March 15, 2009

Building & Winning: Left Response to the Economic Crisis

[Ever look at the right hand column here at FotM? There are two Key Links there. One is for the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad. Fire on the Mountain just wants to pull everybody's coattail to some changes at the Freedom Road website. There's a snappy redesign, still ongoing and including easier navigation.

More important, there's been an increase in the frequency with which new articles are posted, and some damn interesting ones have gone up. This is one of them, reposted here because in reporting on one city, Portland, OR, it sketches some of the tasks as the New Depression deepens. So, please check out the Road's new improved website--and bookmark it. More good stuff coming right up, we understand.]

Written by Patrick Ryan
Saturday, 07 March 2009

“The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” - Audre Lorde

It has been credited to the life of Oregon activist Tom Bernard, who not only thought it up, but provided the initial sketches for his idea: a local “town hall” style meeting of the Left in Oregon, bringing together the dispersed and diffuse groups to coordinate effective responses to the economic crisis. Tom unfortunately did not live to see his idea manifest on January 31st, 2009, when a mass gathering of 900 activists and community members was held in Portland, Oregon, to learn, discuss and organize a response from the Left.

The guiding principle of the town hall was that “getting back to some pre-meltdown state is inadequate,” and that allowing people to wait and see how the government would respond would not win any real victories. Organized initially by the local Jobs with Justice, the town hall brought participants from unions, churches, and antiwar groups. Teachers, students, parents and activists got together to complain about the state of things but also to equip themselves with the tools and organization to change it.

Martin Hart-Landsberg, a noted professor of economics and writer for Monthly Review, gave a succinct breakdown of the events leading up to the crisis, and insisted that economic democracy is as much of a right as political democracy, and that it is ours to win. Local labor leaders demanded that working people defend the rights of immigrant brothers and sisters. Jo Ann Bowman from Oregon Action explained how people of color in the Northwest were “never the problem, but those who paid for [the problem].” In what can only be described as an electric feeling from the audience, respected veteran activist and Teamster Tom Leedham said, “If workers wage an aggressive fight, we can win. Now is the time to go on the offensive!”

Town Hall

Participants then worked in groups to discuss issues on various topics such as better wages, accessible health care, affordable housing, local environmental sustainability, democratic unions, and strengthening local democracy. Affordable housing, for example, is blocked by state exemptions that prevent measures like rent control. Unemployment stands officially at 9.9%, which ranks Oregon among the highest in the country. Hundreds of homes have already been foreclosed on, and the hardest hit have been the neighborhoods of color. After learning the stark reality, groups then learned what organizations and resources were already available to help, and how to strengthen them or build new resources.

Activists around the country will be mobilizing to fight for the improved conditions for the people and not more wealth and power for the absurdly wealthy, who, with capitalism, caused this problem in the first place. This is the point we need to promote among our friends and families. Capitalism got us here and the people organized and mobilized to win will be the ones who solve it.

Firmly understanding that this crisis will be different than past ones, possibly even worse, will be the basis for organizing a strong and effective Left resistance. We are already watching this crisis produce suffering for working people, especially those of color: massive layoffs, rising unemployment, cutbacks in state and local budgets, and millions of foreclosed and lost homes.
All of those are only the immediate problems, which overlook the larger looming ecological crisis.

The town hall saw itself as a beginning of something larger. Organizers invited participants to problem solve in an open and democratic way and got the message out on local listservs and mailing lists and the local independent media. The town hall ended with a message of inspired activism that works to sprout many more teach-ins, church meetings, protests and demonstrations that put the tremendous opportunities for the Left up for grabs. It was the beginning of a dialogue “toward building an economy good for all working people.” The energy and motivation was followed by a meeting a few weeks later to sum up the town hall and determine focus areas of struggle. They expected about fifty people to come, but over a hundred did, and they brought friends. The primary focus that emerged from those discussions was the need for local democratic control of city and state budgets, and the people-power to struggle against attempts to privatize resources.

What activists and community members took from this event was the knowledge that we are facing historic challenges and unimaginable difficulties, but also profound and equally historic opportunities. Basic people are questioning this whole system and its legitimacy. They wonder why their children receive no health care or slashed food stamps when the ruling rich are taking million dollar vacations. They say we're all “in this together.” The word “socialism” is being used again in popular discourse, of course with the tired old rhetoric and equations claiming that socialism is some kind of safety net for the rich. We know that isn't socialism.

The corporate media have us believe that we all have to tighten our belts. But our communities have been tightening our belts for a long time and we say it's time for the rich rulers to tighten their belts by ending their wars of aggression, and providing us with real health care, living wages, and livable housing. We will not allow the mess the capitalists have gotten us into to scapegoat immigrant workers, deepen their racist programs, and strengthen their privatization efforts. Going “back to the way things were,” as the town hall said, is completely inadequate. We want a better world, and we will win.

Patrick Ryan is a member of FRSO/OSCL and student activist in the Portland, Oregon area who has worked with a number of labor and community organizations.

No comments: