August 14, 2012

Time for a movement


 Sam Smith

Back when a bunch of us were starting the DC Statehood Party and, later, when another bunch of us were starting the national Green Party, part of our motivation was that activist movements seemed to have taken us as far they could. It was time to bust into the system.

We knew it would be difficult but, hell, we had stopped freeways, segregation and would eventually stop a war, so what were a few unfair election laws?

As it turned out, we were a little over optimistic, but the DC Statehood Party did hold at least one city office for 25 years and the Greens made a significant impact in a number of states. Further, in the early days, the Statehood Party didn't forget it had once been a movement and still acted like one when it seemed the best approach. After all, this was a party started by middle class blacks and whites just two years after riots in DC and elsewhere had made ethnic cooperation seem impossible.

One reason was that the party was founded by Julius Hobson, a black activist who knew that race discrimination was often a cover for something deeper. As he put it once,  "All I have to do is put on a dashiki, get a wig, go out there on Fourteenth Street, and yell, ‘Whitey is a pig and I'm going to take care of him' -- the FBI will stand there and laugh at me. But the moment I start to discuss the way goods and services are distributed and I start talking about the nature of the political system and show that it's a corollary of the economic system, that's when the FBI comes in for harassment."

Hobson had a remarkable record of desegregating places and programs and he didn't give up his activism after he was elected to the city council. He successfully took on the DC schools system over economic as well as ethnic discrimination. And more than any leader I've seen, he recognized that politics was another tool of a movement and that you didn't give up one for the other.

Today, that quality seems to have largely vanished. The Greens, for example, have become convinced that running candidates for president is their ace in the hole when, in fact, it has produced results so poor that it has only weakened their status. Other more successful third parties - like the populists and socialists, understood that a presidential campaign was only the lily in the vase and not the whole garden. They kept their movements going, emphasized lower status political campaigns, and went grassroots rather than just becoming momentarily prominent. Today, the visible often is preferred to the viral, even when it doesn't work so well.

There's no doubt that Jill Stein would grace the White House far better than either Obama or Romney. That's not the issue. The issue is that basic question for every organizer and activist: what works? What's the best way to produce change?

At a time when the Republicans are finding all sorts of ways to keep even Democrats away from the polls, politics doesn't work the way it's supposed to. Just as movements once had gone as far as they could, today politics is stuck and needs big help from new movements.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be around. The Occupiers were a nice try but ultimately were limited to the most committed and active. Movements are more subtle than that. Yes, they have demonstrations and rallies and petitions, but they are driven by less visible change - that in the hearts and minds of those who may never march at all, but who join what was once called a counterculture - a giant rally of souls rather than of soles. A symbol on a T shirt, a choice of music, an attitude and a way of being are the clues as much as votes, crowd counts or headlines. A mass desertion from the officially designated norm.

That's why musicians, artists and writers are so important to change. They know the combination to the back door; they know how enter and create a counterculture in which change occurs.

It may seem trivial but it isn't. Think of the bongo drums and berets of the 50s or the tie dies of the 60s,  A cliche, yes, but also a uniform that showed how many had left the mainstream.

More that a few times, friends of mine have admitted that they came to Washington demonstrations in the 1960s for sex and drugs, and not so much to end the war. As I listen to them, I think: well, whatever works. And what’s the matter with having some fun while you’re saving the universe?

This sense seems to have evaporated. Young America has not been in as much trouble economically since the Great Depression and yet where are the signs, the sounds, the passion, and the places that make anyone know it?

One problem, little noted, is that corporations have not only taken over our economy and our communities, they have even affected the way activist groups think. Before the Reagan era, strategic visions and mission statements didn’t exist; now you’ve got to discuss them before you decide how to stage the next protest. Big environmental groups are heavily funded by foundations that want predictability and not change. Joy, enthusiasm and imagination are shoved aside for more serious matters. We are all corporate style lobbyists and media consultants  now.

I’ve been around this scene long enough to know it can be different. Young blacks in their teens and twenties once redefined not only how we thought about civil rights but about black history - thanks to things like freedom schools that went behind the visible signs of action to rediscover history, pride, and passion. Pete Seeger not only asked the non-professional question, “Where have all the flowers gone?” but helped revive the national anthem of the dispossessed, “We Shall Overcome.” Early environmentalists changed how we looked out of the window and what we had for lunch.

We live in a time of mental mechanization. From Common Core Standards to common mass media’s sometimes inseparable news and advertising to common phrases that are meant to substitute for actually doing something, we have learned how to behave properly and insignificantly. Even the potential changer has a hard time breaking away.

But history tells us it has happened and how it can. It is not about one election, a policy, a strategy, an organization. It is about creating a theatre of possibility, of rebellion and of alternative values, spirit and philosophy.

Everyone  who still dreams of progress has to add the techniques, style and spirit of movements to their  repertoire. It doesn’t mean one give up what you’re doing, but it does mean a major change in how one does it.

As things stand now, America is headed for the dump with the people from whom it was stolen hardly saying a mumblin’ word.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We can discover each other, share symbols, sing the same songs, meet in the same place to learn how much we have in common. And one day, we will discover that we have created what we can’t save America without: a movement.

No one can declare it, define it, or designate it until it’s ready. But we can get ready, change how we think, and encourage the good signs.

There’s no manual for creating a movement. But if there were one, it might begin with the advice written in music by Duke Ellington and in words by Irving Mills:

What good is melody, what good is music
If it ain't possessin' something sweet
It ain't the melody, it ain't the music
There's something else that makes the tune complete.

It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing
It don't mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
It makes no diff'rence if it's sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm ev'rything you got
It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

While we're making it cool again to protest, can we make science sexy?

Anonymous said...

Maybe lots of people feel as I do. America in its current form NEEDS TO BE DUMPED. I say good riddance to it, when it happens. I hope what comes after is an improvement.

Anonymous said...

"The issue is that basic question for every organizer and activist: what works? What's the best way to produce change?"

Right you are, Sam. What is really needed is a website where we can interactively discuss these questions. I have not been able to find one. There are hundreds of sites that discuss progressive problems, but, it seems, none that discuss solutions.

Huey Long's Share the Wealth Party had 20,000 offices in the US in the early '30s, when radio and the bullhorn were cutting edge technology.

Today, with unbelievable communications facilities, there are cities with 40,000+ that have no Green Party or other progressive activity.
What is the matter with us?

Anonymous said...

Unless history is wrong, Our break from the crown was moved along to fruition by committees of correspondence among the disenfranchised subject. There is no better form of correspondence than the on-line forms. We need a catalyst and responsible leadership.

Anonymous said...

There are a whole lot of people who are well aware of what is going on, but they see no way to change it. Something will happen, a dark swan event, that will trigger the change. Count on it. If Romney gets elected (not likely), the fecal matter will hit the fan much sooner than if Obama gets re-elected. But the house of cards is going to fall - it just a matter of time. As Creedence Clearwater Revival put it, "there's a bad moon on the rise." It really is too bad that the change is going to come with violence, but that's what happens when the elite back the people into a corner from which there is no escape. History is full of examples of that kind.

Cowboy T said...

I disagree that "AMERICA NEEDS TO BE DUMPED". Nonsense. The structure of this country is just fine. The problem is that freedom is a high-maintenance proposition, and too many people choose to be "plugged in" with their iJewelry, video games, TV, etc. to want to "be bothered" with that maintenance "burden". Remember, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

- T