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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.


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