This interview originally appeared in Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture, 5:2, 259-270. For a PDF of the interview, go here. It is reprinted here with permission.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many activists looked to the prisons for political leadership, while viewing prisons themselves as institutions of repression and social control integral to larger systems of oppression. Around the world, the prisoner emerged as an icon of state repression and a beacon of liberation. If the prison served as the bricks and mortar of oppression, the prisoner became the flesh and blood of movement iconography. Black American prisoners held special sway within this global visibility of confinement, in part because so many prisoners became prolific authors connected to wider social movements of the time. In prison, black activists from Martin Luther King, Jr to George Jackson and Assata Shakur penned tracts that offered trenchant insights into race, class, and American power. Black activists proved the most incisive, the most creative, inheritors of a deep and multiracial tradition of political critique behind bars. These imprisoned author-activists articulate a profound paradox: one of the best places to understand the "land of the free" is the place where freedom was most elusive. It was both a sobering and inspiring message for a generation on the move.
As I write, Barack Obama is in constant negotiations with John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives to discuss “the fiscal cliff” that we are about to be thrown over regardless of what deal they cut. He is not meeting with the Progressive Caucus of the Democrats--he has shown great disdain for their politics and their very existence, and anyway, he has their votes. It is essential that Democratic “progressives” vote down the deal that will cut social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and urgent social programs that the president is proposing—but they risk further isolation inside the Democratic Party and great punishment from the Democratic leadership. It will take a real profile in courage for any Congressperson or Senator to reject the Obama/Boehner deal that is in the works but that is what the Movement needs to demand. Let’s be clear. There is virtually no debate going on. The president is proposing that 90% of the alleged “deficit reduction plan” that is artificially created in the first place, would come from cuts in social programs, and 10% or so would come from “raising revenues” what he calls, “just a little bit more taxes” on the wealthy, specifically raising the maximum tax rate from 35% to 39% for the highest tax bracket. This is so little that with all their fraudulent and legal deductions they will not even notice the difference. By contrast, during World War II under Franklin Delano Roosevelt the top tax rate was 94% and stayed above 90% during the Republican Eisenhower administration from 1952-1960. Raising the maximum tax rate to the proposed 39 per cent is a joke, and in typical Beltway logic, Democratic insiders are talking about a compromise on the compromise to 37 percent.
We need to assert a new culture of organizing capable of meeting the demands it will place on us, and now is the time to begin.
This piece was originally published on Alternet on November 14, 2012.
The 2012 elections may prove to have been a watershed in several different respects. Despite the efforts by the political Right to suppress the Democratic electorate, something very strange happened: voters, angered by the attacks on their rights, turned out in even greater force in favor of Democratic candidates. The deeper phenomenon is that the changing demographics of the USA also became more evident—45% of Obama voters were people of color, and young voters turned out in large numbers in key counties.
Unfortunately for the political Left, these events unfolded with the Left having limited visibility and a limited impact—except indirectly through certain mass organizations—on the outcome.
I think that last night’s re-election of Barack Obama represents one of the most important political opportunities of our time. I know that many people on the left will read that opening line, dismiss me as a hopeless radical-turned-liberal and refuse to read any further. They’ll be wrong.
Do I say that because I believe that Obama is our savior? No. I am not blind to his neoliberal policies, and I know that he consistently advances an imperial agenda. I don’t think that he’s suddenly going to start locking up bankers and granting amnesty to the undocumented, now that he doesn’t have to worry about re-election. To me, Obama himself is not the question. He is a complicated figure, politically and historically. As significant as it still is to have a Black man as our President, I do not think that Obama has the intention or capacity to advance a radical, progressive or even very liberal agenda.
This piece was first posted on Waging Nonviolence.
I came out as someone brought up working class in a statewide Freeze convention in the early 1980s. As a gay man, I use the phrase “came out” intentionally. The norm in the U.S. Campaign for a Nuclear Freeze was to believe that the higher a person’s class and status, the more value they brought to the movement.
Almost every peace group I knew was excited when it recruited a doctor or professor or business executive — to them it meant that the group was attracting opinion leaders who, in turn, would be able to persuade the country that it should turn away from the arms race. That was the prevailing theory of social change, and it fit class society like a glove.
The 2012 election is a pitched battle with race at the center.
It may not be "polite" to say this, but far from an era of "post racialism", the United States is in a period of aggravated racial conflict. Though often denied and certainly more complex than the frontal racial confrontations of the past, race is the pivot of the tit-for-tat political struggle that has gripped the country for the past twelve years and, indeed, for decades prior.
This piece was originally published on RH Reality Check on August 8, 2012
by Hannah Jane Sassaman, Media Mobilizing Project
We’re taking up a collection at my office, here at the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, PA, for some of our radio producers and campaigners.
For six years, we’ve believed that the right to speak means little without the right to be heard—and hundreds of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania residents have agreed with us. We’re poor and working people producing media that tells the untold stories of people in Pennsylvania—and developing those people into leaders united to change our city and state. We’re a tight crew, so when folks are having trouble, we come together to help each other out. One young man, Marco (not his real name), is a producer at Radio Unidad, Philadelphia’s only Spanish-language community news show. Andres and Paulita (not their real names) are leaders in another immigrant rights campaign that’s been meeting since January. Even though they work hard, support families, and in many cases own homes and pay taxes--the state has unceremoniously cancelled their drivers’ licenses, saying that the Tax ID numbers they used to get their licenses aren’t proof enough of their right to live in the US.
Reposted from Alternet | August 9, 2012
The 2012 election will be one of the most polarized and critical elections in recent history.Let’s cut to the chase. The November 2012 elections will be unlike anything that any of us can remember. It is not just that this will be a close election. It is also not just that the direction of Congress hangs in the balance. Rather, this will be one of the most polarized and critical elections in recent history.
Unfortunately what too few leftists and progressives have been prepared to accept is that the polarization is to a great extent centered on a revenge-seeking white supremacy; on race and the racial implications of the moves to the right in the US political system. It is also focused on a re-subjugation of women, harsh burdens on youth and the elderly, increased war dangers, and reaction all along the line for labor and the working class. No one on the left with any good sense should remain indifferent or stand idly by in the critical need to defeat Republicans this year.
The fault lines in US society have always run deep, but at no time in memory have they appeared so blatantly in the run-up to a presidential election. The cause is not the distance between the two candidates, as both sides claim. What stimulates this American reckoning is the sea change in the nation's positioning in the world, the rise of those whom history classified as "minorities," and the sharp decline in living standard for average citizens. Reaganite patriotism has run up against post-Cold War realities.
I read Bob Wing's analysis with great interest. It exhibits his usual depth and thoughtfulness in dealing with a fundamental political issue, and it has taught me much and surely deepened my thinking on electoral strategy. I agree with the general thesis that the left has failed to develop an electoral strategy and applaud his sharp analysis of how this might be rectified. His clear focus and singleness of purpose allows him to zero in on essential issues within a coherent framework.
My complaint, and the critique that follows, regards the dangers of too narrow a focus from which in certain respects I think his analysis suffers. My goal here is not to offer a counter electoral strategy, but the rather more modest one of embedding the analysis in a more general context by pointing out some of the unresolved problems of electoral work that necessitate, in my opinion, a broader framework.