I want confess that the first essay in this series, levers and fulcrum points: sustainability, was not my best material.
It's not that I don't sincerely think that sustainability and it's companion insight, that we are in this together, are not fundamental start points for progressive activism. I just think there are other people who know the language of sustainability and the material better; one could see that in comments by DBunn and Cassiodorus and Paul Rosenberg.
What I'd like to do, then, is to back up and get personal. To tell a bit of my story and then get at what I mean about levers and fulcrum points by talking about the leadership of our political party.
I consider myself to be utterly privileged in the coincidences of my upbringing. I have met so many incredible leaders and activists. I have had the chance to hear so many inspiring stories. I have come face to face with so many disturbing and powerful realities. I have made so many incredible allies and friends.
These experiences make me the person, the political activist, that I am today; they have empowered me and shaped my political views.
In my mind, to write about political levers and fulcrum points without addressing this reality is to miss something basic and profound. I skipped the very first and most progressive fulcrum and lever: the political empowerment that comes from lived experience, the history that made me who I am.
What do I mean by that?
Let me get personal. Why do I do what I do? Blog as kid oakland. Do GOTV. Found BlogsUnited. Do the ChicagoVoices Project. Walk precincts to defeat Richard Pombo. Write pieces to highlight the activism of others, including local bloggers all over this nation. For me, it's simple. My life experience tells me so.
It was the old woman with the numbered tattoo on her arm I saw shopping in the produce aisle on 183rd street one hot summer day in 1990. It took a second for that to sink in; but when it did, it was overpowering to me. I will never forget that woman or that day for as long as I live.
It was the representative of the ANC who came to tell us his story...and who took off his shirt to show us the marks up and down his back where he had been subject to electro shock torture by the apartheid South African government.
It was the Christian Brother in 1984 with the shoe box of slides of death squad victims he'd smuggled out of El Salvador. I cannot describe to you how brutal that was. There are no words for the utter inhumanity we saw that day.
It was hearing Albie Sachs, and Bernadette Devlin, and Dith Pran, and Michael Harrington and Coretta Scott King up close and personal.
It was doing social work in Harlem during the crack epidemic and then living in Harlem during the reign of crack cocaine and AIDS. Let me say this, when you open the door of a tiny, filthy tenement apartment, crowded to the hilt with personal belongings, and the woman who opens the door, the mother of three kids, is crying because she is so ashamed of her poverty and her inability to help herself, it changes you. You never forget that.
It's seeing a childhood friend get hooked on crack. It's seeing his cousin, another childhood friend, become a crack dealer. It's seeing your friends go to jail in a criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests and detains and executes African-American men. It's seeing Democrats who know better help that system along.
It's realizing, having fought apartheid, that I am now witnessing many of my fellow Americans, including some who call themselves Democrats, fall into a logic about Latino immigrants that is very close to apartheid...a sense of "second class" citizenship. It's seeing the effect that that hatred has on my Latino neighbors and friends here in Oakland, whatever their immigration or citizenship status.
It was visiting my white friend Darryl in my neighborhood growing up and realizing that, while his single-parent family had a home, they had almost no possessions. No television. A few pieces of old beat up furniture. One old-fashioned radio. That was it. It was the look on Darryl's face when he first visited the modest home I grew up in, where my parents still live, and he realized that we had a stereo, a television and carpeting on our floors. That look, that astonishment was unforgettable. What little we had was a wonderment to him...in 1977. That makes me angry to this day.
It was talking to a black friend from my neighborhood about attending the Catholic, mostly white high school we both went to and having him tell me it was pure hell. That he felt like he had to force himself to get on the bus every day, that he was taunted and made fun of relentlessly just because he was black. And the only reason he told me this was because I asked.
I hate poverty. I hate racism. On the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I don't need to point out that both realities are alive and well in America in the 21st Century. I hate the easy assumptions we all make, assumptions that I find myself making as well. Katrina simply lifted the veil. I think we all should keep doing just that.
My dad grew up without electricity or running water. He had a simple point of view about poverty. He'd say: "You either knew what a lard sandwich tastes like, or you didn't. If you did, you knew you were poor."
There's a great photograph of my dad and his brother George the day of my Aunt Rita's wedding. They are both wearing t-shirts and smiling. They hadn't attended the wedding because there was only so much money to buy kids clothes. They were happy to be at the "after party." It didn't occur to them to be ashamed of that; they both have these huge grins. Of course, my dad now finds that photograph painful to look at. There is and was such a thing as white poverty in the USA. Many people conveniently forget that. It's hidden and shamed. Let's bring it out in the open.
I've written about this before. When I asked my maternal grandmother, who is still alive, what it was like to live and work through the Great Depression she had a simple way of putting it. "We didn't have a dime, Paul." And then she paused, and smiled, to speak more accurately, "Come to think of it, we didn't have a nickel." The Great Depression lasted for years. It wore people down. Some did not make it. Those who did, were not the same.
Personally, I think we as a society live in a land of "let's pretend." On my block today there are Japanese internment survivors, Chinese veterans of the indignities of Angel island and African American citizens who grew up under segregation and Jim Crow in the South.
Nobody talks much about this. It just is. And we like to pretend that this history isn't connected to our present day. Our leaders let loud mouths like Bill O'Reilly and Michell Malkin shame our party and shout us down. They think it's just politics. We know better. The cowardice of our leaders in the face of FOXNews impacts real people that our leaders don't see, and, too often, in reality, don't much care about.
Ask Jose, who stood up at the California Regional caucus in Chicago to talk about his hopes and dreams to live as a productive American citizen in the only country he's really known. Ask the Iraq war veteran I spoke to outside my hotel in Chicago and whom I invited, to no avail, to come join us at YearlyKos. Ask my neighbor Maren, the nicest and quietest child I knew growing up, who is serving her second tour of duty as a combat medic in Iraq.
I'm not telling you anything new. We are involved in politics for these and many other reasons. If you've read my diaries, you know them all.
(Let me say that often when I write pieces like this, they get picked up and mocked by conservative bloggers. They call me a "bleeding heart", they mock my "concern." I take that as a badge of honor. They only belittle and hate what they are afraid of, and to be frank, we all know full well the impact of the policies and leaders they've espoused. They can't hide Katrina, our health care system and Iraq. They can't hide Trent Lott, Tom Foley, Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay. They can't deny that it was their party that brought this nation eight years of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. They have to live with that. It's pretty simple: they are the party that has no problem running a slate of rich, white, anti-choice, anti-immigrant, anti-gay men from President, in fact, they are proud of that fact.)
All that being said, I do have a challenging thought for Democrats about where we are today. I want to say that while I believe that engagement with the Democratic Party is the only course of action that makes any sense given the work we need to do changing the laws and regulations and policies of the United States, I also want to convey something deep and sincere.
Given my life experience and the results we have in hand as we start the month of September 2007, I have never been more ashamed of the leadership of the Democratic Party than today. I am ashamed of Hillary Clinton, of Barack Obama, of John Edwards of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. I am ashamed of their leadership of the party from stem to stern.
I want to be clear. My disgruntlement carries over to leaders of the left of the party as well. I'm not particularly happy with Howard Dean. I'm not really a fan of Barbara Lee and Ron Dellums here in Oakland. (And I was pretty unhappy with Jerry Brown to be quite honest.)
When people talk to me about distant ills in Gaza and Darfur here at my cafe, I have to stop and ask them if they've given much thought to the running and unabated genocide of gang violence going down in East Oakland and on International Boulevard? When they talk about Katrina, I have to ask have they taken a drive down Market Street in West Oakland? If they are focused on Arnold and the GOP power grab for CA electoral college votes, have they also spent a day at McClymonds High? What is the message we bring to these young American citizens in our city of Oakland? How has that message changed in the last thirty years?
And when I think about Howard Dean's speech at YearlyKos I have to ask myself this question: How can the man who gave that courageous and principled anti-war speech at the California convention in 2003 give the speech he gave in Chicago in 2007? The message I get from Howard Dean and leaders of our Democratic Party is this: we have to have another election in order to get a change of course on this war, and, even then, it's not clear what that change of course is going to be.
That is not acceptable.
There is too much to do and we have come too far to forget our principles and our positions. How can we be the party that embraced the values of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and, yes, Michael Harrington, and now have fallen so low? It's 2007. What are our leaders scared of? Where is the backbone?
I wrote about fighting Democrats in the aftermath of the 2004 elections. Where are they?
Rahm, you're no fighter. Your position on immigration is an embarassment to our party and its values. Steny, your constant undercutting of Speaker Pelosi is so obvious and shameless, you should be ashamed to call yourself a Democrat. As someone who like so many others here went out and busted my ass to win Democrats new majorities in 2006, surrounded by other volunteers who cared passionately about our nation and our world and in particular our occupation of Iraq, I have to ask, in September of 2007: is that all there is? Steny Hoyer primping and posing for the cameras? Rahm Emanuel claiming the mantle of the "fighting Democrat?"
John Edwards is pro death penalty and anti gay marriage?
Barack Obama is for expanding the military industrial complex?
Hillary Clinton thinks that we are making progress in Iraq?
From where I stand, none of them can give clear leadership TODAY about how we can end this occupation NOW and start getting our sons and daughters out of the slaughterhouse that is our nation's occupation of Iraq. Friends, John Kerry promised us to do that in two years in 2004 and he was roundly criticized because we expected more of him. It's now September of 2007 and, in my view, we are being bamboozled by a lack of leadership once again. There is simply no accountability within the Democratic Party.
I'm sick of it. I'm not afraid of saying that we've come too far, and fought too hard to watch as the leadership of the Democratic party once again fails to live up the ideas and ideals that we are so deeply bound to. And it's not just the war, it's social justice.
I said I would make it personal and this is it: I am 38 years old, I'm white, I've spent my life growing up side by side with African-American children coming of age in America. That's my experience. These are my neighbors, my fellow citizens and my friends. This is the community that I love: the multi-racial world of America's cities. In terms of where I've lived, either in the Midwest, the East Coast or here in Oakland, this is the only world I have known. I get a sick feeling in my stomach when I drive past the public housing projects around the corner from my house. I don't think I have anything new to bring or say to counter the powerful message that Katrina sent about the real values of America: too many in this country don't really believe that "all men are created equal" when it comes to the beautiful mosaic of children...American citizens...coming of age in America's cities: their education, their safety, their health care, their environment.
We left an American city and its poorest citizens to drown. We did that for all the world to see. (Katrina was mentioned as an aside at the very end of the YearlyKos presidential forum.)
Where is the hope? How can I go back to the West Oakland BART station, where I do GOTV on election day every year, once again, and ask the voters to turn out for the Democratic Party?
I don't want a snow job of predictable rhetoric from Barack or Hillary or Edwards or Barbara or Ron. That's not acceptable; that's too par for the course. I know that if we are going to accomplish what we need to accomplish going forward that it will take every last one of us taking responsibility and rising to the occasion. Like so many Democrats and all of you reading this today, I am willing to do my part, to be pragmatic, and to bring as many others along as I possibly can. In that regard, I feel that I've done alright so far.
However, let me be real. Without a doubt, there will be rousing speeches at the Democratic Convention in Denver in 2008. In my view, that's too late. The time for a "Come to Jesus" moment within the Democratic Party is now. Will Steny and Rahm run the show, or will somebody finally put their foot down and have some courage and call them out? Will someone make a clarion call for justice within our party in such a way that it results in legislation and action this fall, the fall of 2007? Will we put bills that give this nation the change we are hungry for, the change we promised last election, on the President's desk?
I will vote for the Democratic nominee, of course. I will do so not simply because there is no alternative, but also because I am proud of the values of our party and what we stand for. But let me get personal once again. On my journey in politics I've changed and grown. I'm not afraid or ashamed to admit that I've made mistakes and learned things. I've deepened my understanding of how things really work in this country. (Hence my relentless encouragement of local blogging and grassroots activism.) I will continue to do so. Where can you find that candor in our candidates?
Now is the time for our leaders (Nancy and Harry) and candidates (Hillary and Barack and Edwards) to rise to this moment in history. Now is the time for them to grow into the leadership we so desperately need.
It's not simply about ending the occupation. If only it was as simple as that. It's about justice. It's about vision. It's about hope.
Hope has to mean something more than partisan victory. Leadership means nothing if it has been made hollow by consultants and cowardly operatives. That is all we have to show for our efforts in 2006 as far as a true change from business as usual in DC. Zippo. Nada. Not much. (ie. They sold out our position on the war to pass minimum wage in the Senate...that's about it.)
Let me put it simply: the true leader of the Democratic party will be the person who carries the torch, who creates fear in the corrupt "go along, get along" members of the party elite, who shames Rahm and Steny and John Dingell and, yes, my former Congressman, Mr. Rangel, for their utter lack of conviction and inside dealings, someone who reaches out and inspires new leadership to emerge in all fifty states to revitalize and reform our party.
Nothing will change in America until we work together locally to effectively make it change. Our leaders, so far, have failed us. They are timid, they are out of touch and they are not rooted in the bold ideas that motivate their core supporters: the bold ideas that are our only true hope.
What's so hard to understand about "all men are created equal?"
What's so difficult about "equal justice before the law?"
What's so hard to understand about protection from "unreasonable search and seizure?"
Why is it so hard to talk about a woman's right to choose?
Why are we still fighting rear guard battles?
When will we end this horrible lie and disaster in Iraq and move on to the true battles our nation faces?
There is so much else we have to do. We all know that.
I will not stop fighting and writing, but I will not choose to fight and write because we have the leadership we need in our party, far from it.
I have other reasons that motivate me to do what I do. As part of working the fulcrums and levers of change, I've chosen to share some of those reasons with you.