Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Denver Diaries: Six Days of Organizing at the DNC

Day One - Getting Organized

We Push the
Basics of Organizing

In DNC's Denver

By Carl Davidson
Progressive for Obama

(Use the Paypal button there to help out)

I rolled into Denver about 3:30pm and Saturday, August 23 after a 1500 mile drive from Beaver County, Pa. A last minute safety issue had be leaving my truck camper "Progressives for Obama" mobile office in the shop, so I made do, loading tents, table chairs, mobile internet setup and everything else needed to survive for a week into the trusty little Madza.

The sky was threatening rain as I passed by 'Tent State" in the City of Cuernavaca Park. Hundred of tents, but no people. So I moved on to one of our first events, at the Cameron Methodist church in South Denver.

Tom Hayden is holding forth to about 100 people, going over all the upsides and downsides of the campaign. The crowd is most peace and justice activists, a few Democratic local officials, and young people, some skeptical of electoral politics. Tom is is good form, and explains the importance of the sheet going around you people to give their names and emails to our efforts, It get filled. His main points:

--The future is open. Take nothing for granted; everything we can do counts. Obama could lose it, especially due to the closeted racists who will used and excuse to depress his vote, plus those pushing his own centrism toward positions that demobilize his most active base.

And here is the rest of it.

--We can counter this through finding our issues, highlighting them—McCain's threatening resurrect ion of the draft, McCain's own corruption and elitism, and pressing both the campaign and the mainstream media to run with them.

--The most important task for us is to expand the electorate in the next six weeks. Several people note that they know many young activists who talk all the time bout the campaign.. "If you do nothing else," I say to the crowd, get them registered, and most important, get them to the polls. Keep a list. Don't take it for granted they will go, plus you need the list to press what will hopefully be and Obama White house in 2009."

Our message is well received. Everyone "gets it" that there's no contradiction betweem working the campaign, building the movements around our issues, and building the strength of our own grassroots organizations.

Next some is a house party and barbeque for progressive media activist organized by Laura Flanders. She had the brilliant idea of going on Craig's List and renting a house for a week. Her crew of young women bloggers, filmmakers, newspaper editors has a headquarters, and we walk in to a table full on six laptops with everyone writing and postng away. I make lost of new contact and meet old friends. We talk for hours over hot dogs and hamburgers in the back yard on ho to improve progressive media—TV shows, KPFK, In These Times and many more.

Give the darkenig sky and the emptiness of 'Tent State,' I hook up with Leslie Cagan and Judith LeBlanc of UFPJ, who found a gracious Quaker family, Eric Wright and Judy Danielson, in the city to house us. UFPJ has boxes of flyers promoting the 'Million Doors for Peace' campaign, where a coalition of a dozen groups will all doorknock on Sept 20, getting signatures on petitions, building new email lists -- all the work of basebuilding for an expanded movement. Their aim? Get the flyers in the hands of everyone in town and sign on the organizers. Quite a feat, and a good intervention for a group required by tax laws not to endorse and party or candidate.

When we show up at our hosts, a group from 'Military Families Speak Out' show up, with former Colonel Ann Wright with Vets for Peace, featuring 'Arrest Bush' T-Shirts and giving us a report on the city's extravaganza, with free food, fireworks and free rides in the amusement park for the mainstream media. I'm cynical things about Nero and 'Bread and Circuses,' but it's a political convention, after all, and far goofier things will go on around it. For now, we're working out a plan to cover some of the demos tomorrow.


Day Two - Expanding Our Outreach

Debating Obama, Issues, Building Our Outreach

By Carl Davidson
Progressives for Obama

Just before 9am we're head down Colfax though old Denver, reminding me of Kerouac's descriptions in 'On The Road', seedy bars, strip joints, greasy spoons and the like. Our first stop is the Capitol rounds, where the 'Recreate 68' group is preparing its march. They have only about 500, and clearly aren't going to cause a major ruckus.

We head for 'Tent State,' but the police super-control to the streets drives us nuts with their blockades and blocked off streets. We finally find a way in, and start setting up Right away the security team tells us 'No stakes' for the tents. Seems the cops think they're weapons. My tent requires stakes, so I use them anyway to get it up, then pull most of them out. Takes us longer, but we get it done, and get our signup sheets and books out. The tent is crucial because of the heat and sunburn.

The final touch is our 'Progressives for Obama' sign out the tent and our Obama yard sign. This crowd has a lot of anarchist-minded youth and Green types, and we're the only explicitly Obama tent among about 50 tents.

Right away the key tension arises. A couple of kids with green hair say 'Obama? Progressives? What do they have to do which each other?' Then thirty seconds later, a Black teenager on his skateboard, headed for the local skate park 50 yards away, slows down, reads our stuff, then give us a fist salute, asserting loudly, 'Obama Rules!'

I explore the grounds. The most powerful table and display by far are Iraq Vets Against the War. About 30 are there, earnestly engaged is all kinds of discussions, with each other and passersby. Military Families Speak Out are there, with AFSC. The 'Boots on the Ground display is going up near the entrance. I talk with the young organizers of Tent State. They're putting up a 'Resurrection City Free University' teaching classes all week. Thousand of youth are lining up for free tickets to the 'Rage Against the Machine' concert.

We're sharing our setup with UFPJ, so we take their leaflets on the 'Million Doorknocks for Peace' for base-building on Oct. 20 to everyone standing in lines for tickets. The kids 'get it' and snatch them up.

Then Medea Benjamin shows up with Code Pink's filming making crew. She wants an interview and asks good questions about how the left can pressure Obama. "Stand firm against the war in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan,' I conclude, 'then go out a register large number of new young voters and get them to the polls, but with your own groups. Politicians pay attention to organized voters. I do several more radio, TV and press interviews throughout the day.

Tom Hayden comes by with some friends, as does Leslie Cagan. We try to figure out what happened with the first march. 'No more than 1000,' says Leslie. 't
They got to the Pepsi Center and a few tried to push further, bust didn't do very well. Tom taks to the cops to see want they know. No major problems or arrests was the answer.

The Alliance for Real Democracy stages its marches in the afternoon from Tent State. They head to downtown Denver, but break up into four smaller groups of 100 or so, and basically engage passersby and Convention delegates into friendly discussions. "Almost every delegate I met was completely against the war,' reported one. They return in batches, in high spirits, although everyone wishes they had greater numbers.

I stayed behind to secure the site while talking to people. Two local Chicano guys stop by. 'Do I really think Obama will stop the war?, one asks. 'I think he's our best shot,' I reply, but you never win anything at the top you haven't organized from below. He nods agreement. "How's your Mayor?,' I ask, knowing he's a progressive Latino. 'He's OK, but you know politicians. But what's your goal here?" I tell him I'm trying to build organizations, independent, grassroots, they we can network, some we're have something to pressure the White House on the war no matter who's in it. ' I like that,' he says. 'I have some time. I can volunteer to help out. Really. Have your folks here call me' He writes down his number and info, as I thank him.

By 5pm we hut down the tent and get ready to head to the big welcoming party at the Progressive Democratic of America/ the Nation church they taken over for a week. They having dozens of panels and workshops every day for the delegates and activists on key topics.

About 500 pack the church, all in high spirits. PDA is new and had grown rapidly in four years. Several Colorado candidates speak, as do many top figures-Jim Hightower, John Nichols, Lynn Woolsey, Norm Solomon. Tom Hayden did a powerful job stressing linking the economy and the war, and that they had not only to aim their fire at the GOP right, but at some of the center Democrats doing their work for them. He not only fired everyone up; he also had everone offer up their e-mails for 'Progressives for Obama' to widen out outreach. Not bad for a day's work.


Day Three - New Media

Getting Inside The DNC Gated Communities

By Carl Davidson
Progressive for Obama

Today I started off heading for the Progressive Democrats of America/The Nation sessions at the 16th and Sherman church downtown. The theme is 'Healthcare not Warfare'-the fight for single payer, with Tim Carpenter firing up the crown and Congressman John Conyers getting into a terrific speech.

But I get pulled aside by an old friend who offers an opportunity to get inside the highly secured Pepsi Center-dubbed 'the Can' locally-for an upscale lunch with progressive writers and editors. The affair is funded by Media Matters, a relatively well-heeled media monitor and fact checker operation that is very useful. I'll spare you the detail of how we got tickets, but my friend said, 'Hey, we're both progressive writers, we got books out, let's go for it."

So we're off to 'the Can,' and find a decent place to park close by. Then we head through various mazes, bridges and chained linked enclosures, meeting up with checkers at various points, flashing our stuff and getting waved through.

At one checkpoint I run into Todd Gitlin, the writer and sociologist as well as an old SDS friend, who's headed to the same event. We catch up quickly, and in turns out he's chairing the meeting. Once we get past the final check, and up the elevator, I'm in air-conditioned splendor, compared to the sweltering previous day at 'Tent State' eating beans out of a can with lukewarm water from a fountain. Now I've got a wonderful buffet, waiters, and fancy starched and folded napkins in the water glasses.

Attendees are top writers and editors from the New Yorker and the Nation, influential academics like Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power, multimedia people and donors.

The goal of the meeting is very worthy. It's launching a new enterprise, the Progressive Book Club, designed to counter the Conservative Book Club, influential on the right and elsewhere as well.

Gitlin opens the discussion with a challenging question: Is the era of conservative right dominance over? This brings a range of responses showing that the book club is only the tip of the iceberg. The broader agenda is creating and/or building a new progressive cultural and progressive infrastructure for a new politics for the 21st century.

I chime in by noting that in my study of the right over the years, that the brightest of them actually used some of Antonio Gramci's notions of working in cultural and civil society to counter a perceived hegemonism, even if a decadent one, of the liberalism of the late 1960s. It's way past time for us to oppose their 'running it in reverse' and turning it around to build real popular democracy.

Others add to this, and soon we're off discussing whether there really are new progressive solutions out there to the whole range of political, economic and cultural concerns. There's no consensus on that point, but everyone is fired up on the initial concern. All agree it was a good meeting, and new contacts and projects are tosse around as we bring it to a close.

Now that I'm well fed, hydrated and cooled off, I head back to our radical makeshift tent city along the Platte River. Fighting a stiff breeze, I get the 'Progressives for Obama' tent in order and its signs and literature out. I'm open for business.

Soon enough about five young anarchists and radicals show up, some complete in black clothing and bandanas. They're not too hip on voting for anyone, let along Obama, but one figures out that I'm the author of the 1966 'Toward a Student Syndicalist Movement' paper, and the discussion gets far ranging and lively-ranging from Zen, to Beat poets, and election tactics in 1968 and 1972.

Then one kid whips out something looking like a Blackberry and makes a call. "Here, let's do an interview for our radio show." He presses a few buttons, then tells me, 'just pretend it's a mike, and speak into it as I ask you questions." It goes on for 15 minutes, and I lay out our approach, while he adds questions with his spin.

It's a good interview. "Give me your card. We'll have it on the air and one the net in a few days, and I'll let you know where to find it on the dial or how to I-Pod it."

As one of the authors of 'Cyber-Radicalism: A New Left for a Global Age,' I feel like a proud parent. The younger crew here have picked up on things we merely talked about in the future tense, and they now are making them part of their daily lives.


Day Four - Arrests, Debates, Alliances

Exposing Rove, The 'Big Tent', Beat Poets, Vets And Denver Streets

By Carl Davidson
Progressives for Obama

I start the morning by heading straight for the church hosting the week-long series of panels organized by Progressive Democrats of America and The Nation magazine. It's quickly turned into an intellectual headquarters and meeting place for leftists and progressives working the election in various ways, inside and outside the Obama campaign and the Democratic party.

A large crowd is gathering early. The buzz is all about the 100 or so young people busted and dispersed the night before by encirclement by an overwhelming police force combined with tear gas. Most of the city's citizens, let alone those just here for the DNC events, are more than tired of the massive police presence on what seems like every other corner. Add to it traffic foul-ups caused by blocked streets and triple cordons around critical spots, and the most common unifying words you hear are 'unnecessary', 'police state,' and 'overkill.'

I'll wait for the dust to settle for a fuller assessment of the bust. The deeper question is why the radical youth turnout was far less than anyone's expectations-despite a myriad of other well-attended progressive happenings around town. There are probably less than 4000 at the outside, not counting the 17,000 plus locals who signed up for the ticket lottery for 'Rage Against the Machine.

But it still needs to be said, off the bat, that the radical bunch last night had fallen into some serious 'Custerism', as in General George Custer. In planning their action, they billed it, quite openly, as an effort to crash and disrupt a Dem fundraising party at one of the hotels. But they had very few allies for such an endeavor, and were vastly outnumbered by the rather well-informed cops with all their new 'Homeland Security' toys. Needless to say, the only thing that got disrupted was their own project and a little nighttime street traffic.

Back to the opening session at the church.

It began with a fascinating and disturbing speech by Don Siegelman, Alabama's Democratic governor (1999-2003), who was defeated in 2004 by Karl Rove and friends having him indicted on false charges a month before the election, then tried and convicted in rigged trials, haul off to a maximum security prison-"Alabama's worse," he says-where he is locked up in solitary for nine months. He's finally released only after nearly 50 states attorneys general sign an appeal to a higher court not dominated by Rove cronies, where everything is dismissed.

It's a fabulous introduction to the next speaker, Greg Palast, author of 'The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.' He not only exposed the fascist machinations of Rove, he went on to offer an excellent exposure of election-stealing in general. His advice? Get ourselves well-trained so we can 'steal our votes back' and get an honest count.

Next is an 'Out of Iraq' dialog between Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Tom Hayden. Mc Dermott was an early opponent of the war, and offers insider advice of how to bring pressure to bear on your Congressman. Hayden expands on his remarks from the day before on how the left-progressives need to take issues like McCain's recent suggestions for a return to the military draft, and press it publicly in a way for the Obama campaign to take it further, to further isolate and expose McCain. Otherwise, he suggests, Obama could lose, since things are very tight.

Hayden has also been passing around sign-up sheets for Progressive for Obama's email group at every appearance. I keep an eye on the sheets, gather them up, and this morning we get another 250 or so.

At the break I decide it's time to hit the streets of Denver.

I want to check out 'The Big Tent', a site near the Pepsi center equipped for 1000 bloggers. It's literally a circus tent over a parking lot, but next to a complex of high-tech 501C3 organizations. Google is a sponsor, as are other third wave firms, and there's some serious money here-plus as a long-time 'cyberMarxist,' I want to be up on these things.

But I decide to walk the distance and take in the sights. Right off the bat, I run into dueling demos and bullhorns. Side by side are the 'Christian' theocrats denouncing abortion, gays and a long list of other violations of the Book of Leviticus, along with the 'World Can't Wait' kids with signs like 'Support Life, Smash Christian Fascism.' Both the local and tourists seem amused, and are snapping photos with their cell phones.

Further along I run into dozens of local African American button and T-Shirt sellers, all doing a brisk business with the widest variety of Obama mottos and slogans I have ever seen. Both DNC delegates and local Black workers seem to be the main customers.

Then comes a contingent of a dozen youth, dressed in black with bandanas, each carrying their own Red Flag, chanting, 'Revolution, the Only Solution! The looks range from bored to quizzical to amused-and the cell phone are snapping pictures again.

Finally I hit the 'Big Tent,' get credential and go inside. Google is offering free ice-cold smoothies in eight flavors-plus they have a machine that will put a free recharge on you cell phone or Blackberry batteries. And inside, indeed, are about 1000 bloggers working away on tables with free WiFi hookups. The implications for the future have my head spinning.

But rather than wait in line, I head for the nearest Starbucks for a large iced coffee, a favored addiction. I see two women, one whose face is familiar, so I wave her over to share the last remaining table. It turns out she's the Beat poet, Anne Waldman, old friend of Allen Ginsburg and now a professor of poetics at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetry at Naropa University, up in the mountains not too far away. We have a great time discussing Kerouac's sojourns in Denver, and she leaves me with a recording of her own poems. How's that for serendipity!

As evening arrives, I get a call offering passes to a skybox in Coors Field rented by the Council for a Livable World and VETPAC. It's aim is to offer support and interviews with about six Congressional candidates who are both Iraq vets and supporters of Obama. So I go and talk to several candidates, along with some Military Families Speak Out people. When they get done with shredding McCain's betrayal of recent veterans legislation, there's nothing left. If these guys get their message out, it will help a great deal. It's all very real, down-to-earth and a good end to the day.


Day Five - Rage, Vets, Antiwar

A DNC Victory: For the Iraq Vets And 'Rage Youth'

By Carl Davidson
Progressives for Obama

I start the day early loading leaflets and joining Leslie Cagan, Judith LeBlanc and five other United for Peace and Justice volunteers headed to the Denver Coliseum on the North Side of town before 9:00AM.

We're going to the 'Rage Against the Machine' benefit for Iraq Veterans Against the War, organized by the Tent State kids and their allies, and we're expecting about 10,000 young people. It's a beautiful day-sunny, not too hot, blue skies with a few clouds, and the first range of the Rockies clear on the horizon. The concert is to be followed by a mass march to the Pepsi Center, led by the vets, to press their antiwar demands on the Democrats. Since there's no permit, and the Pepsi Center is restricted with 'protest pens' no one intends to enter, there's a sense of tension in the air.

Our UFPJ leaflet has a simple message: Join us Sept. 20 to knock on a million doors for peace. Get signatures on petitions, get to know your neighbors, get outside your 'comfort zones' into new neighborhoods and help us double the size of our movement with new names, addresses and emails.

Since the lines are long and organized, we quickly get out thousands of flyers. A brief rap, and most people say, 'Oh, this is cool. I can do this.' Some don't want to be bothered, interested only in the bands, and a few kids are rather spaced out early since no intoxicants other than the music are permitted on the grounds.

I get a 'workfare' pass into the concert with terrific seats. This means I'm on the security team for IVAW inside the concert and along the line of march. We get our special chartreuse armbands and blue wristbands, a quick training in nonviolent methods in dealing with problems. Then we're into the cavernous space, with a local Denver band, Flobots, which is decidedly left and high-energy hip-hop. IVAW speakers appear between numbers and keep the politics of the day clear and focused.

They have three demands: 'Out Now,' full benefits for returning vets, and reparations for Iraq. They have no great love for the Democrats who keep voting to fund the war, they're angry with Obama for not taking a harder line, but they see McCain as more dangerous, both to the world and to vets. They want militancy, but they insist on nonviolence for the day, and demand a resolute respect for their leadership and ground rules.

When "Rage" comes on the stage and gets itself and the crowd wound up, one thing becomes crystal clear. If you're interested in radical and democratic social change from below, here is one powerful engine for it. You dismiss, ignore or demoralize the high energy and critical force of these young people at your peril. This is a multiclass, multinational force of youth, and on this day, they are accepting the lead of the working class, even if it's taking the form of the politics, militancy, organization and discipline of the Iraq vets.

The beautiful thing is how well it all worked.

The vets marched in formation with cadence at the front, dozens of them in uniform, some in full dress with a chest full of medals. They wanted us to keep a short space for media behind them, then everyone else another few yards back behind a large banner supporting GI resistance to the war. No breakaways and no nonsense. If arrest situations came up, we had our instructions on how to keep those who didn't want to risk arrest still involved, but out of the immediate reach of the police.

I'd guess that at least two-thirds of the 10,000 Rage fans joined us, then we picked up other youth, a few workers, and even Convention delegates along the way. The banners and signs and costume were colorful, the chants imaginative and militant, and the energy infected everyone, even the crowds of bystanders, many of whom broke into applause.

I had one of the harder jobs, keeping people from breaking the front ranks and jumping the banner. But with the vets leadership, we kept the spirit both upbeat and disciplined. Denver's overkill police presence was everywhere, but everything remained civil. Some even felt some sympathy for them, sweltering on a hot sunny day in their new Black Ninja Turtle outfits, which must have been unbearable.

It was a long march, nearly five miles. One problem was keeping everyone hydrated, but cases of water kept showing up at critical points. The best energy was downtown Denver, with the cheering and applause from Convention delegates. But we all knew there were trouble spots ahead.

Denver's security rules meant you couldn't get closer to the Pepsi center than several hundred yards, and then you were to be put in fenced 'protest pens.'

The vets would have none of it. They hadn't risked their lives, supposedly defending the Constitution, to be treated this way. They were going to march until they were stopped and then we'd seen what would happen. As we got closer to the skirmish line, they stopped several times, and the vets took turns giving heart-rending stories to the press, which, by this time, was everywhere, and driving us nuts trying to keep them to respect our lines and discipline.

At the final stopping point, a decorated Marine told the cops they would get no violence from us, and we expected none from them. The three demands were read to Obama's campaign and the Democratic Party. The vets demanded a response, and were determined to wait for one.

So now we had the problem of keeping thousands of people, encircled by police and barricades, in an upbeat, but patient and calm state of mind.

One young Black kid from Denver of our security team rose to the occasion. He starts doing his raps, and those of others as well. The crowd loves it, especially when he gets on their case for not being too good at 'call and response.' So he starts an on-the-spot workshop on how we can all become better rappers.

Next two young African American women start softly singing an old church-based civil rights song 'Those Who Love Freedom..." The lyrics are simple and lyrical, and soon hundreds are singing it, over and over. For me, powerful memories come up from my days on Freedom Marches in Mississippi, when we sang this same song in the face of the Klan and cops. When I start to sing along, my eyes fill with tears from long-buried emotions. To hell with it, I decide, let the tears flow, and I sing along.

Finally, we get the word. The other side blinked. The Obama campaign's top veterans affairs people ask the Vets to send two reps into the Pepsi center to discuss their demands. Moreover, they want an ongoing series of discussions to make sure all veterans concerns are heard and dealt with. That's enough for IVAW to call a victory, even if a partial one, and work out a way to bring the day to a close. It's decided that we part the crowd down the middle, opening a path. The vets do an about face, march in formation though the crowd, and as they pass, to many cheers, we fall in behind, get back to the downtown area, and go our various ways.

I find a way to get to my car, then back to 'tent city' to secure our display in preparations for leaving. I meet up with my team in a Taco joint, where they, along with some of the new media people working with Laura Flanders, are watching Joe Biden's speech. I'll have to read it tomorrow, because given everything we've been through, right now it seems rather trivial.


Day Six - Making Connections

Why the DNC Is Like Going To High School

By Carl Davidson
Progressives for Obama

This is my last day in town, and all the talk around the breakfast table is how and where everyone will watch or listen to 'The Speech', Obama's premier performance at Invesco Field. I decide not to waste time hassling long lines or working connections for tickets, since I can watch it on TV in nearby Boulder, where my partner is staying with family.

So I head for the church hosting 'The Nation' and Progressive Democrats of America. On arrival, I've just missed Rev. Jesse Jackson, but Ron Kovic of 'Born on the Fourth of July' fame and early member of Vietnam Vets Against the War is holding forth on his mistreatment at a past GOP convention. He then reports on yesterday's powerful five-mile IVAW and youth march. He did the entire length in his wheelchair. He can't praise the organizers highly enough, acknowledges that Obama did the right thing, but says to keep pushing on. He ends by asserting that we can't let the right have a monopoly on patriotism, so long as we remember we're also 'citizens of the world.' He gets a standing ovation.

I decide to walk the streets again. I want to take it all in, and reflect at little on what major party conventions are all about.

First stop is the lobby at the Sheraton. For a veteran organizer like me, working away on a variety on fronts for 45 years, all I have to do is stand there for 15 minutes and someone I know will show up. Sure enough, someone calls my name, and it's Brian Kettenring from ACORN, now one of their top organizers. I first met him when he was a young student ACORN worker in Chicago. He's been on the West Coast for years, but introduces me to ACORN activists from Pennsylvania, now my base area.

Brian tells me he's headed for ACORN headquarters in DC, where, half-joking, half serious, he tells me he wants them to let him set up a 'Department of Socialism' to discuss 'bigger picture things'. I tell him I've working on just the thing for him, the newly formed 'U.S. Solidarity Economy Network,' with an upcoming conference early in 2009. My trend in SEN is based on David Schweickart's 'After Capitalism' with 'Economic Democracy' as a 'successor system' enroute to a fuller blown socialism. It'll challenge ACORN, but it starts on the ground, where they are. He's very interested, and we decide to stay in touch on it. Plus I now have a new contact in Philly.

So there's lesson number one. Conventions are about horizontal networking. Completely apart from the official goings-on, this stuff happens everywhere. Multiply my short example with Brian by 100, and you get the idea.

From the Sheraton, I take an elevated walkway and run into a building with an inviting, postmodernist display on ecology, energy and related topics. It's aimed at DNC delegates and put up by a high-tech design outfit called 'Partly Sunny: Designs to Change the Forecast. Inside are dozens of displays of green and solar construction materials and firms to build the homes and offices of the future. When a young guide offers to help, I ask 'are any these outfits worker or community coops?' Some are, she answers, and shows me how I can find out more. This gets me thinking that almost all of these firms are what we call 'high road capitalists' and thus some of them possible candidates to pull into our solidarity economy networking.

Now 'Partly Sunny' is just one of thousands of corporate displays, presentations and parties going on all week. While this one is a small, relatively progressive example, all of them, bad guys and good guys, are going all out in the DNC events to draw the country's political class upward and into its orbit of influence.

Thus we have lesson number two. Conventions are about vertical networking and its more aggressive cousin, cooptation. There's a constant influx of newer and younger delegates, candidates, elected officials and party workers to be recruited. If you've been to college, think fraternity and sorority 'Rush Week', and you'll have the right idea.

I head back to the church because I want to catch PDA's summary sessions. Along the way, I run into a dozen people I know wanting to know if I know where they can get tickets (I don't) or telling me about the hoops they went through to get them.

This is lesson three. Conventions are about discovering the pecking orders in the various cliques, and how to turn them to your advantage, for good reasons or otherwise.

So I what do I conclude? Major party conventions are really a lot like high school and the socialization process we all experience in and through them. Learning all the cliques, all the pecking orders, where you can best fit in and suffer least, having a good time in the coolest clubs and extracurricular activities. You know, all the important stuff that goes on everywhere except the classroom. At the DNC, all the important stuff these days goes on everywhere EXCEPT on the convention floor and the 'big night' speeches. These latter events are actually, for better or worse, carefully scripted infomercials mostly far beyond our reach.

A corollary lesson: You can accomplish a lot here, but you better come in with a very clear idea of your core values, your own platform and your strategic orientation. If you don't, you'll wind up being part of someone else's platform and strategy. But if you do, you can make major gains.

PDA is a case in point. As I arrive for the final sessions, Dennis Kucinich is pressing impeachment, whipping out his pocket copy of the Constitution. Next, Steve Cobble, Leslie Cagan, Jaime Raskin (State Senator, Maryland) and Rep Keith Ellison, the Congressman from Minnesota who is also a practicing Muslim, and caused a flurry in the press when he was sworn in using Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Koran--all of them are on the platform, ready to follow up and discuss what it means to defend the Constitution and democracy in even broader terms.

Tim Carpenter, PDA's tireless chief organizer and John Nichols of the Nation are setting up the crowd. Tim is explaining how PDA has grown, in just four years, from a few dozen in 2004 to now over 140,000 members all across the country. Mimi Kennedy and Jodie Evans are also there, and add in on how the persistent and audacious pursuit of their 'inside-outside' strategy has succeeded and the turnouts to all the sessions this week shows they've made even greater gains.

PDA, of course, is hardly the only player in the progressive movement. I like much of what they do, and work closely with them back in Beaver County, Pa. But there's also room for improvement and other approaches and organizations, too. My point here is that groups ignoring and avoiding the political events and activities surrounding elections--and you don't have to support any candidate or platform to be engaged in them--are only shooting themselves in the foot.

I'm hardly a believer that basic social change is achieved by elections. But I'm a firm believer that change on this order must proceed THROUGH them, in the long march through all the institutions of our society, building the strongholds we need for the popular power and economic democracy that can take us even farther down the road. With that thought in mind, I'm headed back to Beaver County, Western PA, where I hear Obama and Biden are making a bus tour around the state. It's a very tight race there, and we'll soon see if this helps.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an informative blog! From across the pond

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting essay, full of thoughtful insights. But I think you've conflated your own views with those of Obama's. I've heard advocates of 'solidarity economics' speak at different conferences, and I've heard Obama, and this essay sounded a lot more like the former than the latter. The defeat of Clinton by Obama was a victory for the anti-war movement. And the defeat of McCain by Obama was a great victory pretty much for everyone. At the same time, with his rhetoric (and now his cabinet picks) Obama has made it clear that he also defeated those voices within the Democratic party to the left of him (Edwards, Kucinich, or even Richardson). He has not said anything much that could be construed as anti-war. He has made a few gestures to the 'masss-transit left', but seems constitutionally uninterested in calling attention to anyone very far down on the class ladder. And I think you've 'drunk the kool-aid' a bit by underestimating the gravity of the crisis we now face, and presuming that a few neo-new deal programs will set everything aright. The more radical proposals you offer will almost certainly draw direct resistance from the dominant chunk of the Obama coalition--the centrists he's surrounded himself with. Although I'm not altogether unsympathetic to your dispargment of the far left groups, I'm not entirely sympathetic either. Seattle was a crucial moment in the last ten years, brought to us in good part by anarchists. The US social forum was another key moment, ignored in your overview. But we'll need some sort of alignment of labor with community groups to get anywhere.

Carl Davidson said...

Hi Steve.

My thought is that Obama, at his best, is a high-road green industrial policy brand of liberal capitalist, still trying to define his own niche. Also at his best, that puts him on the right wing of the solidarity economy, or as an SE ally on some projects.

For example, he's promoted Austin Polytech in Chicago as a model high school for the country in his Dayton speech on education policy. This school was designed by a number of members of the US Solidarity Economy Network, including myself, and currently has a project to sent a group of its students, all from low-income Black families, to the Mondragon Coops in Spain for a study tour. Mondragon, as you may know, is one of the mother lodes of the solidarity economy movement worldwide.

I've known Obama from the time he first ran for any office, and know his strengths and weaknesses fairly well. When he veered too far on Iraq, I supported both Kucinich and Richardson over him.

During the campaign, when opposing Hillary, he turned more our way, but now he's waffling the other way, especially on Afghanistan. It can destroy his presidency if he gets sucked in deep, and we not only need to tell him so, we need to organize and mobilize to stop it.

I'm not so concerned about his picks as some on the left are. He needs the smartest people with some experience. If we eliminated people with Bush for eight years, then people with Clinton for eight more years, then Bush 1, there would be no one with any experience to pick from. I expected him to block out the PNAC crowd, which he has.

Obama likes to claim he's a blank slate, and people write on it what they want. I'm one that's never called him a consistent progressive, so I'm not as flustered. I expected him to staff the executive committee of the ruling class from, well, the ruling class and its operatives. I'm just not indifferent to the mix or the road to be taken. Finally, my guess is that Obama himself is still writing on that blank slate. What we need to do is get clear on what's needed at the base, then organize the popular power from below to make it so.

I don't think that's Kool-Aid. Never liked the stuff much anyway, even as a kid.

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