by Paul Street
BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors Iowa City speech, according to Paul Street, fell short of any class analysis of the Trump victory, how to fight facism, or the road ahead. While the Movement For Black Lives declined to endorse presidential candidates, its vision still does not reach beyond the confines of the two ruling parties. And socialism, despite Bernie Sanders, is a word the BLM leaders never mention.
Revolution Beyond Blue Bubbles
by Paul Street
“We are witnessing,” the engaging Black Lives Matter founder/hash-tagger Patrisse Cullors told a full theater audience of predominantly white University of Iowa students in downtown Iowa City last Monday night, “the erosion of U.S. democracy.” President Trump, Cullors said, “is building a police state.”
“We must hold our elected officials accountable,” Ms. Cullors added, after giving an address in which she related having gone into a two-week depression after Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. She had not expected Trump to win.
Ms. Cullors told the audience that she knew how to fight Hillary Clinton but “not how to fight fascism.” She wonders now BLM did “enough to educate people about the differences between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, between fascism and neoliberalism.”
It was good to see Ms. Cullors receive a standing campus-town ovation after a talk in which she recounted how the murder of Trayvon Martin by “security guard” George Zimmerman “cracked open white peoples’ fantasy” about a “post-racial America” in the Age of Obama.
It was good to hear the audience laugh when she mocked the many whites who told her during the Obama years that Blacks had nothing more to demand from America because “you’ve got the White House, what more do you want?” (As if racism is about nothing more than the color of people’s faces in high places. I warned about this from the start of the Obama phenomenon).
It was good also to hear Ms. Cullors:
remind the audience that the large number of Black people killed by white police and other white Americans include women like Renita McBride and Sandra Bland as well as young men like Mike Brown and Freddie Gray.
talk unapologetically about BLM’s decision last year to shut-down presidential candidates in the Democratic as well as the Republican Party.
call for a redirection of resources from neo-Nixonian “law and order” policing to jobs, schools, housing, and health care when it comes to tackling the problems of Black America.
note that BLM’s struggle for racial justice extends to the whole world (since “Black people don’t just live in America”) and to struggles for prisoners’ rights, the end of racist mass incarceration, and to the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
connect BLM to Standing Rock and express horror at Trump’s moves to dismantle environmental protections.
say that “All of our movements must join together at this time.” (Indeed, they must: Trump sits atop a concerted, centralized, and many-sided right wing white-nationalist assault on the populace, livable ecology, and the whole world. We have to climb out of our single-issue “silos” [Cullors’ excellent word] to defeat this attack).
say that “we need to gather” and to see and remember “how powerful we are.” (This, too, is a key point: our strength is in numbers and solidarity and will not get very far from a stance of fear and division.)
But surely Ms. Cullors knows that the United States has been under the grip of a finance-led corporate oligarchy and building a militarized police state for many years now, under Obama44 as under Bush43 and before. Yes, Trump45 is trying taking American authoritarianism to a new or next level (trying perhaps to build a deep state within the deep state) but the “erosion of democracy” and the construction of a significantly fascistic police state have been under way since long before the orange-haired beast made his lethal leap from reality television to the White House. We must resist left amnesia about such terrible things.
I was surprised to hear Ms. Cullors say nothing in her 45-minute talk about the U.S. “defense” (empire) budget. The Pentagon System accounts for 37% of global military spending and eats up 54.6% of federal discretionary spending, stealing resources needed to meet the needs of the 15 million U.S. children living below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Those children are very disproportionately Black.
The American military spreads chaos across Black Africa, where Obama dramatically expanded the presence of U.S. armed forces. And its surplus hardware helps stock the ever more militarized racist police state that BLM and other Black activists have been confronting in the Trayvon Martin-Mike Brown-Sandra Bland years. Militarism and empire are integral to the corporatized deep police state that has been forming for decades.
I was bothered also to hear her Ms. Cullors say nothing in her talk about the problem of class rule and the plight of the multiracial working class, including the white working class. Like Ms. Cullors, I did not expect Trump to prevail last November, though I was less surprised and (for reasons discussed eight paragraphs below) less depressed by the election’s outcome than her.
But since she used the key word “neoliberalism,” Ms. Cullors must know that Mrs. Clinton lost to a “fascist” in large part because of her captivity to the nation’s neoliberal corporate and financial elite, which has abandoned the white and multiracial working class over the long stretch of the neoliberal era (1975 to the present). Thanks to that captivity – political-economic, ideological, and even cultural in nature – the “inauthentic opposition party” (Sheldon Wolin’s term) that is the Democratic Party has handed the white working class vote to the white-nationalist Republican Party. It’s an old story now.
This would not have been a tough point to make in Iowa City, where voters, young ones above all, went mad for Bernie Sanders in the Iowa Caucus. I was a harsh and consistent left critic of Sanders, on questions of Empire, race, and the futility of major party electoral politics. But even I acknowledge that Bernie ran, however sheepishly, against the corporate and financial plutocracy. I have the strong sense that he would have done far better (maybe even prevailed) against Trump than Hillary because of his superior ability to connect with white rural and working class voters.
I’m no Sanders fan, God knows (it was predictably obscene to hear Saint Bernie applaud “corporate patriotism” and express his willingness to work with Trump after the election) and I gave up on the Democratic Party in 1979, one year before the first election I was old enough to “participate” in. But if Ms. Cullors is reconsidering her stance on (and within) major party politics during the last election cycle, does she wonder if BLM (or her version of it) “did enough to educate people” about the difference between a militantly neoliberal candidate like Hillary and an at least semi-social-democratic and anti-neoliberal candidate like Sanders? And what about third parties? Did BLM try to tell people about the Stein-Baraka Green Party ticket and platform, which advocated common sense revolutionary reforms like a giant peace dividend to fund planet-saving Green Jobs programs, single-payer health insurance, and massive social reconstruction programs in the nation’s ghettoes, barrios, and reservations?
If they are going to meaningfully and effectively fight Trumpian fascism and racism, the mostly white and progressive kids who crowded into Iowa City’s Englert theater last Monday must leap outside their little blue identity-politicized university and campus-town bubbles. They must, of course, work with and though particularities of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation. But there are socialist, democratic, and working class solidarity-building ways of doing that and there are hateful, neoliberal, and top-down “divide-and-rule” ways of dealing with those particularities. A real progressive activist must strive for the former. Hillary represented the latter and toxic variant of bourgeois identity politics – a version that disastrously tossed many of the everyday people who repair cars, maintain city parks, build pallets, drive trucks, clean sewers, do construction, take patients’ blood pressure, stock warehouses, and who do countless other low-pay and low-status jobs into “a basket of deplorables.”
Young white middle-class campus town progressives need to connect with each other (beyond single-issue “silos”), with people of color, with immigrants, with Indigenous people, and with the all-important ecology issue, of course. But they also need to reach out to white working class people who are struggling to keep their heads above water within and beyond highly class- (as well as race-) privileged and increasingly expensive communities like Iowa City. They need to connect with rural and rustbelt red zone realities.
It’s do-able. Contrary to what many white middle class professionals seem to think in this and other university towns, the Caucasian proletariat is not a big monolithic mass of frothing racists, nativists, sexists, gay-bashers, eco-cidalists, arch-militarists, and incipient fascists. Many if not most white working class folks would back a seriously fighting and populist social-democratic party if such a thing could have a meaningful presence in American political life.
They can be engaged and even (imagine) learned from – not just spoken to. And here’s a hint: it doesn’t do much good to lecture folks on their “white privilege” when they are barely making it in shitty jobs that don’t match the ever-rising costs of health care, housing, food, and clothing and more. Appeal rather to their material and political interests in working class solidarity across (very real) differences (and identities) of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, age, and sexual orientation.
If Hillary had won, the plutocratic “erosion of U.S. democracy” would still be continuing apace, though less transparently and with a more campus town-calming guise of liberal triumph and “diversity.” The same can be said of the expanding police state. And of the ever-deadlier destruction of livable ecology by “anthropogenic” (really capitalogenic) climate change.
At the same time, if Hillary had won, I doubt there’d be all that much progressive ferment in campus town America and in other liberal outposts right now. No small part of what has long made the Democrats “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford) among the two reigning parties is their distinctive capacity to put progressives and liberals to sleep when they hold nominal power in high elected office. Many “left” Americans seem incapable of seriously resisting often fascistic neoliberal and imperial policies unless they are being carried out by vicious white Republicans like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.
Desperately required is a mass, radically green, democratic. and multiracial, working class socialist party – a party that would garner significant and possibly majority popular support if it could exist in the American political system. But it isn’t allowed to exist in that system. A revolution beneath and beyond major party electoral politics and its quadrennial extravaganzas is required. That revolution would involve stepping outside the Blue Bubble and taking on not just one but all of what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the triple evils that are interrelated” – racism, capitalism, and imperialism. And some other ones too, including sexism/patriarchy, ecocide/extractivism, and a bourgeois, state-capitalist electoral politics that functions as fake-democratic “marionette theater” for a corporate and military deep state that has been grinding down “U.S. democracy” (if such a thing ever really existed) for as long as I can remember. Among this revolution’s demands we must include a new political system consistent with Americans’ longstanding majority belief that the nation’s two reigning capitalist and imperial political organizations do not remotely reflect the real spectrum of public political opinion.
Postscript: Harry Belafonte on the Left Vacuum, Liberal Compromise, and National History that Produced Trump
Last Sunday, The New York Times published a long piece on the soon-to-be 90-years-old Harry Belafonte. The article included some remarkable insights from the longtime Black celebrity and Civil Rights activist. “The rewards for what we achieved in the civil right movement” Belafonte reflected, “have more than corrupted the movement…Once they went into electoral politics,” Belafonte said of Sixties-generation Civil Rights leaders like Andy Young and John Lewis, who became elected officials, “they abandoned the community. They abandoned that work” of advancing social justice.
Those are words worth heeding for any contemporary Civil Rights activist who is thinking or rethinking their relationship to the Democratic Party, the nation’s longstanding leading graveyard of social movements.
Times reporter John Leland asked the singer and activist what he thought about Trump’s ascendancy. Belafonte’s reflection, steeped in a life long enough for him to have boyhood recollections of the war against German fascism, do not reflect well on the Obama years and what passes for liberalism today:
“I often think about how the German right emerged in the ‘30s…and what came of that....what is it that we want as a people and a nation that makes Trump so attractive? …I think it’s an opportunity for the left to take this wake-up call. We need to be much more radical in what we do and how we do it than we have been up to now. The liberal community has compromised itself out of existence. The black community has been so passive in response to this onslaught. Labor is strangely silent. All those reverends that were part of the progressive front are no longer heard from in any provocative way. And out of that vacuum comes Trump.”
So Belafonte roots Trump significantly in the abject neoliberal nothingness of contemporary so-called liberalism, which “compromised itself out of existence” during the Obama years and before. And yet now he sees Trump’s rise as an “opportunity,” a “wake-up call” telling citizens and activists to “be much more radical.” That’s more wise counsel.
Interestingly, though Belafonte published last month a Times Op Ed comparing Trump’s administration to a “Fourth Reich,” he told Leland that (in Leland’s words) “Trump was not a break from America’s traditions but a resurfacing of energies that have been there all along.”
“I look at him as a continuation,” Belafonte said, “With all the images that we throw up about our generosity as a nation and so forth, American tends to ignore the fact that there is a parallel history from which we come that’s not so pleasant. And I think Donald Trump reminds us that that value, that negative component, is still strongly in our midst.”
So perhaps Trump’s ascendancy is not as radically discontinuous with American history as many liberals and progressives want to think.
What about Occupy and BLM, the two main popular movements to emerge in the Obama years? Belafonte was impressed by their “energy,” he told Leland, but he “felt,” in Leland’s words, “that both lacked an ideology to make real change.”
Paul Street is the author of numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007)