The Time for Protests Is Now: The First 100 Days Are Over. What Next?

hat tip TPM. Photo by Jeff Malet/maletphoto.com

 

Last December I reviewed  a new book,  Obama’s Challenge: American’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency. I began with a question:

In his new book, Robert Kuttner has provided a context for the current discussion on Barack Obama’s economic team, men like Timothy Geithner who will be leaving his post as head of the NY Federal Reserve to become Treasury Secretary. What will be their influence in determining the direction of the new Administration? Events have moved rapidly since he wrote the book (released this past labor day), but it is still timely and prescient.

In today's Huffington Post, Kuttner provides a tentative answer, Obama's First 100 Days: What's a Presidency For? He concludes that so  far President Obama seems to have ducked and compromised. His title refers to the days following Pres. Kennedy's assassination when Johnson's aides warned him not to push too hard for landmark civil rights laws and he replied, "Hell, what's the presidency for?"  Even on the question of Health Reform Kuttner feels that Obama may still pull back and accomodate corporate interests by dropping public health insurance from package.

A fair assessment of the situation we face. The question remains what to do about it. Kuttner points to a key weakness in the situation and provides an implicit answer.

A second systemic obstacle, for now anyway, is the absence of a popular movement to put wind at a progressive president's back. Among the logical candidates, the labor movement is weakened by the same economic crisis, divided internally, and it sorely needs Obama's good will for everything from the Employee Free Choice Act to the auto rescue. The web of grassroots activists who came together to elect Obama is now a website of the Democratic National Committee. MoveOn.org is organizing around issues such as universal health care, but pushes on the president only gingerly. More than anything else, the stance of most progressives is still mainly gratitude.

 William Greider addressed the same issue at his book-signing event on the 17th April.  In the question period he was challenged on a remark he had made about putting the heat on Blue Dog Democrats who were threatening to block with Republicans. Clearly progressives cannot simply rely upon the president to get it right. This is from my post, An Evening with William Greider and Friends. "Greider  said that he thought attempting to organize a national third party is unrealistic [ but what is needed is]  mass actions breaking out unexpectedly. This happened in the New Deal when to FDR's surprise labor had a massive organizing drive." 

The civil rights demonstrations that President Johnson responded to were another example. And the anti-war demonstrations led by SDS  in the 1970s showed a similar potential.

How is the situation changed now? Are we likely to see mass actions again? Will they be effective? How will they intersect with the resources that Progressives now have to get their message out through the web and networking sites? The civil rights and anti-war movements were to a significant extent dependent upon print media and television to get their message out more broadly.

On the 15th Alex Lawson organized a counter-teabag demonstration that suggests how street theater and satire can be used effectively to diffuse violence and get the progressive message across effectively. I spoke with him recently and asked him to elaborate his remarks in a video that we posted as part of a report on the demonstration he organized, I posted at his request.

 

 

Describing the teabag demos as "fake astroturfing," Alex Lawson decided the time was right to plant the seeds for a genuine grassroots movement.

He said that he had gotten together with a bunch of friends during the lunch hour (he works in DC as a health-care policy analysist). His aim was to use humor if possible to disrupt the demonstration without escalating the situation into violence, and also if possible even to get a few of the demonstrators teabaggers thinking. Scenes of him and his friends ridiculing the the so-called tax protest were shown in local TV coverage and they were mentioned in a paragraph of the Washington Post article on the demo. There was also foreign press coverage, (Al Gerzira, and the Univision and the Asian News Channel interviewed him.) The counter demo was edited out of the Fox News Coverage he said laughing, even though their cameras were following them around. His purpose was to step on "the Teabaggers media," but coopting their messaging with chanting the slogan: Tax Workers Not Billionaires, which sounds ridiculous but is actually was what the demos were all about.

The YouTube clips of the Billionaires marching around perfectly  captures the flavor of their intervention. His hope is that the idea of using street theater in this way "using satire to draw out the confrontational aspects--more fun and less anger" will catch on nationally. He and his friends wanted to underscore the ludicrousness of the whole tea-bagging operation, while having an impact in what he called, "a surgical manner."

This was an updated-tactic popularized by Saul Alinsky, he said. The following is taken from Wikipedia:

Alinsky came up with the idea of power analysis, which looks at relationships built on self-interest between corporations, banks and utilities.

In the 1930s, Alinsky organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago (made infamous by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle for the horrific working conditions in the Union Stock Yards). He went on to found the Industrial Areas Foundation while organizing the Woodlawn neighborhood, which trained organizers and assisted in the founding of community organizations around the country.

Alex said that his immediate inspiration was a group called Billionaires for Bush that had been active during the 2004 Kerry campaign.There purpose had been to adapt the style of street theater to show how W's policies benefitted the few who were becoming incredibly rich while the rest of the country sank into poverty.

I spoke briefly with one of the original members of Billionaires for Bush, which was actually set up in 2000. He uses the pseudonym Monet Oliver D'Place. (say it quickly and you'll get the point--money all over the place. Monet is a home-grown American!) He said that they went to Bush events in their billionaire's costumes (just as Alex did last week) and also attended some Kerry meetings in order to help contain the Swift Boat Crowd. He estimated that they had been involved in around 500 events during the 2004 election campaign.

Marco said that there were more teabagging events planned by the Fox News Crowd (who were the major force in building the ones on tax day) for July 4, and he hopes that the word will get around about the Billionaires and similar counter demonstrations will be occurring around the country. At the moment this is pretty much of a word-of-mouth operation he said.

During the recent election Obama's ability to inspire mass support, particular among younger Americans, played an important role in his victory. These days his movement has been folded into the Democratic Party apparatus. One question is whether the same people who took to the street to register new voters and go door-to-door to get out the vote for Obama, will be taking to the streets again -- this time to make good on his promises.

 The situation in Los Angeles and South Carolina may be  harbingers of the future, indications of a developing climate ripe for the kind of mass actions that Lawson and Greider propose is necessary. The Christian Science monitor introduces a an article about teacher layoffs, Stimulus Money Puts Teachers in Layoff Limbo, with this picture of teachers demonstrating against layoffs in California.

 

Matthew Horowitz, a teacher at the Metropolitan Skills Center in Los Angeles, protested outside the school district's budget meeting last week. The board of education rescinded a proposed layoff of nearly 2,000 elementary school teachers, but more than 5,000 other teaching, administrative, and support positions are still slated for elimination.

But as they say, the money is just a trickle, not enough to cover multiple goals for the stimulus money – saving jobs, reforming education, and avoiding becoming too dependent on a funding stream due to dry up in two years.

Worse still are the states that have rejected the Obama package, with  headliner Governor Sanford leading the  rejection front -- he has refused to accept stimulus funds, on SC student has had enough. On the 20th, lawyers announced that as representatives of a SC student,Casey Edwards, they were filing suit against the governor. SC student sues over Sanford's stimulus stance. 

The Washington Post ran a five-page article yesterday reporting on how bad things are in South Carolina, A Hundred Anxious Days , In a South Carolina Town Where the Downturn Has Deepened Since the Inauguration, Two Obama Supporters Have Struggled, Going From 'Fired Up' to Tired Out. The story is grim.

County councilwoman Edith Child's was an active Obama supporter. Now she spends her time trying to help her desperate constituents were are losing homes and jobs and lack medical access to medical care.

"Always a fighter." That's how Childs describes herself. She disapproved of how her first husband wasted money on liquor, so she called him into the living room and lit a $20 bill on fire to emphasize her point. She disliked Greenwood's plans to build a road between her neighborhood and a new housing project, so she filed a lawsuit and dragged it out for five years until she won. She thought Obama would make a good president, so, she says, "this mouthy black lady knocked on doors in the whitest, most Republican neighborhoods in town and told them what was on my mind."

Now Obama is president, and she still believes he will help rescue Greenwood County. But her enthusiasm has faded into a wary optimism. "He's only one man, and there's a lot to get done," she says, a predicament she knows all too well.

She still has confidence in the President and so does Casey Edwards, but they are beginning to take action themselves too. Child's cousin lost her job on day 20.

Evon Hackett, 38, lost her job on Day 20 of Obama's presidency. She was nearing the end of her Friday afternoon shift on the assembly line at Tyco Healthcare, stuffing three packets of diapers into each passing cardboard box for $8.59 an hour, when a manager asked to see her. Hackett cleaned out her locker on the way to his office.

... snip ...

She voted for Obama and still holds out hope for the man she calls a "people's president," but she's not interested in hearing his stories about flying to Europe or fighting pirates. "I guess he's just working his way down the list, and he'll get to us," she says.

 

 

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A small point of clarification about my entry into B4B.  As I mentioned on the phone, the originals were first Billionaires For Steve Forbes (1996) and then Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) in 2000.  I wasn't a part of either of those efforts. It was early in the 2004 campaign that I joined a small group from 1996 and 2000 to help organize and execute some of our many events that eventually went national:  http://billionairesforbush.com/press.php

carol