Synthesis/Regeneration 13   (Spring 1997)

Building a Broad Peoples Movement

Cynthia Strecker (Sonoma Greens/GP of Sonoma County, Calif.) interviews Ron Daniels (Campaign for a New Tomorrow)

Cynthia: What do you see as some obstacles to building a broad Peoples' Movement, and what are your thoughts on getting past these obstacles?

Ron: First and foremost, progressives, unlike liberals, do not want to accommodate to the existing political arrangements in American society. Liberals basically see the need to "fine-tune" government, to make changes, but essentially within the same configuration. We push the notion that the American political economy needs radical transformation, that we need to be talking about a new society which is earth-centered and human-centered; that puts forth the notion of basic human rights in terms of jobs and income-full employment, health care, education, and housing as basic human rights. Secondly, instead of "talking at" and talking about the masses of the people, we really do have to have programs and initiatives that put us in contact with people, because in the final analysis it is the inter-personal relationships that we have with people-how people view us, that is as important as our ideological constructs, because our interpersonal relationships should mirror the vision, values, and ideologies that we purport to believe in.

. . .we have very few structures to constrain people from violating the basic covenant that they seemed to have embraced when they ran for office. . .

We find it very difficult often to hold our folks accountable when they run for office because, other than our ideas, we have very few structures to constrain people from violating the basic covenant that they seemed to have embraced when they ran for office, so it's easy for people to gravitate back into the muck and mire and corruption of the status quo. But we also have to have programs and we must engage in struggles, some of which may seem mundane, that give people a sense of achievement, of triumph, that they are moving forward, that there are victories. No one likes to be a part of a struggle that's all pain and no gain. Sometimes the small projects that do not appear to be revolutionary or transformative are the projects which could lead to such transformation. The other area is our ability to create operational unity. If we have The Greens/Green Party USA and we have the Labor Party and the New Party and the Campaign for a New Tomorrow (CNT) and the Peace & Freedom Party, frequently there's a great difficulty in finding common ground.

We must understand that we have much more in common with each other as progressives than we do with the people against whom we are struggling.

We must understand that we have much more in common with each other as progressives than we do with the people against whom we are struggling. So we need to find ways and means to debate our differences while programmatically we find some specific areas where we can cooperate. For example, I know that in California there was a dialogue between Peace & Freedom Party and the Greens so that people didn't collide in particular elections. One of the great triumphs of the Rainbow Coalition was that it brought a lot of people under the same umbrella who hadn't been in conversation with each other. I think the Independent Politics Network is one of those fledgling efforts that keeps hammering away at the need for operational unity and joint programs. The Greens have been among the most consistent and open to working out areas of common programs.

Cynthia: What's your response to Michael Albert's article in the January issue of Z magazine where he talks about "Solidarity with Autonomy"? [See this issue of Synthesis/Regeneration -Ed.]

Ron: What we talk about in the African-American community is the concept of operational unity. There is a need for us to recognize that there are reactionary forces and there are progressive forces. The reactionary forces want to maintain the status quo. They certainly are reactionary on the question of sustainable development and preserving the environment. They are the ones who would destroy eco-systems and the environment. They tend to be reactionary on the issues of women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, the rights of minorities, and labor, and the whole question of egalitarian utilization of resources. We would take exactly the opposite position. Whether it is the Greens, or the New Party, or the Labor Party-almost the exact opposite position on all those issues.

So the question is why is the right wing more able to consolidate in moments of crisis than we are. It seems to me that we have to just bluntly recognize the need to collaborate because we're losing. We're not winning. The other side has a greater capacity to get its message out by way of an increasingly conglomerated media. The capitalist media is controlled by fewer and fewer people. They have vastly more resources than we have in terms of helping to control various aspects of the work, particularly in the electoral/political arena which is, of course, stifled by money and politics. We can least afford to have these bitter, sharp divisions. That does not mean that we don't have differences. But we ought to be able to focus on what principles unite us and then what programmatic work flows from that, and while we maintain our autonomy. CNT is not going to stop organizing in communities of color because there is a rationale to that. The Labor Party has a view about why a labor base is important, so it's not going to stop doing that. But we ought to be able to find those threads and strands that are common.

The Greens have been among the most consistent and open to working out areas of common programs.

Cynthia: You've talked a bit about your presidential campaign and some of the gains which came out of that. Can you talk a little about the relationship between your strategy and your goals?

Ron: [The Campaign's] principal goal was to articulate a vision, to go across the country-we campaigned in more than 30 States, we were on the ballot in 9, got votes in 18 of those States. We wanted to say that we do have the best vision, the best values, and that we must articulate that and organize around it. Simultaneously, we were able to advance the notion of having a National Peoples' Progressive Convention which we did in Ypsilanti in August of 1992. Out of that came the National Peoples' Progressive Network which in some ways was the antecedent of the Independent Progressive Politics Network (IPPN). So there's been a sort of straight line out of the Daniels campaign to the IPPN today. That was our goal. The strategy, of course, was to run for President in that instance, and then to define those places where we had the greatest strength-that happened to be Pittsburgh, Washington DC, and New York-and to try to build chapters in those cities. We've done that by having a great deal of autonomy for those local chapters so they could find what would work most effectively at the local level.

. . .we ought to be able to focus on what principles unite us and then what programmatic work flows from that. . .

In Pittsburgh, I think we have our strongest presence because of the kind of grassroots organizing that has happened around youth issues, trying to prevent gang violence/fratricide, working with African American youth around history and culture and employment issues in the community; getting involved in issues of police brutality; looking at advisory neighborhood councils at the local level and beginning to run people for those. On the international level, we've created the Haiti Support Project, which has been extraordinarily successful, particularly given the fact that we have so few resources. The goal of this Project is to identify a place on the international spectrum which was moving in terms of democracy and development and to do solidarity work; we found Haiti to be that place, and it was consistent with our goal of building links in the African American community. Part of that was to build Haitian/African American solidarity. Haiti is really a paradigm for the way in which the IMF and the World Bank, at the behest of the US, is attempting to shove its "free market" paradigm down the throats of developing countries around the world. Its been a very heartwarming effort.

. . .the approach is to do grassroots organizing first, and to let the campaigns flow out of that work.

Now what we've moved to do (again, with relatively limited resources), along with developing a CNT chapter in Philadelphia, is to develop a national Domestic Program. We're utilizing the concept of "jobs, not jails" as the focus. In New York City, we've moved to develop a strong working relationship with an organization called Harlem Fight Back (HFB). In line with our commitment to be rooted in communities, we now share headquarters with HFB, in Harlem, in a neighborhood -- not just Harlem, but in a particular neighborhood within Harlem. At some stage, what comes out of this is that, as in Pittsburgh, people will begin to run for advisory neighborhood councils and Jury Commissions -- it's not City Council, yet; it isn't County Commissioner, yet; but the approach is to do grassroots organizing first, and to let the campaigns flow out of that work.

Cynthia: How would a coalition organizations (as in the New Zealand Alliance) run a campaign? How would five separate/autonomous groups hold a candidate/office-holder accountable to the program around which the coalition was developed?

Ron: Sequentially: first, groups come together and agree "this is what we want to do." Second, there's some type of process by which an agenda is adopted to be utilized as a means of measuring the candidate. Third, there would be a community-based process by which people, potential candidates, would come forward to offer themselves. The only mechanism we have for holding people accountable is to as loudly and as clearly as we can have candidates say "this is what I embrace; this is my covenant with you; this is what I agree I will work on. I will have x-number of report-backs per year to the community on these issues." If people are involved in the process from the beginning and are aware of what the covenant was, if the candidate violates the covenant, they are in a position to take punitive, corrective action. It sometimes means old fashioned things like large numbers of candidate report cards, the use of our cable access, public affairs radio programs, community listener radio-we have to use all of these vehicles to get the word out as to what the covenant is, and then to report back to the community about how this candidate is doing.

. . .the need is to unite the many to defeat the few.

Cynthia: Many people would say that the fundamental project is the reorganization of power, not simply broadening the political base or getting the "right" people into office. What do you say to those people?

Ron: I think that's right; I don't think we all have consensus on how to do that, but I think its clear that the struggle is about how to create a greater participatory democracy because what we have today is not that. Gaining access to media based on some reasonable criteria for who are the eligible candidates; reducing ballot access requirements, making it easier for independent and third parties to get on the ballot-all of these are crucial. And, of course, there's the issue of proportional representation.

Cynthia: CNT takes the position that because of the history of racism and paternalism that people of color should be in positions of leadership in the organization. . .

Ron: Yes, and the term we use is "substantially but not exclusively." This doesn't mean that someone who is of European ancestry cannot be a part, and that is not the case now. There are Euro-Americans who serve in significant roles. But it is to establish a principle that everybody understands. Also, one of the problems in the African American community is that there is some reluctance on the part of people of color to engage the dialog and to work with white progressives for fear that white progressives will always dominate, that there will not be an opportunity for real leadership. Many of us feel that this is a bit over-played, but if that is a feeling we're contending with in our communities, we have to deal with it. And so one way of helping to deal with that is by making people feel reasonably comfortable, that we don't have to be isolated, that we can engage.

Cynthia: Still, there would seem to be something of a contradiction between identity politics and the development of a majoritarian movement. As I hear you, I interpret you as saying that we obviously can't just jump over these issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender as though they don't exist, but really need to work through these issues. Is that a fair re-statement?

Ron: The problem with identity politics is when people have an identity and feel that that's the only thing that's out there. The fallacy of those who critique identity politics is not to understand that there is an absolute imperative that people from specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds have a right to self-determination and the right to address issues out of their peculiar and particular experience. What has happened historically on the issues of race and class-and gender, but race and class initially earlier in the century-is that those who argued the "class" position said, well, we're all a part of the working class, so let's not have these discussions about Black people or Puerto Ricans, etc. You have to deal with racism; racism is real, and racism was and is real even within the context of the progressive movement. The same is true with the issues of lesbian and gay people; they can't just count on somebody else to carry their agenda nor can they down-play it because it might piss somebody off. Being a part of some identifiable group should not exclude someone from the broader effort for social transformation.

A part of the corrective is identity, so you can't just pass by that; to pass by that is to have the group not be able to heal itself.

Those of us who come from my vantage point-and I call myself a "progressive nationalist"-work to have our constituencies understand the need to organize within our communities but that there's also a need to identify with people other than ourselves-Latinos, Asians, Indigenous peoples, white progressives- because at that level one comes to understand that the need is to unite the many to defeat the few. And the "few" may be largely white men with power, but that there may be just a smattering of Latinos and Asians and so forth who are being used in that configuration. It's not simple, but it's essential because of the issues of cultural aggression and racism that have been so devastating to African American people and, I suspect other groups. A part of the corrective is identity, so you can't just pass by that; to pass by that is to have the group not be able to heal itself. The question is, while that healing is taking place, the total healing has to be also an embrace of people who are similarly situated and the ultimate view of a humanity that is not oppressive. It can be done, but you have to be committed to that, you have to have that vision, and you have to work with that view. . .

Campaign for a New Tomorrow, 31-35 95th St., East Elmhurst, New York 11369 (202-232-8936)

The above article is an edited version of Cynthia Strecker's February 9, 1997 interview with Ron Daniels. A full version is available from WD Press for $2 (free for subscribers to S/R and members of The Greens/Green Party USA). Lloyd Strecker helped type and edit the interview.

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