Friday, October 07, 2016

What Does Democracy Look Like?/Revolution Of The Heart, Pt. 2

Hello readers, please take a few minutes to read the previous blog before digesting this one. While I am definitely shifting gears, what I am writing here clearly connects to what was already expressed. I think it has something to say to progressive organizers.

In my life, I have come to realize that the most paramount factor is other people. Think about it, unless you live somewhere deep in the Himalayans, and somehow have a fully sustainable yurt with near-daily air drop services -- you probably interact with a lot of different folks. You learn from them, you share good and bad times with them. You struggle and debate with them. If it's someone you click with socially, you thoroughly enjoy hanging out and sharing life together. At least, that's it in a nutshell for me. 

As I previously mentioned, listening is a required part of communication. It is also socially required to show respect for your fellow human beings who you encounter. I like the old idiom, "You are given two ears and one mouth to show you that listening is twice as important as speaking." Sometimes, I need to remind myself of this basic bit of wisdom. And it's an important ethic to keep in mind when you are organizing with other intelligent human beings. Again, respect, basic dignity -- it's something we want to promote in the world we are trying to bring about.

Next, I would like to discuss elitism and exclusivity vs humility and inclusivity. Both are important to understand and be aware of when we are building places to organize our campaigns for a more just, egalitarian, and all around better world. We need each other, see second paragraph above, and really we are a stronger collection of organizers when we welcome each other in and genuinely want to utilize each other's ideas, as well as blood, sweat and tears. And we want to be on guard against tokenism. We truly want full participation, we ideally want a diverse group of folks bringing a wealth of experience and creative ideas, as well as their heartfelt dedication to our campaigns. The danger is to think that your one small clique has the best and most useful answers when it comes to group messaging, or group strategy. You don't. Not yet. I really don't think you do, until you first listen to your participants. If you find yourself falling into an elitist clique-think, just take a breather and try and swallow a humility pill. Remember, it's always best to be willing to try and incorporate folks, and draw on their cool ideas. It ought to be your organizing mode default. It's called collectivism, and you can do it.

Furthermore, once folks feel like they are being respected and included, they will naturally buy into the campaign. Therefore being far more committed to making sure it wins. It's pretty simple folks, it hearkens back to the golden rule.

Now to shift gears once again, let's discuss another one of the most important factors in life: Fear. Yes, the terrifying F word. There's so much in life we are afraid of, such as: Threats, Injuries, Loss of Income, Loss of Family, Loss of Friends, Loss of Love, Illness, Darkness, Water, Those Who are "Different," and ultimately Death. Too much to cover in this blog entry. But perhaps I will cover the first one and the last two, both in the context of the current presidential election and progressive organizing on campaigns to bring about a better future.

Donald Trump is a threat. I think nearly all sane people realize that. But let's look at it real closely, why he is a threat? A lot of it is because of what he says. But also, threats don't always come true. I see Trump as a con-man, and a former pro-choice Democrat. How was he able to win the Republican nomination? He utilized FEAR, which is very effective. But, also he noticed that the whole climate of our corporate duopoly in control of politics, well and our appetite for Reality TV. And he already stared in a Reality TV show that was a success, a huge success, we are talking so much success you are going to be sick of the success! OK, humor aside, I hope you get my point. Trump is a threat, but how much did we let him become one?

I think voting for the lesser of two evils [100% about FEAR] for decades now has given us Trump. It has also given us Hillary Clinton. Take a look at her, her record (she actually has a governmental track record, unlike The Donald), and also take a look at her campaign and her former campaigns.

Hillary Clinton is extremely duplicitous. She has changed her position (or at least the intentionality of the verbiage on her position) on many major issues facing the country and the world. HRC has also often denied that she previously held the opposing position. HRC is being touted by a lot of my liberal/progressive Democrat friends as the Lesser Evil. These include people I have been to many a protest with, really good folks. But they are stuck in FEAR. Fear of the orange-haired boogeyman. Forget about all the neocons lining up to cast their ballot for her (and not uncomfortable sharing this fact with all their buddies and fan clubs), forget that she has sold fracking to the world, forget that she has called people deplorables and basement dwellers, forget that she has routinely given multi-million dollar speeches to powerful and corrupt Wall Street firms, such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, forget that she voted for war in Iraq, that she orchestrated the war in Libya, and that she has laughed about it. Forget about the DNC emails that talked about the planned and orchestrated undermining of Bernie Sanders' campaign, about the Taco Bowl outreach to Latino voters. Forget about it!? She is not the lesser evil. There is no lesser -- EVIL is evil.

"When you choose the 'lesser evil,' you are still stuck with evil." ~ Dorothy Day

My fellow human being are often controlled by their fear. It leads to irrational behavior and decisions. Yes, I was going to address Those Who are Different and Death. Both are important when discussing America and our place in the world.

Racism has a central role in American history, and our society today. Whether you are voting for someone who calls Mexicans rapists or good little Miss Housekeepers, or, whether you are calling black youth Super Predators -- the fact is you are part of the problem if you vote for them. You really are. These are people who are widely seen as leaders, many see them as the ultimate leader. You are going to vote for people who throw about bigoted remarks and helped promote the completely failed War on Drugs and a system of mass incarceration, which has thrown millions of nonviolent people of color behind bars for most of their lives? Really? What are you afraid of?

And what sort of places are we creating as progressive organizers? Are we creating safe spaces that are fully inclusive?

Now, the final one. It's what is waiting for us all at the end. Death. Those who have near-death experiences, almost always come out of it viewing their life differently. Having those very close to us die, this happened to me very recently, makes us realize how precious life is.

Our country, the US, has the capability to inflict death on the world. A few times over. In this presidential election do you hear either candidate discussing the hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads we still possess?

Then there's also a much slower global death, such as sea level rise and atmospheric adjustments due to climate change. The US could lead on this, but most often does not. Has this matter been brought up in the presidential debates, and will it?

To sum it up: Life is brief. Make it count. I want to make it clear that what we do matters. In every moment of our life. Do you want to make decisions motivated by fear, either fear of a potential implied repressive government (hell, we already have one), or fear in a lack of capability or agreement with your fellow co-organizers?

I personally prefer to make my decisions out of hope, certainly my experience plays a part, but so does my vision of the world I want to leave behind for those I love who will come after me. Let's be consistent to ourselves and our own goals motivated by there greater goal to accomplish a better world.

I leave you with a couple good references. Two concepts I have found useful in my own experience…

Spokescouncils and clusters


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

What Does Democracy Look Like?/Revolution of the Heart, Pt. 1

"You know that this broken world, with its rising seas and hungry mouths and bodies riddled by police bullets, can be so much better. We can end the toxic corruption that gives us militarized police, and oil-slicked pipeline deals, and hopeless shoeless migrant children like the ones I went to school with in Texas. We can get to the other side together. One road, many lanes." 
~Justin Jacoby Smith, American activist

"How can an organization trying to fix our democracy operate undemocratically? How can an organization tell us that real change happens from the bottom-up. when they themselves operate top-down?" ~Kobi Azoulay, American activist

"In the end, the most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor and in distress, but to enter into relationship with them, to be with them and help them find confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts." ~Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche

"The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?" ~Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

In April my hope once again blossomed with the gathering of 1,400 fellow activists who risked arrest in a week's worth of nonviolent direct actions on Capitol Hill. It was a beautiful sight that so many of us were willing to speak truth to power in the center of the Belly of the Beast. The newly formed coalition had named itself Democracy Spring and promoted itself as nonpartisan in it's quest to remove big corporate money from our political sphere and to expand voter access. Much of the malaise in Washington can be traced back to huge monied interests holding sway over their favored duopoly of Democrats and Republicans controlling our government. I saw a great potential of focusing our energies on this fundamental cancer in our country, not on petty internal squabbles over diminishing resources and divided commitments to various causes (because really the big monied elite holding the strings are really at the root of so many of our society's ills), or to individual electoral campaigns which always seem to drain energies away from social movements during presidential election years.

An early criticism I had of Democracy Spring is that it actively encouraged people to simply pay the $50 fine if and when they were arrested by the National Capitol Police. Myself and a small handful refused to pay the fine, because we felt our right to exercise our First Amendment to petition a redress our grievances in a peaceful manner within a public forum was not illegal, and furthermore such expression should never come with a price tag. To simply pay (into the rapidly expanding police state) the protest tax and go on our merry way, seemed to communicate that, yes, you could place a monetary value on free speech (the opposite of what we were just arguing).

We elected to go to trial, and while many had their cases "no papered" or dismissed -- a minuscule number of us did get our day in court. Three of the four of us remaining decided to defend ourselves (pro se) in court. It became a rather lengthy trial with many starts and stops, because the brand new magistrate judge apparently was not well-versed in controlling her tightly packed calendar. In early September, when the judge ordered us to return for her verdict -- I was convinced we would be found guilty, and personally I was prepared refuse any and all court assigned fines, and thereby greatly increase my chances of a jail sentence. A sentence I am guessing would have been between five and 10 days in DC Jail. However, because we were rather well prepared and had eloquent arguments, we were all acquitted. Regardless of outcome, I would like to say how incredibly empowering it is to be pro se in court; to continue speaking truth to power about your campaign, which invariably goes into the court record.

I feel strongly that the First Amendment, which enshrines the right to freely express one's self in a peaceful manner and to petition one's own government for a redress of grievances is a natural and necessary function of any government claiming to be democratic. And, yes, I was prepared to go to jail to highlight and resist the burgeoning plutocracy which has seized control of our government.

One of the most attractive qualities of Democracy Spring, besides a commitment to engage in the time-honored (and very often successful) tradition of nonviolent direct action, was that it was non-partisan and seemingly focused on A) getting big money out of politics, and B) expanding voter access. Again, two very important qualities of a functioning democracy. I met Libertarians, Democrats, and fellow Greens sitting, singing, and sometimes dancing on the Capitol steps. We were unified in a great cause. We were not promoting any of our preferred candidates.

Imagine my disappointment in Democracy Spring as an organization when its interim national coordinating committee of 11 fellow progressive activists decided to trumpet a "strategic" vote for Hillary Clinton. Although they have said time and again now that it wasn't really an endorsement, as I understand American politics (and I grew up in DC and had worked on Capitol Hill many years ago) when you advocate for folks to vote for a certain candidate that is indeed an endorsement. It was now clear Democracy Spring had recast itself as partisan.

Furthermore Democracy Spring, with its 11 decision makers had made this very important decision with no input from its participants -- from the approximately 1,400 of us arrested in the nation's capital in April. To sum it up: Democracy Spring was not being democratic. They tried to explain how it all made sense strategically, as they were trying to set in place an easier playing field in which to get the reforms they desperately struggled for. But they would now play within the conventional (and corporately approved and funded) conformity of the duopoly enthroned inside the Beltway. They became partisan, and not solely focused on change through nonviolent direct action.

However, to Democracy Spring's credit they tried to communicate with their participants, sometimes more effectively than other times. But it was after the fact. And, in the end, they said they would put forward a survey and were even willing to reconsider their decision regarding the "strategic" endorsement. Although I could spend the rest of this post quibbling about the way the survey was written (with its four potential outcomes as choices), the 11 person decision making body refused to rescind its earlier "strategic" endorsement. Although I think they did a fine job explaining how they came to this final decision, I still felt deep in my heart that they were not acknowledging the thoughts and feelings of folks who had invested a lot of themselves and risked quite a lot at the birth of this new organization; many participating had never been arrested before. And more than 100 fellow activists courageously marched most (or the entire length) of the 140-mile march from Philadelphia to DC as the initiation of this mobilization.

Ultimately, Democracy Spring was pursuing an undemocratic course. I think the 11 person interim national coordinating committee is comprised of good people. I just sincerely question the organizing method they chose to pursue, and their willingness to in effect become their own elite by persisting in an undemocratic fashion. They could have pursued a different method -- they could have pursued state or regional spokes councils before ever pushing forward with such a decision. Or, perhaps even better, they could have stayed out of the presidential election, and continued to plan for their next big phase in the campaign for 2017 regardless of who won the White House. In short, they could have remained nonpartisan, which they had so proudly promoted themselves as a few months prior.

During my years of activism and a few roles as an organizer, I have always felt it was important to pursue means that clearly reflected the ends. With Democracy Spring the coordinating committee talked about its DNA and front loading their organization when it was still really just a coalition of many different groups (albeit the clear leader was 99 Rise). To be clear these early strategic maneuvers were not made transparent and were never widely shared before April. I think they would say that their honorable and laudable ends justify their untrustworthy and in fact authoritarian means. I just can't go along with a newly formed organization that has chosen such a path. I believe in the ethic Gandhi encourages us as activists to live by, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Again, I want to express respect and an acknowledgement of the goodness within the hearts and minds of the 11 activists comprising the decision making body. One of whom, I know as a great individual who has dedicated much of his life toward moving our country toward a more egalitarian and just society. I first met him through Occupy K Street. It is with loving concern that I write this blog entry, critiquing what I consider to be a serious error.

A critical factor in Democracy Spring's misstep, in my opinion, is to first assume that you know how to strategize a campaign better than a large group of fellow activists who are committing themselves to the same endeavor. To see one's self as wiser and more capable of making such strategic and substantive identity-defining decisions than your comrades at once falls into the trap of creating what could be compared to a class divide within a seemingly progressive movement. You have the small elite organizers on the one hand, and the activist drones on the other. And then further compounding the misstep and creating a graver problem for your fledgling organization is to cling to your undemocratic decision, despite being told by a majority (about 63% according to their own survey) of participants that they disagree.

But I now want to move away from this discussion of Democracy Spring. It simply illustrates some patterns of organizing I have repeatedly seen in many progressive networks and organizations. In my opinion the use of spokes councils, or direct democracy with consensus (or even modified consensus) is a preferable way to go. Through these methods you can be true to yourself, each other, and begin to actually reflect your goals which you wish to achieve in your campaigns. You become a glimpse into this better future to the greater community around you. And through the process you empower one another and can deepen each other's commitment to the cause.

It is important in our dialogue, as fellow progressive activists, that we listen to one another; to truly dedicate ourselves to learning from one another. We are all capable students, and we are all capable teachers. Having worked for a wonderful organization by the name of L'Arche in two different cities now -- I have accepted this principal of recognizing the inherit precious value and impressive potential of all to be a fundamental truth that I carry with me. It takes quite a bit of humility my friends to pursue this ethic, but I am confident we are all capable of achieving it. It is also extremely helpful approach as we struggle to build healthy relationships and communities. Please, let's be reflections of what we are hoping to perpetuate and accomplish.

In the second part of this blog entry, I will discuss why I have chosen a revolutionary path, rather than a reformist one, vis a vis social movements. It's a discussion that nicely complements what I have begun with this first half. Thank you for reading, friends and comrades.