Following the participation of a diverse range of people at the 2 October One Nation march in Washington DC, Horace Campbell discusses the need for resurgent solidarity, effective challenges to a politics unrepresentative of the needs of the majority and building a new social movement in the US.
MARCHING OR MOBILISING
On 2 October 2010, around 175,000 people from over 300 different organisations gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and the Washington Mall to hear speeches by numerous leaders on the theme of ‘One nation: working together for jobs, peace, education and justice.’ Comprising traditional labour, civil rights, peace, education, environment and GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual) groups, these groups were making their statement about the need for a society that places human beings ahead of profits. Speaker after speaker decried the ‘massive tax giveaways to the rich when 50 per cent of our children are living in poverty’. There were signs all over the mall calling for the arrest and ‘locking up the Wall Street crooks’. As one of the marchers who listened to the four-and-half hours of speeches, I would like to say that the most significant aspect of this march was its positive and inclusive character. There were blacks and whites, young and old, gay and straight, workers and students, unwaged and wage earners, Latinos and Asians, and citizens from all walks of life. In fact, what was striking about this inclusiveness was that it reflected the multinational and the multiethnic character of the US. The multiethnic composition of the marchers did in fact conceptually render the theme of the march contradictory to the character of the march.
UNITY AND DIVERSITY OF THE WORKING PEOPLES
The march and the diversity of the social forces in motion were a major step in moving from the celebration of ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ that have informed the mobilisation for wars and militarism in the past. One speaker, from the First Nation Peoples, called on the people present to work for a new society which recognises the differences and common humanity of all. It was a way of stating that the First Nation people have always supported the idea of a shared humanity. This intervention of the First Nation speaker was the clearest reminder that the United States was a society of many nations and many peoples with many languages. This is in itself a strength that came out. But this strength was undermined by the intellectual and ideological lag of those who hold onto the concept of the nation-state. It is a conceptual drawback coming from the capitalist classes that continues to hold society from realising its full potential. The 2 October 2010 One Nation march was a clear response to the conservative Tea Party Nation and its racist orientation.
The Tea Party Nation describes itself as a ‘group of like-minded people who desire our God given Individual Freedoms which were written out by the Founding Fathers. We believe in Limited Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure Borders and our Country.’ The Tea Party Nation has been campaigning across US society under the slogan ‘We want our nation back’. This is an explicit statement by the conservative forces that they want a white nation in the United States. This contradiction between the vision of a white nation and a multiracial and multinational society is one that was addressed by many speakers.
WHO WERE THE FORCES IN MOTION?
I was very pleased that the first group that I saw was a group of Koreans marching for justice and peace under the banner of ‘Koreans united for peace and jobs’. Then I met a group of Latinos marching behind the banner of ‘La raza’. Marchers had come into the US capital on over 2,000 buses from all over the country, and the subway exit into the mall was like a huge throng for over three hours.
Everywhere in the mall, there were marches within the big march, with groups from different parts of the country carrying banners demanding jobs, peace and justice. This diversity of groups meant that although the political and organisational leadership of the march was under the traditional trade union organisations such as the UAW (United Auto Workers), SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations), there was a major presence of the peace and justice forces who organised literature stands and small marches. This was a network of marches in marches and protests within protest. One group paraded a huge plastic elephant portraying the billions being spent on war with the slogan ‘The elephant in the room’.
This was a disguised reference to the fact that the establishments in the Senate, the White House and Congress were carrying forward the policies of the Republicans by continuing the wars that had been initiated during the Bush administration. It was also another reminder that when Dwight D. Eisenhower had remarked on the military–industrial complex in the USA, he had included the US Congress, who acted as errand boys and girls for the militarists.
As a veteran of the peace movement, it was different for me to see mainstream union members who were out in force. I participated in this historic event at a section where there were members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in bright yellow shirts. Other civil rights workers were prominent in their blue t-shirts. Workers from the International Association of Machinists brought their long history of struggles for jobs with justice; they brought out a call for workers to align with communities and with persons in church groups so that the struggles of the workers move from the work place to the community. Labour unions, faith-based groups, students and others have been working all across the country to call on actions across racial lines and across the barriers between workers and the unwaged. Santa Gupta from Jobs with Justice spoke eloquently at a pre-demonstration rally at RFK stadium on the need for those who are currently employed to stand in solidarity with the jobless. The new media can bring this message to all communities, especially for those who were not at the 2 October 2 One Nation march.
Workers from established trade unions such as the United Auto Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL-CIO, National Education Association (NEA), Communications Workers of America and the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) were very prominent. Many of these leaders gave short speeches and there was no hint of self-criticism from the top union officials over their past support for the militaristic and jingoist policies. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was introduced as a long-standing militant and his speech steered away from the vexing question of war in the midst of a depression. Trumka said boldly:
‘There is nothing -- and I mean nothing -- we can't do when we stand together, side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder. There is no power greater than what you see all around you here today in our nation's capital.’
Trunka requested a promise from those gathered:
‘Promise that you won't let anybody divide us, or turn us against each other. And promise that you will make your voices heard -- for good jobs, justice, and education – today, and on Election Day!
‘Because we believe in America -- in this One Nation, this great nation! Our best days are ahead, not behind us.’
As the head of the largest trade union centre in the country, Trunka could have been much more explicit in his call for workers to be part of the anti-racist and anti-imperialist force that is now needed to avoid the massive racist mobilisation of the Tea Party Nation.
FIGHTING RACISM AND CHAUVINISM IN THE US
The rally in the US was an important anti-racist front coming a month after Glenn Beck and the conservative forces organised a rally at the same venue to hijack the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. This One Nation march was an attempt to bring working people together against racism. Ed Schultz of MSNBC was most forthright in his anti-racist appeal. Schultz can be distinguished from other liberals who have been passive in the face of the rising racism in the US. I mention Schultz because many of the trade union leaders do not want to confront the reality of whiteness and the role of big capitalists in stirring up racial divisions among the working people. It has been the phenomenon of whiteness that allowed the capitalists to blunt the distinctions between white workers and white capitalists. The reality of the concentrated efforts of the billionaires to finance the Tea Party Nation is that poor working people are being steered to fight against their own interests. Therefore, although there is no appetite for war among the working people, the Tea Party Nation is carrying forward a militaristic message, instigating the kind of divisions that are preludes to open warfare.
President/CEO Ben Jealous of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) beseeched the massive turnout to look towards the multi-racial future of the United States. Evoking the long struggle for equal rights, Jealous asserted that, ‘We’ve come too far to turn back now.’ ‘We’ve got to go home and ask our friends and ask our neighbors to vote. Get up off the couch and get out and vote November 2,’ he appealed.
Nearly all the speakers made reference to the fact that billions are being spent on war while millions are unemployed and communities need to be cleaned up. Veterans such as Harry Belafonte and Jesse Jackson made references to the historic march of August 1963 in Washington. Belafonte eloquently outlined the idiocy of the wars in Afghanistan and the billions that are being spent in fighting an unwinnable war.
Belafonte said firmly and clearly:
‘The wars that we wage today in faraway lands are immoral, unconscionable and unwinnable.’
Belafonte comes from a tradition of organisers who were in the civil rights revolution. Invoking the long traditions of peace and justice from the era of Martin Luther King, since the march on 2 October hundreds have watched his presentation on YouTube.
Belafonte called for an end to all wars. Jesse Jackson followed up with this link between peace and civil rights and called for a cut in the military budget. Both Belafonte and Jackson were speaking with the memories of the massive mobilisation that had taken place in the United States to defeat Jim Crow. Belafonte was saying that it was only the organisation and mobilisation of the people that can defeat the contemporary Jim Crows who ‘want their country back.’
When the march in Washington took place in 1963, those who gathered in Washington came from long traditions of struggle, and whether from the Mississippi Delta, the bus boycott or the sit-ins at lunch counters, the march brought together people who had been mobilising and organising. The challenge today is to build on the work that is being done in every community for peace, jobs, environmental justice, civil rights and the rights of same-sex people.
We must learn from those who paved the way but build with the new insights from the 50 years of struggle since the civil rights revolution. A young student from Gallaudet University spoke clearly that the civil rights struggles of today were not only anti-racist struggles, but struggles for all citizens, regardless of abilities. (In the United States the Gallaudet University is the world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard of hearing undergraduate students.)
Here was a student who was deemed disabled by society making a passionate plea for the society to be more inclusive and that this inclusiveness must start from those who would want their own rights.
Here was a call for technologies to be mobilised for the health and wellbeing of all in the society. One young woman from the LBGT community challenged the traditional civil rights leaders to be more forceful in fighting homophobia and sexism in their communities. This call from the LBGT community was a call to all struggling forces around the world who want to end oppression yet want to oppress those of same-sex orientation.
CONNECTING THE STRUGGLES ACROSS THE SOCIETY
The very strength of the march – its diversity and inclusiveness – meant that there was a clear, consistent analysis about the nature of the economic crisis and why militarism is so central to those in power. What was missing from this One Nation rally was a clear analysis of how the ruling class and those in power were using the structural crisis of capitalism to shift a greater burden on working peoples. During the last capitalist depression of 1929–45, the colonial oppressors were clear that the salvation of capitalism lay in the super-exploitation of those in the colonies. European capitalists intensified the plunder of Africa, and it is now more difficult for the North American and European capitalists to have their way in Africa and Asia. The rise of China has delimited the spaces for US capitalists and there was a need for workers in the USA to grasp the reality that the new call for China to open up its currency was a subtext for a new round of xenophobia to defend US and European capitalists.
In fact, there was a great effort by many of the speakers to avoid a criticism of capitalism – but this was the elephant on the mall. Students and workers from all parts of the country have been involved in actions against the intensified exploitation. The nature of this capitalist crisis is very different insofar as nations and states are facing bankruptcy. California, with its big deficit of over US$34 billion, is the poster child of this new face of the capitalist crisis. It is in California that students and workers have been engaged in prolonged struggles against a state government that has been spending billions on prisons rather than on education. It is this same state government that promotes divisions within the prison system so that black and Latino workers are fighting each other in prison and in their communities. The One Nation march on Washington was very clear on its position that all immigrants must have rights whether these were ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ immigrants. This call from California to Maine is a call that opposes the anti-immigrant sentiments that are being whipped up across the country.
Over the past year, the intensity of the cuts in California has led to numerous battles with students and workers registering victories. These victories were not communicated because so much of the energy of the speakers was focused on calling people to register to vote on 2 November. Trunka of the AFL-CIO outlined that the AFL-CIO was going to call on workers to ‘knock on doors’ so that working people could come out to vote to ensure that the Republicans did not take over Congress. What Trunka did not address was whether this mobilisation would continue after the 2 November elections.
Many youths did not identify with this One Nation march precisely because of the focus on the midterm by the establishment forces. From my community, members of the peace and justice forces converged on Washington because they understood that this struggle was going to be there long after 2 November. The organisation for election is very different from the organising for long-term change, so while I would agree that it is important that the right-wing forces do not capture Congress, it is even more important that grassroots organising continues beyond the march in Washington for structural changes in society.
THE MEDIA AND THE ONE NATION RALLY
After the march I looked at the major newspapers to see how they would characterise this event that brought out the richness and diversity of the US. It became clear that the main media wanted to act as if this event did not take place. The same media that had given intense coverage to the utterance of the Tea Party leaders and those who stir up anti-Islam sentiment want to act as if the working people are not in motion. This silence of the mainstream media places more importance on the need to strengthen alternative media among progressives. The alternative media must develop the capabilities to expose the reality that the One Nation march on Washington was not an isolated US event. All over the world, from South Africa to Iceland, workers have been organising to defend their standard of living.
In the same week, there were workers demonstrating in France, England, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland and Spain. So, the march in the US was not an isolated phenomenon but the response of workers to the intensified exploitation in the midst of economic depression. Whether this exploitation is called austerity measure or reducing overheads, workers are battling to maintain a decent standard of living. In France, where the militancy of the workers has brought out millions on the street, the government has tried to use division among the people by whipping up anti-Islam and anti-Roma sentiments. The expulsion of the Roma people from France has been one of the efforts to blunt the militancy of the working people, and it requires full-time mobilising and organising to beat back the long history of racism and chauvinism in Europe.
In the United States, racism is so deep that the traditional organisations do not want to confront the realities. This is especially the case in the education sector. While there was a major presence of teachers and those from the National Education Association at the march, the teachers who are fighting to preserve their jobs have so far refrained from taking up the issue of racism in the textbooks and racism in the very structure of the US educational system. AFT (American Federation of Teachers) President Randi Weingarten called for ‘a new era of excellence and equity in America's public schools’ and urged people to join with America's teachers to ensure ‘great, quality public education’. However, this leader of one of the major teachers’ unions failed to be explicit on what it would take to achieve equity in the public schools to halt the neoliberal drive towards charter schools and the privatisation of education.
Students in California are being most explicit in the linkages between the anti-racist struggles, the anti-imperialist struggles and the anti-war struggles. At California State University at Fullerton, students took over the administration building and declared that they were:
‘putting ourselves in direct solidarity with the “occupations” that have been occurring the world over from universities to factories to foreclosed homes; from Asia to Europe to Africa to Central and South America and, now, here in the United States.’
It is this international solidarity that must now be built beyond the organising for elections. When I first heard of this plan for the march, it was clear that there were sections of the congressional Democrats who envisioned the march as one way to get to the grassroots. However, the explicit and autonomous organising by the peace and justice forces within the One Nation rally was a reminder that the peace and justice forces cannot be turned on and off for politicians. The people wanted an end to the bailout of Goldman Sachs and the bankers. Al Sharpton said clearly at the rally”
‘We bailed out the banks. We bailed out the insurance companies. Now it’s time to bail out the American people.’
This movement in the US must return to the internationalism of yesterday when the civil rights and anti-war forces linked up with the anti-apartheid forces. While there have been calls to bail out the people, there were many banners calling for ‘healthcare not warfare’. These banners must now be informed by a generalised opposition to the militarists and plans for the US Africa Command (AFRICOM).
The Obama administration cannot expect to continue the same militaristic policies and win the support of the workers and unemployed. One message was sent to Obama and the White House by the voters of Washington DC who voted out Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee. These were politicians and administrators who wanted to restructure education in a way that supports the privatisation of education. Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan have not yet learnt the lessons of the anger of the people, and the call by speakers of the One Nation rally for people to go out and vote will be meaningless until the people begin to understand that the challenge is to build a new society.
Van Jones, who was hounded out of the Obama administration by the right-wing and the corporate media, tried to give a vision of a future based on a clean environment powered by wind and solar energy. The vision of Van Jones was however constrained by his unwillingness to now learn the full lessons of the intransigence of the capitalist class and the corporate media that are now bent on ensuring that counterrevolution takes over society. Rupert Murdoch has crossed a line and Obama and Cass Sunstein are afraid to confront Murdoch and the corporate media who are whipping up hatred. Obama and the Democrats who hope to benefit from the One Nation march must act to halt the train to open warfare.
The left and progressive forces joined the One Nation rally because they understood that it is the new organising that can take the people through elections and sustain the networks that must be built to fight against the counterrevolutionary forces who are seeking to ‘restore [dis">honor.’ Belafonte said clearly that this was the organisation against totalitarianism. I agree with UAW President Bob King, who stated that, ‘We have to rebuild a social movement in America.’ He needed to go further to say that this social movement must be a movement for a new social system.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Horace Campbell is the author of 'Barack Obama and Twenty First century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA'.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.