Volume 80, Number 25 | November 18 - 24, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Barack Obama was “fired up and ready to go” when he campaigned in Washington Square Park in October 2007.
It’s time for Obama and us to get back to basics
By Arthur Z. Schwartz
There is a climactic scene in the Public Theater production of “In the Wake,” a wonderful play about relationships, which unfolds around the context of the major political events of the Bush presidency. The principal character, after learning of Bush’s victory over John Kerry in 2004, turns to her older friend, who has returned from doing aid work in Africa, and rages about people not voting, and how they just let the world be taken from them by the bad guys (my phrase). Her friend looks at her and says: “I don’t vote, never have.” “But how could you?” she is asked. Her response: “It’s all an illusion. The system is designed to make people think they have a say, but it’s just not true. Yeah, sure, every once in a while some champion of the people wins, but they figure out how to make sure nothing much happens.” The comment made my soul stir as I looked in the mirror later that evening.
I was nurtured politically by the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, which largely had little use for elected officials — except as targets to rail against. The war in Vietnam was not elected away; it was ended by millions marching and by the ferocity of the anti-colonialist Vietnamese. The great civil rights victories a decade earlier came about in response to a movement, and because expanding U.S. capital needed a greater number of educated workers for its factories. Same for programs like Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act: Millions of working people began to organize in a great wave of industrial unionism, and the new government programs were both a reward, and an attempt to pacify.
I got involved in electoral politics because I saw it as a vehicle to advance efforts to clean up and build new parks and playgrounds. And I came to appreciate how many of the best grassroots organizers in America do election-related organizing. But as someone who preached the Obama gospel, and who believed that Obama had unleashed a mass movement that would be entwined with and transformative of electoral politics, and that he would use that movement to bring about fundamental change in America, the last two years, capped by the recent Nov. 2 election, brought me crashing down.
President Obama took that mass movement which elected him, and tucked it away, undercutting the “politics from below” theme that had led to such profound activity. Instead of inspiring his supporters — the young, the poor, the people of color — he surrounded himself with “status quoists,” and friends of Wall St. He compromised on his signature programs so much that those who had supported him weren’t sure what Congress had passed, and didn’t understand how kowtowing to “Blue Dogs” led to fundamental change. (Ironically, the Blue Dogs took the biggest drubbing of all on Nov. 2.)
He let the Right — the Tea Party movement fueled by Rupert Murdoch’s money — beat up on his friends, like Van Jones and then ACORN, and didn’t lift a finger. Now they are going after him. The loss of ACORN, a half-million-member group which played a critical role in getting him elected when it signed up 1.5 million voters in key geographic locations, was particularly hurtful, because among poor people in America, ACORN was the antidote to the Tea Party.
Someone around the president grasped the potential of a mass movement — of the poor, of the young, of minorities, of progressive-minded folks — when Obama was running in 2007 and 2008. The only way he saves his presidency is to find that movement again, and unleash it. Meanwhile, those of us who still believe that it is possible — and necessary to America’s survival — to bring about fundamental change (single-payer healthcare, tougher bank and finance industry regulation, an end to spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives on unnecessary wars) have got to start organizing again ourselves from below. They — the banks and Wall Streeters who got bailed out and who then turned around, gave Obama the finger and used their profits to pour millions of dollars into the campaign to elect a pro-business Republican Congress — will be hard to beat. But perhaps, if we revitalize our grassroots institutions, and use social networking and Internet platforms to mobilize, and build strategic partnerships with progressives who do get elected, we can counter them.
Some positive notes: The election of Eric Schneiderman was a bright light on a bleak night. Eric is a very, very progressive guy, rooted in the most liberal politics of the Upper West Side, who has the potential to be a very exciting attorney general, one not afraid to use words like “justice.” Maybe he can be a key player in the fight for a new hospital to replace St. Vincent’s. The Working Families Party (which I asked my constituents to vote for in a pre-election mailing) got 144,000 votes on its line and will now move up to Row D, ahead of the Independence Party. Several sitting state Senators, like Long Island’s Craig Johnson, refused Working Families Party support, and lost by a couple of hundred votes in district where the W.F.P. got thousands of votes. The W.F.P. will emerge as a critical counterweight to Andrew Cuomo, should he really govern as New York’s answer to Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor.
A brief eulogy: ACORN was pronounced dead on Election Day. I had the unfortunate job of filing its Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. Most of those reading The Villager were unaffected in any direct way by their work. They were the most effective, post-1960’s, grassroots group in poor communities across America. They gave meaning to the words “community organizer.” Recommended reading: “Seeds of Change,” by John Atlas. One of ACORN’s progeny, New York Communities for Change, is about to enter the St. Vincent’s fight.
Schwartz is the male State Democratic Committee member for Greenwich Village, Soho and Tribeca; a member, Community Board 2; and was ACORN’s general counsel.