Following the Verizon workers home
As many of you have heard by now, the Verizon strike was, by all indications, a successful labor action with far-reaching consequences for future union organizing. On April 13, 2016, close to 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job because Verizon refused to renew its contract with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – the two unions representing Verizon workers. The company insisted that any new contract had to include terms that, for example, enabled it to outsource thousands of jobs, reduce retirement benefits, and send workers out of state for specific work assignments.
Rather than accept these fundamentally anti-labor contract provisions, the workers voted to go on strike – a labor action that turned out to be the largest one conducted in the U.S. in the last four years. Though Verizon tried to break the strike by (for example) eliminating workers’ health benefits and hiring scabs, it utterly failed, for throughout the course of the strike Verizon was faced with an unsympathetic public, a Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton walk on the picket lines, falling profits, inept scabs, expressions of solidarity from members of Congress, and tremendous strike discipline on the part of Verizon workers. By the end of May, Verizon relented and agreed to a number of favorable union contract terms. It also dropped many of the contract demands that it made prior to the strike.
On June 1, 2016, most of the striking workers returned to work.
What you might not know, however – because it got very little attention from the press – is that the strike was precipitated in part by Verizon’s refusal to negotiate with its Brooklyn, New York retail workers, who are primarily African American.
Two years ago, these workers had the audacity to organize and join CWA. In fact, they were “the first retail workers to form a union in Verizon Wireless.” However, the company refused to negotiate with them any raises, any improvements in benefits and working conditions – any contract whatsoever. By so refusing, Verizon made clear not only that it wanted to smash the union even before it got off the ground; but also that it was entirely comfortable with the fact that its employees found it difficult to make ends meet on the wages they earned, often couldn’t secure adequate health care for themselves and their families; couldn’t contribute much to the economic well-being of their communities; and, ultimately returned home every day to communities crowded with people who faced similar, if not worse, circumstances.
This latter point regarding the distress in places workers call home was not addressed at all during the course of the Verizon labor strike. And yet it is arguably the most critical point, precisely because of what it says about both the effects of corporate anti-labor policies on the communities in which workers live and labors’ failure to secure more broad-based support for unionization.
Let’s assume, for instance, that the African American retail workers who unionized two years ago actually live in Brooklyn, where black people constitute 35.2% of the Brooklyn population as a whole (note: my attempts to speak to union representatives about the Brooklyn retail workers were unsuccessful). And let’s assume further that these workers live in the primarily black neighborhoods that cover a mere 4 mile square area of Brooklyn (close to one million African Americans and blacks from the diaspora reside in this New York City borough, making it home to the largest concentration of black Americans in the nation).
While Brooklyn is certainly a space where black people thrive in so many ways, it is also a place of high black poverty and unemployment. Almost a quarter of Brooklyn residents live below the poverty line and, of that number, 23.7% are black (the numbers recited here reflect 2015 estimates). The unemployment rate in Brooklyn’s primarily black neighborhoods ranges from 8.1% to 12.5%, and “over half of the residents” who reside in these highly segregated communities “spend more than 30% of their monthly gross income on rent.”
In Brownsville – a Brooklyn neighborhood that is 75% black; “the poorest…in Brooklyn”; “the seventh-poorest neighborhood” in New York City; and, has “the second-highest” incarceration rate in the city (“three and a half times the Brooklyn and citywide rates”) – 10.7 % of the residents are unemployed and a whopping 38.6% live below the poverty line (the median income in Brownsville is $25,291).
Finally, in all of Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods, many of the residents – like others throughout New York City – go “without needed medical care” in spite of the existence of Obamacare. A consequence is that too many deaths in Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods are entirely preventable.
When we examine the distress of the communities in which the newly unionized African American retail workers more likely than not live (we can presume this precisely because Brooklyn is so segregated), then we are necessarily confronted with the fact that Verizon’s refusal to negotiate a contract with them directly contributed – in some small way – to those communities’ distress. That is to say, we see that, through its workers, the company actively helped to reproduce these Brooklyn neighborhoods as communities with large numbers of people who work for low wages or no wages at all; who spend a huge percentage of their income on rent; who cannot afford or obtain adequate health care when they or their family members need it; whose personal lives are often circumscribed by the whims and demands of their employers; who are economically constrained to live in segregated spaces that, by and large, lack good public schools, affordable housing, and other resources available to Brooklyn’s more affluent neighborhoods; who cannot – because of the wages they earn – contribute much (through taxes, for example) to the economic vibrancy and well-being of their communities; and, who are often policed as if the fact of their economic and social distress makes them criminals.
Did Verizon refuse to negotiate with its Brooklyn retail workers because they are primarily African American? Maybe. Maybe not. We can nevertheless presume that its no-contract strategy could have only compounded suffering (like, for example, residential segregation, employment discrimination, racist law enforcement) that is by and large the product of long term, systemic racist economic and social practices of government and business institutions.
Moreover, it bears noting that African American retail workers in general are more likely than their white counterparts to be working poor, the lowest paid, and offered only part-time work even though they want and ask for full-time employment. Verizon’s actions can be reasonably viewed as part and parcel of industry practices that relegate African American workers to the bottom of the retail workforce and that simultaneously facilitate the exploitation (as well as harm the communities) of working class retail workers as a whole.
In any event, by paying attention to black Brooklyn – by following the newly-unionized workers home or simply considering the neighborhoods where workers live – we see Verizon in the distress of the workers’ communities. And once we see Verizon in that distress, we are compelled to consider and further scrutinize just how deeply implicated the company is in broader corporate/government policies and practices that reproduce social and economic inequalities in neighborhoods across the nation and throughout the world.
The Brooklyn workers’ successful win of a first contract and the success of the Verizon strike generally are great victories – and greater than generally conceived because of the implications of the companies’ no-contract and other anti-labor practices for the communities in which the workers live.
And yet, had the labor action been one through which the unions framed Verizon’s anti-labor policies and practices as fundamentally anti-community, the victories might have been even greater and more far-reaching. Imagine, for example, what it would have meant to hear, as he walked the picket line, Bernie Sanders speak out about Verizon’s role in reproducing distress in black Brooklyn. Imagine how that might have changed the terms by which race, class, and labor were talked about during the course of the strike and the final weeks of the primary season.
Indeed, imagine how such a critique could transform union organizing going forward.
Your vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton will not protect you
A friend recently told me that while I could “afford” to vote for Bernie Sanders because I am, as she put it, “highly educated,” she absolutely could not vote for him – nor could many of her friends and others who were decidedly not like me (i.e., highly educated). “For me,” she argued, “the stakes are too high” – the stakes being the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the nation, and thus potentially four years of GOP control over all branches of government. Because of the real and present danger that a Donald Trump win would pose, “I will vote this November,” she declared emphatically, “for Hilary Clinton.”
My friend is right, of course. I am highly (or perhaps, as my brother would put it, over) educated.
And just for the record, I am also middle-class, African American, lesbian, 52, gainfully employed, insured, and a U.S. citizen with a (meager) retirement savings. Et cetera. I will vote for Sanders when my time comes, and if she captures the nomination, I will vote for Clinton. (That’s a strategic black vote, by the way).
Like many, I live a life of both privilege and vulnerability. I don’t apologize for what I can afford – voting or otherwise. And while I don’t fool myself about my vulnerabilities by believing that they don’t exist, I also don’t use them to claim a sameness with all African American women or others in ways that belie class, citizenship status, education and other differences among us – differences that often make for vastly dissimilar experiences with (for example) racism, sexism, economic instability.
But of course there are moments when our experiences are remarkably similar.
Nevertheless, my friend is right as well about the fact that the stakes of this election are YUGE (to use Bernie-speak). A Donald Trump win! win! win! would be absolutely disastrous for the country (and for me. I would not, as she incorrectly assumes, escape unscathed the consequences of his victory). Continued inaction on climate change; the ability to install a Supreme Court thoroughly committed to inequality, the decimation of individual rights, economic and environmental deregulation, and the interests of the rich; expansion of war in the Middle East and a return to Cold War politics; reversal of marriage equality and freedom of choice; the plunder of the treasury; repeal of Obamacare; the shredding of what little safety net we have left….this is the kind of craziness we face.
Given these stakes, then, we must vote, and vote wisely.
My friend is not alone in thinking that a vote for Sanders is a dangerous vote – one that threatens the safety of many of us, most especially those targeted by Trump, Trump supporters, and the GOP generally – while a vote for Clinton is a safe vote or, to put it differently, a vote for safety. You encounter this argument all the time from HRC supporters – in editorial pages, on Twitter, in blogs, on Facebook, in coffee houses, over the airwaves, and in conversations overheard on BART. Bernie Sanders supporters, they say, are fools – elite fools – who might very well usher us all to the end of times.
Or something like that.
Yet, I have heard similar arguments as well from Bernie supporters. Because the polls say Clinton will lose against Trump (some argue), to vote for her is to cast a dangerous vote, one that will plunge us all deep into GOP chaos. On the other hand, the polls do predict that Bernie will beat Trump. Consequently, our safety lies with his nomination.
But we should wonder about this propensity to speak of Hilary’s or Bernie’s supporters, or of a Clinton/Sanders presidency, in terms of danger, protection and refuge – this willingness, in other words, to believe that voting for either candidate will make us safe.
Should Donald Trump lose to Sanders or Clinton (assuming that he will defeat a Republican coup and actually become the Party’s nominee), we will still go home to families, coworkers, friends, neighbors – and mingle daily with strangers – who are willing to sacrifice democracy to authoritarianism, xenophobia, tribalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the machinations of wealthy white men (e.g., Trump, the Koch brothers) whose hunger for power is, it seems, absolutely bottomless.
We will still be surrounded by neighbors and intimates who do not eschew violence as a means to redress economic dislocation and to contend with change that is not merely a reiteration of current power arrangements.
We will still live in a country riven by hate and divisiveness, and be governed by a Congress for which that hate and divisiveness is the stuff of religious creed and public policy.
We will still live in a nation in which the infrastructure is crumbling, coastal cities sinking, schools failing, inequality increasing, desperation mounting and hunger considered just deserts for those who are poor — especially those who are poor, black and female.
We will still be at war, everywhere.
In other words, we are already unsafe – already living dangerously, and we were doing so long before Donald Trump upended the Republican Party.
So whether you vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders, your vote will not protect you.
Thinking of safety in the narrow terms that we do – i.e., merely voting for a president every four years in order to keep at bay the draconian policies of a mean-spirited party and electorate – will not protect us. This is especially true given that our narrow conception of safety is itself a buy-in to a top-down politics of change.
Now don’t get me wrong: vote we must. It is imperative. But we need to think more deeply and ask: what does it mean to be safe? What does real safety look like and how do we create it for all of us – haters included?
Safety, it seem to me, resides with us, in what we do every day – in whatever capacity we are able – to put in place policies and institutions that are grounded in safeguarding and nurturing the lives of the most vulnerable. For if the most vulnerable are cared for, if that which is creating the vulnerability in the first instance is eradicated (poverty, segregation, war funding, separate and unequal school systems, state-sponsored and private acts of violence, structural inequalities, the upward distribution of wealth), then safety will be the order of the day (I, for one, believe that this means envisioning economic, political, geopolitical and social security through the eyes of a poor, undocumented girl of color – but that’s just me).
That kind of safety is purchased in part by the vote, but most especially by political action and grassroots involvement at the local level – like, for example, sitting in on and participating in neighborhood meetings, helping to organize your workplace, conversing with and listening deeply to people who are different from you, running for office, creating viable third, fourth, fifth party alternatives.
Perhaps most of all, the kind of protection we seek – real safety – is purchased by our refusal to live in fear.
We need to stop proclaiming that we are afraid of Donald Trump and his supporters, and to stop telling everyone else that they should be afraid. When we do this, we make him, and them, larger than life, and in the process, we make us small, fearful and powerless.
Our fear will not protect us.
So let’s move beyond fear and way, way past thinking of either Sanders or Clinton as our saving grace; they are not (while we’re at it, let’s also abandon altogether the shitty, hateful, divisive discourse that passes as constructive political engagement. There’s nothing radical about speaking the same language as, and acting like, those who hate us).
Instead, let’s demonstrate the truism that we are in fact “the ones we have been waiting for” and that our calling is to be dangerous to the politics of what is. Let us make the nation absolutely unsafe for poverty, war mongering, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, neoliberalism, free (as opposed to fair) trade, economic inequality. Let us be dangerous to all that stands against peace. And let us be so regardless of whether or not Hilary, Bernie or Donald ends up in the White House.
But of course, let’s make sure that neither Donald nor a GOP alternative makes it anywhere near the Oval Office.
Flint’s White People, Flint’s Water Crisis, and the Race to the White House
Thirty-seven percent of Flint, Michigan’s population is white. Approximately 14,000 of Flint’s white population live below the poverty line.
Neither statistic has factored much into discussions concerning the water crisis in Flint or in analyses of the “structural racism” that created the crisis in the first place (in fact, pundits and others have cited the statistics merely to show that Flint is, and Flint’s poor are, predominantly African American).
But these statistics matter, and they matter not only because they speak more fully to the suffering state and federal officials visited upon the people of Flint. They also matter because they betray Democrats’ and progressives’ failure to seize opportunities to speak directly to, and be in conversation with, poor and working class whites about the class and race politics that have created much of their suffering. No one who has talked about Flint – not Hilary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not their followers, not progressives in general – has had anything to say whatsoever about just how expendable to Michigan’s white elites are the lives of Flint’s poor and working class white folk. In fact, it is almost as if whites who live at the margins in Flint don’t exist at all (or exist only so that one can make a point about black people and racism).
At a recent event in Harlem, for example, Clinton said of the water crisis: “It’s a horrifying story, but what makes it even worse is that it’s not a coincidence that this was allowed to happen in a largely black, largely poor community. Just ask yourself: Would this have ever occurred in a wealthy, white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not.” During a town hall meeting, Sanders, too, wondered what “the response” would have been had the water crisis happened in “a white suburb.” Flint “is a poor community,” Sanders stated. “It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.”
To be sure, both Clinton and Sanders probably considered whites included in the term “poor community.” But it is clear that poor white people were not the point Clinton and Sanders wanted to make. Instead, what Clinton and Sanders hoped to demonstrate (for good reason) was their understanding of how racist policies continue to constrain the lives of African Americans and to serve the interests of well-to-do whites. Or maybe what they hoped for was recognition of what New York Magazine writer Rembert Brown gleefully declared about Hilary Clinton: that they were willing to “chastise” their “own privilege” and, in so doing, to put “the privilege of whiteness front and center.”
If putting “the privilege of whiteness front and center” was what Clinton and Sanders were trying to accomplish (and I believe there’s some truth to this observation), then what they ultimately gave voice to was a class politics on the part of Democrats and progressives that erases the experiences of poor and working class whites, and does so through a racial politics that reifies the myth of a “naturalized, unmarked, homogenized, privileged white identity” (to borrow from law professor Camille Gear Rich’s “Marginal Whiteness”). This myth is one by which white elites have, throughout American history, defined white interests in terms of their own privileges, wealth, and power – as it is also one by which whites who live on the margins have framed (often to their great detriment) their own interests so as to enjoy the privileges of white identity.
Both candidates (as well as progressives who wrote about Flint) could have explicitly talked about how the water crisis was allowed to “happen” just as surely to Flint’s poor and working class white community as it was allowed to happen to Flint’s African American community; how the privileged whites and minorities who live in the “white suburbs” were provided with clean water; how anti-black racism constitutes a set of policies and practices that facilitate well-to-do whites’ exploitation of poor and working class white people (that is, after all, what happened in Flint). And both Clinton and Sanders (who just yesterday visited Flint & addressed the water crisis in front of an overwhelmingly white audience) could have had this discussion without giving credence to the fiction of equivalent victimization.
Indeed, both candidates could have discussed or put “front and center” for analysis and critique their own class privileges vis-à-vis the black and white Flint communities. They could have stated, as Rich observed, that for some whites “access…to the material and dignitary benefits associated with whiteness is not always assured,” and that some whites – like those in Flint, no doubt – “only enjoy white privilege in contingent, context-specific ways.” They could have spoken of whites – and even of African Americans – in terms of differences that belie the myth of homogeneity.
But that kind of discussion did not happen. Consequently, the Flint water crisis remains solely a story about anti-black politics.
Talking about the racism African Americans face in Flint and beyond, of course, is not the problem. In fact, it is necessary. But while Democrats and progressives sustain the myth of a homogenized, privileged white identity and choose not to be in conversation with poor and working class whites about the kind of class and race politics that creates their suffering (whether we’re talking about Flint or inadequate health care), Donald Trump fills the void. Through a racist and xenophobic framework he engages poor and working class whites directly, casting their suffering as the fault of racial others. In the process, Trump recreates and reinvents – by casting himself as the answer to all white America’s woes – the myth of a homogenized and privileged white identity as well as the fiction that white interests are white elite interests. As long as Clinton, Sanders, Democrats, and progressives offer no real alternative – as long as they persist in spinning the myth themselves –Trump might very well capture the White House this November, and with the help of poor and working class whites.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
Redefining “unrealistic”: the Bernie Sanders campaign
Moderates…are often correct in perceiving the difficulty or impossibility of racial progress in the context of present social and economic policies. But they accept the context as fixed…They apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty. (Bayard Rustin)
A consensus has clearly emerged among moderate pundits and critics regarding Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House: his campaign and platform, they argue, are wildly unrealistic and reveal just how delusional, if not nihilistic, progressives have become. The campaign and platform are unrealistic, they tell us, because if elected Sanders will face “a House of Representatives firmly under right-wing rule, making the prospects of important progressive legislation impossible” (as Jonathan Chait has argued).
Let’s be real: any proposal that seriously addresses the concerns and champions the needs of working people will not get through this right-wing dominated House of Representatives. In fact, nothing left of center, or even a little right of center, will get through the current House. That truth, however, should force a conversation not on whether or not Bernie Sanders’ campaign and platform are realistic, but instead on what it will take – what kind of mobilization or political revolution is necessary –to remake Congress into one more amenable to policies that really address the people’s needs.
Preferring to “accept the context as fixed”(Bayard Rustin’s critique of moderates remains remarkably relevant), moderate pundits and critics have chosen a different path, which is to focus our ire on Sanders and his supporters by forwarding an argument that basically comes down to this: Bernie’s policies are unrealistic because they are not Republican. After all, following the logic of Sanders’ naysayers, his policies would have to be Republican in order to pass in the current House – and even that’s not guaranteed. One need only look at the fate of Obamacare (a Republican brain-child) to understand how precarious would be the success of a Republican policy ushered in by a Democrat (remind me again: to how many repeal votes has that legislation been subjected?).
Whether pragmatic, piecemeal or revolutionary, legislation addressing the needs of ordinary folk will not fare well in this Congress. Since this is the case, we might as well go for broke. In this way, we can at least change the terms of the debates on work, wealth, and war.
Speaking of war: moderates also slam Sanders’ campaign as unrealistic because his policies are “half-baked plans” (as Matt Yglesias recently characterized them) that are “too expensive” to fund.
But in making their case not one pundit has put on the table the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent thus far on the War on Terror or the $18 trillion dollars that this war has added to the U.S. debt. In fact, even as they correctly perceive that, “in the context of present social and economic policies” – and most certainly within the current political climate – Sanders’ policies will face stiff and uncompromising resistance, pundits “apparently see nothing strange in the fact” that in the last fifteen years we have spent such an astronomical amount “fighting or preparing for wars.” No one is talking about war at all, except to remind us about past votes on the Iraq War or the threat of ISIS.
Indeed, moderates who have decried the possible tax burden that Sanders’ platform might impose on ordinary people have had nothing to say about the billions budgeted for this fiscal year alone to fight a war with an enemy that we keep mindlessly reproducing. Instead, they have thrown up their hands before Sanders’ argument that we need to provide tuition-free college education, invest in our infrastructure, make healthcare truly accessible to all and thus free from the grip of insurance companies, and “really abolish poverty.”
The exasperation some critics have expressed regarding the costs of Sanders’ domestic agenda, coupled with their silence on war spending, suggests that what they consider unrealistic is not our war economy itself – even though it has robbed the American people of real opportunities for economic growth and stability; driven (rather than curtailed) hostilities and instability worldwide; deepened poverty here and abroad; destroyed human, plant and animal life, as well as poisoned natural resources; and, created — from Des Moines to Damascus — bitterness, resentment and hate. None of that is “unrealistic.” Instead, what’s a “no-win” is a campaign and political platform that seek to eradicate economic inequality and the drivers of that inequality, some of whom profit, absolutely and obscenely, from endless war.
In other words, what they don’t say is that the war is precisely what makes Sanders’ platform costly. We can’t keep bombing people or launching drone missiles and, at the same time, educate our people for free. The latter, in fact, is economically irrational given the [fixed] context.
I think it’s time to redefine what we call unrealistic.
But I will concede this: Sanders is not without fault. After all, his platform says nothing about the continued costs of our war and how those costs stymie creative approaches to redistribution. Thus, Sanders’ campaign and platform are unrealistic to the degree that they fail to set their sights on the costs of our war economy and war culture. Sanders needs to show (for example) that the Pentagon’s push to expand the U.S. presence everywhere through the creation of “hubs” or Special Operations staging areas will take money out of our pockets, enrich war corporations and CEOs, and succeed in fomenting (and thus increasing the costs of) the very terrorism it presumably intends to defeat. And he’ll have to talk about these war effects in ways that address as well as allay people’s real sense of vulnerability to terrorism.
In other words, Sanders needs to show that as President he will take “full command of foreign affairs” (Jonathan Chait) and redirect us from permanent war to peace and economic prosperity, and through a framework that galvanizes all of us to unseat every single representative who thrives on both our fear and our hunger.
Of course, putting on the table that $1.8 trillion (and counting) is not solely Sanders’ burden to bear since the failure to speak of the economic, social, and political costs of war make all the candidates – whether they support endless war or not – purveyors of fiction. Pragmatism and conservatism are lies we tell ourselves when we continue to sink billions of dollars every year into death and destruction at the expense of everyone’s well-being and peace. We have to be moved to see such waste, and the fantasies by which they are rationalized, as “strange” indeed, as something that calls for us not only to adopt a different set of domestic and foreign policies altogether, but to actually engage politics in a revolutionary fashion – and most certainly in ways that take us beyond the dangerously narrow focus on the race to the White House.
We all need to get real.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
TOWARD A NONVIOLENT DEMOCRACY: BERNIE SANDERS’ RACIAL JUSTICE PLATFORM
While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.
Why debate questions from Don Lemon would not have mattered
Like many who watched Tuesday’s Democratic debate, I was a little annoyed by CNN’s choice to assign to debate moderators questions on the basis of their respective “identities” (Don Lemon got to field the “black” question, Juan Carlos Lopez the “immigrant” question, Dana Bush the “woman” question, and a young woman the “youth” [i.e., climate change] question). Those issues that were presumptively non-identity based – e.g., questions concerning our unending war on terror or TPP or Iran – were assigned primarily to Anderson Cooper, the white male who presided over the debate.
As tempting as it is to agree with some critics that CNN should have (as Janell Ross of the Washington Post argued) given Lemon and Lopez the opportunity to ask questions about, for example, “education,” “the economy,” “tax policy,” “Clinton’s reference to a New Deal,” “the Islamic State,” as well as “many of the other things that concern all Americans, including Americans who are not white,” it is hard to see this as a solution that addresses what was and is really at stake in CNN’s crass demonstration of tokenism and identity politics. For the truth of the matter is, had Lemon (who I’ll use as an example) had the opportunity to ask about Syria, his doing so would not have conveyed – by any stretch of the imagination – that Syria is an issue of importance to African American communities. This is because it is the practice of CNN – and the media writ large – to construe black interests solely in terms of race. Consequently, had Lemon asked about Syria, it would not have mattered one bit since Syria would have already been understood as an issue entirely outside of black people’s political, economic, and moral interests.
Of course, CNN and the media in general are greatly assisted by white as well as African American elites (on the right and left) in this reductionist practice concerning African American interests. It is telling, for example, that Bernie Sanders’ laudable Racial Justice platform does not intersect with or speak to his platform issue that focuses on the war on terror – though the devotion of over one trillion dollars to this disastrous adventure has cost black lives, militarized our police forces, eroded civil liberties, and come at the expense of addressing economic inequality (which African Americans suffer disproportionately). Given that the Racial Justice issue in Sanders’ platform at least nods to and intersects with other platform concerns, its silence on the issue of war and peace reinforces the presumption that the war (and foreign policy generally) doesn’t matter to African Americans and perhaps doesn’t even affect our day-to-day lives.
Permitting Lemon or Lopez to ask questions on “other” issues, therefore, would not have addressed this larger problem of how black interests are framed. What is needed, instead, is news and political analysis and candidate questions that assume African American communities (and Latino communities, and women) have a stake in our nation’s domestic and foreign policies that is shaped, no doubt, by our nation’s racial politics, but also by a host of other competing interests (such as class) and lived experiences within black communities that cannot possibly be conveyed by merely having Don Lemon ask more questions, and that problematize identity politics altogether.
I invite you to explore my recently published book, Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015), at www.amazon.com/author/alyceelane.