February 25, 2013

The Climate Change Movement and Obama--Getting One Thing Very Right

[Like the piece I did last week about crowd estimates on steroids, this is a response to the Climate Change rally I attended in Washington DC earlier this month. Like that one, it is from the vantage point of a movement veteran so aged that my first DC demo was in 1965.

This one is primarily aimed at folks who, like me, are members (or sympathizers or exes) of revolutionary socialist organizations in the US. These have not generally covered themselves in glory when it comes to taking part in or even acknowledging, let alone building, the current crucial and vibrant incarnation of the decades-old environmental movement. I hope others will find it of some use as well.]

One thing that several old school lefties have commented on since the February 17 Climate Change rally in DC is how much the event revolved around Barack Obama. Among the main speakers was Van Jones, who spoke of having had the "honor of working with this president" in his first administration and addressed his remarks to his former boss.

Many hand-made signs and banners in the crowd featured Obama's picture and/or anodyne pro-environment quotes from his speeches. And the most widely distributed preprinted sign featured one of those Big Blue Marble shots of Earth from space on a black background—and on the other side had a big graphic based on Obama's 2012 campaign logo.

This certainly wasn't what you'd see at a rally of the remnants of the anti-war movement or, say, civil liberties activists. Generally the old heads I have spoken to or whose reflections I have read have felt this was a real problem and indicative of the low level of political understanding among the participants. I plan to argue in a later article that this misreads to some extent the dynamics and the strategic thrust of the movement.

What I want to deal with here is the fact that the environmental movement, and especially the struggle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline which is presently at the core of that movement, is doing exactly what a lot of leftists and socialists said they were going to be doing right about now.

I refer to those groups and individuals who argued in early 2012 (if not before) that revolutionaries and socialists should work hard for Obama's re-election or at the very least get out and vote against his opponent. Generally, their argument was based on the dangers posed by a possible Republican victory in the aftermath of the 2010 mid-terms (an argument which developed real weight as the GOP's racism and voter suppression efforts escalated).

"Of course," they would insist, "on the day after the election, we have to get back into the streets and organize against him, or at least his worst policies."

Well, you know who did that? The anti-Keystone XL people, that's who.

As the strong current of Obamoptimism at the rally shows, these are not exactly folks who were voting Romney. A few Green Party locals were present and the party's 2012 presidential candidate Jill Stein (who centered her candidacy on environmental issues, unlike Obama and Romney, neither of whom said a mumbling word about them the whole time). That hardly meant that the majority at the rally went third party last year, though.

Let's look at how this movement carried itself around the election and since. On Monday, November 5, the day before the election, several dozen activists barged into the Washington DC office of McKenna Long & Aldridge, the main law firm lobbying for TransCanada's pipeline project. They knew that this brief occupation, in solidarity with the ongoing Tar Sands Blockade, was not going to get major media coverage on the eve of the election. They were making a point--that the movement was going ahead no matter what happened the next day.

On Thursday, November 8, two days after the election, Bill McKibben, the most prominent anti-Keystone XL leader, kicked off a four-week Do The Math tour, speaking at an indoor rally/teach-in of 2,000 in Seattle. By early December, the tour had made 20 more stops in cities around the country, drawing similar numbers each time. This helped lay the groundwork for further development of the movement, including last week's Climate Change rally.

News kept coming in the weeks after the election. In early December two protesters chained themselves to 600 pound concrete barrels inside a section of pipe slated to be added to the section of the pipeline under construction near Winona TX. This was the latest, and riskiest, of a long series of civil disobedience actions that have been bedeviling companies trying to finish pipeline segments to create "facts on the ground" arguing for its completion.

A week later a Texas judge granted a temporary injunction to a Texas landowner whose property had been seized by eminent domain to build the same pipeline section. On college and university campuses across the country, scores of powerful student campaigns ramped up their demands that their schools' endowments divest all stockholdings in fossil fuel corporations. All this before Inauguration Day. Then the DC rally.

Obviously this is a powerful movement, with impressive organization and equally impressive room for initiative and a variety of tactics. I would suggest that one reason the movement is so strong and vibrant is that it didn't dissolve itself into the Obama campaign, but fought right up to the election and was fully prepared to hit the ground running the minute it was over.

[As I mentioned above, I hope to write one more piece, with observations on several aspects of the rally, and the movement that held it. Among those topics will be the thinking behind and problems with the movement's overall soft approach to Obama and how revolutionary socialists should respond to it.]

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February 21, 2013

Poem of the Week: Malcolm X, February 1965


E. Ethelbert Miller

i will die this month. how
i do not know. still there
is much work to be done. i
am afraid not for myself but
for betty and the girls. some
nights i stay awake looking
out the window, a gun in my
hand. i know how cruel people
can be. i have known hatred and
blindness. there are brothers
waiting to do me harm. i will
die for them. i will love them
as only i can. may allah be my
First Light: New and Selected Poems (1994) 

[The last of this February's Poems of the Week, all memorials to Malcolm X. This one by E. Ethelbert Miller, puts the reader into Malcolm's head as his death looms, a different approach from that taken by the three previous poets.]

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February 18, 2013

Let's Stop Inflating Crowd Counts, Eh?

People, we have got to stop exaggerating the numbers who attend demonstrations. Yesterday's Climate Change rally in Washington, DC has finally got me off my ass to write about the subject. I regret this, because the demo itself was a splendid event, full of promise for a new stage in the movement to stop the trashing of the environment by rampant capitalism.

But, and this is a big but, when folks from the bus from the Bronx I came down on made our way to the Washington Monument, next to the rally site, someone on the excellent big screen was announcing that there were 40,000 people present. Looking down toward the actual stage from the elevation of the monument's knoll, I figured the crowd might have hit 10 thou. Might. A couple of other old Washington demo hands I spoke with also scoffed at the "official" count.

Half an hour later, after thousands more people had arrived, rally MC Rev. Lennox Yearwood was saying 35,000, strongly suggesting that folks were pulling these numbers out of their butts. 

 So I did what I tend to do at most demonstrations I attend, and have done for many years. I counted the house.

Obviously this is easier at a demo of a few hundred or even a few thousand, but the organizers made it fairly easy. With a lot of marshals at hand, the rally finally poured onto Constitution and headed west in an orderly way to start the long trek around the White House and back to the monument. I mounted the back of a bench just ahead of the front of the march giving me a slightly elevated view of the crowded avenue as the protesters arrived and passed by.

(A brief note on methodology: for a march of up to a thousand or so, I count by fives, making a line on a piece of paper every hundred and the traditional cross slash to mark 500. Five is an easy number for the eye to group. For a march of this size and density, I count by 20s, which obviously leaves room for a wider margin of error. As I hit 100, I pick out a couple obvious signs or protesters to serve as place holders, so I can look down and make my little slash, and pick up right where I left off. Even when people ask me, I don't try to total up the count to that point. I save that to the end.)

When the last marchers had passed by, I looked back at the rally site and found that it had been completely emptied by the march. Then I added up my numbers.


Okay, that's rough, I freely admit. Let's say I was off by 25%. That still means I am going to call bullshit on any figure under 12,000 or over 20,000. And by the time I got home from Washington, late evening, Facebook friends and Left websites were proclaiming "more than 50,000."

So What?

Why does it matter? The media lowballs our numbers as a matter of course, Why shouldn't we inflate them?

First, let's ask who we are fooling?

The enemy? They have helicopters and video cameras in the buildings along the line of march, and people, professionals, whose damn job it is to evaluate the size (and demographic composition and militancy and political stance) of marches.

Ourselves? Well, maybe, although cynical movement veterans know to discount unrealistic crowd estimates. There's something called the S.F. Constant used for numbers from one demonstration-prone left party—multiply their figure by .37 to get a realistic number (and I've found it works surprisingly well at demos I've counted.)

But to the extent that we do succeed in fooling ourselves, we are hurting ourselves. Mao Zedong, a guy who knew something about strategy, was fond of quoting military theorist Sun Tzu, who wrote circa 500 BCE:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Overestimating our accomplishments and the numbers we can mobilize today sets us up for defeat and disillusionment tomorrow, or perhaps the next day.

Maybe, though, we are trying to impress and encourage people who are new to the struggle, like many yesterday who were at their first large demonstration, maybe their first march ever, period, Even here, puffing up our numbers is a bad way to go. Having attended, for instance, a small protest numbering several dozen, people reading a subsequent web-posting or an article in a left newspaper claiming several hundred are going to expect they are in the presence of bullshitters.

Even in a larger crowd, like the Climate Change rally, some people will find inflated statistics suspicious. This is the US—many people have gone to games or shows in arenas which seat 50,000 people, and they might just notice the discrepancy between the numbers there and the numbers standing at the foot of the Washington Monument yesterday.

And fudging numbers can carry a bigger penalty. Our bus captain, Dan, made a very good point on the ride back to the Bronx, when we were discussing this. Global warming, climate change is a complex phenomenon, which can sometimes be confirmed by direct personal experience. Really understanding it, however, requires understanding some science, math-based science. If people think we lie about one set of numbers, why wouldn't they mistrust what we have to say about another?

I've used terms here like overestimate, fudge, inflate, but I will leave the last word, a blunt one, to African agronomist and revolutionary leader, the late Amilcar Cabral.

Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.

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February 15, 2013

Poem of the Week: X.


Raphael Peterson 

The letter representing the unknown,
You made this your name,
You put this in place of the name the slave trader gave you,
Little, you are no more, you are much too large, too powerful,
And your soul too unconquerable, you frighten them,
The White man, bedevil for,
They never know what's coming,
Always on edge, always uncomfortable,
When the unknown is near, undeniable leader of the black man and woman,
 Indomitable fighter of the white devil's oppression,
 And, finally, everlasting spirit of true good,
 You rose from under the ugly weight of hatred,
 Your body is dead,
 But your power is still vast, unmeasurable, unknown


[An unusual tribute to Malcolm, in that, unlike the two posted earlier this month it was not written in the immediate aftermath of his death. The author, a 16-year-old high school student when he wrote it, first learned of Malcolm X from Spike Lee's film! He got it, though.]

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February 8, 2013

Poem of the Week: It Was a Funky Deal


Etheridge Knight

It was a funky deal.
The only thing real was red,
Red blood around his red, red beard.

It was a funky deal.

In the beginning was the word,
And in the end the deed.
Judas did it to Jesus
For the same Herd. Same reason.
You made them mad, Malcolm. Same reason.

It was a funky deal.

You rocked too many boats, man.
Pulled too many coats, man.
Saw through the jive.
You reached the wild guys
Like me. You and Bird. (And that
Lil LeRoi cat.)

It was a funky deal.


[This is the second PotW about Malcolm X this month, and there are two more slotted for the last two weeks of February. The late Etheridge Knight, acclaimed today as a great poet, wrote this in the days he discovered his poetic vocation, while doing a 10-25 year bid in the Indiana State Prison for a mugging. (He wound up serving eight.)]

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February 6, 2013

AFL-CIO Honors SNCC Women

At the end of last month, I was finally able attend the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday conference. I have wanted to participate for nearly 20 years. and all the pieces fell into place for this year's event. Besides the conference itself, a book I was introduced to there, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, became the highlight of the weekend, and not just for me.

The US labor movement's true role in Dr. King's birthday becoming a national holiday is almost as forgotten as brother Martin's actual legacy. From the time of King's assassination in 1968, industrial unions, particularly the United Auto Workers, made the fight for the Reverend's birthday a major contract issue. For years, the Civil Rights Department's conference took place in Atlanta near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. As the King family, and the King Center itself, became more interested in corporate sponsorships than actually serving the people, the annual conference moved to various other locations around the country where the community and the labor movement were engaged in struggle.

This year's conference took place in Philadelphia, where attendees stepped up to support municipal workers' ongoing battle with Mayor Michael Anthony Nutter. Nutter is one more politician who got elected with union support, and, once in office, promptly began to engage in anti-labor "crony capitalism," Early in his first term, he commenced giving sweetheart privatization deals to corporations, slashing

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February 1, 2013

Poem of the Week: in memory of malcolm x

in memory of malcolm x

William F. Mack

we are listening
dead malcolm to
your lingering music

damnit they killed
you/by not listening /

so we burned making
flames as a
sacrifice to you/
dead malcolm/

your words are true
so we paint this
country black with

brothers and sisters
brothers and sisters/
listen to your black
malcolm who calls
from another place
with black music
from black voices

oh my God Malcolm
rescue us . . . .
must we die to

brothers and sisters
brothers and sisters/
spread his music
through the streets
we are listening
dead malcolm

damnit they
killed you.

winter 67

from Arts In Society, Vol 5, No 3,, 1968

[What with February being Black History Month and the 21st marking the anniversary of the assassination of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or Malcolm X, as he is best known, all the Poems of the Week this month will be be related to Malcolm. In searching for and selecting them, I was reflecting on how massive an outpouring of poetry his murder provoked. Much had to do with the rising Black Arts movement which grew up as part of the overall Black Liberation Movement. But the same thing didn't happen when MLK was gunned down, on a guess because he came out of a movement marked above all else by singing. Not so Malcolm X. That in turn reminded me of this poem, bluntly speaking of "dead malcolm" and insisting on "his music" from start to finish.

I have been unable to track down anything about the author, William F. Mack, described as "a young black poet with interests in acting, writing and film-making. If you know anything further, please write something in the comments section.]

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