Monday, September 26, 2005

Coalition Ain't Pretty (aka ANSWER, Anti-War Marches, and Hullabaloo)

This started as a comment in response to one made in a diary thread at Street Prophets about Meteor Blades’ post on DailyKOS (a post with which I agreed) asking folks (nicely) to stop with the carping over this past Saturday’s Anti-War March in Washington and the role of ANSWER. In response to a comment that nobody really listens to the podium speeches at these marches, someone raised the possibility that in the ideal world there would be just a few speakers to "inspire" people, a la March on Washington, and suggested that nobody would have admitted to having not thought it important to listen to Dr. King's speech that day.

I found that comment interesting, both in light of what actually happened that long-ago day in August, 1963 and what happened just this past Saturday and the resultant hullabaloo over ANSWER's role. To me, both what happened then and what is happening now merely reflect the ugly downside of coalition work - a downside that it seems folks really don't want to accept as part of making meaningful change.

So here are my thoughts on it, starting from the past.

It makes me smile that anyone would hold up the 1963 March on Washington (properly called the March for Jobs and Freedom, which should tell you something right there) as an example of ideal for a single-issue march whose "few" speakers were selected to "inspire people".

The March on Washington was, in fact, a compromise event of the highest order, that its organizer A. Philip Randolph (an organization all by his himself when it came to effective activism), agreed to allow to be less revolutionary than it was originally planned to be for one reason and one reason only - obtaining a critical mass of Black persons in Washington DC and putting the kibosh on what was a veiled threat by JFK to allow J. Edgar Hoover’s CIA to turn DC into a police state while the march was in effect. To accomplish this, Randolph (along with his mentee Bayard Rustin) was ultimately was forced to share "equal billing" with 5 Black organizations, all of which had slightly different emphasis and different approaches to the problem: the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE – pacifists that emphasized Ghandi-like racial reconciliation until post 1954; SCLC – Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King’s organization, founded after Rosa Parks’ sit down, comprised of ministers and those with a religious approach to the problem); SNCC – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and A. Philip Randolph’s group; NAACP – we all know what that is; and the National Urban League probably the only truly grassroots organization in the bunch, formed in the ghettos of the North following the great Black migration, with access to capital and jobs as their primary mission.

I think it's instructive to compare both the list of diverse organizations that form International ANSWER with this list. Maybe it's just me, but they don't all look like communist fronts.....they indeed look like a list of groups for who either war or racism/ethnic conflict is a mobilizing principle.

Going back to 1963, Randolph had more problems he had to handle trying to hold what was otherwise a cornucopia of different folks with different agendas together for the single event. For example, he had to address the fact that many of the footsoldiers on the ground fighting for Black equality were women and yet they were excluded as speakers (in the end, we got to sing, and have a separate tribute to our womanness, but that's it.) But more importantly, he had to add some more folk in order to accommodate the fierce pressure on the event brought to bear by JFK, to avoid Hoover turning D.C into an armed police state for the weekend. As a result, the list of speakers was pretty long (not counting all the musical acts) and when you look at it, some of the connections are rather hard to see:

Program for the March for Jobs and Freedom

The March on Washington certainly was not a "single issue march," even though again historical revisionism has made it so for most people today because all they know of it is the last 20% of Dr. King’s speech. As you will see below, there were lots of “issues”. The list of demands for the March was rather omnibus, but ultimately whittled away in favor of the Civil Rights Bill in no small part because the “leaders” insisted that the larger concerns of the grassroots give way in order to pacify JFK and the "mainstream" politicians, who IMO were scared shitless about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of angry Black folk descending upon Washington DC demanding anything .

(I probably would have been angry, too but I was only 2 and still in diapers, my mom and dad said I had a good time at the march though, probably because I was then just a round-faced happy baby with no concern for anything other than my bottle and my dollies. How 42 years changes things…….)

The March on Washington was the ultimate brainchild of a socialist revolutionary (who had already terrified the government twice before by threatening a similar march, only to have both Roosevelt and Truman capitulate to his demands rather than run the risk that JFK chose to run until it became clear what was about to happen whether he liked it or not, and how the US would look internationally if it did). The March was ultimately made a success, however, by a coalition of folks who really did not agree with each other about much, substantive or methodological, when it came to establishing priorities. Including with the socialism of A. Philip Randolph, the March's leader and organizer. But nonetheless, all agreed on one thing: Black people were entitled to better. And wanted it - right now (then.)

The crowd that ultimately appeared in DC was recruited by all these organizations. Each had their particular constituencies, with their particular emphasis, represented. Yet despite these differences and the rivalries between the organizations, the intended audience for these different constituencies voted with their feet - they showed up - because there was at least *one* thing they all agreed on.

When you realize what the true intent of the organizers of March on Washington was (to put heat on people high and low oppressing black folks, north, south, east and west, with sheer numbers) it seems clear that it probably *didn't really matter* too much from the perspective of the original organizers and most of the actual participants what Dr. King had to say about the details of the struggle from his perspective. He was just a very popular young minister whose religiously based approach, while different than the other approaches of the other organizing groups and concerned about moral issues to a larger degree than other groups, was still related to the bottom line goal that they all shared despite their differences in priorities, membership and message: black empowerment. Without regard to some thought Dr. King was an accomodationist or a communist, or whether women were or were not allowed to be speakers, or whether whites were welcome participants, or whether the Labor Movement was really relevant to folks who were getting waterhosed and dog-chewed in the south trying to get lunch or register to vote. There certainly were only some who cared about whether DC was a state. In the end, everybody got a little piece of their "say."

(That Dr. King ended up giving the last few famous paragraphs of his speech that day spontaneously at the behest of the late Mahalia Jackson is who asked him to “Tell them about your dream, Martin!”, as they say, history. Since it is that part that arguably made him a national hero as opposed to what he was called most of the time back then, a communist who hated America. Especially after he started the next year injecting another highly “off-message” subject into speeches and marches and rallies focused on empowering Black people - the immorality of the Vietnam War.)

While the beloved "I Have a Dream" excerpt was lovely oratory, it really was largely "off message" with the stated purposes of the march. Dr. King's own advance-prepared words confirm this. Black People simply did not descend on Washington D.C. in those numbers to feel good; they came to demand what they believed they had a right to demand right then, right nowfrom their government. As Dr. King said, they came to demand that the nation make good on the bad check it had given its Black citizenry. Right then, right now. Or else. Imagine if, today, what we were taught as most important was the speech probably closest to that viewpoint, shared by the lead organizers and most of the folks who traveled far and wide to the event: the censored speech of now Congressman John Lewis, who advocated nothing less than “scorched earth” (albeit nonviolent), against Jim Crow that would would “fragment the South into 1,000 pieces.” Even though that was a far more “on message” speech than Dr. King’s from the perspective of many who had traveled far and wide, do we today accuse Dr. King of having “hijacked” the March merely because of his own deeply personal and religious take on the problem, and exhortation for us to be spiritual people united in our humanity, even in our anger? Obviously, we don’t do so, even though his historically-preserved message ending message was just a small snippet of his words that day, the entirety of which history now calls the "I Have a Dream" speech even though that message was definitely not about his dream, which was, if you read the entire speech) clearly only tangentially related to the goals and objectives of the March.

Like International ANSWER, a group that clearly and publicly bills itself as being against "war and racism" as equal priorities, the organizers of the '63 march had different priorities. Compare ANSWER's many issues with the long list of demands put forth by the organizers (A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin) for the March on Washington:

One, passage of a meaningful civil rights legislation at this session of Congress with no filibustering.

Two, immediate elimination of all racial segregation in public schools throughout the Nation.

Three, a big program of public works to provide jobs for all the Nation's unemployed, including job training and a placement program.

Four, a Federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in hiring workmen, either public or private.

Five, $2 an hour minimum wage across the board Nationwide.

Six, withholding of Federal funds from programs in which discrimination exists.

Seven, enforcements of the 14th amendment, reducing congressional representation of States where citizens are disenfranchised.

Eight, a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include currently excluded employment areas.

Nine, authority for the Attorney General to substitute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.

(This was expanded to include a demand for D.C. statehood, on the grounds that the City was 57% Black – at that time).

As one can see just reviewing the above list, and remembering precisely how much of a success "public image" wise the March was, it seems clear that the lack of a “single message” does not automatically sound as the death knell of a protest march.

When I think of the 1963 march in light of all the hand wringing that is underlying the ANSWER/ABA (Anybody but ANSWER) debate, it puts me in mind of a real Catch 22, the same one faced back in the day by those who wanted to be “on board” with the struggle of African-Americans but who *really* couldn’t handle all those revolutionary demands for power *right now*, and so demanded that the event organizers change their event to soothe their worries. It is the people who organize the marches and mobilize the masses who are most often those with the most revolutionary message. They also possess the most zeal to speak to the largest audience - their very passion drives them to do so. Their voices are more often the "loudest" and least tired, which makes sense when the energy and commitment it takes to put together mass marches is vast compared to that which most folks are willing to display day-to-day.

Yet the vast majority of their allies in coalition have absolutely no stomach for genuinely revolutionary protest. Because they are not revolutionaries, more often than not. They just have a pet cause -- antiwar, antiracism whatever it is -- and that's all that is on their radar. The larger, more global messages intertwined with their pet cause are felt as discordant, disagreeable and downright distracting. Even more so when you ask folks to, in the name of protest, let go of their own comparatively narrow way of viewing the problem.

As was ultimately the case with Dr. King himself, as this summary of Dr. King's evolving views nicely demonstrates.

Finally, just as was the case this past weekend, folks attending the 1964 march decided they were tired of standing around waiting too, and started marching on their own (but ahead of schedule), leaving the “leaders” to play catch up. That's always the case with marches based on coalition: the participants are going to do what they are going to do, no matter what their leaders tell them to do. That's just the nature of mass protest. There is nothing disorganized about that.

All that history matters as an objective backdrop, IMO, to those who are presently up in arms about ANSWER, "message dilution", and hijacking because supposedly too many "crazies" got leave to express the details of their thinking underlying their beliefs about the war, got to give voice about something besides the "one thing" about which they all agree. Well, that's the devil in the details of political action known as "coalition."

In coalition, you hold your nose and you march side by side, knowing that in other circumstances you wouldn't be caught dead within 50 feet of the person next to you. You find the slender thread of commonality, you impose a temporary brotherhood/sisterhood, get the job done, and move on.

(Just as was the case in '63; the march grounds were deserted within an hour of Dr. King's last speech, indicating that folks weren't hanging around trying to make new friends when it was all over).

That’s sort of the truth about coalition events that I see underlying the at-times quite nasty debate about ANSWER’s role in Saturday’s marches now taking place in the blogosphere. Except that it is informed by one other thing: a backlash grounded in the hard-core socialist, if not outright communist, principles that undergird ANSWER’s parent (for want of a better term) organizations. I am feeling a real sense that if ANSWER just wasn’t so “red”, so “anti-American”, folks might not be as reticent to walk behind their banner for an anti-war cause.

But back in the day, Dr. King's remarks were also considered -- gasp! -- "anti-American". One could argue that the evidence of how seriously folks took the “communist” charge against Dr. King is that the vast majority of his words during the March on Washington have been lost to all but scholars of Black history, and only the most religious, yet least relevant to the march, part of his speech is taught today. In contrast, scheduled speakers whose messages were more directly "on point" with the actual stated purposes of the march according to its creator had their speeches eliminated, watered down, and/or edited almost unrecognizably -- most notably, James Baldwin and John Lewis -- to create a palatable "vision" for those who were not 100% on board with all the actual demands for Black equality that the march was intended to make.

Imagine if we'd held Dr. King to the "too communist" standard as a nation.

Bernice Johnson Reagon made a point 20 years ago that is valid today: you do not go into coalition looking for "home". It is not a place to feel comfortable. You will not feel safe. And you may not even feel liked. But you do it because that's how you get the job done. And afterward, when you're done, you flee back into your safe space, your boarded up room, your "home" with those who think just like you and look just like you and feel just like you, and you build up the energy to go out in coalition again.

Because you can't succeed without it.

Just for the record I am not a fan of ANSWER, largely because it is not honest about its relationship with the World Workers Party and the larger, hard-core communist, goals of that organization. If it were honest, I’d have far less of an issue with ANSWER, since in the end I'm not a communist and frankly anyone who assumes I am just because I go on an anti-war march has a problem with projection. But either way, if you don't find commonality in their larger vision of war as part of an interconnected struggle against imperialism in all forms, don't go to their events -- because their website makes plain that there is no such thing as a distillable "single issue" in their larger world view. Everything is connected. About that part, at least, they've been honest from Day 1 from what I can see. Until others step up and take on that same type of passion, it seems that folks can learn from the March on Washington, and those who ultimately became bodies in history not because they were socialists like A. Philip Randolph, but because in the end furthering the larger goal meant, sometimes, getting in bed with folks you otherwise don’t think too much of. Knowing that at the end of the day, getting the job done is more important than whether somebody likes you when it is all over.

Anyhow, as usual lots of rambling. But my honest opinion.


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