- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
US activists and progressives have been inspired by the revolts and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. The recent movements in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest were echoes of our own neglected legacies of grassroots struggle. But if our movements remain limited to the Democratic Party leadership and the logic of the “lesser evil,” we’ll miss the larger significance of Tahrir Square.
In just the first few months of 2011, the global political landscape for popular protest against government policies has been transformed. With bated breath, the world has watched the heroic struggles of the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East against entrenched dictators, armed to the teeth with modern weaponry from their Western allies. Tahrir Square has become a household word. In short, ideas about revolt and revolution are in the air once again, not as utopian daydreams but as practical realities for masses of people.
Indeed, the waves of revolt and protest hit our shores soon after the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, as tens of thousands protested anti-union legislation and deep budget cuts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere. Protestors were quite deliberate in tying their struggle to Egypt. As an activist from Wisconsin reported, some signs referred to Republican Governor Scott Walker as “Hosni Walker, Elected Dictator,” and others telling us to really “Walk Like an Egyptian.” One vet’s sign read: “I was sent to Iraq to get rid of a dictator, and I won’t tolerate one here.”
You can’t underestimate the importance of this kind of old-school, international solidarity. It was thrilling enough to see a Midwestern city toss off, with one mighty heave, decades of apparent passivity, and to recover its legacies of mass agitation. Alongside this were clear signs of the beginning of a broader political awakening about international solidarity: a crucial step since it’s our tax dollars that pay for the deadly toys in authoritarian arsenals. To be sure, Egyptian activists and labor organizers were quick to recognize the gestures of solidarity. Groups like the Center for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services in Egypt sent out messages right away.
When we participate in such grassroots movements to force the government to take heed of the popular will, we’re only honoring our own history. Mass movements have created the conditions for fundamental change in this country and around the world time and time again, exposing the gap between the abstract promises of liberty and the realities of socio-economic divisions, and forcing politicians, businessmen, and other elites to change their tune. In the process, these movements enriched the political soil, creating the possibilities of further radicalization.
For example, the New Deal didn’t emerge out of FDR’s head, as the mythology goes, but was a direct product of grassroots labor organizing in the 1930s. One of the key features of this movement was to place to the fore questions of fighting racism in the labor movement, as groups like the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) challenged the closed unions of white, skilled workers like the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Similarly, the civil rights movement that exploded in the US from the mid-1950s on was a watershed event for all people, not just African Americans: its logic of emancipation and its tactics helped lay the groundwork for a vigorous antiwar movement, a new struggle for women’s rights, a gay liberation movement, and new rights for immigrant communities.
Usually, though, we’re not taught this history in our textbooks and classrooms. Rather, it’s the great kings that make history, and the great leaders that make change. Such a model of history directly serves the interests of the powers that be. As Howard Zinn puts it in A People’s History of the United States, the history of nations get presented as histories of families, “conceal[ing] fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.”
Even the civil rights movement often gets taught that way, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in for a rich, diverse, and complex series of struggles that involved millions of people—often united but also engaged in a series of debates about the best way forward. And it’s usually a particularly white-washed MLK who appears in this radically transformed history of civil rights, one who can repeat two lines of the “I Have a Dream” speech a few times—but is rarely allowed to read the rebellious cadances of his speech against the Vietnam War, “Beyond Vietnam.”
The revolts of 2011—and we’re still only in April!—have taught us that revolutions are indeed possible, and that we need to think beyond single-issue movements and develop a broader vision about the kind of world we want to see.
But we’ve also learned that there is no such thing as a smooth forward march, no “up, up, and away.” The early victories in Tunisia and Egypt thrilled us with the radical possibilities of popular struggle. But the crushing of dissent in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria and the need for renewed struggle in Egypt have underlined how difficult it is to make fundamental change.
Add to this the geo-political complexities. The West—finding its feet once more after being caught off-guard by the toppling of dictator-allies in Tunisia and Egypt—has once again resurrected that old catch-all term, “humanitarian intervention,” to assure us that this time it’s really on the side of democracy and equality. Apparently, in Libya it’s necessary to help rebels against a brutal regime, but in Bahrain it’s perfectly fine to allow Saudi Arabia to crush the revolt.
If we’re going to truly rebuild our future out of the economic, political and military crises our government creates globally, we’re going to have to revive independent movements from below.
A good place to continue the legacy of the protests at Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere would be the current, bipartisan budget which is, according to Obama, “the largest annual spending cut in our history.” By any measure, the budget proposals are far from any vision of “hope” that progressives would subscribe to. Half of the $38 billion in cuts come from education, labor and health programs, according to the Washington Post.
Taking on the budget, confronting the wars in Libya and elsewhere, deepening the labor militancy expressed in February across the Midwest—all of this will set us on a collision course with the Democratic Party. Every movement and every country has its distinct questions, and this is ultimately a major question that will be crucial for our moving forward: will we continue to tolerate the “evil” that comes along with any “lesser evil,” or will we challenge government attacks on ordinary people—whether here or abroad—regardless of who is in office?
The movements of the late-1960s, in fact, faced the same political challenge as they converged around Vietnam. At a certain point, the fact that Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat mattered less than the fact that he had doubled the number of troops in Vietnam. King’s 1967 antiwar speeches represented a rejection of the Democrat line, and disturbed many in the civil rights movement who wished to maintain the artificial divide between domestic and foreign policy. For King, such compartmentalized thinking failed to recognize how US militarism destroys the US socio-economic fabric: as he put it in another speech, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”
The last straw was when Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago ordered cops to beat and gas antiwar protestors at the Democratic Nation Convention in 1968. A significant section of antiwar and civil rights activists–initially hopeful that peace candidate Eugene McCarthy might win the nomination and end the war—broke with the Democrats and looked to organize independently of them. In doing so, they played a key role in stopping the war and in dealing a major blow to US imperialist plans.
This July, I’m going to be attending the Socialism 2011 conference in Chicago, an event where over 1500 leftists and progressives will be learning about and debating and discussing the exciting developments of this last year—along with forums on struggles of the past and political questions. Featured speakers will include a diverse group, from Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, the legendary John Carlos of the 1968 Olympics, activists from the Egyptian revolution, participants in the Wisconsin protests, the Campaign to the End Death Penalty’s Marlene Martin, and radical sportswriter Dave Zirin.
Whether you’re person who usually “holds your nose and votes Democrat” or whether you prefer Malcolm X’s line, if you want to fight these draconian budget cuts, demand an end to the war, or just get into discussions about such things with other activists, consider the conference.
For this is a time for us to think, just like they are in North Africa and the Middle East, though on a different scale, about how we can take up the political obstacles in our path and push forward for a more just world—relying on our principles of justice, democracy, and anti-imperialism, and not the electoral calculations of a political party.