Seen as a single tactical
event the Black Friday protests didn't amount to much. Seen,
however, as the potential beginning of a new movement they may
have been extremely important. For a couple of decades, the pieces
of the left have kept to their own causes like people walking
down the street plugged to their own Ipods. The confluence of
similar interests has been marked by proximity without interaction.
Blacks didn't work with latinos, the Green Party and the labor
unions lived in separate worlds, and increasingly upscale liberals
tended to their own interests, indifferent to the economic issues
that had once defined the term they used to describe themselves.
And nobody seemed to notice.
Gay marriage and abortion floated to the top of the agenda, while
poverty, foreclosures, and the increasing abuse of workers got
Four years ago, an item
in Reddit caught my eye:
"Vote up if you
would rather bail out NPR for 30 lousy million than failing auto
companies for 15 billion."
You had to travel a third
of the way down the 500 comments before any responders even mentioned
the auto industry, and when they did many didn't like it or its
workers. An exception came when one of the workers wrote:
"I like Reddit
a lot. But sometimes it really gets me down. People here so often
come across as children in the way they speak, or how biased
they are. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people
may lose their income if the auto industry goes under, and you
joke about it."
There's nothing wrong with
NPR, gay marriage or abortions. It's just that to make them more
important than, say, the foreclosure disaster or the job collapse,
is to have one's priorities a bit askew. For example, there are
about one million abortions each year but forty million people
on food stamps and among adults using this program, nearly two
thirds were women. You'd never know from what you hear.
Last weekend may have started
to change that. Non-unionized workers, union activists, Green
Party members, Occupiers, and localists came together and, even
if they failed to accomplish their goals, at least made it a
goal heard around the nation.
Part of the secret was
a specific issue rather than a general cause. The pay scale and
working conditions of Wal-Mart employees rather than "labor"
or "feminism" or "civil liberties."
I learned this secret many
years ago when I first became involved in activism. The issue
then was an unwanted fare increase by DC Transit. The organizer
was the heavily black and young Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee but the participants came from all over including
100,000 riders who stayed off the buses. Then we went on to stop
a Los Angeles like freeway system planned for the capital with
an alliance that included old leftists, preservationists, SNCC,
and black and white middle class homeowners threatened with removal.
Over and over, the best
causes - from ending the Vietnam War to the young environmental
movement - found their strength in issues that could attract
people who might not agree on everything but did on those issues.
Just like Saul Alinksky, the god father of issue based activism,
told us. It was a time, for example, when this Seventh Day Agnostic
had at least half dozen close acquaintances who were either ministers
or priests.And it just seemed right.
But as the great issue
struggles of the 1960s calmed down, progress brought out its
downside: a growing indifference to some of the values that had
helped it succeed. Activist groups became more insulated and
disconnected. Action moved from the streets to organizations
increasingly concerned with how to get funding from foundations
that might otherwise go to some group that was meant to be their
allies. And these foundations wanted some action, but not too
much. Individual American life became atomized. And the Internet
convinced us we could do it all with a few clicks.
But just like progress
has its downside, collapse can lead us to new solutions. For
example, part of the secret of the Democrats' survival in this
election was the rediscovery of the importance of human contact
in politics. Sure, the data was technologically driven, but it
drove the campaign not just to emails but to knocks on the door.
To faces meeting each other.To putting people back into politics.
And then, a few weeks later
came Black Friday with some of the most varied participation
we've seen in a major protest in years.
What now if blacks and
latinos discover that the true power of mutual alliance? If groups
build support by supporting others' issues rather than just waiting
for the others to support them? If liberals use their knowledge
not to preach and scold, but to start a workers' version of the
Freedom Schools that helped to build black power by introducing
ordinary citizens to their own heritage. What if the principles
of local food was applied to our politics as well?
What if Black Friday was
the darkness in which a real movement began?
Four years ago, I wrote
a premature article on this topic . My timing was off, but maybe
my punchline weren't
Sam Smith, 2008 - I may be jumping the gun a bit
or perhaps I've let some childish optimism sneak out from under
my usually cynical brow, but I think there may be a movement
A movement is not like
a campaign. No one gets to start a movement and no one gets to
own it. You don't have to file any contribution reports. The
archaic media pretends you don't even exist for as long as it
can. And it doesn't even have to have a name.
That's why I just call
it the movement. It's sort of like the Gulf Stream, hard to see
yet undeniable as it moves you faster in a certain direction.
And if a movement hasn't
started, it may not be long before it does. I have never seen
so much cause for so many Americans to be so mad at so many of
those who have been running the place - establishment politicians,
academics, media, economists and corporations. They've lied,
denied, connived and contrived, often with an unprecedented blend
of stupidity and greed for which we all now paying.
It's not just the people
in power who are the problem; it's the ones they've taught. Taught
to believe in lies and now think they're clever by being snarky
about anyone who wasn't smart enough to believe those lies, the
sort of education that leads you to think that saving NPR is
more important than saving the auto industry. The sort of education
that makes you think you have to choose between them.
When I saw it, I remembered
that it was like that under segregation, too. You had the bad
guys at the top and then you had all those who went along, either
to get along and get ahead or because they had come to truly
believe the stupid stuff the bad guys at the top had taught them.
And even educated people talked about blacks back then like educated
people talk about auto workers today.
But now the market for
myths and lies has dried up and there's nothing on the shelves
any more but reality. The folks who deceived us can't come up
with the answer so it has to come from somewhere else.
... The answer, if there
is one, lies in a movement that that gathers the wisdom of the
disaster's victims, the critics of what created it, and the imagination
of those able to see past both cause and effect to a truly better
It is hard for some to
conceive of such a phenomenon because of the current obsession
with Barack Obama and the still widespread belief that he will,
through some personal magic or gift of God, come up with answers
that not only have eluded all the rest of Washington, but eluded
his own campaign and transition as well. Those of us who question
such a fantasy are called mean spirited and instructed to be
silent until the wise one works his way.
But then America often
works like that. There's always some myth to distract us from
what's really going on. We're like a schizophrenic trying to
play soccer. One minute our eye is on the ball, the next moment
we're deep into some national delusion.
Truly bad times don't have
much tolerance for that sort of thing. And so ordinary, rational
people have to come up with their own answers, often small solutions
in many different places. Such as the group in Milwaukee creating
a local currency. Or the sit-in at the factory.
We can expect more of this
as matters continue to deteriorate. It will include new ideas
as well as ones brought back to life and ones that have already
been pursued for years with too little money and respect. It
will include union workers, environmentalists, teachers tired
of test totalitarianism, 401Kers discovering the difference between
stock funds and a pension, unemployed professionals, women losing
their jobs only a few decades after gaining a right to them,
minorities learning that white guys can also get screwed, white
guys learning what it feels like be dissed like a minority, the
ill without proper care and people who want their constitutional
rights back again
Add it all together and
you start to see a movement. It doesn't need a name; it doesn't
need an address; it doesn't need an icon on the alter.
At times the movement may
find itself allied with Barack Obama; at other times he may be
its major opponent. In either event, Obama will define change
no better than John Kennedy defined the civil rights movement
or LBJ the anti-Vietnam war movement. Change doesn't originate
in the White House; what happens there merely reflects the power
of the change around it. Which is one good reason not to go soft
just because Obama's in the White House. If he won't be an ally,
then he must be made irrelevant.
Back in 2001, in my book
"Why Bother?," I tried to describe what was happening
to America and what could be done about it:
The system that envelopes
us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages,
its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called
a biologic crisis -- "like being dead and not knowing it."
The unwitting dead
-- universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils,
foundations, churches, political parties -- reach out from the
past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most
ecologically destructive century of human existence. . .
Yet even as we complain
about and denounce the entropic culture in which we find ourselves,
we are unable bury it. We speak of a new age but make endless
accommodations with the old. We are overpowered and afraid.
We find ourselves condoning
things simply because not to do so means we would then have to
-- at unknown risk -- truly challenge them.
To accept the full
consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion
of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling
of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for
the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the
zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems
beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage
without an overwhelming sense of surrender; far easier to just
keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.
Yet, in a perverse
way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost
what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve
the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction
of a new time.
It is this willingness
to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first
divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate
from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement
but as a frontier.
How one does this can
vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from
the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional
political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans
have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and
our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner,
never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the
improbable, let alone screaming for help.
We have lost much of
what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our
passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational,
technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome
the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living
rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not
alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk
guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin.
The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King.
Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions.
People coming together
because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to
preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous
revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Above all, we must
understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are
healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as
a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.
What I was talking about
was a movement of the sort that may now or soon be underway.
Providing mediation for anger, structure for hope, and pragmatic
plans for tomorrow, a movement can seem anarchistic, disjointed
or directionless, yet what we see may be no more the little waves
on the surface that conceal the force of the current underneath.
Further, it is sometimes
hard to perceive because while the cause is national, the action
is often local. We have become trained in recent decades by both
liberals and conservatives to define action by simply being on
a national mailing list and making a contribution. Which is why
Move On and Emily's List are so powerful but nobody knows what
a liberal is any more.
Movements work differently.
They don't use popes; they rely on independent congregations.
They are driven not be saviors but by substance. They assume
a commitment beyond the voting booth, they think politicians
should respond to them rather than the other way around, and
they believe in "Here's how" as well as "Yes,
If you are presently doing
anything to try to repair the damage that has been done by our
cynical, greedy and incompetent leadership you are part of the
movement. Student, union worker, teacher, retiree, infirm, ecologist,
defense attorney, community organizer, informed or reformed -
you are part of the movement.
So welcome to the movement.
If you don't believe there is one, trying using the word anyway.
The very term is a weapon in our arsenal. If the politicians
and the press start hearing the phrase in places they thought
had little in common, they will start to pay attention. We can
leave it to the historians to define it. In its very ambiguity
lies its strength. We may contradict ourselves, but as Walt Whitman
once noted, that's okay; it merely proves that we contain multitudes.