Yesterday, I flipped my whole schedule around and ditched my family for seven hours to attend a one-day conference sponsored by the Center for Political Education. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was the right way to spend my Saturday but I knew a few things; 1. I had to get away from soaking in politics only from screens, and 2. that my hesitation was rooted in fear, and 3. my family would be totally fine without me (update: they survived).
I hadn’t heard of any of the speakers but when I read Linda Burham’s notes on the election I was motivated to attend, sending flying kisses to my daughter as I rushed out with a randomly packed bag of snacks, pen, and a notebook. Since the Election of 2016, I’ve been trying my best to hunt down new voices, new sources of information, history, guidance, and inspiration. This doesn’t mean reading conservative news outlets, buddying up with Trump voters or researching conservative think tanks. Rather, I’ve been trying to follow the trail of those who weren’t shocked by what happened, who were paying attention and had seen the signs. What I’m learning in the past few months, was there were a lot of people screaming in the woods about the oncoming backlash and groundwork for Trump’s ascendency. I somewhat heard their faint calls and would think; “Naa, did I hear that? Hmm, must’ve been my imagination. All is fine.” I encourage you to read Burham’s full notes but the conclusion she came to in May 2016 was this:
The U.S. left is not strong enough – not nearly strong enough – to frame its own choices. Every choice that is framed for us by the center and the right will be agonizingly difficult. The key issue is whether the choices we make create the possibility to build our strength and move in the direction of a coherent strategy, or further weaken and marginalize our already fragmented and debilitated forces.
The conference was held at UC Berkeley and I’ve always had a Dead Poet’s Society-like nostalgia about being a college student on such a campus but on days like this, I also feel free to teach myself, whenever and however I want! I walked briskly, filled with purpose, without motherly guilt, and ready to deepen my political clarity. I went alone, only knowing one person who I’d met briefly while campaigning for police reform in Oakland. And I felt proud to push myself to fill my brain with new ideas, fully open-minded to listen intently and to LISTEN HARD.
The lecture hall was packed, CPE said that they had twice as many attendees as expected, portending the enthusiasm for a movement forming right before us. The keynote opened with a reminder that UC Berkeley was built on sacred Ohlone burial grounds. Then we were asked to stand and participate in a traditional Ohlone blessing to the seven directions and asked to invoke the name of our ancestors, children, women, men in our lives and honor the heavens above, the earth below and the energy that connects us all. And just like that, the whole day was framed with poignancy and history that grounded us.
Linda Burham opened with a keynote that focused on short-term and long-term arcs of history. As soon as her full speech is made available I will post it because it was filled with so much detail, history and analysis I need to watch it again. It was clear she could’ve spoken for hours, and we all would’ve sat in rapt attention. Linda opened with a poem by June Jordan, a poet I had never heard of before but was honored she was brought into the room. Here is an excerpt (slightly paraphrased) of what was read from Jordan’s book “From Sea to Shining Sea”, published in 1982:
This was not a good time to be married.
This was not a good time to buy a house at 18% interest.
This was not a good time to rent housing on a completely decontrolled rental market.
This was not a good time to be a Jew when the national Klan agenda targets Jews as well as Blacks among its enemies of the purity of the people
This was not a good time to be a tree
This was not a good time to be a river
This was not a good time to be found with a gun
This was not a good time to be found without one
This was not a good time to be gay
This was not a good time to be Black
This was not a good time to be a pomegranate or an orange
This was not a good time to be against the natural order
This is not such a hot time for you or for me
I post these words to illustrate one refrain I heard over and over again. Trump is not new. We’ve seen this before. Linda said, “We are troubled and in trouble. But if you woke up shocked after the election you weren’t paying attention.” I was home, this is what I wanted to understand, the historical context and hidden agendas that had been in play for decades. She also tempered her speech by saying she didn’t have answers and went so far to suggest that “anybody with ready-made answers is possibly a charlatan.” Lately, I’ve heard from so many that want answers, easy fixes, a clear plan, one that doesn’t involve protesting, or direct engagement and to hear long-time activists without answers was at the same time humbling and uncomfortable. Despite the lack of clear solutions, I still believe it’s important to research in order to create new strategies because it feels like we’re on the cusp of creating a newly reformed leftist, progressive movement. At least this is the hope, that a center-left coalition based mass movement that is inclusive of many perspectives, with an agenda that is formed from the ground up will fill the current void. I have glimmers of cautious optimism this will happen and agree that anybody with easy, ready-made solutions for progress should be met with scrutiny.
About halfway though a funny thing happened, I started to lose my confidence and sense of purpose. Listening to the panelists, diving into a very deep pool of experience, knowledge and different points of view than I was used to hearing started to erode my groundedness. I sat alone, eating my smashed, almond butter and grape jelly sandwich and watched groups of people hugging, interacting, chatting, and it became obvious that many had crossed paths before. Instantly, I felt alienated, alone and intimidated and of course, I went for my digital security blanket and posted an honest (maybe pathetic) little screed about how I wished I hadn’t squandered my calling. And it’s true, all I could feel was a deep sense of regret that I hadn’t figured out a way to work for organizations that had been leading the fight for social justice and human rights when I was much younger and more energized. I kept kicking myself, thinking how much further I’d be in my journey if I had the confidence to stick with my convictions. I felt a longing for the activated, captivated youth that I remembered before I went down a path of self-destruction (don’t worry, more essays to come about this personal story).
But being alone, also forced me to re-write notes and condense my thoughts in the moment, and I felt disciplined, like a hungry student. So here are my lightbulb moments, written at a break before the final wrap-up, scrawled with a pen running out of ink, in no particular order and based on what I heard after six hours of panels and lectures:
- We must move past the “liberal panic over identity politics” and understand the delusion of the master. The Election of 2016 was not a response to counter identity politics, rather a culmination of a 40-year strategy to regain white supremacy (i.e Paul Manafort began his Southern Strategy with Reagan’s campaign). It was a fairly predictable backlash to changing demographics.
- The false of idea of “choice” (health care, charter schools, opting out of Unions) perpetuates neoliberalism and diminishes collectivism and protection for all citizens. (Neoliberalism defined as making markets where markets didn’t exist before or moving from centralized governmental agencies to privatization).
- We must rebuild the left, learn from the lessons of 2016 that exposed flaws in our system. We are working on new terrain that is not in our control. The weakened left must rebuild a broad base of radicals, moderates, and corporatist liberals to form a strong electoral strategy and not continue to cede voters to the powerful Conservative movement. Currently, the left is bereft of an electoral strategy. However, finding common cause is the most effective weapon against fascism.
- Neoliberal and capitalistic policies that were allowed to take root under the Democrats will now be exploited by Trump’s amped up repressive form of conservatism on steroids.
- There is a deep concern for the protection of free speech, and the personal safety of protesters as the police will be empowered to use their military-style weapons. We must prepare for the worst and at the same time, we must not let our “revolutionary imagination” become subdued (an example of how dialectal thinking is necessary).
- Bernie and his supporters created a beachhead for progressive ideas but right now his platform is weak and it’s Achilles heel is his reliance on race and gender neutral messages that didn’t create a coalition until Black Lives Matter activists pushed him into this arena. However, there is an opportunity to build this coalition and tap into the energy generated by his supporters. No progressive political movement can succeed unless the struggle of people of color is central.
- Trump is not new. We are experiencing the backlash that has historical reference. The black struggle for freedom had always inspired other disenfranchised groups to fight for their rights and this combined movement always sparked a backlash. The white activist movement coalesced around mobilizing resentments of the white working class as they have in the first and second reformations. They also exploited the fears of inevitable demographic shifts. We are on the eve of a third reformation (ie. Rev. Barber’s Moral Monday’s movement).
Here is a bunch of additional research to dive deeper as a self-directed student of the movement, and in my opinion, it’s utterly crucial to understand terms that are flying around and become deeply rooted in history. The more I learn, I am simultaneously freaked out and also comforted by the similar patterns that have always existed.
Terms and theories to research further:
- Neoliberal multi-culturalism
- 1st and 2nd reformations
- Community defense organizations
- Trump’s “New Deal for Black America”
Books, papers and authors/poets mentioned:
- June Jordon
- Adrienne Rich
- Audre Lorde
- “Mobilizing Resentment”
- “The Soul of Black Fok” W.E.B Du Bois
- Frederick Douglass, particularly his comments on Lincoln’s election
- Princeton paper that proves the US is an Oligarchy and no longer a Democracy
- Reverend Barber’s New Year’s Eve message (2017)
Well, my brain is full. I have a busy week ahead and am on my to Washington DC, pussyhat and signs in hand. I’m doing all of this to remain inspired, energized, not give into liberal malaise or discomfort. I’d aspire to be committed, hopeful, positive and thoughtful in my approach. This will require more balance, discipline, and dedication. I may complain, feel isolated or intimidated, but I know those are just fleeting feelings, they will pass. Sometimes those feelings are a message as well. But I know I’m tapping into an energy ball of light and I won’t let that flame flicker out to darkness.
This essay is a part of the writing challenge called #52Essaysin2017 and my continuing series called Dismantling. These are my thoughts, opinions, and ideas about politics, activism, community organizing and family. Please join me on my journey.