He wasn’t. For melodramatic purposes, Sorkin wants this guy to be sympathetic and appealing. Nobody remembers him — or his immediate boss, Thomas Foran — for any of that.

Judge Julius Hoffman, on the other hand (as played by Frank Langella), is a crazed, insufferable petty tyrant, a man harsh and unjust almost beyond belief.

And thus we come to his latest cinematic reincarnation.

Aaron Sorkin is the thoughtful producer/director of the entertaining West Wing, a signature American political drama. He makes the very committed real-life peace activist Martin Sheen into a President we can only pray for.

Sorkin’s watchable touch is on full display in Trial.

But unlike Marty Sheen’s Oval Office, Chicago was as real as Nixon’s treason.

We can be grateful for much. We see a Stalinesque circus trial run by a wacko fascist, pre-ordained to nail brave, committed activists for the “crime” of demanding peace.

We see the eight defendants, their lawyers, and the soon-to-be-murdered Fred Hampton portrayed with a sympathetic touch. In the hands of someone less talented or more Reaganesque, our beloved co-conspirators could easily have been smeared as traitors.

But granting all that — and it’s a lot — the named defendants were actual, nuanced people who deserved to be accurately portrayed. And here the film runs a spectrum:

ABBIE HOFFMAN

We start with Sasha Baron Cohen’s astonishing lead portrayal of the older brother I never had. Countless young activists followed Abbie’s career with awe, inspiration, and astonishment. In 1984, I began a cover story on him for New Age Magazine as he was seeing his parole officer. We conspired for peace, No Nukes, and social justice until April 1989, when I learned of his death while on a live talk show. It remains an indescribable moment.

By then Abbie had pioneered the art of science of political chutzpah. He’d been busted for an ill-advised coke deal, then fled underground for seven years. Hunted by federal authorities, Abbie got a nose job and “surfaced” as “Barry Freed,” a high profile eco-activist, fighting (successfully) against the destruction of the St. Lawrence River.

With “running mate” Johanna Lawrenson, a model and literary figure in her own right, Abbie/Barry appeared at countless high profile organizing meetings, public rallies, and media blitzes. As the police searched high and low, New York governor Hugh Carey and US senator Daniel Moynahan proudly cited “Barry” for his civic commitment.

Abbie could talk interminably with my liberal Jewish mother, who also loved him. While smoking various joints, he held brilliant, erudite discussions on community organizing and political theory. He also told the world we’d hold hands, surround the Pentagon, and levitate it off the ground. (The pundits scoffed, but the cops never did let us circle the building.)

In Sorkin’s 7, Sacha Baron Cohen gets Abbie as only a fellow Trickster could do. Abbie would have loved Borat’s piercing punkings of pompous tyrants like Rudy Giuliani and Mike Pence.

As a conjoined spirit, Borat/Abbie’s deeply informed bohemian brilliance and soulful commitment to peace and social justice become the heart of this drama. But Sorkin does it a needless disservice in the final footnotes, when he dismisses Abbie’s post-trial persona merely as having “committed suicide” in 1989.

The scant, dubious epitaph (his running mate Johanna still refers to Abbie’s death as “an apparent suicide”) entirely misses Abbie’s astounding post-trial triumphs as a major ecological pioneer and an inspirational mentor to countless young activists.

There is no excuse for that omission, Mr. Sorkin. There’s no reason you can’t yet change it.

TOM HAYDEN

Abbie’s oddest coupling was with his visionary co-conspirator, Tom Hayden, an equally brilliant, forever activist who also inspired a generation.

As portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, Tom was serious, forceful, and driven to win. Despite his antipathy to hippie theatrics, Tom was (like Abbie) as charismatic as he was relentless.

But Redmayne is physically slight. He doesn’t quite get Tom’s full power. Stocky, strong, and seriously competitive, Tom played varsity tennis at the University of Michigan. He was also editor of the U of M Daily (Class of ’61), where I followed him as editorial director six years later.

Tom unlocked the paper’s library. His evolving leftism resonated through the building for years to come.

After a brief teaching career, Tom moved to an urban ghetto, making tangible the career of a community organizer. When he married Jane Fonda (who was at least as radical as he was) our activist Earth shook on its axis. He later spent twenty very productive years in the California legislature, walking the margins between the grassroots community and the Democratic Party.

Even into our sixties, I felt star-struck around Tom Hayden. Last I heard him speak, he was as fiery, angry, and unbowed as we see him in 7. Some of us had dinner plans with him the week he died, which still hurts.

JERRY RUBIN

Far down the scale is 7’s portrayal of Jerry Rubin. As Abbie’s sidekick, Jerry was bright, funny, and effective. Played by Jeremy Strong, he comes off as a somewhat hapless buffoon, which he definitely was not.

Jerry later burned out on movement work, turning to health food, networking, and the outspoken pursuit of wealth. Married to Mimi Leonard, with two children, he wrote about his sex life and debated Abbie — to mixed reviews — in a not-so-tongue-in-cheek shtick called “Yippie versus Yuppie.” Sorkin’s epitaph cites Jerry merely as having become a “stockbroker.” To say the least, the reality is far more complex.

DAVE DELLINGER

Here Sorkin’s film hits a bad bottom. Played by John Carroll Lynch, we sense a suburbanite whose spiritual roots in a lifetime of pacifism are not quite clear.

In one truly inexcusable moment, Dave is shown punching a court officer (and then apologizing for it).

THIS ABSOLUTELY DID NOT HAPPEN!!!

Dave Dellinger spent years in prison for refusing to take up arms during World War II. He was an elder beacon for countless nonviolent protests.

He titled his autobiography From Yale to Jail. Even when sorely provoked — at least in his adulthood — it was a point of honor that Dave Dellinger would refrain from physical violence.

Years later, as we sat in at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, Dave made a pretty convincing case that Abbie had been murdered. When election protection attorney Bob Fitrakis held hearings on how Ohio’s 2004 election had been stolen, Dellinger came to Columbus while conducting a long water-only fast.

It was also Dave — not Tom — who read the names of those killed in Vietnam. He did it at the beginning of the trial, not the end. The litany included Vietnamese names, not just American ones.

Like Tom (and unlike the actor who portrays him) Dave’s powerful physical presence reflected his heartfelt commitments. There are artistic liberties that work in this film, but that alleged moment of personal violence does not. Mr. Sorkin, please edit it out!

BOBBY SEALE

Opinions also vary on Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s portrayal of Bobby Seale. Clearly the government charged Bobby in hopes of confronting the jury with a “scary black man” amidst all those white defendants. His being bound and gagged in the courtroom was longer and more despicable than what we see.

Many years later, Abbie and I joined him as we spoke together at Temple University. He was formidable, charismatic, amiable … and deep into a cookbook based on the magic of his family’s Texas barbecue. Bobby Seale was really fun to be with … and none of his radicalism had boiled away.

FRED HAMPTON

In 7, Chicago’s legendary Black Panther leader (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is shown as a serious-minded young (21) courtroom attendee who confers frequently with Bobby Seale. The Judge loudly identifies him for the jury. Later Bobby rightfully rages about Fred Hampton’s outrageous, wholly unprovoked official murder.

Along with Mark Clark, Hampton was in fact assassinated after the trial had ended. But Sorkin does us the important service of showing a police state willing to bind, gag, imprison, and murder bothersome black activists for no defensible reason.

THE LAWYERS, THE INVISIBLES & THE YIPPIE

I did not know Attorneys William Kunstler and Lenny Weinglass or Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, all of whom played key roles in 7. Those who did generally say they’re well portrayed.

Co-defendants Renny Davis, Jon Froines, and Lee Weiner are given roles of little consequence.

Except for a fictional under-cover agent, and for one who answers the phone at the “conspiracy office,” no women are granted even supporting roles in this film. Apparently based at least in part on the legendary Judy “Gumbo” Albert, Sorkin names his one female co-conspirator to evoke the image of Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn.

Had more women been present in movement leadership back then, the level of in-fighting might’ve been greatly reduced, and the power of our demonstrations greatly enhanced.

Judy’s partner Stew Albert also does not appear, along with many others who played important roles in organizing those demonstrations.

Also absent is the conspiracy’s real “missing link,” Paul Krassner, which is a shame.

Paul was the genius publisher of The Realist, home to some of the movement’s vanguard reporting and graphic humor (including an iconic portrayal of Walt Disney’s cartoon pantheon wallowing in an obscene orgy).

The original “un-indicted co-conspirator,” Paul walked with a profound limp caused by a police beating. He was gentle, kind, insanely funny, and completely outside the box, especially in places like the countercultural Starwood Festival (still going, after these years) where he annually enlightened stoned throngs of “sky-clad” pagans.

While Abbie and Tom debated hippie versus politico, Paul invented the term Yippie to meld the two. (When called the Yippie Godfather, he declined the honor, saying he was “still awaiting the paternity test.”)

It was Paul who promised to put LSD in Chicago’s water supply. His hallucinogenic trial testimony infuriated Tom and Abbie, who refused to speak to him for months. But eventually they reconciled, as loving activists always do.

• • •

All of which makes us ache with timeless longing just to see and be with these folks again, even for an afternoon.

This film — like many others made about this trial — has rightfully provoked a cacophony of differing views. May it always be thus.

Overall, Aaron Sorkin’s gift is of course imperfect … but one that serves as a sympathetic, astute rendition of a precious activist moment worthy of the ages.

What matters above all is that 50 years after it happened, respectful dramatizations of consequence are still being made about this amazing show of courageous defiance.

It came amidst a terrible war, when a synchronous band of justice fighters refused to bow before a hideous tyranny.

To everyone’s everlasting benefit, we see them emerging … for all time to come … as the genuine, beloved, deeply missed heroes they really were.

Harvey Wasserman’s Chicago ’68 club wounds helped inspire The People’s Spiral of US History (www.solartopia.org). He co-convenes the Grassroots Emergency Election Protection Coalition, joinable by zoom every Monday, 5-6:30 p.m. Eastern Time through www.grassrootsep.org.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

Firestorms and Our Future

Solidarity Ecosocialist Working Group

FIRESTORMS IN THE western states, hurricanes pounding the Gulf and East Coast, rising water along the ocean shore and Great Lakes along with the pandemic blanketing the United States all starkly reaffirm that humans are part of nature — and can only attempt to subdue it at our own peril.

Hopefully, more and more people recognize that the scientific predictions of the last 50 years are coming to pass — even sooner than projected — as climate change unleashes its intensified heat and wind upon the land.

Climate deniers and rightwing conspiracy-mongers, still at work with their systematic falsehoods, now accuse social activists of setting the fires. Shockingly, some Oregonian residents built blockades to confront the “antifa” demonstrators they believed were setting fires. But there were none.

Evaluating the destruction of the west coast fires, we see it made up of a combination of several climate factors.

Spring and fall rains now come in the winter, so the rise in the Pacific Ocean’s temperature feeds the winds as they pick up speed over dry land. Heat rises to 115 degrees — reaching 130 degrees in Death Valley — and the electrical grids grind to a halt.

Fire season no longer starts in the fall but begins in late summer as hot and dry conditions allow wildfires to spread faster and further. Compounding the longer and increasingly hotter fire season is its size and intensity.

Retreating to Mountain Homes

Whitman County Sheriff Brett Meyers told at New York Times reporter that the fire burned as if it were jet fuel. “Unless you had a fire truck for every house that was on fire, you just couldn’t touch it. It was that swift.”

Who are the people living in small mountain areas? It is a combination of rich and poor, with two-thirds of this housing built in fire-risk areas over the last two decades.

Particularly given. the prohibitive cost of housing in California, Oregon and Washington, low-income families, seniors and the disabled have moved into these areas, or never left. Some would prefer to live in places that have more services but can’t afford it. They live on narrow and winding roads that are the only way in and out of town. They are the most likely to be trapped and die because they have less opportunity to be notified of the need to evacuate, have difficulty moving quickly, or are without reliable transportation.

Given today’s economic inequality, the fire disaster — just like the coronavirus pandemic — hits the most vulnerable In many areas, the homeless were left to shift for themselves.

Spreading Fires, Narrowing Possibilities

Of course the extent of the 2020 fires goes well beyond these isolated areas, threatening the more suburban towns of several major cities. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, and Vancouver in Canada suffered some of the worst air anywhere in the world, with the Air Quality Index reaching 500-700. The smoke traveled to the U.S. Midwest and East Coast, then all the way to Europe.

Mike Davis, the urban theorist and Marxist historian, compared these fires to the equivalent of “endless nuclear war.” He noted that the growing number and intensity of the fires have prepared the ground for the invasion of non-native grasses, shrubs and trees. As these invasive species spread, the ground becomes even more flammable.

All along the west coast the infrastructure of colonialization and industrialization has transformed the natural ecology with its mining, lumber, reservoirs, dams, industrial agriculture and the building of roads.

Firestorms, drying deserts and forests along with rising and warming oceans have narrowed our possibilities. There’s a clear and present global emergency.

Not only the western USA, but Siberia and the Amazon rain forest are burning. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet, we’re informed by climate scientists, is now irreversible.

Meanwhile the racial segregation of our cities means Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income communities live near toxic fossil fuel sites and incinerators; consequently these communities disproportionately suffer from high rates of asthma, cancer and the daily stress of racial discrimination.

Extracting fossil fuels locks in planet-warming pollution and compounds the problem, placing these communities at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

Around the world clear-cutting forests, expanding industrial agriculture and road building create the conditions for transmitting viruses from animals to humans, as it has done for COVID-19. While know-nothing politicians like Trump call for reopening the economy, 210,000 have died in the United States and the death toll has passed one million worldwide. Scientists are only beginning to talk about the long-term effects for the millions who have survived the virus.

California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), who calls for making the state a leader in building a livable planet, was hailed for signing an executive order to stop sales of new gasoline-powered passenger cars and trucks by 2035. As if we didn’t know punting programs to the legislature is a delaying tactic, he announced that he will ask the legislature to end new fracking permits by 2024.

Some state governments and even corporations talk about being “carbon-neutral by 2050.” But these are mere pledges. As we have seen from the results of the Paris Accords, they may not mean much.

Clearly we need to focus on moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But that’s just the beginning. Our transportation system has to prioritize mass transit not the individual car.  With sustainability as our primary concern, we need a moratorium on new construction in fire-prone areas, instead developing green and affordable housing models.

We note that Indigenous communities throughout the Americas have lived in these forests, jungles and mountains before colonialization. They have knowledge in land management and food production that can help us begin to repair the environmental damage.

We acknowledge that human civilization must live in concert with nature in order to survive. It is the fear of creating feedback loops, and not a calendar date, that must set our agenda. But with a certain confidence, we pledge to build an ecosocialist consciousness, for an ecosocialist world.

Originally published in Against the Current 209 November-December 2020

Trump’s Last Stand

K Mann

This article is part of discussion of a fluid situation in American politics. It represents the author’s analysis of a specific conjuncture at the time of writing. We will publish other assessments as the situation develops.

Illustration by Victor Juhasz.

Legal challenges notwithstanding, Joe Biden’s apparent victory in both the popular and electoral college vote brings to a close a sordid US presidential election. Voters were offered the choice between Trump, a reactionary, racist, sexist, climate change denying lout and would-be dictator, and ex-vice president and longtime senator Joe Biden, the moderate Democrat offered to the electorate after the Democratic party leadership managed to torpedo the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and his popular calls for universal health coverage through Medicare and the forgiveness of college loan debt.

Trump’s Three-Prong Strategy

Trump’s campaign strategy was not based on a program to address the twin crisis of the pandemic and unemployment, and certainly not as a climate change “denier” to confront issues such as the nearly uncontrollable widespread fires that have killed dozens on the US west coast, most certainly exacerbated by global warming. Rather, Trump who trailed Biden steadily between 5-11 percent in most polls for months pursued a three prong approach: The first was to denigrate Biden as senile, beholden to his party’s supposed left wing, and through the business dealings of his son Hunter, corrupt. He called Biden’s running mate Senator Kamala Harris, a former California attorney general a socialist and lobbed racist and sexist taunts against her. None of this gained traction, even with the reactionary and overtly pro-Trump cable news channel Fox. His accusations against supposed “crimes” by Biden and Obama were so outrageous that even his lapdog attorney general William Barr refused to take them seriously.

The second line of attack was to threaten the use of violence and voter intimidation by encouraging far right gun-toting militia men. His call during the first presidential debate for one such group, the “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by” was widely seen as encouraging violence to limit potential Democratic voter turnout.

The third line of attack was to delegitimize the elections itself, claiming that the Democrats were planning on stealing the election through massive mail-in and absentee voting. The claims of voter fraud were refuted by election scholars and experts and never really taken up by the right-wing media or any but the most far right fringe members of the Republican party. This line of attack was designed to prepare a legal challenge to any outcome that involved Trump losing. In the closing weeks and days of the campaign he insisted, contrary to all technological, legal, and administrative precedent that the winner must be declared on election night even though the vote counting methods used by scores of states have long resulted in results being reported in the hours or days after the polls closed. The pandemic also resulted in huge numbers of absentee and mail-in votes also slowing vote counting as voters sought to avoid the dangers of in-person voting.

Trump was always alone in his most extreme declarations and dark threats. Neither Fox news nor Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell accompanied him down this path. The military already made it clear that it would not be intervening in the elections. There was very little reported election site violence on election day although angry pro-Trump mobs gathered outside of the Maricopa County Recorder’s office in Phoenix, Arizona where votes were being counted.

The Democrats also showed that they were not above using legal maneuvers to undermine democracy for their own partisan advantage. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona they succeeded in excluding the Green party ticket of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker.

Requiem for a failed coup d’état

In the run up to the election the US left debated possible scenarios of an attempted Trump “coup.” Several union locals passed resolutions in favor of a strike in the event of an attempt to overturn a Biden victory. By the morning of Friday, November 6 however, it became all but inevitable that Biden would win the necessary 270 electoral votes to secure the US presidency. Although Trump threatened to unleash a torrent of lawsuits, legal experts and newscasters including those on Fox news opined that absent proof of voter fraud, of which there seems to be none, these lawsuits will face an uphill legal fight to overturn the results. In fact, all of Trump’s initial legal gambits to stop the vote where rebuffed. His sole “victory” was to have poll watchers allowed to observe vote counting from six instead of ten feet in Pennsylvania.

Without the vocal support of his party, Fox news and other reactionary news outlets, it appears that this was the coup d’état that didn’t happen. Trump will continue to make patently false charges about voter fraud, but legal challenges are highly likely to fail in spite of a stacked conservative Supreme court, and the mainstream news media will likely move on, focusing on Biden’s “transition team.”

Nevertheless, there could still be need for street mobilizations in the unlikely case that Trump got the Supreme court or state courts to overturn the election results and some have already been planned. There still could be violence by right wing militias especially if Trump continues to tell them the election was stolen, but this too seems unlikely. To protect the integrity of the vote, demonstrations have been planned in various cities throughout the country on Saturday, November 7. Local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have been active in protests in “battleground” states.

The struggle continues

As the dust of the election settles, struggles will arise for effective measures against the rapidly spreading pandemic, mass unemployment, threats of eviction, rapidly growing environmental disasters, and the fight against racist police violence. Even without the presidency, Republicans may hold onto the Senate majority which will continue to pose obstacles to a second round of stimulus payments to unemployed workers, employers, and state governments and stymy Biden’s pursuit of the limited measures he would pursue to confront the current crises. As president Biden’s support for fracking, opposition to Medicare for all, and flat refusal to consider defunding police departments should help rekindle the energy displayed during the many weeks of mass antiracist protest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.

Trump Can Steal the Election and the Left Must Mobilize to Stop Him

Bill Resnick

A Critique of Kit Wainer’s Complacent View

Kit Wainer’s essay “A very ‘American` coup” dismisses as alarmist and very very improbable a Trump success in stealing the election. Wainer bases his confident prediction on several arguments: That when it appears to his Congressional and Party supporters that Trump is losing, they will turn away from him. That the military and key parts of capital will not support him. That his vigilantes, militias, and 2nd Amendment people, while dangerous, are disorganized and weak. Thus that if Trump attempts a coup, he will end up abandoned and alone.

Count the vote protest organized by Protect the Results in Boston, Nov 4, 2020

Though Wainer doesn’t dwell on them, his intelligently argued fantasy has implications as to action by the anti-capitalist left. Namely that since Trump stealing the election is no threat, tactical support for the lesser evil makes no sense. That our task is to support the Green Party in this election, and also prepare for the period ahead resisting the Biden capitalist brand and seeking to build the movements and political party that are necessary to replace capitalism.

To be sure our task is to build the movements and party, but for me Wainer’s analysis is an oblique attack on those who propose that we consider whether to support a lesser evil a question of tactics not immutable principle. In addition, his analysis of Trump is dead wrong, choosing evidence to support his view and ignoring a world of evidence that contradicts it, for example the lack of any mention of the police and federal courts. And his singular focus on voting Green is counterproductive, and not responsive to the challenges we face and the opportunities we have.

Contrary to Wainer, Trump could succeed. But he also could be stopped. Recent coups around the world have been stopped by determined popular mobilization. The anti-capitalist democratic left should have been involved in building that mobilization for at least the last six months.

Still, even for this election it’s not too late. Chances are that we face a considerable period of struggle and uncertainty as the ballots are counted, the battles ebb and flow in the streets and rage in the courts, the police attack the left, and the still President Trump repeats in a concentrated way what he has done over the last period: foment fear and violence, encourage police attack, encourage his armed base into the streets, and order the Federal forces including the military into action. Contrary to Wainer, the military will likely obey, though reluctantly, our best hope in a very measured way with weapons holstered.

In this scenario the anti-capitalist democratic left has obvious short term responsibilities – to build and participate in determined non-violent self-defense and street action. As to the long term we might start rethinking the way we operate in elections and the way we contribute to building movements and a contending left party.

Why Trump Could Succeed

It drives many sane and composed observers into anxiety ridden days and sleepless nights — Trump could win.

For one, Trump could win the election outright through Constitutional if not ethical maneuvers. Trump won in 2016 and he has solidified his base if perhaps alienating independents and some “moderate” Republicans. And not one poll finds a Trump outright victory completely impossible. All polls report the swing states quite close and the red states solidly red, such that Trump could win the election but surely not the popular vote if counting is fair. Though for historians and us it would be tarnished by voter suppression, many of its means now constitutionally permissible under doctrines of state rights to insure ballot integrity.

Secondly, he could outright steal the election, even if way behind on election night for he has substantial assets, few liabilities, and immense personal motivation.

Trumps Actual Assets: These include the police and the Federal Courts, especially the Supreme Court. While “A very ‘American` coup” has not a word on ether the police or the Court, they are now solidly reactionary and will keep him in power unless stopped by overwhelming popular resistance (the resistance to be discussed later).

The police over the last decades have militarized and have intensely politicized, their reactionary conservatism now grown to fever pitch with the BLM protests and the unexpected sudden rise of the abolition and close cousin defund/replace movements. In most cities they have for some time acted with impunity and are still out of control. They are now organized regionally and nationally at both executive and union levels. And they despise the left and its liberal enablers. Last but not least: For quite some time the alt right and militant Christian evangelical warriors have both infiltrated the police and like Trump cultivated them. In Portland the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer are buddy-buddy with the officers who protect them when the march.

As to the Federal courts, the District and Circuit Courts of Appeals are split, sometimes handing down a pro-democracy opinion. As to the Supreme Court, it is now 6-3, and its militant conservative majority well experienced in the role of super legislator, making law as they see fit. They will have plenty of opportunities to do that. For Trump is probably the most litigious person on earth (in 2016 he was either plaintiff or defendant in 3,000 open cases in this country). He, the Republican Party, and his loyalists at the U.S. Justice Department have already filed hundreds of cases all over the country. Expedited they have quickly mostly won in the Supreme Court. The only progressive victories were very partial and appear issued for the purpose of protecting the court’s legitimacy.

Just as worrisome, there’s of course the case Bush v Gore 20 years ago, when the Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court orders that the votes be counted, thus handing the Presidency to Bush. The decision was legally absurd, relying on a very odd reading of an odd doctrine that had been rejected for 200 years. But decision was made and the court and country survived. The Court is likely to do it again. Though twenty years ago the Republican case seemed so ridiculous that no one expected the Court to rule in their favor. Now we know better and have time to organize.

Trump’s liabilities according the Wainer: Wainer contends that the military and capitalist elite will likely impede Trump and that his armed supporters are weak and disorganized. I find this assessment to be superficial, that it relies on trivial evidence and ignores the situation, the facts on the ground, likely to exist.

As to the military, Wainer concluded that it was likely to stay in their barracks, ignore Trump’s order to dominate the streets in the various places Trump found required them, basing this assessment on reports that the Officer Corps including camp commanders despised at least disliked Trump.

Yes, the military might split, they might stay in the barracks, if the orders were given on January 21st, 2020, if Trump had not been sworn in as President and Commander in Chief. But in conditions prevailing in the aftermath of the election, with Trump still President, with chaos and violence in the streets (probably greatly exaggerated in the media), with the majority of the people fearful and craving stability, the military will very likely obey the President’s orders.

The military Officer Corp is deeply committed to the military chain of command, especially the duty to obey the Commander in Chief. We can expect them to obeying orders from the elected President serving out his term. As Garrett Reppenhagen, the head of Veteran’s for Peace, told me in an interview: So, you know, it’s not an ethical, moral institution to begin with, so don’t think they’re going to … do the right things and follow their conscience when ordered to do something.  Be prepared for that. And, if it’s possible and it serves the purpose of the military, I think that they’ll occupy American streets if the opportunity arises.” 

Finally, Trump remains President till Jan 20, 2021, and he might try to reshape the high command in the two and one-half months remaining in his term, as he would certainly do try if he wins his second term. For near are whole history the U.S. military high command has been comfortable in a bourgeois top down system with the trappings of democracy. If Trump steals the election, we could be living under a fully committed Trump supporting military force.

As to the capitalist class, most may despise Trump. But in the situation at the moment — the cities in chaos, the pandemic advancing, economic activity plummeting — they may come to welcome a law and order response, to stabilize, to return to business as usual. In addition Biden might well declare a national lock down to stop the pandemic, killing the economy if temporarily. And Trump will likely fulfill his campaign promise to support s big stimulus/COVID relief package, as will Biden, but under Trump much more generous to corporate America and especially real estate interests.

As to the armed vigilantes, militias, and Trump’s Second Amendment people, yes they are poorly organized but they will very likely show up, conspicuously armed, in the swing states and maybe other states to intimidate voters and vote counters. And in every state, if Trump attempts to steal after the election and protests erupt, the they will do what they can to instill fear in prospective protestors, especially those older or in families. Importantly, Trump’s armed forces include provocateurs of various stripes bent on provoking violence, sufficient amounts to give an excuse for the police to descend on the protestors and then prevail on mayors and governors to call in Federal help.

Many will particularly the Republicans. Wainer’s rosy prediction that most formerly loyal Republicans will break from Trump if he seems to be losing is a wish unlikely to come true. For the same reason that many have stuck to him now, that Trump and his base will massacre her, him, or they in the next Republican primary.

Finally in assessing Trump’s possibility of maintaining office, one can’t ignore, as Wainer has, his personal motivation. For Trump is cornered and without options. If he becomes a private citizen, he will face multiple prosecutions, law suits, possible bankruptcy, even convictions, and humiliation. Though some have speculated that he will shepherd his family into an airplane and fly off to a country without an extradition treaty with the U.S., where he can live high off his secret bank accounts. Others argue that for Trump this would be worse than death, depriving him of the adulation and reassurance that he so needs and has come to expect, first on his TV show and then as President.

In considering all this, could Trump succeed in stealing the election? Sure, several clear paths to Trump’s victory are easily discernable. He could win it outright through voter suppression. He could win it in the Supreme Court. And he could win if he and his supporters and the provocateurs and the police generate sufficient violence and chaos and fear so that a majority of people come to crave stability and order and hunker in their homes as the police, army, and sanitation crews clean up the mess and restore order.

What Could Still Be Done

This piece was completed on election day. We will soon have a lot more information on how the various forces are maneuvering.

As to immediate action, unless Trump does what no one expects, concedes on election night we must join with the people, groups, and movements building local coalitions across the country to mobilize to stop Trump and protect the election. In Portland the Defend Democracy Coalition is circulating a national pledge:

  1. We will vote.
  2. We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.
  3. We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.
  4. If we need to, we will shut down “business as usual” to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

The Portland coalition seeks to reproduce the forces of the George Floyd/BLM protests that marched and resisted the police and Federal troops in Portland for close to three months. Though this time around with one important difference, that the Coalition is insisting on radical non-violence including non-violent self-defense to disable the various provocateurs. The Coalition’s opening action is scheduled for the afternoon and early evening of November 4th — a non-violent rally and march, as a start for what will likely be a protracted campaign to stop Trump’s coup and prepare our forces to struggle for what amounts to a radical Green New Deal.

In working in these local coalitions we can discuss further action challenging Trump autocracy if he prevails and also discuss how a united left can fight and force a Biden administration to take meaningful action on racism, climate change, public health, jobs, poverty, and labor, reproductive rights among others.

Over the longer term the anti-capitalist left, certainly Solidarity, need rethink its strategies for building the movements and political force/party necessary to achieve that better possible democratic and sustainable world. (Proposals for rethought strategy are discussed in my essay “Dump Trump, Fight and Force Biden: An Electoral Strategy for the Left” that can be found in the Solidarity webzine at solidarity—us.org.)

Strike for Democracy!

Stephanie Luce

The labor movement is facing an existential crisis on two levels. Most immediate is that posed by Donald Trump, who has already stoked the fuel of white supremacist terror groups, and who has made repeated suggestions that he will not step down from office no matter the outcome of the election. Despite his support from a share of union members, and despite his promises to improve lives for workers, Trump’s regime has been almost an unmitigated attack on worker’s rights. If Trump stays in office by subverting the democratic process, the implications for unions are grave.

For more information and to connect with LADD, email LADD2020.info@gmail.com.

To deal with this immediate crisis, a network of union leaders and activists have formed Labor Action to Defend Democracy to begin planning labor actions after November 3 if Trump loses but refuses to step down.

Beyond the immediate danger of a coup, the labor movement must contend with the reality of a world run by billionaires on the backs of workers. Even if Biden wins, the labor movement faces a difficult future. The Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party will claim responsibility for getting Biden elected, and they will use the economy as an excuse to extract further concessions from workers. Biden was not selected by the groundswell of progressive forces active in the party’s primary; his platform is much weaker than those of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and history doesn’t give us confidence that he will fight hard even for that.

Workers have been under attack for decades but we are at a critical juncture. Can unions come together to insist on a democratic election and ensure every vote is counted?

We face a tumultuous few months, so we need a short-term, urgent plan. Part I of this article focuses on the immediate crisis. But we also have a long-term fight ahead of us, no matter what happens. That will be covered in Part II (to be published post-election). The points I raise here reflect my own involvement over many years of labor activism as well as discussions with labor leaders, staffers and rank-and-file organizers across the country.

THE NEXT FEW MONTHS

Trump and the Republican Party have launched a full-fledged assault on the electoral process, from voter suppression to misleading ballot boxes. We may see violence aimed at keeping people from the polls or just meant to create general fear and chaos.  Trump has dropped repeated suggestions that he may try to shut down the election, stop votes from being counted, or refuse to step down even if he loses.

A range of groups have mobilized to fight for a fair election and plan around worst case scenarios. Some unions have been active in a few of these groups, such as Protect the Vote.

According to experts who study coups, the best way to stop an electoral coup is by getting a large turnout and strong victory. The larger a vote for Biden, the smaller the space Trump will have to claim the vote is illegitimate. Unions are doing their part to make this happen. This is a major part of union activity every election cycle. But according to Bob Master, Assistant to the Vice President of District 1 of the Communications Workers, it was tough to get union members to volunteer for Hilary Clinton four years ago. This year, there are hundreds of members signed up to phone bank, some doing it three or four nights a week. It isn’t that they are necessarily Biden fans, he says, but they understand what is at stake.

UNITE HERE is running an intensive “Take Back 2020” get-out-the-vote effort, phone banking and even knocking on doors in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, for example, over 100 hospitality workers plan to visit 100,000 homes before the election. In Arizona they are partnering with Seed the Vote.

Unions such as the Communications Workers of America, SEIU, AFT and the UAW are looking to connect some of their core activists with local “protect the vote” groupings in key states and cities to show up to polls and fight to make sure every vote is counted.

Unions are increasingly turning attention to possible election scenarios. “There’s some sense in the leadership that in fascist countries, unions are at the top of the list of targets,” Master says. “And it is the role of unions, which are the guarantors of some measure of democracy in the workplace, to ensure that democracy survives in the society.”

A handful of activists have started to organize in their workplace for labor to be ready to respond. Postal workers in Detroit are handing out flyers that ask coworkers to sign a pledge from Choose Democracy, committing to vote then take action if needed to protect the vote.

ARE UNIONS READY?

Will unions be ready to strike if Trump won’t step down? The sizable share of union members backing Trump makes it tough for some unions to frame the fight as anti-Trump, or pro-Biden. But if unions commit to the integrity of the democratic process, they have more ground to stand on.

The Rochester Central Labor Council in New York passed a resolution calling for a general strike in the event that Trump loses and does not step down. The resolution calls on the national AFL-CIO and all other labor organizations to “prepare for and enact a general strike, if necessary, to ensure a Constitutionally mandated peaceful transition of power as a result of the 2020 Presidential Elections.” A handful of other labor bodies have followed suit.

Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, is also taking a bold stand, stating that in the event of a contested election,  labor “has to be ready to mobilize in a series of strikes or leading to a general strike.” Despite high unemployment, workers still have power, she says. She points to how the federal government ended its shutdown last year, after Nelson spoke publicly about the idea of a general strike and a handful of air traffic controllers did not show up for their shifts. “Where can we actually flex that muscle in a series of strikes . . . in a way that is going to be very effective?” she asks.  “And frankly, if the planes all stop that is something that will grab everyone’s attention and suddenly there has to be action to fix that.”

Writers following these discussions have described some of the history and challenges of general strikes. We have never had an actual national general strike in the U.S., although some have argued that the 2006 immigration protests were a version of one. And W.E. B. DuBois made a case in Black Reconstruction that up to a half a million enslaved workers held a general strike during the Civil War, by stopping work and leaving plantations.

Strikes are rare in the U.S. Despite the mini-strike wave of 2018-19, most union members have never been on strike, and few unions prepare to do so. And of course, it is illegal for many public sector unions to strike, and in some states the penalties can be stiff. Even in the private sector, most unions also have no-strike clauses in their contracts, meaning to strike during the life of the contract is violating the terms.

Finally, when workers do strike, it is usually for their own wages and working conditions: an economic strike. To pull off a job action in defense of democracy means moving to a political strike: something the U.S. labor movement has even less experience with. “Just getting workers to strike for their own contract is really hard,” says Liz Perlman, Executive Director of AFSCME 3299. “Most people just don’t do it. And we don’t teach strikes, we don’t talk the language of strikes in labor.”

IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE

But this does not mean it can’t happen. Despite legal restrictions and stiff penalties, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City has struck three times in the past several decades. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona went out on strike in 2018 even though they do not have the formal right to do so. Postal workers launched one of the largest national strikes in US history in 1970, despite it being illegal.

And we have even seen examples of political strikes in the US. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has engaged in multiple political strikes, from protest against South African apartheid, against the Gulf War, and in support of Black Lives Matter. Teachers in Wisconsin walked off the job in large numbers in 2011 after Scott Walker proposed his budget bill that would drastically cut union rights.

In 2016 the Chicago Teachers Union held a one-day strike that had wide participation across the city. According to Alex Han, a longtime labor organizer, in addition to almost 100 percent participation by teachers, there were job actions at a few fast-food restaurants, daycare centers, a public university, a Nabisco plant, and more. Workers left their jobs to join actions happening all over the city. They were joined by supporters from other movements, including leadership from the Movement for Black Lives, and over 40 community groups.

Han explains, “There is a tension in organizing between going deep and going wide. With a strike, a job action where people are taking a real serious risk with their livelihood, you have to go deep. But then the question is, how do you go deep in as many places as possible, in some sort of aligned fashion?” The CTU one-day strike showed the possibilities of deep and wide organizing happening altogether. It wasn’t a general strike, but, says Han, “it was an illegal political strike.”

In June 2020, on one day’s notice the CWA called for a national 8 minute, 46 second walkout to protest the murder of George Floyd and voice support for Black Lives Matter. “This was certainly the first time in my 40 some-odd years in the labor movement that I had seen a union essentially call a political work stoppage,” says Bob Master. “Now 8 minutes and 46 seconds is very different than one day or two days or three days of completely stopping work but it did suggest that something that was essentially inconceivable in April happened in June and there was very little hesitation on the part of the leadership.”  The leadership, and members, felt that what happened was so outrageous it demanded a response.

In August, unionized professional athletes refused to play in support of Black Lives Matter. A handful of unions signed a pledge in support, committing to job actions and strikes to support the Strike for Black lives.

NOT NORMAL TIMES

Political strikes are now on the agenda more than they have been in many years.

In normal times strikes can take years to plan. Alex Caputo-Pearl, NEA Vice-President of the United Teachers Los Angeles, led a large successful teacher strike in 2019. “We knew we needed to strike four years ahead of time, that we wanted to shift the political dynamics,” he says. They spent four years building the support and laying the groundwork necessary to pull off the strike. Still, he says, “We are in a very dynamic period. There are many legitimate demands right now that we should be organizing around, and I would never want to discourage anyone from taking action.”

And while the labor movement may not normally train leaders to strike, over the past two months, thousands of labor activists from 70 countries participated in a Strike School run by organizer Jane McAlevey and sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

While some local-level labor leaders may be willing to take the risks to lead strike actions, others might be able to at least know how to step back and let movements lead when the time comes. “Let’s assume a time comes when workers feel that they need to withhold their labor,” says Lauren Jacobs,  Executive Director of the Partnership for Working Families. Union leaders have a responsibility, when they are in elected office, to protect their institutions and this can put a conservative brake on striking. But Jacobs suggests leaders can at least not default to this position. Instead of putting up barriers, leaders must ask: “How do we embrace whatever is unfolding?” Whether their own rank and file members, or others, are taking to the streets, union leaders will need to step in to enable and nurture the movement.

In 2006, when immigrant workers struck and protested around the country, some union leaders held back and tried to rein in strike activity. Jacobs hopes we don’t repeat that approach. The more union leaders have connections with community groups at the local level, and rooted in the local context, they will be better positioned to support whatever emerges. For example, when New York City bus drivers refused to transport protestors to jail this summer, the unions stepped in to support the drivers and support the unplanned action.

LABOR ACTION TO DEFEND DEMOCRACY

Anticipating the possibility of electoral interference, a coalition of unions and labor leaders, staffers, and activists have convened “Labor Action to Defend Democracy” (LADD), to coordinate post-election actions. LADD will “plant seeds and stir the pot, make available tools and be ready to do what is needed to protect democracy.”

The initial formation includes leaders from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU – AFT Local 1); Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (BMWE – Teamsters); Carl Rosen, president of UE (United Electrical Workers); Sara Nelson, president of the Flight Attendants union; Gene Bruskin, long time union organizer; several ILWU locals; United University Professions (UUP – AFT 2190 for SUNY faculty and staff); and Jobs With Justice. Other labor bodies are joining each day.

“LADD is a network helping unions to connect geographically and help them link to actions by broader fight back network in their area,” Norine Gutekanst from the Chicago Teachers Union explains. “We are sharing resolutions that locals/labor councils have passed, resources (sample resolutions, pledges, petitions, memes) and encouraging unions to act.” LADD is working closely with the non-labor driven coalitions, Protect the Results, led by Indivisible, and the Democracy Defense Coalition, led by the FightBack Table. Unions, including SEIU, CWA, and UNITE-HERE are active in these two coalitions. Protect the Results has a website with a map where people can schedule protests the day after Election Day, November 4th. The groups are prepared to make decisions late November 3 or early November 4th about the plan for action.

For more information and to connect with LADD, email LADD2020.info@gmail.com.

Mobilizing Veterans in Labor to Beat Trump and the GOP

Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon

vets against trump

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump dissed a Gold Star family that lost a son in Iraq. He called Senator John McCain, America’s most famous prisoner of war, a “loser” for being captured in Vietnam. When asked about widespread sexual assault in today’s military, he dismissed it as a problem. He had to be publicly shamed into making a promised donation to veterans’ charities.

His opponent, Hillary Clinton, was backed by more than 100 former high-ranking officers. Trump was endorsed by only a few. Nevertheless, on election day four years ago, most military veterans ending up voting for a wealthy recipient of five draft deferments. Among former military personnel, Trump beat Clinton by a 26-point margin, a bigger percentage of the “vet vote” than McCain’s own share when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008. 

A Pew Poll conducted last fall showed that Trump remained popular among veterans, even as his ratings began to sink among other constituencies.  U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan– which Trump criticized as a candidate in 2016 and, again at West Point this year—is now viewed unfavorably by a majority of the vets surveyed.  In blue collar communities in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin which suffered some of the highest post 9/11 combat-casualty rates, veterans and their neighbors helped Trump carry those decisive swing states four years ago. 

To repeat that regional sweep next month and give Trump a second term, the Republican Party has again targeted the nation’s 20 million veterans as a key voting bloc. Among the groups trying to prevent the GOP from out-organizing the Democratic Party among veterans and military families are the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and Common Defense, a national organization of progressive veterans.

Veterans for Social Change   

CWA and Common Defense unveiled their joint initiative in the fall of 2019, when CWA President Chris Shelton, an Air Force veteran and former telephone worker, launched a “Veterans for Social Change Program.” Its purpose is to “develop and organize a broad base of CWA activists who are veterans and/or currently serving in the military.” As the union notes, veterans, active duty service members, and military families “are constantly exploited by politicians and others who seek to loot our economy, attack our communities, and divide our nation with racism and bigotry so they can consolidate more power amongst themselves.”

CWA seeks to counter Trump-era threats by encouraging veterans in its own ranks to engage in grassroots campaigns with community allies

CWA seeks to counter these Trump-era threats by encouraging veterans in its own ranks to engage in grassroots campaigns with community allies and increase awareness of veterans’ issues within CWA, like the need for a strong fully funded veterans’ healthcare system.

Last October, CWA local leaders who served in the military joined veterans from around the country at a Common Defense sponsored Veterans Organizing Institute (VOI). Previous weekend sessions of the VOI had helped train a network of hundreds of younger veterans to organize more effectively in their own communities, counter the influence of big money in politics, and make politicians more accountable to poor and working-class people.

At the training conference attended by CWA members, union activists from swing states like Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas shared organizing experiences and learned new skills useful in electoral campaigning and day-to-day advocacy for fellow workers and veterans.

“The VOI provides a great introduction to getting a grassroots movement started and getting veterans, labor, and the community all working together,” says John Blake, a Brick N.J. electrician  who attended the training. 

After Blake left active duty in 2004, he used the GI Bill to go to vocational school. His step-father is a union electrician so he also got strong family encouragement to join the apprenticeship program of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Blake is now a member of IBEW Local 400, where he chairs  veterans’ committees in his own local and the AFL-CIO central labor council (CLC) in his area.

 On the organization chart of the AFL-CIO, its national affiliates, and local CLCs, the dual identity of union members who served in the military has long been acknowledged via the existence of such committees. But their level of activity may be low unless an activist like Blake takes the lead in “making our union brand more appealing to vets coming out of the service.” His Local 400 does this by participating in local events like “Operation Ruck It,” an annual fundraising walk to raise awareness about veteran suicide,

Vet Organizations, Old and New

According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 16% of all veterans—1.2 million men and women–are covered by a union contracts (compared to 10.3% of all workers). They are most heavily represented in the American Federation of Government Employees and American Postal Workers, where veterans have a strong collective identity and internal union presence. On an individual basis, union members who are veterans may also belong to local posts of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, or AMVETS.

But these old-line groups tend to be conservative on military and foreign policy issues and not much engaged with issues affecting veterans as workers. Common Defense, in contrast, proclaims its commitment to “progressive values” and seeks partnerships with like-minded unions working for social and economic justice.

Last year, Will Attig, who leads the AFL-CIO’s Union Veterans Council, invited both Common Defense and VoteVets, an advocacy group more closely aligned with the Democratic Party, to discuss their work at a meeting of national union political directors. Attig is a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who joined a southern Illinois local of the Plumbers and Pipefitters after he left the military.

He did legislative/political work for his own union and then the Illinois state fed before moving to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. After the presentations he helped arrange, both CWA and the IBEW contacted Common Defense about sending members to VOI training.

During Trump’s first term, Common Defense rallied its 20,000 supporters to call for his impeachment.

Common Defense grew out of anti-Trump organizing in 2016. Co-founders of the group first met during protests over Trump’s failure to donate money to veterans’ charities, as promised during a campaign event in Iowa. One of the protestors was ex-Marine Alex McCoy, then attending Columbia University on the GI Bill. He and a group of like-minded vets “felt really strongly about Trump was constantly using veterans as props while running a campaign that was so founded in hate and division.”

During Trump’s first term, Common Defense rallied its 20,000 supporters to call for his impeachment. The group endorsed Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for president, during the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries, after both helped solicit other Congressional signers of a pledge to end “forever wars” in the Middle East. One particular target of Common Defense lobbying is military veterans now serving on Capitol Hill after mid-term election victories that gave Democrats control of the House in 2018.

Veterans Organizing Institute trainings, conducted by Common Defense staff members like McCoy, are designed to hone the political skills of veterans involved in unions, community organizations, and electoral campaigns.  Four months after his VOI training, Frank J. Cota, a Marine Corps veteran and vice-president of CWA Local 7026 in Tucson was in Washington, DC., as part of a group of CWA veterans urging Congress to pass the PRO Act, legislation that would strengthen private sector organizing and bargaining rights.

McCoy believes that Common Defense can play a key support role in workplace organizing, particularly at firms like Amazon and Wal-Mart which brand themselves as “veteran friendly” and hire tens of thousands of former military personnel, while pursuing “anti-worker policies,” which often violate federal labor law.

For Racial Justice

When nationwide protests developed last June, after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Common Defense leaders vigorously opposed military deployments in Washington, DC and other cities. Kyle Bibby, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and graduate of Annapolis, urged fellow veterans to stand against “Trump’s authoritarian plan to use the military as his personal storm troopers to suppress dissent.”

A co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, Bibby condemned the “use of force by uniformed police and a culture of violence that seeks to dominate communities rather than serve and heal them.” Recalling his own past interactions with law enforcement, in and out of uniform, Bibby declared that “the police don’t care that I’ve gone to war to protect this country — I could be the next George Floyd solely due to the color of my skin.”

Common Defense activists, including Bibby, launched a new campaign, called “No War On Our Streets,” against police department use of $7 billion worth of hardware obtained from the Pentagon. “It was our equipment first,” says Bibby, who served in Afghanistan. “We understand it better than the police do … It’s important that we have veterans ready to stand up and say: ‘These weapons need to go.’”        

The educational efforts of veterans’ advocates allied with labor, like Common Defense and VoteVets, appear to be paying off. Not only is Trump faring poorly in presidential preference polls conducted among all likely voters. His stock is dropping among military personnel who helped him gain office in 2016.  Forty-one percent of the active duty personnel surveyed by Military Times said they were voting for Biden, while 37 percent still favored Trump.  In 2017, 46 percent of the troops polled by the same publicationhad a favorable opinion of the president. 

Three years later, half of the respondents (49.9 percent) now held an unfavorable view of him, compared to just 38 percent who still liked him.  Among officers, the disapproval rate was even higher—59%–with more than half expressing strong disapproval. Nearly ¾ of those surveyed—officers and enlisted personnel—opposed Trump’s threatened use of the military to help police American cities during their civil unrest.

Progressives wooing the “vet vote” saw a similar shift in political sentiment in other states As Nov. 3 neared, the Biden campaign was clearly making inroads among post 9/11 veterans who are younger, female, and non-white, while ex-soldiers who are older, white males living in longtime Republican strongholds remained a harder bloc to crack.

Angel Wells, an African-American Army veteran who works for AT&T in Arizona and belongs to CWA Local 7050, was among those union members protesting White House efforts to suppress voter turn-out by discrediting mail ballots and undermining Postal Service capacity to deliver them.

As she pointed out, in an election year when 800,000 service members and their families stationed abroad were scheduled to vote that way, “mail in ballots for veterans is not that foreign a concept.”

With a pandemic still raging, the economy cratering, and millions of workers, including veterans, finding their jobs, unions, or health care at risk, there were many reasons for voters who served in the military to choose a new commander in chief.

This was originally publish in LA Progressive